The popular resurgence of artisanal craft might indicate a more simmering ennui in contemporary design, but you'd be hard pressed to criticise the ethics and ethos of its many proponents. The umbrella term of 'making' might still encompass a wealth of folksy hokum, but an increasing number of practitioners are creating meticulous, handcrafted work across a wealth of disciplines, with a level of skill and dedication the wider design world can only dream of.
It seems only right, then, that London – for the second year running – is playing host to a dedicated Craft Week, exploring the practices of myriad artists and artisans in locations across the city; from pop up Wedgwood demos and silversmithing workshops at the V&A, to bike making at the Design Museum, glassblowing at Michael Ruh's south London studio, behind the scenes tours at Walthamstow's William Morris Gallery and an exhibition of Ramón Puig Cuyàs brooches at Loewe's Mount Street store (among many others).
One forthcoming event that is particularly turning our lathes is 'Wood, Fire & Food', an evening exploring the disciplines of wood turning and whittling at Stevie Parle's acclaimed Craft restaurant in Greenwich (being held this Saturday, 7 May). Designed by Tom Dixon, the restaurant's interiors will sit in neat juxtaposition to the archaic work of the fortuitously named Robin Wood MBE – a respected bowl-maker – and Barn the Spoon, a spoon carver more commonly seen operating from his shopfront hub on Hackney Road.
The evening will see Wood and Barn discuss their practices with practical demonstrations, while Parle and his team create a five course menu, cooked exclusively over wood, eschewing gas and electricity completely.
Wallpaper* spoke to Wood and Barn about the event's genesis, their parallel practices and the sensory advantages of eating with wood...
W*: How did the collaboration between yourselves and Stevie Parle/Craft come about?
BTS: Stevie is a customer of mine, having bought spoons from me. We got chatting and I think we bonded over a mutual respect for nutmeg and what that spice can bring to food.
RW: I met Stevie through Barn and was instantly excited to find a kindred spirit, passionate about the provenance of our raw materials.
Why is the Tom Dixon-designed restaurant a suitable venue for the exploration of your artisanal and 'ancient' craft?
BTS: London is an incredible hub for craft and food, and this restaurant has got to be the best place to celebrate that. 'Ancient' often gets bandied around – I guess for me it is useful only in respect to getting to the bottom of things. I love my smartphone and everything but using an axe makes me feel real in a deeper sense. However forward looking my craft is, I would never deny that I am flesh and blood, and I love that I use my hands to shape wood using basic tools like axes and knives. I think Tom and Stevie mirror this approach in their design and cooking,
RW: The essence of my love affair with both craft and food is provenance. Before I turned my first wooden bowl I forged my own tools; to forge my tools I made my own charcoal from the same ancient woodland that yielded the wood for the bowl. This quest for authenticity and provenance feels like the same ethos that pervades Tom’s design and Stevie’s food.
Do your approaches to craft have a shared remit? What are the conceptual bases of your particular practices?
BTS: I think we have a shared ethos. For, me it is a form of 'tree worship' and, although Robin may not describe his work that way, I think we both have a love of trees and 'wood culture' – and we have both dedicated ourselves to a specific craft. The essence of my work is using basic tools to shape fresh wood into functional spoons. When you go through the same process over and over again it becomes a meditation that is very enabling – you can then impart a beauty and empathy into your work that is very rare.
RW: We are both deeply passionate about the making process. It is a process that transcends and is far more important than conceptual ideas and words. The skilled work of the hand and eye with simple tools is what made us human and led to the development of our large brains. It is increasingly relevant today, an antidote to ever more digitised, conceptual lives. Humans need to use their hands.
It's interesting that the dinner will explore how wood affects taste. Have you previously explored elements of sensory perception in your work?
BTS: Of course! It really pains me to eat with a metal spoon nowadays but it is always good to be reminded quite how awful it is compared to a wooden one! Using and exploring my products on a daily basis is essential to my craft.
RW: I have spent 25 years eating every day from wood. Every meal for me is a joyful exploration of multiple senses: touch, sound, taste and smell. Wood is a natural insulator so your food remains warm, while the vessel remains neither too hot nor too cold, just nice to the touch. With a wooden spoon there is no scratchy metal on ceramic sound – once alerted to this noise, even the best restaurants can sound like school canteens. Wood is peaceful. People do not realise the current – and in historical terms, quite recent – fad for metal and ceramic tableware has nothing to do with it being the best; with the coming of the industrial revolution it was cheap and easy to mass manufacture. Excellent tableware should be quiet and neither hot nor cold.
How important to the annual arts/culture calendar is London Craft Week?
BTS: London surely is the craft capital of the world – by celebrating it we can consolidate what we have and give it further momentum by making connections and spreading the word.
RW: Britain has an incredible wealth of knowledge and heritage of making. As heritage crafts become ever more in vogue, London Craft Week provides the stage to highlight the very best work of a nation of makers. As many lead increasingly digitised lives the simple act of making something well becomes ever more important and links us to a magnificent heritage.