A conversation with: Guy Salter OBE

The founder of London Craft Week talks to The Royal Exchange about the future of luxury and why we’re in a golden age of creative talent

03 April, 2020

THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: What made you decide to launch London Craft Week?

GUY SALTER: There were two reasons. The first one is simply that, although there have been events like fashion weeks and design festivals all around the world for a very long time, there’s never been a similar sort of moment for exceptional craftsmanship. I felt that if so much emphasis is being given to the design of something, then how something is made and the material that it’s made of is actually just as important, and deserves more attention.

So that is the simple answer, but there was something much bigger behind it. I’ve spent my whole career thinking about the future of luxury, and where affluent consumers are going in terms of their whole approach to life. For a long time I’ve felt that people are getting more and more sophisticated and discerning. However, at the same time, they’re getting bored with seeing a lot of the same things in similar shopping streets around the world. So the second big idea behind doing the first London Craft Week was to bring alive this theory I have – which I call Beyond Luxury – where you mix the famous with the less famous and bring together a much bigger selection of talent and creativity; where it’s less about what the price is or how famous the brand is, and more about what you might call just sheer excellence in terms of creativity and craftsmanship.


TRE:
What does the word craftsmanship mean to you?

GS: The first thing I’d say is that there’s quite a difference between the word craft, which can be quite overused, and the word craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is a bit more specific and tends to be about the act of making. It encompasses that sense of master craftsmen and women, artists and makers; something a bit more special. But a very important thing for me personally – and something we try hard with at London Craft Week – is to not get too boxed in by words. Actually, a lot of what I’m trying to do is to break down the barriers between things like craft, art, culture, fashion, luxury, etc. Because if you look at things through the eyes of the visitor, or the consumer, people don’t tend to put everything in those boxes, you know, they either are drawn to something and love it, or they don’t.


TRE:
Is there a difference between craft and art?

GS: There doesn’t have to be. It’s an age-old debate, and certainly in the past there have been people who have absolutely defined themselves by being in certain camps. Without a doubt there’s a group of people linked to so-called fine art who very much see themselves as not being tethered to a specific act of making, or anything that is necessarily functional. Likewise, there was a group of people – especially as part of the Arts and Crafts movement – who felt very strongly that things needed to be rooted in real, useful, beautiful objects. So I do understand that this debate is very old and still goes on to a degree, but I think we’re living in a very exciting time where these things are being broken down more than ever before. If you look at last year’s Frieze, for example, there was a lot of craft there, a lot of textile art and so on. As I mentioned earlier, not only does the consumer themselves not see the barriers, but also increasingly neither do the creators.


TRE:
Why do you think we value craft and creativity so much?

GS: I think there has never been a moment where we’ve valued it more. When there’s so much change in the world and the world is such an uncertain place – especially at the moment – I think it makes that extraordinary, very hard-to-define spark of talent and inspiration all the more precious. We’re also pretty spoiled, we have almost everything we need, so I think one values when a person or a thing is able to be fresh and different and inspirational.


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Samsung Couture Long Exposure; Hand & Lock embroidery


TRE:
Does traditional craftsmanship and innovation coexist comfortably?

GS: Totally. But then it always has. I mean, the things that we think of traditional now were, in their day, highly cutting edge.


TRE:
And is craft embracing technology?

GS: Yes, it is. For some years now we’ve had a very strong craft and technology piece working through each London Craft Week. I felt it would be absolutely great to have Apple involved, because they’re very interested in the whole idea of technology aiding creativity and vice versa. We did a session with them last year, working with Hand & Lock who are these very traditional embroiderers, and this year they’ll be working with the Lettering Arts Trust. So, looking again at very old techniques, but then working with iPads and Apple Pencil to give the alphabet new and different forms to see how you can develop that.

We’re also working with Samsung on some very interesting new technology for our Couture Long Exposure Workshop, which is all about designing things using what they call light drawing tools. It’s using photography to help you design clothing, and it’s absolutely amazing, very clever. And we’ve got masses of other things that are using technology, such as 3D clay printing, which is essentially printing with ceramics.


TRE:
Can craft exist in a purely digital sphere or does there always have to be a physical, material element to it?

GS: If you are just talking about craft, then maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. But certainly, if you’re talking about what I call ‘our universe’ – in other words, the one that spans all the strands we were talking about before – then, absolutely. The digital realm plays a really interesting role in that wider appreciation of creativity and art. And, at the end of the day, you are still making things and they can be very special. And things move backwards and forwards, because you could absolutely see, for example, how something created digitally might inspire the making of a real object.


TRE:
So there are a lot of people using digital tools and software to find new ways of creating physical materials?

GS: Exactly. A great deal, actually. And the other thing that is amazing nowadays is the actual materials. There are so many intelligent textiles, for example, that do all sorts of really interesting things.

Similarly, you can also now use many different types of materials to make objects or textiles. We have quite a few examples of that this year, including a Milk Clay Workshop, which basically uses waste milk from the dairy industry and works it into a sort of natural alternative to plastic. It can then be made into decorative objects, or to make samples in the early stages of developing a new type of product. Not only is it a very diverse and satisfying new material, but it’s making use of something that would otherwise be thrown away. It’s not only new applications for natural materials though, we are also returning to and reusing things that we might have stopped using – old natural dyes, for example.


TRE:
Perhaps this is why it’s important to preserve traditional crafts, even if they’ve fallen out of favour or popularity – we never know when we might want, or need, to revert to those techniques again?

GS: Yes, that’s totally right. If something has been made in a certain way for hundreds of years, then there is probably something quite special about it. My own view is that, wherever one can, one should shine a spotlight on a traditional craft that is endangered and hopefully that will be enough to give it a leg up. One of the things that I like most about this year’s London Craft Week is that we’ve got a lot of examples of people who are showing how you can mend things or renovate things, or work with excess materials and stuff like that. It’s not because we particularly curated it, but just because we came across a lot of examples of it.


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Traditional shoemaking at Cheaney & Sons; restoring broken ceramics with the Japanese technique of Kintsugi; Milk Clay Workshop


TRE:
How you would describe the British craft scene at this moment in time?

GS: There are a lot of British makers and I’ve never seen a time where it’s been more vibrant, with more talent joining the sector every year. So, I think it’s never been stronger. It’s also never been more open to influences from outside. There was probably a time, a while ago, where if people said British craftsmanship, most people would have thought of ceramics, or very traditional crafts such as shoemaking. But now you get everything – wood, glass, people working using Japanese techniques, a real mix of disciplines. We’re just very, very plugged into the world as a whole. I travel a lot and I see that everywhere I go, in other parts of Europe and definitely in Asia. There is a very vibrant craft, creative and cultural scene pretty much everywhere. It’s just that the vast majority of this talent you don’t normally see. And that is why I work so hard to bring really talented people, amazing creativity and craftsmanship from all around the world together for London Craft Week.


TRE:
And how do you see the British craft scene evolving in the next five to 10 years?

GS: If you take a 10-year point of view, I am very optimistic about where I see it going. If you take a slightly shorter-term point of view it remains quite tough because, although there’s never been more talent, it’s still very hard to break through and become known. Often, if you’re a one-man band and what you’re really motivated by is making things, you’re probably not that good at business, or marketing and all that kind of stuff, and it’s become ever more competitive and expensive to stand out online. So how do you even get noticed in the first place? All these things remain challenges, which is another reason we created London Craft Week.

In this particular [coronavirus] madness that we’re in now, a lot of the makers who we work with don’t have shops, they’re mainly working from studios, behind the scenes. So in that sense, they are probably less affected than some of the bigger businesses.


TRE:
You said that you feel now is a golden age of creative talent. Why is that?

GS: I think it’s as simple as this: for really a long time now there’s been a group of people who have wanted to, and have been able to, make their lives about creating amazing, beautiful things. And even though it can be quite tough, they’ve managed to do it. They don’t necessarily make a lot of money, but despite the craziness of the world it does still allow there to be lots of people who can get by and have very satisfying lives making beautiful things. That’s because people get excited about the idea of something that is very real and special, and that sense of someone.

At London Craft Week we’re really keen on the idea of ordinary people gaining a new skill or trying their hand at making something. Because once you’ve seen how something truly amazing is made, you can never go back. If this [social distancing] goes on much longer, there might be all sorts of people who take up a craft, or something like that. Once you’ve tried something for yourself, you have a much greater appreciation for the skill and talent that goes into making these things. And frankly, it’s also just so good for you.


Guy Salter OBE MVO is a luxury investor and the founder of London Craft Week. He has extensive experience working within retail and commerce and is the former deputy chairman of Walpole – the official sector body for British luxury. The sixth edition of London Craft Week is scheduled to take place from 30 September to 8 October 2020; londoncraftweek.com

A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange