Back to the future

London Essays – Issue 7: Work

Back to the future

Makers are thriving in London, as they always have – even in some of its most technologically advanced industries. But we can’t assume their continued success.

By Julia Bennett

As you travel through London, have you glimpsed Clothworkers Road, Fletcher Street, Goldsmith Lane or Smithy Street? The names indicate how deeply making is woven into the texture of London’s history, revealing places where craft workers have long practised and refined their skills. From tailors in Savile Row to furniture and textiles artists in east London, makers today follow in the centuries-old traditions of the 110 City livery companies, which include, for example, carpenters, clothworkers, glaziers, furniture makers and pewterers. Traditional apprentices are still proud to earn the Freedom of the City and the right (should they choose, of course) to drive sheep across London Bridge. London is still home to a number of thriving centres of excellence, including The Goldsmiths’ Centre and the diamond-cutting trade in Hatton Garden.

Alongside these industries with tenacious historical roots sit stunning examples of craft driving innovation in industries such as healthcare and construction, together with automotive and high-value manufacturing. Glass artist Matt Durran used his skills and knowledge of glass slumping techniques to collaborate with researchers at the Royal Free Hospital. Together they created the hygienic glass moulds needed to develop the first tissue-engineered tracheotomy. Lauren Bowker is a “textile alchemist” whose company, The Unseen, has developed colour-changing materials that are now used in tracking car aerodynamics for Formula One, and in bandages and soft devices that can monitor patients’ health conditions. Trained in chemistry and textiles, Lauren began work as a material innovator, making designs for devices that can monitor the body and the environment, changing colour in response to heat, ultraviolet rays, friction, moisture, chemicals and air pollution. 4

This juxtaposition of the traditional and the innovative is one reason why London-based craft is thriving in an era of huge technological advances and rapidly evolving working practices – think of how 3D printing is transforming manufacturing. The tech era has seen a resurgence of interest in craft, in the authentic, the personal, and in the provenance of products. This is reflected in the growing popularity of London Craft week, in its third year this spring, with the eclectic nature of the disciplines showcased (gun engraving to millinery, 3D printed ceramics to live calligraphy demonstrations) a testament to the breadth of craft in the capital.

Makers help to create a strong sense of place in distinct areas of London. Annie Warburton, in her foreword to Makers of East London, 5 points to the strength of local networks: “It will be a revelation just how many everyday objects are made in the streets of east London, from spectacles to chopping boards, umbrellas to spoons, bicycles to lamps … what shines out in each of these stories is the strength of community in east London. The interconnectedness of creative fields is apparent. From the pointe shoemakers serving dancers on Covent Garden stages to the foundry that works with Britain’s fine art stars, these makers are integral to a flourishing ecology of musicians, film-makers, fashion designers and architects. While virtual networks enable makers to trade globally, this is an ecology founded on local relationships.”

This is echoed by Katharina Eisenköck, creator of small-batch furniture and products, who attributes the success of her work partly to “the relaxed atmosphere, the rough beauty of the houses, and the convergence of creative minds” in east London. This creativity is deeply embedded: in medieval times, Homerton was the site of leather tanning and “fulling”, the use of urine to clean felt cloth; today, textile artist Katherine May grows plants for dye, sources fabric from textile recycling centres for her Homerton studio, and aims to demonstrate in her work “the role that cloth has played throughout history, from clothing our bodies to dressing our wounds.” 6

The immediacy and intimacy of the performance of making is a powerful incentive and reward for craftspeople. Rob Court, neon sign and lighting maker, says: “I never get bored of the final switch-on. It’s the moment when all my work comes to life. It can be a very moving moment. Personal neon messages have brought clients to tears.” 7 The Dalai Lama, Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey each have one of Court’s creations.

The vast majority of makers operate as sole traders or microbusinesses, and this ability to work independently and on their own terms is another driver for many. James Kennedy of Kennedy City Bicycles, says: “I get to meet my customers, discuss the design of their bicycle, build it, take them on test rides, and teach them how to maintain and service it. I feel really privileged to do that for so many people.” He pushes this idea further, in ways that aren’t always welcomed by those promoting business growth: “People criticise us for being an ‘idea that doesn’t scale’, but I bloody love being an idea that doesn’t scale!” 8 At this time of passionate reactions to the perceived powerlessness created by globalisation, the desire to take control of one’s own skills and outputs is strong.

But the opportunity to pursue this level of personal and creative satisfaction in your work is rarely a straightforward or smooth process. Becoming a maker can be an arduous and perilous journey, fraught with financial, educational and practical obstacles, in addition to the risks that are an inherent part of the creativity of workmanship. Whitechapel Bell Foundry, one of the businesses featured in Makers of East London, recently announced it will cease activities at its Whitechapel Road site, its home since 1738, as it tries to secure a future.

The growing public enthusiasm for craft doesn’t negate the challenges of making a career of it. The route into becoming a craftsperson may combine an apprenticeship or creative degree with tenacious experimentation and exploration of technologies and materials, until a level of creative skill and concept is arrived at that will translate into a product for sale. Some craftspeople spend a long time as portfolio workers, combining their making with a career in education, hospitality, or other industries that offer flexible part-time roles. In earlier issues, London Essays has focused on the rising costs of studio space and how this is driving making out of the capital. In addition to the difficulties of affording accommodation (a problem common to many creatives and start-ups), it’s also the case that refining your business concept, identifying a market, building a customer base and feeding a supply chain may all give a slow return on investment – quite apart from the task of finding time for these activities alongside designing and making your product.

Azem William is a freelance graphic designer and creative director seeking to kickstart a career as a ceramicist at Turning Earth, an open-access ceramics studio in Hoxton. Having participated in a small number of sales last year, Azem earned about 10 per cent of his income selling his sculptural vases and ceramic portraits, a figure he would like to increase to 40 per cent. His main challenges are the time needed to develop a body of work, as well as identifying and pursuing an appropriate market (reflected in his detailed business plans). 9 Both of these aspects are addressed in professional development programmes offered by the Crafts Council, one of a small number of organisations offering training to sole traders in craft. But demand for such opportunities cannot be met: Crafts Council programmes are heavily oversubscribed and applications to join Turning Earth’s Hoxton studio have tripled recently (they have just opened a new 8,500 sq ft studio in a former factory in Leyton).

It remains hard to convince some parents and careers advisors that a creative career can also be a financially rewarding one. There is a market failure in education, with 50 per cent of craft-related higher education courses closing since 2007/08. 10 In many cases, makers must succeed in spite of, rather than because of, available support. If their earnings are below the VAT threshold, makers are invisible in government economic estimates and thus not informing government business programmes. Sole traders, who are characteristic of craft businesses, are a growing phenomenon in the London workforce, as evidence from the Royal Society of Arts, 11 Demos 12 and the Creative Industries Federation 13 has acknowledged.

As an increasingly attractive mode of work, craft needs business support tailored to its needs (rather than to those of SMEs), and tax incentives – for example, for continuing professional development or to reduce shipping costs for exports in this era of new trade tariffs. There are also challenges for makers in identifying the right people to collaborate with when working across disciplines and industrial sectors. There can be a lack of understanding among potential partners of how to manage the risk involved, or an unwillingness to invest in R&D in micro-businesses: a failure to recognise that the capacity for innovation doesn’t always correlate with the size of a business.

The government’s recent acknowledgement in its Building our Industrial Strategy green paper that the creative industries are highly competitive internationally is widely welcomed. Makers contribute skills across the creative economy, and their work appears to be more resistant to automation than most other jobs; it is more future-proof against technologies like machine learning and mobile robotics. London has a higher proportion of the workforce in creative jobs than many other areas of the country. 14

So where do we go from here? Craft not only drives innovation and the creation of unique and beautiful objects, it also produces careers that meet a desire for meaning and individual expression. It helps to forge and shape the character and community of London’s diverse neighbourhoods. But we’re seeing makers moving further into the suburbs or out of London altogether. And fewer schools are offering the design and technology qualifications that give students the experience in three-dimensional problem-solving so essential to craft disciplines.

We need to address these issues if we are to sustain the contribution of craft to the life of the capital. Currently, some areas of London are protected from developers’ rights to create residential units out of former offices without planning permission. This protection should be extended to preserve more former industrial space for artists’ use and to build on the idea of Creative Enterprise Zones (areas of small workspaces and associated living space specifically for artists and makers). And the London Curriculum, currently a useful resource for teachers, could strengthen its art and design offer to help more schools sustain creative learning in the face of pressures to prioritise more “academic” subjects. We must also diversify routes into craft, smoothing the labyrinthine process of trying to set up new apprenticeships for micro-businesses.

Without long-term vision and investment in making, the city will be poorer and we, as communities and individuals, will start to lose a historic and vital aspect of our creative fabric.

  • 4 See more examples in Innovation through Craft: Opportunities for Growth, Crafts Council, 2016.
  • 5 Makers of East London, May 2015, Hoxton Mini Press.
  • 6 Ibid. p21.
  • 7 Ibid. p99.
  • 8 Ibid. p190.
  • 9 Interview with the author, February 2017.
  • 10 Studying Craft 16, Crafts Council, 2016,
  • 11 Second Age of Small, RSA, 2015.
  • 12 Going it Alone, Demos, 2014.
  • 13 Forthcoming.
  • 14 Creativity Vs. Robots, Nesta, 2015.