Issue 210
September/October 2019

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Sep 19, 2019

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In search of the true artisans of Edinburgh

Catherine Aitken's report from the studios and workshops of Edinburgh reviewed by Nick Jones

SOME WORDS set my literary antennae tingling. Usually ones hijacked and debased by faceless global multinationals to disguise, deceiving us into thinking they are small, local and ethnic. And that their products are ethical, hand-crafted with love and passion, or dairy-fresh, hot out of a farmhouse oven, and, of course, especially for moi.

With the artisan word being on my list, I worried about this book before seeing it. So often artisan has nothing to do with making with skill by human hands. It can beg awkward questions like the tricky 'use or ornament' one, or suggest the contrived, elitist, and pricey.

I'm the more grateful to true artisans like the ones featured in this book, for they keep the handmade alive and well in a world where machines and robots threaten what it is to be human.

As baker Dan Lepard puts it: "Someone asked me why I bother mixing and shaping bread by hand. I will not let my fingers be reduced to simple button-pressing, dial-twirling or switch-flicking."

Those making, valuing and above all using handmade artefacts confirm our common humanity. I find the pink and grey cover misleading and confusing, featuring a close up photograph of jewellery by Rebecca Wilson, "inspired by the confectionery industry and a nostalgia for the sweet treats of her childhood."

Completely taken in, thinking, naively, that it really is a pink lollipop wrapped in cellophane, I can almost taste its perfumed delicacy. Actually a tribute to the maker's great skill. Bizarrely, it reminds me of Elizabeth Arden's stunning Rolls-Royce, in her trade-mark pink and grey, with special pockets for perfume, and the Leica.

Opening the book, I relax, reassured, finding the same commitment to excellence in design and fabrication as in those great early Rolls-Royces. My concern that this might be seen as a mini-coffee-table book are unfounded.

It gets better, as I read with fascination, respect and wonder at the quality of design, invention, dedication and craftsmanship of these artisan makers. There are twenty-four in all – jewellers, fashion designers, ceramic artists,furniture makers and designers, a weaver, a mosaic artist, a kiltmaker, a silversmith, a traditional signwriter and gilder, a leather artisan, a milliner, and a maker using wood and metal.

OK, there is a bias to the artist-artisan-maker and yes, I had wondered if there would be a wider remit, be it bakers, or violin-makers, or millers, or printers. But that's another book.

The author, Catherine Aitken, is well placed to write this, as she combines making heritage cloths with contemporary design, so she knows the business from the inside out. She gives the reader a rounded introduction to each artisan, explaining why they have chosen their craft, clear descriptions of the often complex processes involved, the care taken to use exactly the right raw materials and practices.

For example Helen Miles's mosaic-making is underpinned by working with master mosaicists in Greece. I also liked the way Catherine paints a portrait of 'a day in the life of', complete with favourite walks and places.

Many value the creative spin-off of sharing spaces with other artists and makers, and it's encouraging to see so many all across the city. The special relationship that making bespoke pieces for particular individuals can bring is also clear, with many speaking of how much they value working with clients.

Reservations? A few. Ironically, the design and look of the book itself is one. On each introductory page, I found the washed-out textured grey background contrived and irritating, and would have expected a mugshot with an example of work.

A pity, too, that there were no captions to the photographs, especially as a lot of care has been taken over them. Several of the vignettes end with information about forthcoming exhibitions or events in 2019 or 2020 involving particular artists. Interesting, but inevitably dating and perhaps reducing the book's long term usefulness.

A place for a companion fold out pocket guide, or an accompanying website perhaps?

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