The Luxury of Craftsmanship

Can a new generation of designers change our perception of materials and transform the craft market?

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Defining luxury is a question of context. In some parts of the world access to running water and electricity would be considered luxurious, in others it’s a question of the size of the yacht you have on order. For many of us, time away from a screen or social media is our greatest extravagance. What’s beyond doubt is that the word itself has been abused in recent times, applied to anything from single bed flats in anonymous housing developments to quilted toilet paper.

So how did we get here? As the writer and economist Paul Mason has rightly pointed out, its meaning really changed sometime in the late 1980s when our industrially made products all started working correctly—in other words when you turned on the engine of your small car and it worked every time—even on the coldest morning. All of a sudden, he wrote, “you did not need to pay a massive sum for a luxury brand just for functionality: in future you would pay extra only for status.” And at that point luxury became the product of marketeers pumping out and controlling “the message.” When new economies in the East discovered and began gorging on capitalism, bling culture was well and truly born.

I mention this because last week I found myself in the Walthamstow workshop of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers in London. Founded by Han Ates in 2016, the company makes (according to its website) the best jeans in the world. So why are the jeans so much better than a pair you could pick up on the high street? According to Ates it’s down to the tailoring skill of his workforce and the huge levels of care each artisan takes. By his reckoning a pair of mass production jeans are constructed in around 18 minutes while Blackhorse Lane’s are fashioned over four hours, encompassing 24 different operations and using 12 different pieces of machinery.

Blackhorse Lane Studio. Photo © Carmel King
Blackhorse Lane Studio. Photo © Carmel King

The final results are delightful and perhaps even contain echoes of the designer, craftsman and social reformer William Morris, who lived in the area from 1848–56, and railed against the dehumanising effects of industry. The jeans feel like a luxury item. Importantly this isn’t due to the label but because of their provenance and artistry. The fact that the firm also encourages consumers to buy less and does repairs for free means it fits snugly into the sustainable zeitgeist.

As I walked back to the underground station it seemed to me that there are some pointers here to where luxury might move in the future. Blackhorse Lane Ateliers is extraordinarily transparent, for instance (something for which global brands are hardly renowned). The public can walk in without an appointment; it lets customers know how many miles the cloth for their prospective jeans has travelled so they can decide if they’re happy with the carbon footprint; employees are given shares in the company so everyone has a stake. Ates is also keen to connect with the local community by opening a pop-up restaurant in the building on the weekends.

Craft has long had an ambivalent relationship with luxury. The criticism of Morris, of course, is that the socialism he espoused was hardly matched by the products he designed, which could only be purchased by society’s wealthiest. It’s a contradiction with which a large portion of the crafts world has never quite comes to terms. While time-consuming, all-encompassing skill has been at the heart of extravagance, many makers baulk at the marketing, branding and PR hoopla that, in its contemporary form, is part of the package.

The New Jewellery Movement (as it was dubbed by authors and curators Ralph Turner and Peter Dormer) of the late 1960s and early 1970s formed part of a backlash, for instance. It eschewed materials traditionally perceived as expensive and luxurious—such as gold and silver—and instead made pieces in aluminium or acrylic. Bernhard Schobinger, for example, used found objects in his work, including (rather remarkably) scissors and bits of broken bottles. It was a movement that found value in the ubiquitous, just as Ates has.

Tureen. Photo © James Shaw Studio
Tureen. Photo © James Shaw Studio

In many regards these earlier makers and artists foresaw the concerns of a generation of designers who have graduated over the past decade, as the world has slipped into ecological crisis. Work from the likes of James Shaw and Silo Studio seeks to change perceptions of

plastic—turning this increasingly reviled material into something we treasure rather than simply use once and bury. Bethan Laura Wood pulled off a similar trick with laminate. Meanwhile the Merdacotta project, dreamt up by Gianantonio Locatelli, turns cow dung into a range of products, and a slew of designers is looking at the potential of mushrooms to create anything from chairs to packaging.

So can craft contribute to transforming the manner in which luxury is perceived? Can our perceptions of value be radically altered? Is Han Ates’ firm a portent of things to come? Will bling culture be binned (in a suitably sustainable manner)? It would be lovely to think so but forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

Main image: Hardrock side by Bethan Laura Wood. Photo © Ellis Scott 

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