Cringe factor zero

DESIGN Objects of Our Time Crafts Council, London
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The Independent Culture
It's lovely, darling, but what is it? Well, it might be a cast of a baby's arm embedded in glass (pounds 920), a willow log basket (pounds 895) or a full-length boddiced dress that could have come out of The Sound of Music, except that its computer-generated embroidery depicts shooting, rape and fighter aircraft (pounds 17,050).

None of these offers shook my belief that the exhibition "Objects of Our Time" is the place to buy Christmas presents. As Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, head of cultural history at the RCA, said when opening it: "Now is the time for the crafts to shed their cringe factor."

Cringe? Yes, let's get real. Nobody cringes any more at amputated baby's arms or even anatomically explicit embroidery. But craftspeople and (whisper it) the Crafts Council, which is holding the exhibition, nevertheless spend their days in a never-ending state of cringe.

It is the fault of argumentative artist-craftsmen-designers from Morris to Baudrillard. None of them could ever agree what crafts are. Today, one cannot even poke fun at corn dollies without fear of censure.

And so the Crafts Council, swaying from definition to definition, holds an "On the Edge: Art Meets Craft" exhibition (1993, ruthlessly conceptual, featuring a 13ft 6in high iron abstract by Robert Marsden), then "Recycling" (last Spring, a backward lurch into crafts as thrift, the solution to the waste milk bottle tops problem). And now this...

Cringe no more. I think they have got it right. Just in time for the Council's Silver Jubilee. The exhibits manage to be both crafts and cutting- edge art. Curator Martina Margetts has collected 120 works made this year, almost all by young up-and-comers worth investing in. Yes, money does bridge the gap between crafts and art. So does being handily sized for the sitting-room.

The fact that the works are in clay, wood or chromium plate reflects less the Crafts Council's attempt to bootstrap the handmade into the realms of fine art, than the reality that, these days, cutting-edge art so often comes in crafts materials. The fact is, the cringe problem has solved itself. Look at Tadek Beutlich's wallpiece Spectators, which is made from ultra-cringey materials - processed cotton wool, esparto grass, sisal and jute (pounds 825). Does it not remind you of a gaggle of cutting-edge Gorms? Even a Hirst bisected calf in formaldehyde - good, clean handiwork - would be at home.

Here are names that, if you have not discovered them for yourself over the past year, are displayed ready discovered. Names such as the ceramicist Philip Eglin, maker of garishly glazed, but strikingly serene, seated female nudes. His award of the newly founded Jerwood Prize for ceramics this year went almost unreported. But his watchers in the City buy out his shows.

Kate Wilkinson is here, whose thinking man's junkware jewellery made such a hit around the neck of Joan Bakewell when she presented this year's Turner Prize. There are the leading furniture designers Tom Dixon and Ron Arad, together with a newer name, Mary Little, whose furniture dressed like people is bought by design museums. So strange that, in this context, the work of the genuine rural potter, Clive Bowen, does not look out of place.

And then there are the silversmith twins, Emma and Jane Hauldren, with their Double-mouth flask and their nine shrink-wrapped plastic packs of pills and paraphernalia made from silver, brass, chrome, rhodium and perspex that they call Life Extension Nos 1-9 (pounds 13,525). Dead weird, these craftspeople.

`Objects of Our Time', Crafts Council, 44a Pentonville Road, London N1 (0171-278 7700) to 16 Feb 1997, then at the Royal Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh (0131-225 7534) from 26 April to 8 June

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