Design: Pots of talent well applied

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A London gallery is celebrating its golden jubilee -

50 years of the best of British crafts. Margot Coatts

wishes the CAA many happy returns

In the scheme of things visual over the last 50 years, the crafts have come pretty low down the scale. Gradually, imperceptibly almost, all that has changed. The work of craft makers, designer-makers, or what you will, is in every fashionable location and magazine. In London, the single most active gallery, dedicated to its subject for half a century now, is Contemporary Applied Arts (the CAA) in Percy Street. Its new exhibition of useful pots by six ceramicists, opens today.

The CAA is a smart, efficient and vital gallery. Its remit, as a registered charity, is to promote the best of British craft; its position is authoritative, yet not radical.

It started life in 1948 as the Crafts Centre of Great Britain in Hay Hill, a rat-run for fast traffic in Mayfair. This was two decades before the body that turned into the Crafts Council was founded, and the Centre was kick-started by a hefty capital grant from the Board of Trade. Then, as now, it was governed by a council, which at that point was drawn from the membership of five different craft societies, led by the wood-engraver John Farleigh. Wood-engraving and lithography were counted among the "fine crafts" in those days and were featured equally with pottery, furniture, books and weaving.

The early Fifties was a time of artistic flux and unquenchable optimism, but relatively little variety in the crafts. Although exhibitors included such luminaries as the potters Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, and furniture- makers Edward Barnsley and David Pye, there was a shortage of good quality work for exhibition.

Not until the later Fifties, when the "new" jewellers such as Gerda Flockinger began to emerge, and woven textiles moved forward a generation, did the scope for galleries and collectors broaden. Peter Collingwood and Barbara Sawyer, for instance, showed experimental rugs, "hangings" and open-weave placemats. Today, the exhibitions at Hay Hill appear stern and worthy, full of oak, sisal and stoneware, but they were a must for devotees of architecture and design who shopped at Heal's and followed modern jazz.

In the mid-Sixties, the Craft Centre moved to Earlham Street in Covent Garden; it underwent several changes of administration and funding, was re-christened the British Crafts Centre, and was governed by a wise and resourceful chairman, Graham Hughes. Hughes was then Art Director of Goldsmiths' Hall, and introduced Alan Irvine, an architect, and the Hall's curator/exhibition organiser, John Houston. Together they converted a large, lock-up "garage", previously used to store barrows from the vegetable market, into a West End gallery, albeit with a cobble-stone floor. Houston recalls: "It was the era when, for people with versatile artistic skills, anything was possible."

The exhibitions Hughes and his colleagues devised were far from spartan: Goldsmiths loaned large pyramidal and hexagonal glass showcases with slub- silk linings and exterior pendant lights. In the Sixties they contained exhibitions of glass by Sam Herman or porcelain by Victor Margrie, and in the Seventies, jewellery by Wendy Ramshaw and David Watkins or bone china by Glenys Barton and Jacqueline Poncelet. Less delicate or valuable items were displayed on grey Formica-topped tables, while hairy textiles hung on the walls.

Exhibitions in all media came thick and fast, but ceramics have always been high on the agenda. From abroad came the occasional loan exhibition. The crafts gained in popularity, due in part to the publicity they received from design journalists such as Fiona MacCarthy, Barty Phillips and Edwin Mullins.

Not until the mid Eighties, under the directorship of Tatjana Marsden, did the British Crafts Centre regain some of its original focus. The gallery held solo shows of leading figures as well as mixed exhibitions, alternating artefacts by makers at the cutting edge with those with a more traditional message. In January 1987 the name was changed to Contemporary Applied Arts.

From the early Seventies until 1996, Contemporary Applied Arts received funding annually through the Crafts Advisory Committee, or the Crafts Council. In 1996, this support was axed and the gallery now exists on income from retail turnover, periodic sponsorship from City livery companies or the business sector, and memberships fees.

The current director, Mary la Trobe Bateman took over in 1994, after a career in interior design and with first-hand understanding of the craft person's lot, for she is married to the distinguished furniture-maker Richard la Trobe Bateman.

On joining CAA she found a desperate financial situation: "When I first arrived I had to even mend the cash till myself - flames would lick out and we had no money to employ an electrician." She decided to look for alternative accommodation and, after scouring the West End, found the former Janet Fitch shop at 2 Percy Street, Fitzrovia - central but not too expensive.

Her vision was carried forward by the architects Allies and Morrison, who designed a deep, well-lit space, visible from the street. It provides for three kinds of operation: a peaceful upper gallery reached by a ramp, a reception area for solo displays, and a basement shop which is invitingly served by wide steps on which robust items are shown. The staircase wall has a dramatic five-metre drop, always occupied by work from a textile artist.

After moving in, La Trobe Bateman gradually overhauled her staff, creating four special-subject managers. She sees the job before them as a fostering as well as a retailing role: "Young people need quite a lot of advice in pricing, and through the `focus' showcases, we encourage them to make innovative work, then introduce them to the buyers."

La Trobe Bateman has further ideas, but for the moment realises she must encourage the consumer to enjoy the widest possible range of quality crafts. Followers are growing in number: "People want special objects around them."

The current exhibition assembles the cream of Britain's useful pots. In the last five years, Edmund de Waal and Rupert Spira, who are still in their thirties, have come to rapid prominence. The popularity of their work was due initially to their direct, minimal approach to design, sleek uncrafty materials and, it must be said, affordable prices. Now, both are producing more refined pots which are a match for the more experienced exhibitors: Walter Keeler, Joanna Constantinidis, Takeshi Yasuda and Julian Stair.

All make plain pots, usually glazed in monochrome and quietly beautiful; it is not strictly necessary to handle them but the fun increases if you do. Take Yasuda's creamware jugs: they have a raised thumb tab, a pinched lip and the occasional dent or dimple, made with a deftness seen in fresh crusty bread. Creamware of such charm has not been made in Britain for nearly two centuries and now Keeler has abandoned his famous saltglazed stoneware in favour of "twiggy" creamware jugs.

Intellectual games with form can often be just that, but here they are laced with humanism. Julian Stair's oval teapots - in white porcelain or red stoneware - have seven joined elements, plus a twisted wistaria- stem handle; they combine constructing in clay with throwing on the wheel, expanding the shapes into what Stair calls "soft geometry".

Throwing is the basis of all six potters' work and it is the impetus which renders both making and using the pots a fascinating experience. Taking these apparently simple matters seriously, by highlighting them in the normally passive arena of the gallery or the museum, is an indicator of a change in attitude to pots destined predominantly for the domestic environment. In Edmund de Waal's words: "If they don't demand to be picked up, then they are not working."

`Contemporary Pots' is one of a series of exhibitions to celebrate Contemporary Applied Arts' 50th year; it runs 7 August to 19 September at 2 Percy Street, London WC1 (0171-436 2344)