No therapy, just retail abandon

The Chelsea Craft Fair offers a prime opportunity for designers to display their wares. And, as its popularity attests, the public can't get enough of the talent, ingenuity and diversity on offer. Katrin Williams feasts her eyes
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The Independent Online

The queue snaking down the King's Road shortly after opening time on the first day will give you some impression of the popularity of the Chelsea Craft Fair, one of the main events in the craft calendar, which is celebrating its 21st birthday this year. And its popularity is well-deserved, for inside Chelsea Old Town Hall some of the finest contemporary craft in Europe is on display. At the end of the first week, the 100 stall-holders will give their pitches over to another equally talented and diverse clutch of craftspeople, all of whom have been rigorously handpicked by this year's selection committee.

The queue snaking down the King's Road shortly after opening time on the first day will give you some impression of the popularity of the Chelsea Craft Fair, one of the main events in the craft calendar, which is celebrating its 21st birthday this year. And its popularity is well-deserved, for inside Chelsea Old Town Hall some of the finest contemporary craft in Europe is on display. At the end of the first week, the 100 stall-holders will give their pitches over to another equally talented and diverse clutch of craftspeople, all of whom have been rigorously handpicked by this year's selection committee.

The makers stand by their wares in their stalls, and chat to their visitors. Some of the makers are "old timers", but many are first-time exhibitors, thus ensuring the freshness of young blood is always snapping at the heels of established favourites. Steve Harrison's utilitarian salt-glazed teapots, jugs and mugs with their scalloped handles will appeal to the traditional seeker of robust, good-quality craftsmanship. And for those who are looking for the shock of the new, there will be first-timers such as Lois Blackburn, who is big in batik, and whose bright silk wall-hangings feature motorbikes and astronauts, and succeed in being kitsch, colourful, modern and technically accomplished.

There are crafts to suit all tastes; and what stands out, whether individual pieces appeal or not, is a clear impression of quality. Functional ceramics rub shoulders with sculptural ceramics; quirky toys and automata feature, as well as beautiful blown glass. Diversity is everywhere, in materials, in form and in prices, which range this year from £5.50 to £20,000.

I spoke to Emma Johnstone, who makes striking hollow thrown raku bowls, with contrasting interiors in copper, English gold leaf and Italian moon gold. Her work sold so well last year, her first at Chelsea, that she was able to give up the day job, and is exhibiting at Chelsea for the second year running.

The crowds that throng the fair are buyers from the big stores as well as curators, well-heeled collectors and a discerning public (speaking for myself, of course).

Michael Palin had just bought a bowl from ceramicist Sophie MacCarthy when I visited her stall. Her work is thrown, decorative earthenware, painted with coloured slips.

Mark Dally is a newcomer, whose black and white ceramics have instant impact. Polka dots, stripes and squiggles feature in his distinctive bowls and platters. Perfect for morning porridge.

Ruth Dresman, who specialises in blown glass with sandblasted decorations, has just sold a piece to the Queen to take on an official visit as a present to the Italian president's wife. Look out for a stunning bowl with a rim which undulates like a ripple in a river, decorated with teeming salmon. The glass work at Chelsea appears to go from strength to strength each year.

Commoners are free to commission makers too, and one of the joys of the fair is to meet the creators of the exhibits. They can explain to you the skills and techniques which have gone into their designs, and as they twist their hands in expressive gestures to show you just how it's done, you will be propelled into a state which goes beyond retail therapy and becomes one of retail abandon.

Fortunately, I had a christening present to buy, and I found an exquisite silver spoon made by Kim Harrell. The handle looks like a delicate twig with the occasional knot in its bark, and the back of the bowl of the spoon carries the maker's mark and the millennium hallmark. One of the pleasures of buying at Chelsea is the knowledge that you have found something unique. There may be a tense moment at the christening when the baby has to wrest her present from my grip.

A sense of tongue-in-cheek is apparent at the Chelsea Craft Fair. Where else could you find something as quintessentially British as Lucian Taylor's silver chip eater, mimicking the shape of its wooden counterpart, or Jennifer Wall's pimply steel spectacle case.

Matthew Burt's elegant, wave-fronted cabinet, made from sycamore, cedar and a subtle sliver of silver is very striking, and its drawers slide in and out like a dream, function and form complementing each other perfectly.

Gareth Neal has already exhibited at Sotheby's. His contemporary sculptural furniture combines wood and metal in bold, ultra-modern designs. Any visitor to the fair will be bound to notice his table called Capillary, whose multiple legs twist like blood vessels.

Go to Chelsea and feast your eyes, and feel the buzz generated by a heady combination of technical expertise, design ingenuity and aesthetic appeal. Treat yourself to a Christmas present, even if it is only October. Chelsea is a showcase for craft at its absolute best.

Chelsea Craft Fair is at Chelsea Old Town Hall, King's Road, Chelsea, London (for information, call 020-7806 2512). Week One ends Sunday 22 October. Week Two runs from Tuesday 24 October to Sunday 29 October, open from 10am-8pm Tuesday to Friday, 10am-6pm at weekends. Admission, £7 single visit, £10 for one visit each week

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