9 Jan 2013

Design: Britain’s Boutique

“CAN collectors, already comfortable with spending thousands of pounds on paintings, be persuaded to invest in crafted items showcasing the very best of the British Isles’ heritage?“ asks Mark Henderson. The New Craftsmen, an initiative founded by Henderson – a law school drop-out turned Chairman of Gieves & Hawkes – seeks to bring specialist craft-makers to the luxury market, achieving “honest prices“ for their work.
Glass visited Henderson’s temporary shop in a handsome Grosvenor Estate property opposite The Connaught Hotel, Mayfair, and was given a guided tour by the man himself. It is the precursor to a permanent boutique scheduled to open close-by, in July, which will ultimately showcase 100 peoples’ works. Henderson explains, “Makers themselves don’t want to sell – they want to craft.” However, Henderson is keen for customers to feel a connection to the maker – to trust the source, see the youth and energy behind the products, “rather than an old geezer exhibiting in a village hall”.
One example of this philosophy in action is letterpress operator, Kelvyn Laurence Smith, who works in the shop window. The graphic designer grew bored of an overly technological approach and turned to the texture and aroma of old-school print. “He considers every letter,” says Henderson. Henderson invites me to sit on an elegant chair hailing from the largely tree-free, mighty windswept Orkney archipelago. The back, woven from oat straw, has a slight give, but is subtly supportive. A collaboration between island resident, Kevin Gauld, and Dalston-based furniture maker, Gareth Neal, it will easily outlive your correspondent. The lead time for the end result is three-to-five months.
Parts of the temporary shop are outlined in a frame of red and orange, a scheme which initially alarmed Henderson. “I thought ‘my God“ when I first saw it, but it has actually proved fun and youthful.”
A glass-topped bureau contains, surprisingly, not archaeological finds but shiny Sheffield-made scissors with gold-plated double-bow handles by fifth generation family firm, Ernest Wright. “Unlike corkscrews, for example, which are often more about aesthetics than practicality of use, they combine functionality and ergonomics with an aesthetic appeal,” appraises Henderson.
Close by, delicately spun tea cups “of good depth”  have proved a sell-out. They are produced by recent graduate, Matthew Warner. “He graduated in June, and the sets are now sold out until the end of April. He’s 6’6 and resembles a young Bryan Ferry,”.  Like other makers, Warner’s life-size image hangs in our midst. He is depicted in a sharp Gieves & Hawkes suit. “Priscilla Carluccio dressed the girls,” adds Henderson.
Two things notable by their absence in the store are fashion and food. “So far, we’re trying to keep out of clothing and food,” explains Henderson, adding, with a wink, “Fashion is a fickle beast.”
In spite of the exhibition quality of the fine array of items which surrounds us, Henderson wants to clarify absolutely that what his team and he are running is a business.  “I looked at running this as a social enterprise, but retail sites don’t come cheap. Instead, we’re creating a lasting, trusted brand. Our goal is to create a business that puts craftsmanship back into the heart of luxury.” After a pause he quotes art critic and historian, John Ruskin, “When we build, let us think we build forever.”
Henderson is clearly dedicated to The New Craftsmen project, and currently spends up to five days a week on it. “But then again, I do work a seven-day week!” His life has been one of determination and a refined “ability to focus”. Over his 13 year tenure at Gieves and Hawkes, he has overseen the opening of 107 stores in China, “We’re in every first and second-tier cities – and entering the third.” Previously he was head of marketing for Dunhill. After growing bored with law school, he moved to “sunny, beautiful and interesting” South Africa, where his eldest son now lives, and then Tokyo. “Japan is my favourite country. I appreciate people’s attention to detail, their courtesy and reverence for craft. Did you know they even have national living treasures?”
In addition to The New Craftsmen, Henderson is a mentor at the London Business School and Walpole initiative, Crafted, as well as a trustee of QEST – the charity of the Royal Warrant Holders Association. Assisting Henderson with The New Craftsmen – touring the British Isles, documenting traditional crafts people and innovators refining age old skills are: Natalie Melton, who spent the last five years as commercial director of Arts and Business, and Catherine Lock, who worked for 15 years as product, trend and brand developer for Sainsbury’s, Habitat and John Lewis.
Henderson’s vision of luxury, being both sustainable and tactile while uniting method and efficient design, will no doubt see the creation of future heirlooms while protecting skills which might otherwise have died out.
The temporary shop at 5 Carlos Place opened in December and continues throughout January (by appointment and online). Watch this space for details of the permanent venture, come the summer.