“Because I could,” answers interior designer Fiona Barratt-Campbell, when asked why she would want to manufacture her fabulously robust, earthy furniture in Northumberland. “Because I’m from there. And because there’s such experience in the north, but they don’t often have the opportunity to make luxury goods,” she says of the factory and foundry that create her FBC London Aurora coffee tables (from £8,960) with a forged bronze-patina base, her Fiona dining chairs (from £1,950) with flared timber legs or her limited-edition Armour chairs (£48,500 a pair), inspired by Roman jewellery, decorated by hand and cast in bronze. “We went through seven metal fabricators before we found the right quality. But our customers abroad in particular buy into the fact that it’s not just British made, but from Northumberland, even if initially they don’t quite know where it is. It is a point of difference for us.”
Just as has long been the case in the food industry, it is becoming desirable to be able to state precisely where your furniture or accessories are manufactured. And if there is a tradition and a history of craft within that region to add value to the provenance, so much the better.
For Matthew Galvin, who makes stylish handcrafted timber furniture in Beverley, East Yorkshire, with his joiner brother, under the name Galvin Brothers, the attraction is being able to offer “a sense of authenticity. We are from a nice northern working-class town with an industry heritage, and so I think it’s a natural connection in people’s minds that we make heritage-style goods.”
Galvin – who studied at the Royal College of Art and ran his own design practice in Soho – asserts that there have always been successful local manufacturing firms dotted across the country, but where once they “would have had a local bespoke clientele, what’s changed is that the internet enables you to market yourself to a much wider audience. If your message is authentic and your ideas good, then the world takes that on very quickly now.” The brothers have recently sent their raw‑edged English pippy-oak bench (£560) and their upholstered (Completely) Imperfect daybed (£1,985), with its signature wobbly turned legs, as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia.
Such regional success stories are becoming increasingly commonplace, as buyers are reconsidering traditional UK and Irish skill bases, according to Brian McGee, market development director of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. “A recession combined with the reversal of sourcing from Asia, plus the importance of country of origin, design education and new technology, mean there’s a rebirth here of traditional regional crafts. The old adage ‘if you can’t find a job, you make a job’ is true. Architect Andrew Clancy, for example, diversified into design and started Déanta. His Carvel chair [€4,000], created with a shipwright, is made from wind-felled larch and has already been pre-ordered around the world. But people are also going nuts for things like Irish Whiskey Stones [by Hennessy & Byrne, €28 for nine] made from Connemara marble – which is a limited quarry. You can’t fake the provenance of stone.”
Similarly, long-established British companies are finding new audiences for their traditionally made goods, which are being updated to suit modern audiences. Parker & Farr, for example, has made sofas in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, since the 1950s, and also now shares the Nottingham premises of sister company Wade Upholstery. Three years ago, incoming MD Tony Crinion decided to bring the company, which had previously focused on supplying the likes of English Heritage, out from under the radar and launch as an independent specialist brand – hence a new Chelsea showroom and forward-thinking collaborations with tailor Norton & Sons on Savile Row. There, creative director Patrick Grant chose the beautiful Jefferson sofa (£3,260), upholstered in navy wool from Hainsworth & Sons in Yorkshire (which makes the scarlet cloth of the Royal Guards), for its parallels with his brand. “Just as at Norton’s, the techniques are traditional and the materials exceptional,” says Grant. “We have a duty to remind people how good we are in this country at making things without compromise. We were once home to the most famous furniture makers in the world, and we need to celebrate these crafts.”
Meanwhile, London-based architect and designer Grazyna Solland, co-founder of Sollands, is making the most of traditional skills in Norfolk. Her out of the ordinary, precision-crafted cabinets (Marque, £54,000), custom-made tables (price on request) and chairs (from £3,000), which often take a year to produce, are made in the specialist marquetry and book‑matched-veneer workshop she now owns there. “Large companies couldn’t take the time to do what we do,” says Solland of her small team of craftsmen.
And the trend gathers momentum in May, with Wedgwood’s new state-of-the-art museum, tearooms and revamped headquarters at its original home of Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent (much of its production had at one time been based in Asia). Pierre de Villemejane, CEO of Wedgwood parent group WWRD, hopes the innovative museum and tearooms will be a touristic draw, but just as significant is the fact that the site is already home to 50 per cent of the company’s production and this is set to grow by a further 20 per cent. “We are all competing for the global luxury customer,” he says. “Our core intrinsic values and our credibility are built around heritage, authenticity, design and quality. This is the heart of all of that, and so the time is absolutely right to return here.”
Smaller makers are benefiting from similar geographical moves. Anglo-Japanese designer Reiko Kaneko relocated from Hackney to Stoke a few years ago to enable her to have greater involvement in her ceramics manufacture. She says that she learns daily from the expertise of the ceramicists, who have “200 or 300 years of knowledge between them” and have introduced her to glazing and manufacturing processes that can be seen on her new bone-china jug and jewellery ranges (Studio Line Glazes vessels, from £10).
Emily Johnson, creative director of modern heritage brand 1882 Ltd, is also celebrating Stoke’s ceramics expertise and giving it more contemporary appeal by collaborating with designers such as Faye Toogood. The result: the much-lauded painterly Indigo Storm range (jug, £30, and bowl, £16), a reinterpretation of traditional creamware. Launching later in the year, other designs by US lighting queen Lindsey Adelman and artist Barnaby Barford mean that Johnson’s father, who has worked in ceramics in Stoke all his adult life, now says there’s a positivity in the city that there has not been for decades.
Stoke has managed to retain its ceramics links throughout the whole of the past century, but while other centres of craft have suffered, there are small companies resuscitating traditional regional practices. ESK, for example, made up of MD Stuart Maxwell and former Joseph creative Lorraine Acornley, is putting a contemporary spin on Scottish traditional spinning and knitting of cashmere in Annan, Dumfriesshire, with its colour-block‑edged throws and socks (Rockliff throw, £695). And Stuart Mitchell, a custom knife maker, hand carves his creations (£220 each) at Portland Works in Sheffield. Both are stocked at The New Craftsmen in Mayfair. In many cases, this store’s makers carry stories of traditional skills and craftsmanship hanging by a thread. For example, Lorna Singleton, its go-to maker of swill baskets (traditionally used to hold seed and produce), is one of just four in the country making a living from this craft. Her repertoire includes modern woven interlaced seating (£595), made from south Cumbrian coppiced oak in collaboration with furniture designer Sebastian Cox, and contemporary hanging lamps (£195).
And in County Waterford, Ireland, Anike Tyrrell is “in a long-term project” to support a new generation of glassblowers and cutters by launching a new heritage brand, J Hill’s Standard, where the crystal drinking vessels (from €120) – by some of the world’s leading contemporary designers, notably Scholten & Baijings (Elements glasses, from €160), Martino Gamper and Daniel Rybakken – are hand cut by the specialist craftsmen who make up the last ultra-skilled generation in the area.
But all this does not mean that London is entirely excluded from local design. The New Craftsmen store frequently features live making showcases in its windows, to bring an additional Mayfair provenance to its offerings. “By putting the maker at the front of our shop, creating original commissionable pieces on site, we’re offering customers the chance to weave their personal narratives into the products too,” says co-founder Catherine Lock.
Lee Broom, meanwhile, whose studio and shopfront are in Shoreditch, has recently expanded into warehouse premises in Bow. He is adding manufacturing to the distribution and assembly there – including pieces from his extensive and impressive 2015 collection, such as the walnut and brass Shadow cabinet (price on request, from one side you only see the wood, and vice versa) and the stained-glass pendant light called the Chapel light (both price on request). “Anything that is woodworked is made in full here, but we’re bringing in more processes,” says Broom. “It’s good to have as many local people as possible – it makes communication so much easier and gives you more control.”
Similarly, Minimalux, the museum-quality luxury interiors accessories brand from Mark Holmes and Tamara Caspersz, two of the founding directors of Established & Sons, uses London-based specialists to make two of its new products – the Hash bookshelf (£6,850), a superclean criss-cross mesh of hand-polished brass, stainless-steel or aluminium bars, and Neon (£125), a small but perfectly formed folded-steel box light, in which the light shines through slits in the coloured metal like a Dan Flavin-inspired neon strip. It also utilises the fine jewellers of London’s Hatton Garden, where most things tend to still be done by hand. The proximity to skilled and “exhaustively sourced” craftsmen is a huge attraction for the brand, as is the quality of their work.
“There are certain things we can make in this country to an incredibly high standard,” says Caspersz. “A lot of these are centred around engineering and finishing processes. We wanted to provide a platform for this, but combine it with a modern and progressive design ideology as well. Overseas there is still a really strong attachment to British-made luxury products.”
“People are pleasantly surprised as they often don’t realise that you can manufacture in the UK,” says Broom of his overseas customers. “They aren’t of the view that we still make things. They are even more amazed to find that something is made in its entirety in London, because it is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The truth is that manufacturing has always existed in this country, but it has perhaps changed in recent years; now companies aren’t running up 100,000 of something – they’re making much smaller quantities at higher price points.”
Kaneko agrees that this is the path most attractive to designers and makers today, and is finally being appreciated by buyers at home and abroad. “I am happy to make a little bit less but take extra care with each product,” she says. “In Japan, there’s a real understanding of craft and craftsmanship, but in England people assume things are made by a machine and don’t necessarily appreciate what goes on behind the scenes. Finally, this is changing.”