Do 400 hours make a better cupboard?

Hand-crafted or mass-produced? Jonathan Glancey sees a furniture exhibition that values both forms

British designers and their critics have long beendivided by a very particular debate about the superiority of craft-based design over design for manufacture. Or vice versa. There are those who hold that design is an inherently industrial process, as if shaping and making a dining table from driftwood requires no design skill whatsoever. And until recently British motor manufacturers producing luxury cars liked to maintain the myth that a hand-made engine was somehow superior to that designed by man but made by robots.

The words used in this debate are drawn from a dictionary of contradiction and clich. In the age of the "information superhighway" and silicon chip, we still talk of factories "manufacturing" goods - as if they were lovingly put together by cloth-capped craftsmen with beady eyes and gnarled hands. Equally, some of the classics of modern design that we fondly believe to be industrial - Concorde is a good example - have been made by hand and have more in common with a vintage Bentley or a lovingly crafted oak table, sawn and grooved in some crumbling barn deep in central Wales.

"Furniture Today - Its Design & Craft", an exhibition curated by Peter Dormer at the Crafts Council Gallery, London, is an attempt, in part, to show how the strands of these opposing schools of thought are ultimately blurred. It is more realistic, today, to say that the things we design and make - and furniture is a notable example - belong to a manufacturing continuum that ranges from the cedarwood cabinet that takes a carpenter several hundred hours to hone to perfection, to plywood conference chairs mass-produced in some giant Adriatic factory.

The Crafts Council exhibition, however, also demonstrates the extent to which British furniture makers either want to be involved in the process of mass production or to escape it totally. In between is the territory occupied by those who upset the easy, but fallible, notion that craft design and industrial design are irreconcilable activities.

At one end of the spectrum is Alan Peters, who represents the century- old arts and crafts tradition. At the Crafts Council Gallery he shows a neat little chest of drawers, so minutely worked that the mark of the human hand all but vanishes. A caption beside the piece tells us it took this Devonian craftsman at least 400 hours to make. So you can guess what it might cost. Beyond the question of whether it is worth paying for such perfection, you may wonder if there is any point spending so much time on one piece when a machine in a factory can do the same thing in minutes.

I like Alan Peters, and this exhibition, for raising such questions himself: no, he is not altogether sure whether a chest of drawers is that much better an object for being worked over for so long.

Opposite his near-perfect chest of drawers are the apparently rough-hewn chairs and tables of Richard La Trobe Bateman, whose work occupies an extraordinary world somewhere between raw nature and structural engineering.

A chair by La Trobe Bateman looks as if its component pieces have been washed up on a beach and assembled by a man who would prefer to be throwing bridges across estuaries. He combines the bolts and wires, stresses and strains of the engineer with a deliberate touchy-feely approach to materials. His highly expressive work could not be more different from Alan Peters' deliberate simplicity. Yet, you cannot help thinking that both men could easily find jobs as directors of design and engineering in some multinational car plant.

It is possible to imagine Alan Peters fussing about the gap between the doors and bodyshell of a Ford Mondeo and working all night to find a way of adjusting computer-driven machinery to close the gap by at least another angstrom. Equally, you can see Richard La Trobe Bateman conjuring with the latest computer wizardry to calculate the stresses and strains at work on a bridge of great originality and delight.

This exhibition will not necessarily appeal to those who treat it as an art show, because some of the furniture is too trendy or clever for its own good. "Furniture Today - Its Design & Craft", however, is doing a different job: it shows how some of Britain's best furniture makers work in relation to the reality of batch-production, mass-production, computer-aided design; how, in fact, they touch the soft edge of hard- edged industrial design and manufacturing.

Furniture Today - Its Design & Craft, until 2 April, Crafts Council Gallery, 44a Pentonville Road London N1 (0171-278 7700)

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