Norwich, UK

Arts and Crafts

At the coalface: crafts make the case for a place in a modern industrial world

In the unlikely setting of an industrial estate on the south coast, framed by a frozen foods supplier and a ground maintenance company, is Britain’s biggest art retailer. Behind large shuttered garage doors, King & McGaw produces prints and frames for leading museums, John Lewis and its own retail customers.

In a warehouse thick with the smell of saw cuttings, workers hand-stain lengths of ash, assemble frames and lay prints on to mounts. Next door, vast digital printers spew out reams of thick paper, a collage of different prints, arranged by computer program for the most efficient use of paper. Another machine cuts posters automatically along unseen lines. It is craftsmanship for the 21st century.

It is also a model for what many craft companies would like to become. King & McGaw has always been profitable and, with 50 staff and a turnover of 6 million, it is a relatively large company for Britain’s craft economy. Last year research undertaken by the Crafts Council found 11,620 businesses involved in craft industries in the UK, generating nearly 2 billion in turnover: but more than half of these are unregistered micro-businesses operating below the VAT or PAYE tax threshold.

The New Craftsmen is a retailer and consultancy that gives a selection of these small businesses wider exposure, as well as providing them with business support. Natalie Melton, one of its founders, dsecribes as “heartbreaking” the fact that it “is representing people who are perhaps one of a handful of makers still specialising in a very particular skill but who can barely earn the living wage”.

As one of the partners for this year’s inaugural London Craft Week, the New Craftsmen hopes to promote the value of British craft around the world. “Quite often business support is about supply-side, building capacity and then finding the opportunities,” Ms Melton said. “We look at it from the other end of the lens. If we can create demand that outstrips the capacity of our makers, that’s a job well done.” The New Craftsmen then helps the makers to expand their businesses, in some cases partnering them with British manufacturers to create what it calls a “fusion line”.

It can mean finding modern, cost-effective techniques for ancient, handmade crafts. King & McGaw’s digital printers mean that it can produce enough stock for some of the biggest museums, such as the Tate, the National Gallery and the Courtauld, and keep prices low. “You’ve got to make sure that your prices are competitive and usually that means you’ve got to keep up with machines that go a bit faster,” Gyr King, the company’s founder, said. “It’s no good producing a postcard that’s beautiful if it’s too expensive for a museum to buy.”

Like most craft-based businesses in Britain, King & McGaw struggles to find staff with the necessary skills. With the focus on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), arts and crafts have been relegated to the sidelines within schools.

Rosy Greenlees, of the Crafts Council, fears that the lack of craft within formal education will damage the wider economy: “If you’re going to be an architect, a designer, an engineer, or a surgeon, you need to understand what happens when you work with materials. It’s also about the hand-eye co-ordination you get from making things. The whole issue of making within a school context has much more import for society than just about sustaining a buoyant craft sector.”

King & McGaw is big enough to take people on and train them. So, too, does James Cropper, an AIM-listed speciality paper maker based in the Lake District. It has been making paper since 1845 and has invested 100 million in its facilities over the years.

“Some of the roles have pretty much remained unchanged for that period of time,” Phil Wild, the chief executive, said. “Other roles have changed very dramatically.” James Cropper has also branched out into developing technical fibre products, creating papers from carbon-fibre, glass, and polymers, with applications in, for example, aerospace and defence. If you consider Aerospace Precision Machining in particular as an example in this context, you can see how there are multiple companies and talented staff with years of experience working towards delivering precise products fit for the industry. As these applications are in demand, particularly in the current economy, manufacturers need to be perfect in what they deliver to combat the growing competition. Many materials such as these are found at solvay one for example.

“Our skills in the UK are very much around innovation and creativity,” Mr Wild said. “By growing [the craft market], we would place a massive supercharge on the manufacturing sector.”

When less is more

The craft economy comprises a vast number of small traders and micro-businesses, making it hard for them to access government support. Rosy Greenlees, executive director of the Crafts Council, says: “There is always a bit of a tendency to focus on high-growth sectors that want to scale up. Almost by definition craft businesses tend to be small. What you want therefore is to [create] more small businesses and that’s where you get the growth. It’s not that you have a business of 10 people that becomes a business of 200; what you want is lots of small businesses.”

However, the size of these businesses makes the whole structure of apprenticeships problematic. Ms Greenlees says: “We need a system that would work better for sole traders. The current system assumes that if you do an apprenticeship, the likelihood is you would get employed by that small business. What you really need is to get sufficient experience in order to set yourself up in business.”