Old and new collide as 26 of the most exciting craftspeople in Britain descend on Leeds to exhibit their work at the first ever Harewood Biennial…
Harewood House is a treasure trove of beautifully crafted pieces, with everything from Chippendale furniture to Sèvres china, but this year, there will be even more to see as they launch their new biennial. Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters will bring together 26 of the best craftspeople in Britain for a new exhibition that explores the value of the handmade in a world drowning in the disposable.
Why it mattered then and why it matters now
In 1759, Edwin Lascelles commissioned the finest craftsmen in the country to build a house so grand it would be the envy of his peers – and that’s exactly what they did. John Carr’s extraordinary architecture, Robert Adam’s meticulous interior design and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s beautiful gardens have earned Harewood House a place in the history books and in our hearts, but they’re just three of the master craftspeople who helped to create this historic landmark.
Now, 260 years later, they’re celebrating their handmade heritage by inviting a new generation of craftspeople into the fold. “Harewood House has a fascinating history and relationship with craft. It was built before the industrial revolution, so it’s no exaggeration to say that everything within the house has been crafted, made by man rather than machine,” Hugo Macdonald told us. The design and architecture writer is curating Useful/Beautiful and he’s handpicked the artists involved.
From new graduates to seasoned pros, weavers to furniture makers, he’s brought together a surprisingly broad selection of craftspeople to show you just how diverse the field can be, and by doing so, he’s invited you to answer the question at the heart of the exhibition – why does craft matter today? The quest for answers begins as soon as you arrive with two installations from world-renowned graphic artist, Anthony Burrill. Using a traditional printing press from nearby Otley, he’s created a 6-metre scaffold structure and two mirrored letterpress boards that urge you to ‘question everything’.
Stories of past and present are artfully entwined
Harewood House is a living history, but in amongst the Chippendales and the Turners, you’ll now find a collection of contemporary pieces. Don’t worry, you’ll have no trouble spotting the new additions. “As you can imagine, all the rooms in Harewood House are very busy, they are full of art and objects already, so when it came to introducing an exhibition into the house, it was very important to us that we could instantly create an area of focus, so people coming into the room would be able to spot what belonged to the exhibition,” Macdonald explained. And so they commissioned Simon Jones Studio to build a series of handmade plinths, banners and display cases that are impossible to miss. Each one is encased in an eye-popping layer of GF Smith paper and the artists’ stories have been brought to life by Leeds-based design agency Studio.Build.
As for the exhibits themselves, they’ve been perfectly paired with the room they’re displayed in, so their stories are intricately entwined. One of the most exciting additions to Useful/Beautiful is a 35-piece showcase from Faye Toogood. She’s one of the most prolific designers in the world today. Her limited edition collections are made in collaboration with a vast network of British craftworkers and she’s bringing a curated selection of her work to the Long Gallery for a rare exhibition. When the house was built, this is where their biggest parties would be held and their finest things would be displayed, which is why it’s been chosen for this comprehensive survey of British craft.
And if you head to the State Bedroom, Timorous Beasties have made an elaborate coverlet that will spill out over the edges of the Chippendale bed. These guys reinterpret historic prints for modern audiences, and here they’ll be telling the story of ‘Modern Love’, a cautionary tale about promiscuity. Told through the fabric itself, it’s a beautiful spectacle that follows a young girl from first love to first child, all outside wedlock – it doesn’t end well.
The unique and the unusual go hand-in-hand
It’s easy to pigeon-hole craft, but this exhibition will help you see beyond the stereotype to the cool, unusual stories that lie just beneath the surface. And once you start that journey into the unknown, you’ll be totally hooked. Take Leszek Sikon’s tools for example. On the surface, they look like your usual spades and scythes, but in reality, they’re upcycled masterpieces made with reclaimed ammunition from World War II. Forged using traditional blacksmith techniques, they turn tools of destruction into tools of creation. You’ll find them in the Garden Room, alongside a display of salvaged shells from the war.
Jahday Ford’s story is totally different but just as unusual. He’s a recent graduate from the Manchester School of Art and a rising star in the craft industry. He’s combined traditional glass-blowing techniques with the latest sound engineering technology to record his breath as he blows the glass and turned it into a 3D mould to recreate that breathe again and again. “These vessels physically freeze a moment in time, which captures my presence as a maker. It’s as close as I can get to the glass,” Ford explained. “We have used contemporary technology to push the possibilities of process and form in an ancient material. I find this relationship between past, present and future intriguing.”
There are so many other stories to be uncovered here. The ceramic vases in Lena Peters’ Secrets of the Hidden North are inspired by a made-up archaeological dig in the Northumberland National Park – you can see one in the Main Library, where the Roman motifs mirror Robert Adam’s intricate ceilings. And Simon Hasan has revived an age-old technique that makes leather harder than wood to create a series of vessels inspired by his time at Duxford Airport, where his father worked as an apprentice engineer during the war.
Age-old techniques live on through their art
In a world of new technology, it’s rare to find someone who stays true to the old ways, but that’s the beauty of craft, so as you weave your way between the exhibitions, you’ll step back to a simpler time when everything was made by hand. Jenny King’s embroidery is the perfect example. She uses an Irish Singer sewing machine that went out of production in 1950 to create incredible free-hand embroidery for the biggest designers in the world. For Useful/Beautiful, she’s mocked up a series of panels as if she’s making a dress for Princess Mary, and they’ll be displayed in her Dressing Room.
They also have a collection of ballet shoes from the master craftspeople at Freed of London. 90 years after they first launched, they still make every pair by hand, which is why they’re worn by the world’s leading dancers. And you can see Michael May’s penknives too. He learned the trade 30 years ago under master cutler Keith Moby, but while he may use age-old techniques and tools passed down through the generations, his penknives have a contemporary twist that turns old into new.
You can even discover the lost art of bookbinding because Kate Holland is showcasing a newly-commissioned replica of the working sketchbook of master plasterer Joseph Rose. She uses traditional materials and techniques to create unique bindings that reflect the text itself, and here, she’s worked with local plasterers Hayles and Howe to recreate one of Rose’s mouldings, so while the contents are intriguing, the book is a work of art in its own right.
Sustainability comes in many forms
The world is becoming wise to the woes of our throw-away culture, but it’s a lesson that our exhibitors have long since learned. From foraged dyes and upcycled chairs to umbrellas that last a lifetime and pans passed down through the generations, sustainability is at the heart of their craft.
Yinka Ilori rescues broken and discarded furniture to create new pieces inspired by his Nigerian heritage. They’re reupholstered and repainted, ready to start a new life – and you can see them side by side with Chippendale’s famous works. “I don’t just fix broken chairs, I give them new stories. When people buy them, they add their own stories. Narrative layers have emotional as well as functional and aesthetic value. This approach helps us build stronger connections with the things we live with. We look after things better and value their use more,” he explained.
Internationally-acclaimed designer, Max Lamb, has taken a very different approach. He scoured the grounds of Harewood House to collect 50 kilograms of bark, leaves and berries to make his own natural dyes that have been turned into a unique patchwork of rugs using surplus wool from a local Yorkshire mill. But it’s not always that complex. Sometimes, sustainability simply means making things to last, like Hiut’s denim. For 30 years, Cardigan was known for making jeans, and then one day, the factory closed, so David and Clare Hieatt returned to their hometown and started a new company built on the skills and expertise of the community. They’re not just bringing their jeans to Harewood, they’re bringing their story, so you can follow the process from the first cut to the final stitch.
See the exhibition for yourself
Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters is a unique exhibition of modern craft, a homage to handmade Britain, and it opens on Saturday 23rd March 2019. Tickets are just £13.50 when you pre-book, or £15 with Gift Aid, and that gets you entry to the house, the exhibition and the grounds, so you can make a real day of it. Keep an eye out for their events too, because they’ve lined up an exciting series of workshops with the artists from the exhibition.