Mallet places evanescing artisan traditions and long forgotten materials in the hands of an international assembly of top design talent for a visionary celebration of art and craft.
Merging the rarefied world of antique craftsmanship with cutting edge design, the London and New York antiques specialist, Mallett, moves into the new millennium, creating contemporary works of heirloom quality.
In the early 20th century the industrial revolution changed the course of design. As post-modern creators seized the opportunity to bring design to the masses and manufacturers chose profit over quality, artisan craftsmanship suffered and consumerism was born. While the Nordic countries of Europe have successfully sought to uphold traditional techniques in furniture production, former thriving artisan regions around the rest of Europe have become almost obsolete.
Environmental awareness and the demand for quality has sparked a renewed interest in carefully crafted objects. London/New York antiques house, Mallett, is the latest advocate of a crafts renaissance. The pre-eminent 18th century furniture specialist, has taken the unprecedented move of stepping into the 21st century with the launch of Meta, an offshoot brand dedicated to contemporary design focused on retaining the peerless quality of hand-built furniture made by master craftsmen.
Conceived by a world-class line-up of leading international creators, from Dutch design star Tord Boontje and French designer Matali Crasset, to UK-based duos Wales & Wales and Barber & Osgerby, Meta's debut collection is an exceptional example of how contemporary design, married with the patrimonial techniques of master craftsmanship and long forgotten materials are creating a remarkable new language. Mallett's Managing Director, Giles Hutchinson-Smith, explains why Meta's pre-revolutionary approach to contemporary design may secure the future of endangered metiers.
Giles Hutchinson-Smith's definition of luxury:
Anything above the real needs of man
If luxury were...
The green velvet state bed at Houghton Norfolk supplied to Sir Robert Walpole.
Between 1920 -1930 when possibilities must have seemed endless.
Mallet is reputed as one of the foremost specialists in 18th century furniture and objects. What made you look to contemporary design?
What we wanted to do something different, to have all the hallmarks of what great furniture and great design was about, but to do it in a completely cutting-edge, contemporary style, and to use our knowledge of materials. That was really the genesis of the project.
What convinced you that now is the right time to enter the design market?
Three years ago my colleague Henry Neville, who runs the New York gallery, and I were walking through the London showroom. We create pieces of modern furniture that are designed in-house and created within the company's boundaries, which have been successful for the last 15-20 years, so we thought about expanding the line.
How many designers did you initially approach for the project?
I suppose that out of the five that we have now, we probably spoke to around seven or eight. But we didn't want to talk to everyone, we wanted to keep it very exclusive. So we had a sort of "hit list" of ones that we wanted because of their design language, or of what they had done before. All of the ones here were on our really wanted list. The designers that we didn't get only refused because they were working absolutely flat out, but they were absolutely fascinated by what we are doing, so they may well appear in the future.
How did the designers rise to the challenge?
I'm always hesitant to answer on their behalf, but I think that the level of excitement actually shows in what they have produced. They have been absolutely brilliant in the communication with ourselves, the manufacturers and the materials. It's been a joint party of those three different approaches.
Will there be a new collection and a new roster of designers every year?
If we can punish ourselves like we have done over the last three years, we'd like to do around three or four new pieces a year, if it doesn't put us in an early grave!
Each piece is bespoke, crafted by artisans at the height of their métier. Will they be produced in limited editions?
No. They are not limited edition, but just by their very nature, they are impossible to make in large numbers. Take Tord's cabinet, there's no way that we can make more than two or three of those in a year but we'll never put a cut-off point. We wanted to do what the traditions of business are, which is to engage with beautiful things and to encourage clients to come.
Which were the most intricate pieces to produce?
All of them were incredibly challenging. Tord's cabinet was quite complex. If you look at the shafts of where every leaf is placed, it's like a constellation of the stars, you are mapping the stars to place everyone. There are 616 leaves, this is quite an incredible feat. With Matali's lantern, to create a new design with an old material, we didn't really know what the stresses and strains of the material were because no one had used it in such a long time, so there was a lot of experimentation to create that. Also, every single piece is cast, so again, that was a real challenge. The linking system, which was designed by Matali is also quite interesting. In the 19th century lanterns never had a chain like this, and obviously they weren't wired for electricity, so what we wanted to do was have a chain that never showed the wiring. Equally the Barber & Osgerby candelabra is extremely complex although it looks simple, but I think that's part of its elegance. It was quite extraordinary because no one had ever made silver like this, or the different radiuses and the way they are supported. It's made from Britannia silver, which is the highest grade of silver you can find, which also has to be specially produced for us. So really, from the most obvious and complicated pattern, to what may appear to be the simplest, the story is always the same – it's been a challenge at every level. But I think that's why it's been worthwhile doing.
Are many of the materials here ones that Mallett has not experimented with before?
Absolutely. For example, the shelf on Barber Osgerby's Cupola was made in collaboration with [Murano glass manufacturer] Venini. Most people think it's easy to just make a chrome shelf, but chrome wasn't invented until around 1890, which is too late for us. So we've gone to the Romans and used white bronze, which I think is incredibly beautiful because it's got this warmth about it that is not really seen today but works really well in a contemporary language.
What is the latest period or era that any of these materials originate from?
It's really pre-industrial revolution because the style of traditional manufacturing didn't change until around the 1860s, and then with mass industrialization it changed very quickly. What we're doing is harking back to an age before that. Obviously at some points we have to compromise but not until we are sure that it is absolutely impossible to do it any other way. We make sure that we've looked at every other resource first, but with the materials we haven't compromised at all.
You work within a global network of designers and craftsmen. Do you not find it logistically challenging?
Yes it is, but the result is key. There's a real magic about going to talk to these people. They've got such a fabulous knowledge base, and they've all got these little ateliers around the world. It's not hugely industrial, they just have this generational relationship, and that's how that information is passed down. That's what I find extraordinarily rewarding about it. It's very special, and I think, very unique today.
Would you say that Meta symbolises a celebration of craftsmanship?
Yes, very much so. Meta is a celebration of craftsmanship, beautiful materials and brilliantly created designs.
Do you feel that design is returning to a focus on quality craftsmanship?
I hear that there may be, but I've yet to see it.