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The Bluecoat Centre, Liverpool

THE HACKNEY Contemporaries Group show opens at the Bluecoat Display Centre in Liverpool on 9 February. There are probably more designer-makers per square mile in Hackney than anywhere else in Europe, and this is reflected in the diverse nature of the decorative arts that are displayed by the selected makers: furniture, glass, ceramics, metalwork and textiles.

Like the East End of London, Liverpool's docklands have been undergoing a mini-renaissance in recent years, losing in the process their seedy and derelict image. Artists and designers who were originally drawn into the area by its low rents have made a significant contribution to this regeneration.

They've been helped in this by the activities of the Bluecoat Display Centre, which was established to exhibit and sell contemporary work by designer-makers in a variety of media. (You'll find the Centre in the laundry of the former Bluecoat School, which was built in 1717 to educate the orphans of seafarers.) The exceptionally high quality of the work in this show is a reflection of what is happening in Hackney, but is also a fair indication of the Centre's reputation and ability to attract, and, more importantly, sell the work of some of the best designer-makers in Britain today. Sculptor Thomas Hill is happy to be showing at the Bluecoat Centre again: "It has an excellent client base: people seem really enthusiastic." His views are echoed by textile designer Rachael Howard. She grew up in Merseyside before moving south in the early Nineties. "Liverpool has become quite lively over recent years. It was always Manchester that had the interesting work, but Liverpool is bubbling upwards."

So what's on show here? Thomas Hill's wire birds and animals are not chicken wire constructions reminiscent of forms destined to be covered with papier mache, but simple, evocative outlines - yellow hens, pike, greyhounds - conjured into life from the barest of skeletons. Occasionally he adds cut and painted sheet-steel, although this in no way detracts from the lightness of the pieces.

Rachael Howard combines quirky screen-printed drawings with appliqued fabrics and machine embroidery to produce cushions, wall-hangings, scarves and ties. Her subjects are everyday scenes and activities which she captures with a comic vitality.

Titus Davies hews her chairs from green (unseasoned) timber - elm, ash, oak, holly or cherry - using traditional green woodworking techniques. Much of the work is done by hand and, as a result, each piece is a one- off. Batch production is impossible. Initially inspired by the simplicity of Welsh stick chairs, she has now developed a way of working with the shapes revealed in the split timber.

Bettina Kunkel also specialises in one-off pieces of furniture. She only uses British, European or North American woods for her freestanding pieces, using rarer timbers such as yew and rippled lime when they are available. Her work is influenced by art deco designs and the simplicity of Japanese furniture.

Emma O'Dare's decorative glass vessels recycle old glass using the ancient technique of pate de verre. Her glass looks volcanic, not dull but phosphorescent, and full of light.

All these makers are linked by the vitality of their work. This energy is also apparent in the other exhibits, including Sian Tucker's geometric and vibrantly coloured textile hangings; Nicholas Arroyave-Portela's undulating clay vessels; and Karen Bunting's monochrome jugs, plates and bowls, delicately decorated with spots and stripes.

Obviously, as a selling exhibition, you can buy what's on display, but don't forget, if someone else has beaten you to that perfectly poised wire chicken or you'd prefer a turkey buzzard, you can always commission exactly what you want.

Diona Gregory

Hackney Contemporaries runs 9 February to 6 March, Mon-Sat, 10am - 5.30pm at the Bluecoat Display Centre, Bluecoat Chambers, School Lane, Liverpool, L1 3BX. Tel: 0151-709 4014. You can e-mail the gallery on crafts@bluecoat.u- net. com; or visit its website at http:// bluecoatcrafts.merseyworld.com

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