Heirlooms of the Future. Britain's `new spirit' in crafts intrigues some, disturbs a few

At a time when awareness of the British crafts movement is keen, and shops and galleries are springing up that specialize in one-of-a-kind objects, young craftsmen here are searching for new styles and experimenting with far-out new forms. This is true, at least, of those who are exhibiting their handmade objects in the current exhibition, ``The New Spirit in Craft and Design,'' here at the British Crafts Council through Nov. 15.

Some observers here call their work ``couture crafts,'' since it often appeals to the sophisticated upper crust who enjoy commissioning special pieces from bright young talents. They go for individualism, and help determine fashion.

``Fleeing from their homespun image, British craftspeople are going upmarket, and getting together with cool customers to produce one-off [one-of-a-kind] heirlooms of the future,'' a reporter from the Observer sums up.

The ``new spirit'' artist/craftsmen are more new-wave and hard-edge than comfortable mainstream. They frequently seem to defy the old traditional means and methods of British craftsmen.

Most of the them come from art colleges and polytechnical schools.

Some are barely scratching out a living. Others are settled in prospering studios and catering to their own audiences.

Some have won major prizes and been widely exhibited.

Helen Yardley, for instance, has her own studio in South London, and takes both private and public commissions for her tufted rugs. Her customers include such stores as Simpsons and Harrods.

Rachael Woodman is a glassmaker whose work is shown in such places as the Corning Museum of Glass in the United States and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

David Tucker took over an old forge in Derbyshire and produces both traditional smithing work and innovative vessels.

Metalworker Andrew Smith won a design competition to produce a screen for the Lady Chapel, College of St. George, Windsor Castle.

Sue Golden's furniture has been shown in London and Paris and is in private collections in several countries, while furnituremaker Mary Little has designed pieces for shops, restaurants, and leisure centers.

Tom Dixon works with what he terms ``creative salvage,'' or found objects and scrap metal.

Some of the work shown looks like far-out sculpture, or Op Art. The feature most of the pieces have in common is theatricality.

``We don't pretend this is the whole of the craft field, and what everybody is doing, or should be doing,'' says a Crafts Council spokeman.

``But we decided we could afford to take a look at some of the exciting things that these unusual young makers were producing,'' the spokesman says. ``Their dexterity and imagination in recycling scavenged materials, industrial relics, and obsolete artifacts are incredible.

``This exhibition is giving them important exposure and helping many of them to find new markets.''

While the Crafts Council contends that the exhibition can be an ``innovative force'' in the craft field and also change the public perception of craftsmanship, it has also stirred shock and controversy.

Beryl Downing, writing in the London Evening Standard, calls the New Spirit exhibition ``a combination of wit and pretension'' which sneers at the paying public.

``Craftsmanship implies technical ability. Can these sculptors of weird, ceramic shapes throw a proper pot?'' she asks, or ``Can these welders of deformed metal chairs make a seat to sit on? I doubt it.''

The Crafts Council is a nationally funded art body and receives a government grant of just under 2 million a year ($3.30 million) to support the crafts in England and Wales, and increase public awareness of the contemporary crafts.

The council supports the work of craft people, promotes fine craftsmanship, and encourages high standards of work.

It also sponsors exhibitions, courses, workshops, lectures, and conferences and maintains a registry of craftspeople and a slide library of 18,000 slides of their work.

The council also maintains a craft gift shop here in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The ``New Spirit'' exhibition will tour museums and universities until Jan. 31, 1989.

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