“The blacksmith and the artist reflect it in their art.
They forge their creativity closer to the heart. “
Spring has arrived to London a bit early (one year ago we were covered in snow) and it has brought a new personal phase that will be somehow reflected in these newsletters as I research deeper into craftsmanship for a potential book project. As part of my “serendipity break”, I’ve started a pottery course too. I teased one of the stories of this edition a few weeks ago, and here is the full thing.
Heather O’Connor, Maker of Minimalist and Unique Jewellery Heather O’Connor is a London based silversmith and jewellery maker with a minimalistic aesthetic and a special ability to imprint a deep layer of meaning into often unexpected, but beautiful objects.
Starting with crafty childhood experiments encouraged by her mother, Heather’s path into making has been one guided by intuition. She thought she would head into ceramics or textiles because she loved the three-dimensionality and tactility of them, but then took a course in metalworking that blew her mind with what you could do and how many things you had to control to get the metal to behave the way you want it to.
Straight out of her masters at the Royal Collage of Art, she began creating objects to be put on pedestals at galleries and shows, playing with the boundaries of function and art. She later evolved her business into very personal pieces of jewellery, via commissions that spread through word of mouth and searches on Google.
Now that people care more about handmade pieces that are a little bit different and more personal, Heather is combining new and recycled materials in different ways. The pieces that captured my attention were two rings that she made to commemorate a friend’s partner who had passed away quite young. One featured a stone created using resin and the ashes of the deceased. The second ring had the ashes hidden on the inside so the partner could feel them against his skin without putting them on show. Other rings featured the engraved shape of a partner’s fingerprint or the waveform of their child laughing.
“I like how much it means to these people, and it has changed how I think about what I do — it used to be all about the design and getting it perfect and now it’s about doing an object that really means something to someone.”
Kanjiro Kawai’s House: Celebrating The Life of a Shokunin
During my last trip to Kyoto in November 2018, I was invited to Kanjiro Kawai’s house in the Gojō-zaka neighbourhood. Kawai (1890–1966) was a prominent potter and one of the driving forces — together with philosopher Sōetsu Yanagi and fellow potter Shōji Hamada — behind the Mingei or Folks-Craft Movement in Japan. He was also a well rounded Shokunin. The word shokunin can be partially translated into English as “craftsman” or “artisan” but its real meaning goes well beyond that. A shokunin is, yes, a master of his or her craft with a highly developed technical ability, but it also implies a material and spiritual social obligation to the welfare of the people in their community.
You can clearly see this in Kanjiro Kawai’s body of work, especially in its mid to late phases, and in his way of living. Visiting his house in Kyoto — now a museum — made me reflect on what my own physical (and digital) workspace says about my work and my values.
I wrote more on Kawai and his house, including several photos, here: gchicco.com/2019/02/07/kanjiro-kawai-house
Sōetsu Yanagi on the Beauty of Crafts In his book “The Unknown Craftsman”, Sōetsu Yanagi — whom I’ve mentioned in the previous story — addresses the concept of beauty in crafts. Yanagi was fond of things made to be used by in daily life, in contrast to artworks to be merely admired but not used. The book is full of insights but for now I’ll leave you with this:
“The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. Such beauty establishes a world of grace and feeling. It is significant that in speaking of craft objects, people use terms such as savour and style. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge, or the lofty as a beauty of the warm and familiar. Here one may detect a striking difference between the crafts and the arts. People hang their pictures high up on walls, but they place their objects for everyday use close to them and take them in their hands.”
The Unknown Craftsman, A Japanese Insight into Beauty
Sōetsu Yanagi Kodansha USA / Penguin Random House
East Fork — A New Generation Finds Its Voice Through Pottery
This issue is heavy on pottery references, a current interest of mine, and I didn’t want to leave out this compelling feature of East Fork Pottery on Architectural Digest.
Co-founded by Connie and Alex Matisse, East Fork’s trajectory evolved from a local artistic endeavour to a structured company selling 5,000 pieces a month, with an expected growth of 300% in the next two years. The engine behind East Fork’s rise has been a strong focus on community by hosting dinners at their pottery farm, a well crafted website and a smart social media presence, and a focus on simpler forms often inspired by the Japanese Mingei movement (which connects it with the two previous two items on Yanagi and Kawai’s work). Alex, who is a descendant of Henri Matisse and is related to Marcel Duchamp, feels that he has finally found freedom from his surname’s heritage through his pottery work.
“East Fork happens to be peaking at a time when ceramics are, well, hot. Connie says she saw the trend growing about eight years ago, when ceramics shops popped up on Etsy and the fashion world began to collaborate with certain makers in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. The relatively accessible medium lent itself to burned-out millennials who wanted to use their hands for something other than UX design and needed a “meditative” hobby.”
“We saw ceramics having its moment in the sun and we felt like we had something to add to the conversation.”
Brunello Cucinelli — Technology Has Changed Things, But Not Human Feelings
First of two videos that are the result of a business partnership. Created by software company Salesforce, this one is a brief and beautiful feature of Brunello Cucinelli, founder of the eponymous Italian luxury fashion brand.
Characterised by what the company calls a humanistic approach to capitalism that aims to “achieve a gracious growth while somehow supporting human dignity”, Brunello Cucinelli is renown for the quality of its craftsmanship. It has even created a school to teach and pass on the skills they so much value in their activity.
Brunello remarks how important it is to work to celebrate the gifts granted to us by the Universe but also to work for those that will come after us, inviting us to “use the most innovative technologies that the Universe has given to us, but let’s use them in a considerate way.”
The more subtler aspects of his philosophy, expressed through the use of delicate Italian words, gets slightly diluted in translation but you can pick up those undertones through his tone of voice and refined gestures.
“We must start from the joy of life, from respect, from humanity. Because [perhaps] the most important thing in life is having respect for other people. Especially from those who might think very differently from you.”
Watch here: youtu.be/we_Ze9nOqe0
Hiut Denim — The Town of Cardigan Is Making Jeans Again
This 30 minute documentary made by Shopify centres on the work of Claire and David Hieatt creating Hiut Denim, which I featured back in 2017 in Issue n.003, when Hiut had an annual production limited to a few thousand pairs. Today, after attracting global attention via the Dutchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, wearing their jeans, they are producing 200 pairs a week.
Jean-making was integral to Welsh town of Cardigan until the main factory closed at the start of the noughties, causing social havoc with 400 unemployed in a community of 4,000. Now the Hieatts, who had previously launched, and later sold, another garment company — Howies — are bringing jean-making jobs back. David had a past in advertising and currently takes care of the brand, with a clear understanding that those who can make the best product and tell the best story, win. Claire instead is the strategic lead and runs the business.
The company’s activity is based on doing one thing remarkably well by giving full autonomy to each one of their “grand masters” to create a pair of jeans from start to finish. It also recognises the utmost importance on passing the skillset onwards to new generations, so the success of Hiut can also become the success of Cardigan.
In a business environment obsessed by profit and scale at all costs, they contemplate instead the cardinal business metric of working with the people you want to and to look after them.
“The reason I call them Grand Masters is because I want to celebrate them as makers” — David Hieatt
Watch here: youtu.be/CD-C8V8NNlo