Forget the middlebrow spectre of Arts and Crafts, when architects properly collaborate with manufacturers the results can be truly spectacular, says Catherine Slessor
As the manager of any museum gift shop will tell you, the British have a thing about ‘craft’. But we prefer it steeped in nostalgic reverie. To this day, the bushily bearded spectre of William Morris and his Arts and Crafts movement casts a long and agreeably patterned shadow over our national cultural life. Though Morris held socialist views, inculcated by observing the living conditions of his textile dyers, his polemical side tends to get obscured by yet another discreetly plumped scatter cushion encased in one of his ubiquitous floral motifs.
Attempting to elevate design into an egalitarian and meaningful art, Morris ended up thwarted and conflicted despite his enduring middlebrow popularity. He was part of the extensive Victorian artistic cohort that espoused Medievalism, a mushily romanticised, pox-free vision of the Middle Ages, which still holds considerable appeal if the gift-shop receipts are anything to go by.
In its current prepackaged incarnation, it’s fair to say that architecture does not have a thing about craft. Architects are time-pressed specifiers, picking products out of catalogues with an eye to maximising convenience and minimising liability. I recently spent time in an architect’s office and came over all Lady Bracknell when the partners revealed that, typically, architects don’t really do details from first principles any more (though that particular office still did). Most architects just suture products together or hand things over to suppliers and let them sort it out.
Craft comes across as fatally slow and mimsy
Economies of time and scale dictate the pace, which is why so many buildings look as though they have been extruded by the yard and are not designed to last. In this context ‘craft’ – meaning to really think about materials and how things are put together, to gently nudge boundaries and embrace an artisanal spirit – comes across as fatally slow and mimsy. Why spend hours cooking a meal from scratch when you can prick and ping in minutes?
Yet when architects do get their craft freak on, venturing beyond the tramlines of product catalogues to collaborate with manufacturers rather than abdicate responsibility to them, the results can be truly memorable. Not only does it add to the gaiety of nations, it also enriches a repository of tectonic invention. Recently, FAT and artist Grayson Perry hooked up with architectural terracotta specialist Shaws of Darwen to create a series of highly crafted faience facade elements for their House for Essex.
Faience is a form of highly robust, moulded and glazed ceramic tiling, imported from Italy and popularised by the Victorians in one of their less mushily Medieval moments. More usually to be found on tube station exteriors, this ‘traditional’ material was yanked into the present through the subversive collective imagination of FAT and Perry. Memorably, House for Essex is clad in a Battenburg-like carapace of luscious green and cream tiles, moulded with emblems to represent Julie, the project’s heroine and muse. Complex larger elements portray her as rotund sheela na gig with delicately Pointillist nipples (which kept dropping off during fabrication).
Founded in 1897, Shaws has deep Victorian roots, and as the country’s only specialist faience manufacturer has collaborated with other architects, including Eric Parry. Yet in a depressing indictment of how the art of making is being diminished, the demand for its skills could not save the architectural terracotta part of its business from going into liquidation last year. Shaws still makes delightful Belfast sinks, but valuable technical knowledge and craft skills are now mothballed and may be lost for good. It’s a yet another victory for the sanitised and gutless architecture of normcore. Morris would not approve. And neither should we.