Anthony Wenyon explores the changing nature of luxury and visits The New Craftsmen in Mayfair
The New Craftsmen is arguably the ultimate embodiment of real luxury – luxury in the most fundamental sense
Back to the basics. What is real luxury?
Within the tenets of art history ‘luxury’ is a technical term – it describes highly decorated hand crafted objects made to very high standards by a small group of the most skilled, gifted and knowledgeable individuals of a period. The most expensive, captivating and hard to come by materials of the time were used sparingly in their creation.
Beholding real luxury was an emotive, poignant and even spiritual experience
Medieval manuscripts are a typical example – distinguished from the practical writing books of the time by their larger size, smaller quantity of text, intricate painstaking illustrations and bindings incorporating the most precious materials and jewels available. Beauty, wonder and meaning were the objective. The absence of practicality was defining. These were among the first real luxury objects. Beholding them was an emotive, poignant and even spiritual experience. They were and remain highly prized for this reason – real luxury affects and connects with the human on an emotional level.
The time and expense incurred in their creation of course make ‘luxury’ objects rare – few could afford them. But whilst scarcity & wealth derived status link to ‘luxury’, they are NOT its core – they are merely associations.
Real luxury is fundamentally about the creation process – this is where beauty and the power of such objects to affect individuals derives – both in design and the making stages.
Beauty is conceived into an objects design via proportion, composition of forms and balance of colours and textures. Choice of materials is central, with precious’s metals, stones and woods contributing their inherent aesthetic qualities – those we see and appreciate in nature.
The making stage is, however, frequently overlooked.
Indeed, whilst it is broadly acknowledged that within the theory of art (i.e. discussions on what is art, what it represents and means etc…) human expression is arts central precept, prominent movements consider that such meanings derive primarily in the making stage.
Great thinkers such as Britain’s John Ruskin, one of the most respected art critics of the nineteenth century, suggested that true beauty emerges only when makers are given the freedom to define commissions themselves (rather than producing things someone else had designed – i.e. combining the design and making stages).
In Ruskin’s view, this beauty is the expression of a master craftsperson who has devoted themselves to their work, feels a love and a deep belief and understanding of everything it signifies and means.
Of course, for works to be considered art, the craftsperson or artist requires the gifts of intellect, skill and knowledge as well as the imagination and passion to strive beyond. Ruskin believed a confluence of all these factors defined art. He thought only this generated the uniquely human response experienced by the viewer of great works.
Much of Ruskin’s critical writings were a response to the soulless industrialisation he saw in the 1800’s – he sought a return to impassioned hand craftsmanship, in particular within architecture. He reacted against the formulaic Neo-Classical buildings of the time, much preferring pre-renaissance Gothic cathedrals or the architecture of Venice, both brought to life by intricate stone work of master-craftsmen pushing beyond through their individual styles.
The mass consumption, mass production and generic materialism of the 20th century would certainly have been all too much for Ruskin.
He would, nonetheless, have likely engaged with Pop-Art’s ironic protest commentaries on these social developments, captured so succinctly by Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? – a cynical and insightful collage of up to the minute mass produced objects of mass desire.
Pop art commentary on materialism is significant culturally because consumerism has changed the way humans interact with objects, in particular luxury objects. The appeal of objects has become the tangential associations of status rather than the inherent qualities of objects themselves. Desire sits within the purchasing, rather than the experience of beholding objects. Indeed, ownership is often now fleeting and throw-away.
As a result of this new relationship, mass production has replaced hand craftsmanship. Ruskin’s human creation is all but absent. Design is often secondary to brand power; status derives from logos rather than beauty or even rarity – mass-luxury has compromised scarcity.
Whilst consumers have in the recent past accepted of these new notions of ‘luxury’, this is now changing.
The most discerning and knowledgeable buyers now increasingly consider purchases for their aesthetic qualities and the human meanings associated with hand craftsmanship
The most discerning and knowledgeable buyers now increasingly consider purchases for their aesthetic qualities and the human meanings associated with hand craftsmanship. The most authentic luxury names such as Hermes, Burberry and Moynat are underpinned by these principals. They have come to champion craftsmanship and substance in the creative process, relating it to the principals of fine art rather than the demands of mass luxury marketing.
A visit to the New Craftsmen in Mayfair brings further hope
The New Craftsmen was founded in Mayfair in 2012 by three partners, each believing in the expressive potential of hand craftsmanship and the beauty that derives from a master craftsman’s hand. Just as Ruskin prescribed, the design and making of objects are combined.
When love and skill are combined, expect a masterpiece
The New Craftsmen represent a selection of Britain’s finest craft makers within a network of 75 individuals working in textiles, silverware, furniture, ceramics, jewellery and glassware.
The New Craftsmen offers Britain’s most exceptional craft persons a wonderful space in the heart of Mayfair to showcase their work to an international set of knowledgeable, culturally and intellectually aware buyers of real luxury. The price of The New Craftmen’s works reflect the craft people’s time, skill and the quality of the materials used.
There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man’s lawful prey.
But in allowing The New Craftmen partner craftsperson’s exposure to this engaged, albeit wealthy, audience, the project has and has been instrumental in raising maker incomes to fair and sustainable levels.
A visit to The New Craftmen’s gallery space on North Row in Mayfair is a truly wonderful experience. As with the works on display, the space is contemporary and provides a unique take on specific skills and materials employed by their craft persons. Of particular interest during the visit was the work of Rose De Borman – exceptionally expressive clay figures fired to produce wonderful chance effects of texture and pattern. Truly unique and captivating to behold.
To read more about The New Craftsmen, click here