“There is a wild and untameable beauty in man when he is in harmony with nature.”
Do you have material intelligence?
As its name implies, tacit knowledge cannot be acquired by reading books or watching videos on YouTube. Its actions are very difficult to describe in words and can only be obtained by making things with our own hands. But learning to make physical things is often considered less valuable, even lower brow, compared to digital things. Something similar applies to the disappearing practice of repairing things. As Glenn Adamson highlights in his book Fewer, Better Things (see review below), eschewing working with our hands means that “We’re not doing what our brains and bodies were developed to do”.
The Art of Darning
Mick Dixon is the owner of the Darned Fine Workshop in Newcastle upon Tyne, specialising in making all kinds of denim repairs and handmade clothing using precious deadstock and up-cycled fabrics.
Growing up in a household that owned a bespoke tailor shop, Mick was inspired to create his own punk-styled clothing and later study fashion, at the time unusual for a white working class bloke in the North East of England. This was followed by designing clothes for Marks & Spencer and eventually making football kits for Nike in the late 90s, where he acquired a well rounded set of skills by working in diverse teams with product developers, graphic designers, and materials experts.
Mick is now in his early fifties, has an affable nature, and is passionate about team sports, coaching kids’ football and being the chairman of the local cricket club.
He moved on to running a successful freelancing career designing the likes of shirts, jackets, and track suits for almost all of the Premier League teams. This demanded strenuous 80-hour workweeks, which after a few years resulted in a stress induced brain haemorrhage that forced him to take off six months of solid rest. It was a turning point: he would not to go back to that kind of slog, nor working with people he didn’t like that much.
The search for a more rewarding life brought him back to patterns and darning, something he had carried on doing while at big multinationals. At first he made stuff for himself, which eventually led to buying fewer clothes. Later, repairing garments for friends for free became a means to hone his skills, experimenting with the dozens of sewing machines he had been collecting in the garage. Word of mouth ensued and people asked him to fix and adapt things, and eventually to design made to measure pieces. Mick’s philosophy is to take no shortcuts, unmaking an item and putting it back together from scratch, the proper way.
On his worktable I found a pair of old jeans that have gone through what looks like dozens of repairs. Mick tells me that the owner is a young actor who keeps bringing them back over and over again because they were from his late father. Wearing them is a way to keep the relationship alive, this is not a piece of old clothing but an emotional bridge.
Darned Fine is located at Cobalt Studios, together with a dozen different makers and artists, a cultural venue and a bar. In it he has crammed more than 15 second-hand machines for sewing, stitching, bar tacking, hemming, darning and more. Being mechanical instead of computer controlled — some date back to the 1930s — means that they are easier to repair, which Mick is learning to do from those that currently service them, because once they retire the knowledge risks going away too, forever.
Exhibition: Jennifer Lee @ Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
Don’t miss Jennifer Lee’s exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. It includes more than 40 pottery pieces from different eras of Lee’s work, from around 1983 to this year. Her creations are fascinating, cerebral in the details and offering a sense of calm when on display.
The majority of Lee’s pieces have been gathered in a glass-free specially designed monolith in the gallery area, while a handful are shown within the more natural environment of Jim and Helen Ede’s home.
I was lucky to attend a talk and panel discussion with Lee, museum director Andrew Nairne, curator Sarah Griffin, and Helen Ritchie from The Fitzwilliam Museum. A curious factoid about “Jeff” is that she makes incredibly detailed drawings of her pots after they have been finalised, in order to analyse and understand what she’s done, and use that knowledge for future works.
Jennifer Lee: the potter’s space
9 July 2019–22 September 2019
CB3 0AQ, Cambridge
Book: Fewer, Better Things
Author and scholar Glenn Adamson is the former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and has been head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In his first book aimed at the non academic world, he traces how the evolution of mankind has been linked to physical tools and objects, and how by ignoring our material environment we are neglecting what our brains and bodies were developed to do.
He is no luddite, arguing in favour of the interconnectedness of analog and digital know-how, but warns that the loss of tacit material knowledge is at the root base of many of today’s social and environmental ailments like overconsumption and waste.
Adamson defines material intelligence as “a deep understanding of the material world around us, an ability to read that material environment, and the know-how required to give it a new form.”
His insight to reduce our propensity towards overconsumption and waste is based on cultivating a cultural interest in fewer, better things. The author is aware of the risk of this being just an elitist approach to capitalism, and suggests that the key to paying closer attention to the objects that surround us does not regard if they’re beautifully made but starts with learning about the materials and processes that make them.
“The reason we have too may unsatisfying objects in our lives is that we don’t care enough about any single one of them.”
The book is made up of 34 short chapters, one smoothly leading into the next with a mix of personal stories, anecdotes, research, and practical examples.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of the book from Bloomsbury UK.
Fewer, Better Things
The Hidden Wisdom of Objects
By Glenn Adamson
Publication date: 1 November 2018
Restaurant: Inua, Tokyo
This exciting and experimental restaurant is the brainchild of Thomas Frebel, a 10-year veteran of Noma where he ran R&D and led their international pop-up efforts. It was during the Noma Tokyo pop-up in 2015 that Thomas got bitten by the Japanese bug, and Inua is the result of that itch. Barely over a year after its opening, it is already considered as one the most exciting restaurants in the city.
I had the chance to book a spot at Inua last November, and was delighted by how the cooks challenged by senses by transforming seasonal and uncommon ingredients — from deer tongue to caramelised koji — into novel flavours and textures.
While the treatment of each ingredient and the thorough attention to detail is what you come to Inua for, it was the friendliness and enthusiasm of the staff that imprinted a long-lasting feeling. At the end of the meal Thomas and Jessica Natali (pictured in the test kitchen) gave me a tour of the different spaces.
Kadokawa Fujimi Bldg.
2–13–12 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku,
The William Morris Gallery, London
William Morris was the most famous exponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement that arose in Britain in the late 19th century. He proposed a new look into how things were made, a sort of antithesis to the perceived negative effects of the industrial revolution.
Morris was a renowned designer of wallpapers and textiles, and this museum celebrates the different phases of his life, from his early efforts in interior design, to his big business days with Morris & Co (known back then as The Firm), to his later life as a radical socialist.
The building (pictured) and surrounding gardens are a delight to visit and kid friendly too.
William Morris Gallery
Lloyd Park, Forest Road
E17 4PP, London
- Marco Arguello — I wanted this to be fun because most stories about Japanese craft are so beautiful (WePresent by WeTransfer) // Photo essay on the town of Gujo Hachiman, famous for making hyperreal plastic food for restaurants.
- Genta Ishizuka wins the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2019 (Wallpaper) // Ishizuka, a Kyoto-based artist, creates modern sculptures repurposing the traditional lacquerware technique knows as urushi.
- Fine Craftsmanship: A crash course on 8 art and craft traditions from India (Architectural Digest) // An insight into techniques indigenous to India still in use today: Kalamkari, Dohkra, Lac Bangles, Pattachitra, Pipli Applique, Pichwai, Patola Sari.
- Citizens of Craft Podcast // Hosted by the Canadian Crafts Federation, it features craftspeople, artists, curators, educators, and collectors talking about their practice and its role in their lives.
- Monocle’s The Entrepreneurs feat. Billy Tannery // Short episode on the history of England’s Billy Tannery, which is reviving the Midlands’ rich leather-making history.
- Soba Master Tatsuru Rai Demonstrates His Craft // An almost meditative performance from this soba noodles master, recorded at the MAD food festival in 2014.
- MADE LONDON — Marylebone The Design and Craft Fair: 24–27 October 2019 // An annual contemporary craft and design fair where the very best of national and international designer-makers present and sell their work to the public.
- Barbican Make Workshops: ongoing // Hands on craft workshops held at the iconic Barbican in London.
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