This year, even Sir Terence Conran decided to get an exclusive preview of what will be on offer, and pictured here is his choice of the best of the show. "We buy a lot of things from independent artists and craftspeople for The Conran Shop," he says. "The quirkiness of craft is its real value, and we now have an audience that's sophisticated enough to understand and appreciate that quirkiness. A lot of the work I looked at had, for me, all the qualities of good design: accessible, useful and not showy."
Sir Terence's name might be associated with all that is clean and shiny in the design world, but he is keen to point out that he was once a keen potter and persuaded his parents to let him have his own wood burning kiln in the back garden. "There's nothing more exciting than preparing a kiln," he says. "The wood has to burn for 24 hours to reach the right temperature, and then anything can happen when you put in the pot." While his potting days are long gone, the memories are fond. "There's a certain self-sufficiency about making craft. I'd gladly exchange a week's golfing holiday for a week at a potter's wheel."
Where craft ends and design begins has long been a subject for discussion in the world of applied arts, but Geraldine Rudge, editor of Crafts magazine, reckons that Chelsea rounds up "inventive, clever people, who are bridging the gap between craft and design." Many of them are also well known outside the craft world. Sophie Harley's jewellery appears on catwalks, in music videos and fashion magazines and sells in Harvey Nichols. Janet Stoyel's laser-cut textiles have been used by Donna Karan and hatter extraordinaire Philip Treacy. Dimitra Grivellis - whose ceramics Sir Terence especially liked as he sorted through the 232 possibilities - has recently completed a piece of public art in the form of a five-metre long mural for Hackney Community College.
In all, this is a happy moment for designer-makers producing small quantities. Manufacturers are not geared to short production runs, but the public is seriously keen to snap up limited editions - so much so that some manufacturers are rethinking their big run-only policy. To some extent, this is a hangover from the designer 1980s; matt black things look a bit laughable now, but they did create an easy awareness of design, and consumers picked up a certain amount of sophistication on the way. Enter the designer-maker catering to your needs, to commission if you so desire, in any size and any colour.
More to the point, the home has become the style focus of the 1990s. It's not that fashion is dead, just that the middle-classes seem rather more exercised by kitchens and floor-finishes than couture right now. Even the fashion houses are bowing to the pressure with home ranges from Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren competing for shelf space and more from Gucci and Prada rumoured to be on the way.
"Interior accessories have become the latest designer must-haves," says Geraldine Rudge, "and originality is really desirable. Designer-makers offer one-off or limited-edition pieces at admittedly highish prices, but people are willing to pay for the quality and the fact that you're not going to see these things all over the high street. There's also the tactile nature of hand-crafted objects to consider. The way things feel is very important at the moment. I don't know why it's happened - New Agesim maybe - but people do want to enjoy touching the things they own. And then there's the familiarity of the craft world. We all made things at school. We're intimidated by fine art, but we understand craft more easily."
Meanwhile, for the public, the Chelsea show offers an opportunity to get to the makers before store buyers from all over the world, who also visit in large numbers. "It certainly isn't a showcase for country craft," says Sir Terence. "And I would find more gutsy stuff from the soil quite attractive. But then it is Chelsea, after all."
Chelsea Crafts Fair is at Chelsea Old Town Hall, King's Road, London SW3. Week one 14-19 October; week two 21-26 October; Tuesday to Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission pounds 5 for a single visit; pounds 8 for weeks one and twoReuse content