Design: Don't put your eggs in one

When is a basket not a basket? When it's a piece of sculpture. Or architecture. Or even textile.
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It didn't seem too presumptuous to think that a show called Contemporary International Basketmaking would be just about baskets. The newly opened show at the Crafts Council explodes this preconception for any of us still out-of-date enough to think it. Louise Taylor, the director of exhibitions, told me that it is their first survey of this craft medium in the nearly 30 years of their existence: "The idea was to show that basketmaking is no longer a hermetically sealed cosy little world, it spills over into textile practice, design, architecture and sculpture."

The exhibition, that has been researched over the last two years by two of Britain's best-known basketmakers, Lois Walpole and Mary Butcher, is a complete re-evaluation of basketmaking, and for most of us it will be quite an eye-opener.

Some of the works on show do have a basic basket shape, but very few could be used to carry or contain things. They are mostly objects to be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. The makers have taken the idea of a basket and have explored its possibilities.

Gyongy Laky's stunning "Valley house", assembled from plum prunings in an open-work, distorted grid structure, is a magnificent, abstracted skeleton of a basket.

Dail Behennah's "White willow grid bowl" is a work of order and purity far too fine ever to hold a piece of fruit. His remarks on the creative process are the words of the archetypal tortured artist: "When I was at school I used to draw sheets of knotted and tangled rope. It's how I feel inside, but my work appears very calm. My baskets are an attempt to bring order and form to the knotted and tangled rope."

A handful of makers in the show do intend their work to be functional: James Marston's ash baskets are refined versions of the gardener's trug still sold and used in this country. Jenny Crisp grows particular varieties of willow to get the right colours and textures to utilise in her bowls, trays and baskets which are robust and practical.

Michael Brennand-Wood is a name well-known in the textile world, (he was shortlisted for the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for Textiles in 1997) yet here we have his "Cloud collar", a haywire wooden lattice construction mounted on the wall where it casts its wonky shadows.

Norman Sherfield's "Lucky tree" looks like a weird, exotic cactus. Being made of waxed linen, stone and bingo balls, it could belong in the worlds of sculpture or textiles, yet both these works were created using basket- making techniques. Pete Rogers's brass "Skywalk" is a model of a design for a bridge. It is constructed using "stake and strand", one of the basketry techniques most commonly used in Britain. This is a method by which a flexible material is interwoven between a more rigid system of supports.

"Stake and strand" is the biggest section in the show which has been divided according to technique: others include "Coiling", "Twining" and "Interlace". This has been done to point out the diversity of different methods and to show how each system can be used to create a wide variety of results. The designers of the exhibition, Ushida Findlay, have separated each section by using undulating metal lattice-work screens which graphically mirror the woven theme of the show, particularly when they cast their interlacing shadows across the walls and floor.

During Gallery Week (which finishes tomorrow) another screen has taken form outside the Crafts Council building, constructed of woven balls of brightly coloured plastic twine. Lois Walpole has been co-ordinating this installation and all visitors are invited to contribute to its construction.

Many of the works in the show are for sale, and there are also some additional pieces - which are by Lizzie Farey and Dail Behennah - available in the Crafts Council shop.

Contemporary International Basketmaking is at The Crafts Council, 44a Pentonville Road, London N1 9BY (tel: 0171 278 7700) until 15 August. It will then tour to Hove-Brighton, Bradford and Gateshead

Design Details

ONE EXHIBITOR at the show is Tom Dixon, also the head of design at Habitat. His weirder creations can only be seen at the Crafts Council, but Habitat's range of practical, stylish baskets is far more down to earth. Call 0845 6010740.

DAVID MELLOR, The Round Building, Hathersage, Sheffield (01433 650220) and 4 Sloane Square, London SW1 (0171-730 4259) is a kitchenware shop that sells a range of old-fashioned, hand-made baskets including an oval, willow basket (pounds 76.40)

Mail order companies McCord (0870-908 7005) and Ocean (0870-84 84 84 0) can provide a range of chic but sensible baskets for all occasions. The Holding Company has stores in London, Manchester, Dartford and Newcastle- upon-Tyne and a handy mail order service (0171-610 9160 or on the Web at www. theholdingcompany.co.uk).

Maison Bis, the mail order range from Grand Illusions also includes a sturdy laundry basket with rope handles (pounds 39.95) and three storage-basket range with bamboo handles (pounds 22.95). Stores in Twickenham and Richmond. Call 0181-892 2151 for details.

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