‘You will have a sense of pride knowing that you have made beautiful things that will outlast you and your children’
David Snowdon, Honorary Chairman EMEA of Christie’s and co-author of a new book titled Craft Britain: Why Making Matters, talks about secret drawers, Frank Lloyd Wright, the value of wood — and why he established his own School of Furniture
What sparked your early interest in making?
My father and mother were both creatives, and so I was brought up in a very great spirit of creativity. I learnt about music and ballet from my mother, and architecture, design and photography from my father. At home, making something was what you did to make yourself worthwhile. My father’s workshop, which was downstairs in the basement, was where all the creativity and fun happened!
Can you tell us about the early pieces that made you want to pursue a career in cabinetmaking and furniture design?
As a child I made toys and Christmas presents for my family. I really enjoyed watching people receive presents that I’d made, because it was very personal. Now my children give me things that they’ve made, knowing that it’s my great pleasure.
I made my first piece of furniture — a desk — from a single piece of plywood when I was 13. It benefits from no working parts, so it hasn’t fallen apart yet. I made various pieces after that at school, including a cigar box and a dining table which I gave to a member of my family.
In the early 1980s you studied under the renowned furniture designer John Makepeace at the School for Craftsmen in Wood at Parnham House in Dorset. What were the most valuable lessons you learnt there?
The need for a neat and tidy life. Everything that I create is based around order and precision. But I also have a romantic side, which comes out in surface decoration like marquetry, or surprising, playful details such as hidden compartments. My grandmother always tried to make us children see a piece of furniture as a journey of discovery. Secret drawers were a way of doing that in my own furniture.
Why do you think clients enjoy the commissioning process?
Commissioning a piece is all about the process. Whether a client’s commissioning a wonderful ring, a fabulous pair of shoes or a piece of furniture, there’s pleasure in knowing that they’re getting something made to measure that relates to their life, their character and their spirit. There’s so much expectation and anticipation.
In a sense, the same could be said of buying at auction.
No two sales at Christie’s are the same, so there’s always opportunity for discovery. Like the commissioning process, buying at auction is a chance to be part of the object’s story. I like surrounding myself with things that mean something to me, whether it’s my father’s book, my sister’s painting, my children’s drawings or history pieces that I’ve found from different parts of the world. For me, it’s about the emotional journey you go on with a piece.
Do you have any advice on collecting furniture?
Whether you’re commissioning a piece or buying an antique, do your research and ask yourself questions. What are the materials that you like? Do you like cold polished steel, for instance, or warm materials like wool? And then turn to the architecture and surface decoration of the space. What will complement the windows, doors, frames, walls and carpets? Take your time to sit in the space and see how you use it. And, crucially, only buy something because you love it.
Why did you co-write Craft Britain?
I've know Helen Chislett, my co-author, for many years, and we want to highlight crafts and practices that people may not know still exist, such as bell founding, whip making and rush weaving. Marbling, for instance, is now classified as ‘endangered’ on the Heritage Crafts Red List. It’s a technique I’ve been fascinated by since I tried bookbinding in school at Bedales.
‘As society gets more mechanised and more digital, there seems to be a greater and greater need for people to understand their history and express themselves with their hands’
It’s also a call to arms of sorts, as quite a lot of these craft traditions may disappear due to lack of interest or time, or because the next generation is more interested in computers. But it’s important to support and preserve these practices, because there’s so much to learn from things handed down over generations. And if they’re not suitable any more, let’s update them and make them relevant.
So how can we engage the next generation?
It’s trying to work out how you make learning to create and make things interesting for individuals who are used to having visual immediacy. It’s giving young children the space to touch, make and encounter art and craft in schools and museums, as well as the opportunity to study art history. That’s why open days, school trips, short courses and initiatives such as Art History Link-Up are so important to the future of craft.
Is that why you set up the Snowdon School of Furniture?
There are very few places for young people to learn about the value of wood as a sustainable and beautiful material for buildings and furniture. It was about creating a space that furniture design graduates could go to for a short time to fine-tune their making skills and learn about woodland management and harvesting. They can explore what they want to do creatively in the future and feel confident that they’re not alone on their journey.
Which makers or designers have inspired you?
Philosophically, I’ve been inspired by Roman and Greek architecture, and by people ranging from William Kent and Thomas Chippendale to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Charles & Ray Eames. Then there’s Frank Lloyd Wright. There were just two or three years between him designing a building with a coach house and then with a garage. I love people whose thinking shifted with the times.
How important then is craft in our increasingly digital world?
I see that as society gets more mechanised and more digital, there seems to be a greater and greater need for people to understand their history and express themselves with their hands. We saw it during lockdown. You may not get paid a huge amount being a craftsperson today, but you will have a sense of pride knowing that you have made beautiful things that will outlast you and your children.
What aspect of working on Craft Britain have you found most rewarding?
Discovering that there are still young people committed to making finely crafted things that will be enjoyed and treasured in the future.
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What are your hopes for the future of the craft sector?
I hope that craft will sit in a prominent position in society, and that being a craftsperson will be upheld like being a doctor or a financier. Creativity in itself is something that not only gives pleasure for the maker and their families but also for society.
David Snowdon is co-author (as David Linley) with Helen Chislett of Craft Britain: Why Making Matters, published by Welbeck Publishing Group