Impotent Tools: Beautifully Crafted but Totally Useless

Last weekend I went to the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair at Upper Campfield Market. At the entrance, a menagerie of willow animals by Juliette Hamilton including a prowling tiger, took almost centre stage, but they weren’t the only treasures to be found here.

There were plenty of highlights including some incredibly delicate silver pots and etched vases made by Rebecca Lawley, some remarkably organic-looking ceramics by Anne Haworth and a wonderful table by Thomas Whittingham that featured curving wood and a hidden drinks cabinet.

The variety of ideas on show, combined with the craftsmanship and skill of the artists meant that the show wasn’t just a shopping opportunity, it was also filled with inspiration and hints at where modern design is going. Long lines, natural undulating curves and a certain playfulness with materials underpinned many of the exhibits.

There was one exhibit that really fascinated me. Unlike the others, you can’t quite imagine owning a piece made by Rosie Deegan, but you can certainly imagine seeing her works in any modern art gallery. While beauty is certainly an element of her work, I rather like that each piece is improved with the long thought you have to put in as you look. Hers are works of questions rather than answers.

Rosie Deegan Saws

We chatted about the pieces for a while and Rosie asked me which saw was my favourite. Of course, to look at, the aesthetic of the wooden handled saw is more pleasing. The natural wood compliments the gold, William Morris inspired blade, the heaviness of the handle balances perfectly with the length of the saw. And yet, as I looked, the bright yellow plastic handle of the other one kept drawing me back. It was not beautiful or as well balanced, but it was perfunctory, mass produced and, in many ways, more logical than the wood (cheaper, easier to reproduce).

As Rosie said, it is the fact that the plastic handle is so familiar that makes the details of the blade stand out as so other. Would William Morris have liked the mass produced handle? She is sure he would as he believed in the production of art for the masses. And yet that very same mass production denies art the unique expression we expect of it. It is an ideological paradox at the heart of the paradox of making such a useless tool.

I asked about the method for producing the beautiful floral design of the blade, expecting that such detailed work must have been done using a laser cutter. But no, Rosie assured me that the piece was entirely handcrafted and that the work going into the making of the piece was just as important to her as the finished article. I like this further contradiction: that such a useless thing can take so long to create.

I love this kind of thought provoking design. By questioning the materials we choose and the methods used to produce any piece, we gain an insight into how it has come to be, what it has come to be and, most importantly, what it could be. While I’m sure that saws aren’t going to change their look too radically for the time being, I like to think that the interrogation of material and form is leading us to more exciting possibilities.

And I will be keeping an eye out for Rosie’s future works.

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