There is a corner of Europe that is, well, not mainland Europe. Creativity and endeavour have long ranked among the national characteristics of the British and Irish, and, in design terms, this has manifested itself time and time again in the phenomenon of the designer-maker. No surprise then to find this year’s edition of the international big-top event that is the London Design Festival playing host to a raft of smaller labels and one-man outfits who have their designerly and makerly stamp all over their work.
Setting up its impeccably curated stall at this year's Tent, 'Vernacular', a Crafts Council of Ireland-organised show of impressive work from Irish designer-makers; photo Sophie Mutevelian
Be they emerging designers who are the sole agents of their designs’ fabrication, designers who bring skilled craft talent into their own workshops, or designers who retain full control of their brand by operating as both solo editor and production controller, these are creatives determined to be the authors of their own design destiny.
With this degree of proximity to the act of making, you’d expect quality to be key. And you’d be right. Beyond the choice of top-notch materials and finishing, and a clear virtuosity of technique, there is a strong connection to place: many of these designers choose to set up creative home outside the big metropoles, either where they hail from or where they trained, making the local provenance of their products a keystone of their brand.
The cream of (Devon-based) design: Young & Norgate are a select group of designers who 'make not manufacture' contemporary furniture. Seen here, their 'Animate' bedside table
Devon. The English county with undulating hills and clotted cream is also home to bespoke furniture-makers Young & Norgate. Showing at this year’s 100% Design, the capsule group of designers and craftsmen speak of their mission to 'make not manufacture' contemporary furniture designs that eschew the dictates of fashion. Their pieces, resolutely rational, but never cold – thanks in no small part to the use of warm, FSC-certified woods and premium Scottish leathers – strive for sustainability, their quality and robustness lobbying hard for long-time companionship. These are products you don’t get rid of in a hurry.
'Handmade in Hay' is the slogan of British design duo Barnby & Day, whose workshop-crafted furniture pieces reflect the creative union of Rob's design and Lewis's engineering skills. Shown here, their 'Frame' desk
Location informs Barnby & Day’s brand, too. 'Handmade in Hay' runs the design duo’s strapline, underscoring the value their products possess, both in real and perceived terms, as workshop-crafted pieces from the historic Welsh border town. Robert Barnby and Lewis Day set up their stall at the 2013 edition of Tent during the London Design Festival, showing among other designs their materially choice and immaculately made ‘Bridge’ hall table and ‘Frame’ desk, both pieces demonstrating the marriage of skills that their authors’ partnership delivers: Robert is the design mind, while Lewis possesses the engineering and making capabilities.
It's in the genes when it comes to the Galvin Brothers, whose furniture, on show at this year's Tent, carries the reassuring imprimatur of provenance – 'Yorkshire, England'. Their father was a cabinet-maker for over six decades
A creative-skills union also provides the foundation for the Galvin Brothers’ partnership. With their marque proudly declaring the provenance of their products as 'Yorkshire, England', the fraternal twosome – Matthew is the designer, while Andrew brings his joinery skills to the table (no pun intended) – work in such woods as oak and walnut to produce furniture that displays the labour that has been gone into its creation. The love of immaculate joinery and an honest treatment of materials have unarguably been influenced by the Galvin Brothers’ upbringing; their father clocked up over 60 years of joinery and cabinet-making experience.
With Ireland long known for its craft tradition, contemporary Irish product design – shown here at the 'Vernacular' group show at Tent – displays a striking virtuosity of technique; photo Sophie Mutevelian
O'Donnell + Tuomey's resolutely architectural 'Falling Dansu' desk and Derek Wilson's highly rational and delicate ceramics, both on show at 'Vernacular' at Tent; photos Andreas Pettersson
Across the sea to Ireland. Design on that greenest of isles has long been bound up with excellent craftsmanship and all that that entails: a deep understanding and respect for the way materials work and the application of appropriate techniques to them. This year’s Crafts Council of Ireland-organised group show at Tent, called ‘Vernacular’, presented a diversity of products that were no exception to this tradition. Belfast-based ceramicist Derek Wilson’s restrained and delicate work was joined by, among others, Dublin design label O’Driscoll Furniture’s ‘DC Armchair’ and a highly architectural desk called ‘Falling Dansu’, designed and made by award-winning Irish office O’Donnell + Tuomey. Curated by Ann Mulrooney and designed by Steven McNamara, the exhibition was a fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Kilkenny Design Workshops, the Irish state-funded multidisciplinary design studio and consultancy that, although long gone, continues to resonate with contemporary Irish designer-makers.
Two ends of the light spectrum: James Smith Designs' batch-produced 'Task' lamp, shown at 100% Design, and Sharon Marston's architectural light installation for Super Brands London
Back in the UK, emerging designer James Smith, who established his eponymous, Cornwall-based brand James Smith Designs in 2011, elected to present at 100% Design. The collaborative approach he takes to producing – he is a trained furniture-maker who also draws on the skills of British craftsmen to help him make his products in batches – manifests itself in finely finished pieces, such as his ‘Task’ and ‘Glade’ lamps. Illumination on a grander scale was attracting audiences at both Designjunction and Super Brands, meanwhile, in the form of Sharon Marston’s bespoke and highly sculptural light installations. Making lies at the heart of the designer’s enterprise, who has been commissioned internationally by hotels, restaurants and retailers. Not only is every project designed and hand-made in her South London studio, but she and her team often finish the pieces in-situ, travelling to wherever the work is being installed.
David Lord and Ben Frost, otherwise known as Junction Fifteen, work with a limited number of local craftspeople from their native Northamptonshire to batch-produce work where quality is key – such as their 'Olly' stool, shown here
From the global to the local. Local craftsmanship plays a key role in the work of Northampton furniture designers Junction Fifteen (aka David Lord and Ben Frost), who showed their debut collection at Tent. Working with a limited number of craftspeople from Northamptonshire, they produce their designs – such as the ‘Olly’ stool with its asymmetric, tubular-steel base – in small batches, ensuring that quality remains to the fore. Over in Cheshire, Gareth Batowski has a workshop space that sees the meticulous selection of wood (some of it is sourced from a local tree surgeon) dovetail with a sensitive design approach, resulting in furniture that is expressive in terms of a rational, contemporary aesthetic, while celebrating at the same time the very organic materiality of the materials. Batowski’s designs, exhibited at Tent, bear out his belief that 'There is a responsibility to the material you work with.'
With making comes responsibility to materials, argues Cheshire-based designer Gareth Batowski. His 'Ari' side table features a slate top sourced from a small quarry in England's Lake District
This commitment by the designer as sole or chief author of a brand’s products to a quality-first, materially and aesthetically harmonious vision of design doesn’t necessarily stop, however, once a brand moves beyond the emerging. Established in 2009, Dare Studio has firmly established itself as one of the UK’s go-to furniture and lighting manufacturers for the high-end contract and domestic markets. A family-run company with a large workshop in Brighton, each of Sean Dare’s designs is hand-made to order by skilled craftsmen whose passion is sophisticated technique and attention to detail. The collection of products on offer, some of which were exhibited at Designjunction, is balanced with special commissions that, belying the at times vintage aesthetic of some of Dare Studio’s output, are the results of meticulous technical drawings engineered using state-of-the-art CAD software.
With a large workshop in Brighton, Dare Studio – who chose Designjunction as their exhibitionary platform during this year's London Design Festival – hand-makes furniture to order for high-end domestic and contract settings, using skilled craftspeople
The digital is embraced by Australian-born and London-based designer Brodie Neill, too, whose recently launched brand Made in Ratio sets out to explore experimental processes while employing ‘time-honoured’, as he puts it, materials and ultra-skilled craftspeople. His ‘Cowrie’ chair and rocker, ‘Matrix’ coat stand and archly graphic ‘Supernova’ desk, all making an appearance at Designjunction, speak through their precise, sculptural forms of the fact that they were designed digitally. This is designing and making in the 21st century: a design vision that makes use of the latest technology, and which spans the entire process of creating – from conception and prototyping through to the delivery of finished products – all under the rigorous control of one single creative author.
There may be a number of approaches to designing-making, but in terms of arenas for showing the fruits of such activity, there’s one city streets ahead of any other: London.
Showing at this year's Designjunction, Made in Ratio marries digital design with experimental processes, all under the direction of designer Brodie Neill. Seen here, his 'Supernova' desk and a detail of his 'Cowrie' rocker