Craftsman's renaissance

Demand for well-designed and finely made things was enhanced during the boom. But leaner times won't spell the end for the craft professionals if they reach out to find new customers, says Emma de Vita.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Climb the Acropolis to the Parthenon and you'll hear the tap of chisel against marble as stonemasons restore the crumbling Athenian temple. The sound has been heard on this hill for more than two millennia. The long craftsmen tradition worked hard to survive mechanisation, industrialisation and mass consumerism, and just when it looked like the final 'Made in China' nail was being hammered into its coffin, it stages a comeback.

'There is definitely a resurgence for craftsmanship and for Britishness,' declares Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye, CEO of London department store Liberty. 'Everything that has something to do with longevity, simplicity and craftsmanship is doing very well.'

Bespoke - a concept that large luxury businesses have embraced since the turn of the century - is in vogue. 'If one looks back to what big brands have been doing for the past eight years,' says Anda Rowland, director of Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard, 'they've all been trying to get that element of personalisation back into their brands.'

With a nose for business (she is the late Tiny Rowland's daughter, after all) and years spent at Christian Dior, Rowland is a protagonist in British luxury retail. She explains that although mature European luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent have to keep on expanding, they still need to preserve their allure of exclusivity. Creating something personalised fits the bill nicely.

But the desire for bespoke isn't the sole preserve of Russian billionaires or LA celebrities; middle-class consumers are preferring the individual over the mass-produced too. 'When you look back to what generated the Arts & Crafts movement,' says De La Bourdonnaye, 'it was almost a reaction to the industrial revolution. Now, I think (the crafts resurgence) is a reaction to globalisation.'

The feeling goes beyond fashion whimsy. 'The era of the mass market is in decline,' says Roland Harwood, programme director for open innovation at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. 'People are looking for more bespoke products, and online businesses are enabling a greater amount of choice.' It's called the Long Tail.

By buying a customised bicycle or a finely bound book, you express your personal values. 'You're buying into a way of living,' explains Rosy Greenlees, executive director of the Crafts Council. 'It's about having meaning in your life and getting that through the things you buy.' Add to this the middle-class preoccupation with buying local and a renewed interest in craft becomes inevitable. Remarks Rowland: 'We have come back into fashion again.'

But what of the craftsmen and women themselves? With many traditional crafts close to extinction, there's a last-minute awareness that generations of skill and expertise could be lost for ever. Youth brings a fresh viewpoint, but it's hard to coax a traditional, slow-moving business into a new way of doing things. 'Tailoring is backwards-looking,' says Rowland, 'and that is the beauty of it. But when you are in business that is backwards-looking, everything tends to be backwards-looking.'

But moving with the times to appeal to a new generation of consumers raised on supermarkets, slick packaging and the internet pays off. A craft business that makes the most of its uniqueness and reaches out to a new audience through the internet, using clever marketing and a modern take on its products, has no reason to fail - although inevitably the coming recession make things trickier. The mass of affluent people who had the money to spend on a handmade suit or a bespoke piece of furniture will be feeling the pinch.

'When times get tight, it's not top of the priority list,' agrees John Bates, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at London Business School. 'The trick for those craft businesses is to make sure that they can keep their overheads extremely low and generate some revenues by doing a lot more restoring to keep their powder dry for when things pick up.' The mini golden age is over, he adds. 'In the late stages of a boom there are lots of resources around and I think we can look back on the Damien Hirst Sotheby auction as probably the final hurrah.'

RIDING HIGH: MERCIAN CYCLES

'Be prepared to step back in time,' warns Jane Smith with a smile, as she opens up the Derby bicycle workshop she owns with partner Grant Mosley. The couple took on the firm in 2002, when the previous owner retired. She was in newspaper ad sales, he had worked for Mercian man and boy in a part of the country that has a long cycling heritage.

Smith and Mosley remortgaged their house to buy the business. 'But you don't get many opportunities in your lifetime like that,' says Smith.

Mercian, which make a range of bike frames, was founded by two cyclists in 1946 and employed eight framebuilders in its heyday. Now there are three, plus two sprayers in the paintshop and four assistants in the shop. The company makes its customised bikes out of Birmingham-made Reynolds steel tubes, entirely by hand.

Designer Paul Smith (whose first bike was a Mercian) was so impressed by the firm's craftmanship that he commissioned his own range of bikes in 2006. They're not cheap - a Paul Smith bike will set you back £2,800, while a Mercian frame costs around £800 - but business is booming and Mercian now has a five-month waiting list.

Says Mosley: 'I think people are willing to pay for a real top-class job. We've had a couple of customers save up for years for one of our frames.' They've had customers travel down from Orkney, and a US holidaymaker diverted a tour bus so he could come and place an order.

The Paul Smith collaboration, new frame types and a ramped-up website has recast Mercian as a modern craft business. 'When we first took over, our customer base was blokes with beards, socks and sandals after a traditional tourer,' says Mosley. Now, they're more likely to be young metropolitans after a track bike in a wild colour.

In the workshop there are tools, components and beautiful frames all over the place, but an air of quiet concentration reigns. Framebuilder Tim Leicester, 32, an engineering graduate from Cambridge, eschewed the corporate career path for his dream job. 'Why waste a third of your life doing something you're not enjoying? I get the satisfaction from making a bike and seeing it out the door.'

Smith and Mosley are optimistic and have yet to feel any effects from the recession. 'Everyone is going to be worried,' says Smith, 'but at the end of the day, what can you do about it apart from do what you do every week, and that is try and produce the best items you can.'

Not many businesses can leave a grown man weeping with joy.

www.merciancycles.com

IN A NICHE: RICHARD WILLIAMS FURNITURE

Walk into Richard Williams' Buckinghamshire workshop and you're struck by the smell of timber. This is no ordinary workplace. Two cabinetmakers are hunched over their benches in steady concentration, sanding and sawing wood. Williams, 42, is tucked away in his office. He has been designing award-winning bespoke pieces for 18 years and built this business from scratch. Soon, it will expand into a new workshop twice the size, and he'll add three more craftsmen to his team of four.

His journey as a small businessman has not been easy. Till five years ago, he found it hard to make a good profit, despite strong orders and committed clients. A consultant brought in by Business Link proved disastrous, but with the help of someone who appreciated his output, business improved. Says Williams: 'I was a one-man management team, juggling so many balls that I was dropping half of them.'

He took on a PA, delegated management of his workshop to one of his cabinetmakers, and implemented proper costing procedures. That allowed him to focus on design, sales and strategy. His profit has shot up, and it's a visible relief. Williams says he was guided by something his father - a lifetime banker - told him: 'Don't do what I did, which was to spend 38 years at the same desk in the bank.'

He studied furniture-making at High Wycombe, traditionally the centre for the craft in this country - 'but not any more,' he adds, 'British furniture-making has hit the wall. We can survive because we are right in a niche of the market, and that can only be served by our level of bespoke service.'

He is one of about 200 designer/furniture-makers in the UK and his clients commission either one-off pieces or whole rooms. He finds the bigger jobs, often commissioned by an architect or interior designer, less fulfilling.

But the work pays - last year, he completed £200,000-worth of furniture for just one person. It's now rarely about 'making lovely things for lovely people', he relucantly admits.

Exhibitions and verbal recommendation have taken him to capacity, but Williams plans a proper marketing campaign next year. Despite the recession, he remains pretty optimistic. 'There is more of an interest in properly made bespoke products. I don't think it will ever explode, but I think it's fairly safe. It will always be here, but we'll never be a country full of craftsmen again.'

www.richardwilliamsfurniture.com

HIGH-MARGIN, LOW-VOLUME: SHEPHERDS BOOKBINDERS

It's a bibliophile's idea of heaven. Rob Shepherd's office at his Holborn shop in central London has beautifully bound first editions on the shelf above his desk. Nestled among them are boxes of Ian Fleming's complete works that will sell for £14,000 a set. The most expensive book Shepherd ever sold was at Sotheby's, the Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam for £28,000. Even his more usual bindings rarely cost less than £1,000.

Shepherd's career as a bookbinder was accidental. Its origin was in an evening class that eventually led him in 1988 to set up his own fine-binding business. Turnover stands at around £1.5m and in the past decade he has bought the London binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe and Zaehnsdorf, as well as Falkiner Fine Papers. Shepherd spends his time running the business rather than binding. He employs 30 people, 10 of whom were apprentice-trained. 'They are very rare people,' he says. Does he feel like a custodian of a tradition? 'Yes, definitely.'

Book-binding is a high-margin, low-volume business and Shepherd says his company has always turned a profit. A straightforward £500 binding will take 10 hours' work. 'Fine binding is absolutely the pinnacle of what you can achieve in the craft. We will never roll that out into something much bigger than it is because it will always be limited by the amount of craftsmen you can actually train to do it.'

His customers are the well-off, and the company has diversified into products such as boxes, photograph albums and notebooks, which keep the 18 craftsmen whom Shepherd employs busy. 'I think "Made in England" is the way it's all going,' he says, citing ethical consumerism. But there's something more intangible at work too: 'It's to do with people reassessing the way we all live - the concept of knowing something is made well and by someone you might recognise in the street. There's a little revolution going on.'

Shepherd's products are now sold in Liberty and he has just finished major work on the other of his two London shops on Rochester Row so that customers will be able to see the craftsmen at work. With the help of private shareholders, Shepherd has also rented a barn in Wiltshire that will concentrate solely on the product side of the business.

Shepherd says that he feels optimistic about the future, 'because I think people value what we do more and more' - despite the fact that fewer wealthy people appreciate books. 'Pick up Hello! magazine and you won't see many libraries,' he adds.

And what of the recession? 'I've been through two, and I was lucky not to have felt any particular effects. I don't think anybody is recession-proof, but I've yet to see any issues.'

Instead, he says his products have hit the current mood. 'People are interested in working with their hands. It's all part of a movement away from mass production and computers. People are realising that a finely bound book is a wonderful thing.'

www.bookbinding.co.uk.

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