THINK LOCAL
Reflections of a Man who makes Mirrors by Paul Swatridge
(Article published in August 2008 Muse Magazine, ‘Design for home’)

I have always made things and it was at school that I discovered the beauty of wood. In my mid twenties, after 4 years at art school studying graphic design, I started a business with four friends making reproduction oak furniture and architectural joinery. I specialised in the hand-carved decoration and spent 15 years working in this field. By this time I was struggling with repetitive strain injury from the physical strain of ‘piecework’ carving and I had an enforced break of almost 6 years.
But I really missed an involvement with wood and in 2005 I was successful in being awarded an Arts
Council grant to experiment with ideas for contemporary designs in wood and to explore what I could physically manage with my neck and shoulder problems. My current work is the result of that grant-aided time, plus two years evolving my ideas and a relocation to Dorset.

I want my designs to be both practical and beautiful. I see them as pieces of sculpture for the home and there is always symbolism involved, offering some kind of meaning or message. For instance, mirrors provide lots of opportunity for meaning and fun beyond their necessity in the home. We need to look in the mirror to check how we look, but it is also an opportunity to look deeper, beyond the surface of our skin. My first mirror had the words “Who Am I?” carved in the frame. Others say “Look Inside”.
My candlesticks symbolise the natural elements of earth, wood, metal, water, air and fire; earth being represented by a pebble loosely trapped into the base.

My love of making is allied to my belief that using our hands skilfully and creatively is deeply important to us. Man’s survival depended on skilled manual work since he first stood on two legs, but it is sadly lacking in so many people’s lives today. Mass-production has meant that few people earn their living this way nowadays and many people struggle to even change an electric plug or mend a leaky cistern.

This erosion has been driven in the field of craftsmanship by the availability of ever cheaper imports from countries where workers earn one or two dollars a day. Every home in the UK has the benefit of handmade artefacts at incredibly cheap prices and public perception, understandably, is that British-made craft items are exclusive and far too expensive.
It is impossible for British craftsmen to compete with work made in the Philippines, China or India. We accept that plumbers and electricians (essential skilled services) charge £20-40 per hour, while craftsmen/makers have struggled over the last 30 years to make a living wage unless they make their work exclusive by marketing it as fine art. A £2000 oak dining table may be out of reach for most ordinary folk, but it has the potential to last for many hundreds of years and it has almost certainly taken hundreds of hours of highly skilled work to source suitable timber, design and make it.

I sense that the irreversible rise in transport costs and other global factors, will mean that we will gradually begin to think and act locally again. I see a parallel with changing trends in our eating habits that are already happening; eating locally-produced food makes sense, supports local farmers and cuts down on ‘food miles’. Similarly, having four beautiful mugs on our kitchen shelf, handmade by a local potter, could be so much more rewarding than a cupboard stuffed full of mass produced and imported ones. Less stuff to clutter our homes, just selected craftsman-made artefacts of beauty, lovingly produced by someone we have met. Not just a privilege for the few, but a possibility for everyone.

Think of the opportunities such a trend would bring to many hundreds of would-be craftsmen trying to make an honest living. I love what I do and it gives me great pleasure to see people appreciating craftsmanship of any kind, but when it is my own, I know I would not want to be doing something else for a living.

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