A Rebirth of ‘Arts & Crafts’ or ‘Going Green’?

I recently attended a Garden Design & Landscaping seminar focussing on what seems to be the hot topic of the moment – sustainability. Here’s a pretty Venn diagram showing a model for sustainable development.

After hearing from ‘Scotscape’ about green walls, from ‘Allturf’ on green roofs, wildflower turf  and a really long talk by a ‘Marshalls’ representative desperately trying to convince us of how ‘green’ their products are – with pictures of acres and acres of block paving, at last the product sales pitches ended and we were treated to an excellent talk by the designer, Sarah Eberle.  If you’ve never heard her speak, I can recommend it as a dynamic, entertaining and thought-provoking experience!

Sarah suggested that garden designers are, by definition, pretty ‘green’. We plant lots of green stuff.  She also mentioned the use of local products and local artisans; something that all garden design students learn about.  We all know for instance that local stone is far more congruous in a garden design than stone that has been shipped thousands of miles around the globe; not to mention more ethical and sustainable.

Sarah also touched on the Arts & Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Which got me thinking about the link between the current emphasis on sustainability and the resurgence of interest in local crafts and all things ‘hand-made’.  ‘Bespoke’ is the ‘mot du jour’; ‘bespoke’ is very trendy indeed. And Acoustic, folks, is the new electric!

A few decades ago, learning a new craft was pretty much limited to pottery classes (RIP all those pottery wheels & kilns) and being made to wear a jumper hand-knitted by your mother rather than a shop-bought one could lead to merciless teasing by your peers. ‘Global warming’ was unheard of and townies growing their own were viewed with much amusement, as portrayed by Tom & Barbara’s enthusiastic dedication to ‘The Good Life’  But more recently there has been a veritable explosion in courses like woodcraft, willow-weaving, hedge-laying, bee-keeping and much, much more. And these days if you ‘grow your own’ you’re more likely to be viewed as a bit of a hero rather than as quaintly eccentric. In fact it has given rise to a new form of guilt in those of us who don’t. I’d better not even mention the ‘O’ word!

Anyway, I digress. Back to the point of this blog.

In terms of garden materials, out are pink and yellow chequerboard concrete patios (remember them?!) and in are natural products and locally sourced, hand-crafted items. In a garden design I’m currently working on we have commissioned a local oak craftsman to design and build an oak gazebo and pergola and some local willow growers/weavers to make a willow play house and obelisks.  The crafts people concerned are a total delight to deal with, their products are beautiful and the whole process is enriching and fascinating.

The Arts & Crafts design movement, amongst other things, was a kick-back against the rapid expansion of industrialisation and mass-produced goods.   Is the current renaissance in locally made, hand-crafted products born  of  a similar dissatisfaction? Or does it owe more to the the call to arms.. or rather the call to spades, to live greener more sustainable lives? Is it even an expression of our ever-growing fear that if we don’t learn how to live and look after ourselves without a reliance on oil and fossil fuels our days could be seriously numbered?

Whatever the reasons I for one think our lives and our designs are all the better for it.

And if you now feel desperate to learn an ancient (!) craft and make something by hand; here’s a little instructional video for you 😉 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXm5cKqoX24

8 responses to “A Rebirth of ‘Arts & Crafts’ or ‘Going Green’?

  1. I think there is a big gap between the Arts and Crafts movement and the current preoccupations with greenness, grow your own, sustainability and the rest.

    The concern for aesthetics which the Arts and Crafts movement had is almost completely missing – indeed it may even be seen as too frivolous in these rather moralistic times. Many gardeners are positively against taking design seriously. Not many people would dare talk about our need for beauty.


    • A very good point Anne!

      Part of what I was trying to get at in my post is whether the renaissance in local, hand-crafted products is motivated more by guilt and is regarded as a better moral choice (doing one’s bit for the planet) rather than because they are intrinsically better made and more aesthetically beautiful. But whatever the underlying motivation I believe we are now benefitting from easier accessibility to such things.

      I recently came across a beautiful, hand-crafted gate at a garden, made by the garden’s owner who offers bespoke timber items/buildings. Not only is the gate hand-crafted but it is also a fabulous piece of design clearly made by someone who understands design & its use in a garden.

      Picture here: http://twitpic.com/47q760

  2. Great p[iece – good to no that we garden designers are bang on trend!

  3. What a very interesting piece! It has to be the case that for a movement to arise it has a starting point, and often that is its total nemesis-think New Ro anticism after punk, Arts and Crafts after Industrialisation, Cubism after Impressionism etc, etc. But I believe any interest, for whatever reason, that reconnects people with the earth has to be a positive as it leads the into exploration food production, land management etc. And its fantastic to see garden designers using locally produced crafts in gardens which ten years ago would have been full of blue decking and stainless steel! Long may it last.

    • Hi Sara, so true about certain movements being the opposite of their predecessors – never more so in garden design when we had the English landscape movement (man working in harmony with nature) after the formal design/renaissance movement (man in control of nature). That tension still exists today in many ways.

  4. Great post, I love the connection between the Arts’n’Crafts movement at the time of industrialisation and now with all our changes.

    I don’t think this an either/or situation.

    All living beings depend on the Earth’s ecosystem for life, water, food, air, etc, so IMHO, everything is related to sustainability.

    Garden designers have a role to play in this – as we all do. For instance, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s stance on peat composts may be of interest:

    Click to access advice_peatfree.pdf


    • Thanks for commenting Mhairi. It was just a bit of a ramble really as I think it’s a huge subject and hard to express without writing an enormous piece! You’re right, everything is dependent on sustainability, but until the damage that we’ve done to our planet became an urgent issue it was something that could be ignored in our consumer choices. Now that the pendulum has swung distinctly in the direction of sustainability, it seems to me that advertising has done the same thing. We are told now that local, organic, hand-made, natural, etc. is best & most things are marketed in this way. Whilst this is largely true, I think there is a great deal of jumping on the band waggon going on, but that’s always been the case with advertising… someone finds an niche & then the niche becomes a huge chasm of opportunity! Cha ching! However in the end, that band waggon marketability doesn’t detract from the fact that products made by crafts people/artisans who have really learnt their trade are better in all ways than mass-produced, throw-away goods. Good garden designers have always been in touch with this but I think it’s much more accessible now.

      Thanks for the links ref Cheshire Wildlife Trust…. I’m guessing you are a member? I am too!

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