Putting their heart and soul into heirlooms of the future

Factories at full production, mills clattering, foundries spewing fire and steam, by the 1880s the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, the powerhouse chimneys of Northern England belching out smoke while the workers churned out products.

By the turn of the century, however, the wealthy industrialists of Manchester were leaving behind the smog of the city and heading to the fresh, clean air of the Lake District. Here they would commission splendid rural retreats characterised by high ceilings, oak panelling, grand staircases and picture windows to capture the full magnificence of their lake and mountain views.

Tapping into a new artistic movement, the more discerning would commission craftsmen to create one-off pieces of quality furniture, decorations and lighting, surrounding themselves with individual, beautiful things that were in total contrast to the mass labour and production of their businesses.

Standing high above Lake Windermere, spectacular Blackwell is one of the country’s finest examples of an Arts and Crafts residence. Designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott as a holiday home for Manchester brewer and philanthropist Sir Edward Holt and his family, it’s a classic of its period and a reflection of the freedom to experiment that Holt afforded his architect.

Fast forward to 2019 and it is fitting that Blackwell is the venue for an exhibition by the Rusland Movement, a company that is extending the heritage of Arts and Crafts with locally designed and made furniture of the highest quality.

Although inspired by the same ethos but reflecting a more contemporary aesthetic, founder Dan Critchley, who studied cabinetry at Kendal College, admits he wasn’t even aware of Arts and Crafts when he started designing furniture.

“I was interested in the essence of Arts and Crafts – the style, balance and proportions and perhaps even more so the philosophy and approach – without knowing what it was,” he says.

“I’m from a generation that grew up with automation yet I think human beings are inherently creative. We all draw, colour and paint as children yet art and design are increasingly removed from the school curriculum, so there’s a growing romanticism around the handmade.”

Megan Henshall, Rusland’s director in charge of marketing, exhibitions and events, adds: “Everybody loves IKEA but the planet can’t sustain mass production both in the resources used and the waste created when things are cast aside. At the same time people are looking towards furniture that is made properly and made to last a lifetime.”

Not every part of the process of making furniture at the Rusland Movement is done by hand, however, and machinery will be used if it is considered to be a better way of building longevity, form or function into a piece.

Megan explains: “We are not purists in that we only use hand skills, and that’s in keeping with the original Arts and Crafts Movement. They weren’t against machinery, it was thoughtless mass production they disliked. The movement was about the blend of old and traditional with the new and innovative.”

At the Rusland Movement, this translates into a piece of furniture being created by a mix of hand skills and hand tools alongside laser cutting, for example, utilising and harnessing the advantages of technology but on individual, often bespoke pieces.

Having set up a partnership with a patron, Dan started the Rusland Movement six years ago from a small workshop in Greenodd, near Ulverston. A move this spring to significantly bigger premises off the A590 at Backbarrow reflects not only the company’s success and need to expand but also the role it is keen to play as a centre of design and innovation. The new base will house a design studio, workshops, an in-house interior design and upholstery department and spectacular showrooms, as well as event and exhibition space for the Rusland Movement and other makers and artists.

Word of mouth has ensured a loyal and growing following. “It is perfectly acceptable for people to buy from John Lewis or Heals, but our clients are buying into a story. It’s the story of our people, local people who have spent years perfecting their skills, learning and passing on those skills to others; people who are passionate about their craft and put their heart and soul into every piece,” says Megan.

With Dan focused on design, the team comprises workshop manager James Boylan, cabinet makers Laurence Brand, Rowena Lee and Graham Atkinson, who started at Rusland as a teenage apprentice and last year led a project for the first time, aged 26, an indication of the experience required to produce furniture that can cost many thousands of pounds.

At least two people will work on a piece, each bringing special skills and a slightly different perspective, for example, some have a more scientific approach, others more creative. “The combination works well,” says Megan.

Coline Maillard is an apprentice who came to Rusland from France, where there were no similar opportunities, and Olga Kaleta is a qualified interior designer who works with Dan on technical design.

The unpredictability of orders makes it an exciting world – they never know whether the next call will be for a kitchen, a dining table with a dozen chairs or an upholstered armchair, for which they have called on India Polkinghorn, of nearby Broughton-in-Furness, the City & Guilds 2016 apprentice of the year.

Every piece of furniture starts with a conversation with the client and a home visit when Dan will look at how they live and how the piece will fit into their home. Sometimes clients know they want a piece from Rusland but they don’t even know what, so this personal assessment of what might fit into their lives is a vital part of the commission.

Chairs can be made to fit, display cabinets created to store specific items, the level of a desk measured to the exact height where arms settle most comfortably.

Timber is typically native hardwoods – elm, oak and sycamore. With their own woodland, they are permitted to fell a small number of trees each year, allowing them to hand-pick a tree for a specific piece of furniture. Around 95 per cent of their work is bespoke, with attention to detail that might include using oak that’s been ammonia fumed to bring out the natural tannins, tambour doors or laser-cut silver birch inlay.

Megan says: “It’s quite difficult to find people who are sufficiently skilled and experienced and will fit in and work well with our team. There’s a big skills gap in the UK because there were several years when people weren’t training in the skills we need, it almost skipped a whole generation.

“We see ourselves playing an important role in preserving the skills and providing jobs for people who are true artisans who are given the space and time to create furniture that will be the heirlooms of the future and loved by generations to come.”

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