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Craft's landing gives a touch of soul

The nation is turning wholesale to a culture of make and do. Good housekeeping, vegetable cultivating, and craft are no longer quaint throwbacks or arcane practices understood only by your granny. The tanking economy has changed all that. There is wholesale movement afoot. After a frenzy of conspicuous consumption, more and more people are turning to the restorative power of productive activity. It's like a kind of Alka-Seltzer for the ego: something reassuringly sensible to sooth the withdrawal of yesterday's frenzied excesses.

It's about more than just saving pennies too. At a time of uncertainty and market chaos, there is much to be said for the sense of mastery and order that comes from producing something from scratch. The Calvinistic virtue of putting in time and effort and being rewarded with something tangible, is a tonic after the dizzying experience of watching all our most grandiose notions of ourselves deflate in front of our eyes. There is comfort to be had from the simple, empirical formula of work rewarded by something you can hold in your hands. You can safely count on knowing what you are in for with home-created things. It's pretty hard to massively inflate their value or to trade on their invisible derivatives. At a time when we are chastened and uncertain, our hands can be amongst the best means we have of getting back to an understanding of ourselves.

So this year there has been much less chat about best hotels and designer buggies around. Instead, people seem much more likely to wax lyrical about the success of their radishes or the progress of their knitting.

And with this revival, particularly in relation to craft, comes a new wave of respect for the work of the true masters.

It's not just the dogs on the street who know it. Get this: Brown Thomas has recently taken the unprecedented step of specifically championing Irish craft. On the face of it, it's not an obvious partnership. BT's is synonymous with all things high-end and glitzy. Luxury branding as the hallmark of desirability has long been the name of the game. Craft in Ireland, on the other hand, has thus far only had a passing acquaintance with glamour. Historically, it is associated with a kind of wholesome charm, born from the boreens and laneways and true to the homely values of rural Ireland.

Kieran Higgins is a wood turner and part of a small community of practitioners so tight-knit and supportive it resembles a benevolent cult. "You'll find the conditions they are working in," he says of turners and craftspeople he knows, "are down back lanes or little garages, little workshops." One imagines that not many of these guys spend their Saturdays hanging around BT's. "But then, you see what comes out of these places," says Kieran, his eyes wide. That, it seems, is a bit of a revelation.

This Friday is the beginning of the Brown Thomas Cork Design Week. It marks something of a sea change, merging the distinct concepts of designer and Irish craft and design. The event, managed by the City Enterprise Board and hosted by Brown Thomas, will feature an exhibition of 15 designer-makers from around the county. It's a pretty broad church of creative talent, from the high-fashion ordained work of Aiveen Daly who has designed upholstery for Paul Smith and has been given the nod of approval by Vogue, to the ephemeral and intimately personal, such as the framed gift angels by Audrey Shallow, each one conveying a personal message of hope or blessing.

The involvement of BT's and its achingly aspirational lifestyle bracket brings no small amount of fanfare to the world of Irish craft. Each artist has been especially selected to impress the discerning eye of the store's buying director Paul O'Connor, who seems genuinely stunned by this mine of talent. "I've been hugely impressed," he said. So much so, that he's already talking enthusiastically about maintaining a relationship with the artists, with a view to regularly stocking [their work]. "We were looking from a purely product point of view and it's a great advantage for us to have something unique and exclusive," he says.

When those liveried Brown Thomas doormen open the way to the best rural designer-makers of Ireland, it will be by no means one-way benevolent patronage. Though BT is committed to being involved in mentoring the designers in aspects of marketing, packaging and presentation, it's clear that, for the retailer, the quality and unique value of the products bring their own rewards.

This is, in fact, a happy little retailing pas de deux and a feat of good timing. Just at the moment that high-end, luxe-living consumer Ireland starts to reassess seriously its priorities, craft has thrown off its folksy associations of old and is making a bid for the mainstream. For Brown Thomas, this means acquiring a unique and exciting range of products. It is also, one might infer, a savvy nod to the changing preoccupations of its customers. "It's nice to be able to support our own economy," says Paul O'Connor. While for the selected designers and applied artists taking part, it's a lift up to a whole new platform.

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As more and more corporate industry heads for the hills, there is currently a quiet optimism in craft circles in Ireland. What the craft culture stands for -- time-honoured principles, meaning instilled in beautiful objects and the opportunity to own something that is both art work and product -- sets it apart from the whole consumerism-for-its-own-sake racket that had us all swiping and pin-punching like zombies for years and landed many of us up to our necks in debt. Craft holds the very thing that we were, apparently, at a loss for as we ruined ourselves on disposable things. It has meaning; there is a human-to-human connection built in. In short, craft offers a touch of soul.

And you don't have to take my word for it. Take this story from Kieran about the chap who recently rang him looking for one of his bog-oak bowls as a gift. It was for the man's surgeon in Boston who recently had performed an operation to straighten his spine. The surgeon had waived a large proportion of the prohibitive fees of the operation so that this man could walk straight. So the patient wanted to find something meaningful through which to express his gratitude. To him there was a parallel between Kieran's artistry and that of his surgeon. Taking a piece of bog oak with all the splits and cracks and twists in it, and making a beautiful art piece out of it was the best comparison to what his doctor had done to his back.

It would be quite a challenge to get the same significance from, say, an expensive coffee machine or a designer toaster.

Kieran uses a lot of bog oak in his pieces which are mostly non-functional bowls. The wood can be as much as 10,000 years old. "The biggest thing for me is the provenance," he explains. "I work on timber that was around before the pyramids were built. Before man even set foot in this country, it was old. That's where the sense of Irishness comes on."

The other big difference with craft is the sense of passing something on from one invested person to another -- a chain of human hands. Again, this seems to chime with a feeling in the air about the restorative value of the personal, especially at the end of an era of unchecked materialism.

It's a sentiment that is fundamental to the work of Audrey Shallow. "People are buying angels more at the moment," she says. Connectivity is at the very heart of what Shallow is trying to achieve in her ethereal creations. Part art piece, part blessing, they are created expressly to be given by the purchaser to someone else. After 9/11, Audrey started thinking a lot about collective consciousness and the common wishes and desires that bind people together. "These times call for new ways, and perhaps a return to some old ways and values ... caring for one another, being cooperative, and looking out one another," she says. "It's about the threads of connection that hold us all together and how, through gift-giving, we strengthen those invisible bonds that form the fabric of society and what holds us."

Eoin Turner's latest endeavour is further evidence of the pull of pure creativity as a safe haven in the storm. His background is in fine art, but for years, he has, with his partner, run a company that makes architectural glass sculpture for corporate and commercial clients. Recently, he designed glass for interior-design landmarks such as the G hotel in Galway. But as the building side of things drops off, he has changed tack and is returning to his artistic roots. Nowadays he's using his high-spec fully equipped workshop to create beautiful, sculptural centerpieces combining the delicate fluidity of glass with contemporary materials such as aluminum. "It's my desire to get back to designing more," he says, though that aim does run alongside a clear commercial imperative to build a brand. For him, branching into retail was always part of the plan. "We were probably about four to five weeks away from knocking on Brown Thomas's door anyway," he says. But the heirloom factor is key to the way in which he intends to approach the market. "In that sense we might be going back in some respects to the way of our grandparents -- of investing in a good piece, that mindset of having something of value. Maybe that mindset was there because of the economic situations that they came through, and there is a parallel to where we are now."

In recent years, Cork has emerged as something of a hub for a new wave of design talent. Most of the exhibitors for Design Week pictured here are graduates of Crawford College. Mary Neeson, like Audrey Shallow, also does a line in angels. Though hers are ceramic, fashioned from porcelain and delicately abstracted. She moved to Cork from Kerry seven years ago to get in on the action and is still here, though she is planning a move back to Kerry to set up a gallery and workshop, where people will be able to come in and learn skills and try out techniques themselves. Mary sees an emphasis on the process as the key to broadening the appeal of craft. "I think an awful lot of people don't appreciate craft because a lot of the time they don't see how it's made. When you see how something is made, you put so much more value on it."

Indeed, it is exactly that principle that makes it such an egalitarian practice, and therefore so relevant. In varying degrees, it is something we all do. The finished product tells the story, but it's the process itself that is really the point.

Hilary Nunan started out in printmaking, which is where she learnt the principle that "it's as much about making the piece as the finished piece itself. The preparation -- everything grows out of that." It's something she has carried over now to her current speciality: highly-textured and evocative landscapes using acrylics and natural fibres to render the abstract drama of the geography of where she lives in Ringabella, Co Cork.

"I love when I start out," she says. "The whole process of just shredding up that paper, and mulching it down and putting it into water and breaking it down and then I have this batch of muck to start from." She says in full rhapsodising flow about the practice of what she does, the craft in it's literal sense. "You kind of feel you are in control." It's something that for Hilary "brings such an air of contentment. I can simplify my life down, I can pare it down, and I can take time doing things in work that I want to do."

"What I'm making is not something that anybody needs per se" ceramicist Sara Flynn explains, of her exquisitely delicate porcelain vessels. "But in terms of it connecting with somebody, it's the idea that somebody, hopefully, loves the pot and wants it to be part of their lives."

The response of the consumer is the crux of it for Sara. "It's quite personal and it's not really tangible; it's something instinctive," she says.

For her, perhaps in part because of her very contemporary aesthetic, her rise to prominence in her field ran in parallel with the explosion of the interiors industry in Ireland. Her vessels found an audience in the boom that just didn't exist before. And they defy the idea of craft as something deeply rooted in place or identifiably Irish. "I don't think people are terribly interested in geography; it's about can I get them to love the pot."

Which seems to be very much where Brown Thomas sees the works fitting; they are as much world-class exhibition pieces as they are something nice for the living room. That the work of these 15 designers would comfortably reach any international measure of great design is really the point, since that is, in essence, what Brown Thomas is also all about.

And for the rest of us, they are not only potential treasured possessions but also inspiration, setting the bar of excellence in a creative culture to which we all now belong.

Brown Thomas Cork Design Week: Friday May 15 to Sunday May 24, 2009. Brown Thomas Cork, 18-21 Patrick St. Prices from €40