Traditional tools and techniques govern the aesthetic flavor at Clerkenwell Design Week 2014: pop-up pavilion by Studio Weave. Photo © Sophie Mutevelian
Directly ahead of the Windsors
by Antje Southern
Jun 8, 2014

Aspiring design students at the Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW 14) this May might be confused, frustrated or possibly reassured by the reverent invocation of a classic design heritage and skilled master craftsmanship that infuses much of the furniture presented here. Traditional tools and techniques govern the aesthetic flavor. Hands-on public workshops run by contemporary craftsmen explore how to apply tools creatively for product making.

For this purpose the architects at Studio Weave designed a pop-up pavilion named Smith located in Smith Square that connects the four exhibition venues. The design practice of the majority of the companies that exhibited at the Victorian Farmiloe building – aptly named the “Design Factory” relies on the insight that craftsmanship is a signifier of quality and longevity. Much of the furniture design on show was informed by the view that expert craftsmanship and the vitality of wood promises durability and sustainability .

Wood chippings, which are deliberately strewn over the floor at the Benchmark stand (together with the birch trees in planters and a set of chisels), leave no doubt that the company deeply cares what and how they make by controlling every single step from tree to finished piece. This attitude is visible in Sebastian Cox’ chestnut and ash furniture clad in thinly spliced chestnut shakes made of thin slices of wood split along the grain with a cleaving chisel.And for its UK debut at CDW14 Milan-based Discipline opted for a prominent wall display that shows the individual natural material components, exemplified in their stackable, elastic “Touchwood” chair by the Norwegian designer Lars Beller Fjetland.

Future Proof contemporary craft furniture

Unlike the multi-national names that bring success to international design brands, young UK companies have emerged which celebrate their British roots and personalities. The steady growth of small niche firms such as Dare Studio, Deadgood, Case and James UK and their list of clients (including Google, Amazon, You Tube as well as schools and universities) attest to the consumer’s appreciation for bespoke craftsmanship at affordable prices that aspires to last a lifetime.

The designers at James UK shun 3D technology as gimmickry. Instead their design ethic endorses traditional carpentry methods that influence the design aesthetic. Windsor chair folklore with its exposed shoe joints and decorative wood grain merged with mid-century Scandinavian elegance characterizes this emerging 21st-century breed of truly British future antique. James UK, Dare Studio and Prooff all show their re-imagined versions of the traditional “Wingback” chair and sofa with its protected head rest, originally devised for drafty Tudor houses, now providing discreet corner seating in open-plan spaces. Shin Azumi’s “Loku” chair, launched this year by Case, is an exception to the rule and utilizes 3D veneered plywood technology that delivers complex ply-forms that highlight the grain feature of the veneer.

Heritage re-imagined

The majority of furniture on show at the “Design Factory” relies on tweaking and updating classic designs . A rusty chandelier found in a junk shop inspired Deadgood’s “Marionette” pendant light, which was launched at CDW14. The redundant fitting has been re-purposed into a playful and practical product incorporating laser-cut and folded sheet metal and suspended from brightly colored braided flex. A deep-felt need for permanence and certainty may well have brought about the current trend for re-editions of beloved English design icons. Robin Day’s 675 chair was re-launched by Case and Anglepoise presented Paul Smith’s pastel interpretation of Sir Kenneth Grange’s Type 75 table lamp.

A distinctly un-British aesthetic governed the global cross-cultural display by Hong Kong-based Stellar Works in the spacious setting of the original showroom at the entrance of the “Design Factory”. By contrast, the revivalist mindset akin to the Victorian eclecticism of the Farmiloe building was prominent in the Laval Collection, which cited French luxury and Japanese refinement, and in Nic Graham’s QT collection of teasing retro-niceties.

Sympathetic relationships

A distinguished lineage, however, can evolve and innovation is still a driving force. Jaguar, the lead sponsor of CDW14, in collaboration with Foscarini have created “Fearless Design” – an illuminated sculpture that takes up the impressive height of the Farmiloe atrium to showcase Jaguar’s “F-Type R coupe” and Foscarini’s new totemic LED lamp “Tuareg”. Notably, SCP as the earliest advocate of contemporary British designers chose to present the refreshingly irreverent light installations by New York talents Roll & Hill.

Outside, Johnson Tiles, based in the traditional china heartland of Stoke-on-Trent, demonstrated a forward-looking approach with the launch of their neutral and accent colors to complement their existing range. The company collaborated with textile designer Ptolemy Mann to create “Prismatic Landscape”, a wall made of 4224 ceramic tiles that stage a vast range of hues informed by Bauhaus color theory.

Further down the road in an installation at the Medieval St John’s Gate, the architecture studio Russ & Henshaw thoughtfully engaged with how the past shapes the future. “Tile Mile” commissioned by Turkishceramics, a promotion group for ceramic manufacturers, is an installation of a geometric tiled flooring beneath a ribbed stone ceiling. Parallel mirrors in the inner pointed arches create the illusion of an infinite space, intended to visualize reflection and proposing an endless cycle of heritage and rejuvenation.

This familiar theme of re-invigorated tradition continues across the road at the Craft Central showroom, where the bath and tap manufacturer Drummonds collaborated with Christopher Jenner. The pair utilized Drummonds’ experience with traditional cast iron and enameling techniques and Jenner’s carpentry knowhow to create a uniquely English bathroom furniture collection.

The prison of heritage

The striking architectural setting of the area contributes much to the flair and identity of CDW14 and this year’s new venue in the crypt of St James Church (aptly named “Additions”) made much sense. Sponsored by Spanish online design store “Triitme!” the crypt showcased small artisanal design objects and textiles including architectural sculptures of key London sites by Chisel and Mouse as well as Toghal reimagined textiles which incorporate heritage African designs into contemporary homewares. Given the overwhelmingly retro mind-set, the moustache mugs (prefiguring Conchita Wurst) by Peter Ibruegger studio stand out for their ingenuity.

Rest assured that the search for timeless design has not fully stunted innovative experimentation, for “Platform” the venue for emerging talent in the subterranean vaults of the House of Detention, showed is has not. Aleksandrina Rizova uses digital fabrication tools to create her hybrid table. The sharp teeth of the customer’s personal keys create the zigzag profile of Johanna Tammsalu’s hand-spun ceramic pendant lamps. Paul Hodge at Evoni aims to service digital needs to stay connected 24/7 with his “Chill&Charge” coffee and side tables – they integrate future-proof Qi wireless worldwide compatible phone chargers.

Illuminated by the stained glass windows of the serene crypt in the Order of St John, Edra’s retrospective of the Campana brothers’ chair designs “From Art to Design”, is an opportune reminder that groundbreaking and unexpected forms have been created through a mastery of handcrafting. This is exemplified by the unique knotting skill that inspired the “Vermelha” chair, the focal point of the display.

Disobedience as a vital design virtue is played out in the “Tailor my Tom Vac” exhibition at Vitra’s Clerkenwell showroom to celebrate 15 years of Ron Arad’s “Tom Vac” chair. Architects and designers were invited to reinterpret the “Tom Vac” chair, exploring novelty and memory in design, art and architecture. Studio Tilt’s decision to slowly fragment the chair into 198 tokens over the 3 days of CDW14, each preserving a memory, is an appealing example of how such “no discipline” methods foster a much-needed provocative and skeptical engagement with our design heritage.

MORE on Stylepark:

Young British Charisma: Catching up with a truly British interpretation of international design impulses at Clerkenwell Design Week 2013.
(05 June 2013)

From tree to product: works by Sebastian Cox for Benchmark. Photo © Antje Southern
Re-invigorated tradition: Christopher Jenner’s newest tradition for bath and tap manufacturer Drummonds. Photo © Christopher Jenner
“Fearless Design”: Foscarini’s new totemic LED lamp “Tuareg” showcase Jaguar’s “F-Type R coupe” at Farmiloe atrium. Photo © Foscarini
Illusion of an infinite space: “Tile Mile” at St John’s Gate by architecture studio Russ & Henshaw for Turkishceramics. Photo © Sophie Mutevelian
It’s all about heritage. Photo © Antje Southern
”Lean Man Side” by And Then Design. Photo © And Then Design
To celebrate 15 years of Ron Arad’s “Tom Vac” Studio Tilt fragmented the chair into 198 tokens. Photo © Antje Southern
“Solid Spin Lamps“ by Johanna Tammsalu. Photo © Jim Stephenson
Johnson Tiles cooperated with designer Ptolemy Mann for a wall made of 4224 ceramic tiles called “Prismatic Landscape”. Photo © Johnson Tiles
Edra’s retrospective of the Campana brothers’ designs in Order of St John.
Photo © Jim Stephenson
“Lana Dressing Table” by London based company Pinch. Photo © Antje Southern