Crafts make a careers comeback

“Craft is having a moment,” says Christopher Cox, who, with his wife Nicky, is co-founder of Cox London. Their business makes exquisite bespoke furniture and lighting for wealthy clients. But on a chilly day in his design studio on a north London industrial estate, he is quick to add that these skills could be easily lost. “If we don’t keep up traditional crafts and skills, we’ll face a skills shortage,” he says.

The Coxes, who specialise in metal work, are on a mission to get more young people into crafts and encourage them to consider the field as a viable career. The pair, who design and make their pieces with a team of artisans, are the Crafts Council’s first education ambassadors. 

The arts non-profit organisation launched Make Your Future in 2019 as a four-year campaign to bring together expert craftspeople, secondary schools, and makers to reignite craft learning in schools. So far it has worked with 63 schools across London, Birmingham and Yorkshire. It aims to show pupils that there is an abundance of careers in the crafts world.

Working with Make Your Future and the Crafts Council’s Young Craft Citizens, a London-based collective of young aspiring craft makers, has allowed the Coxes to pass on insights from their careers, as well as get into classrooms and offer trips to their studios.

The Cox’s started their business in 2003 from the garage of their former home in Tottenham, north-east London, not far from their current site — they also have a shop in west London’s Pimlico Road. Back then, Tottenham was not considered a design hub, but “the neighbours were very tolerant of noise from the workshop,” Mr Cox says.

Ms Cox, who is from New Zealand, and her husband Christopher, from Lincolnshire in the UK, met while studying fine art at Wimbledon College of Arts. After graduating they built their skills on the job, working in metal restoration, antiques dealerships, art galleries and bronze foundries in London and New Zealand. “Earning and learning,” Mr Cox says. “It’s so crucial.”

The barriers to pursuing a career in craft range from a lack of access during education to a lack of encouragement. Many students do not get hands-on experience in crafts activities in school or at home.

Last year, the Coxes took part in a craft event at London’s Central Saint Martins art college where they showcased to school pupils what they do. They met classes from underfunded schools with “chronic” facilities.

Skilled craftspeople, lower the crucible into the furnace at the Cox London foundry © Alun Callender

Nicky Dewar, learning and skills director at the Crafts Council, says: “Sadly [crafts education] has been eroded from schools and statistics show fewer kids are taking it at GCSE.” This is despite research by the Crafts Council showing that consumer craft sales have increased from £883m in 2006 to more than £3bn in 2019.

This has been driven in part by a younger generation of consumers who appreciate crafts. Between 2006 and 2020 the number of people buying crafts in England increased from 6.9m to 31.6m, according to the same research. Across the UK, that number is now 37.7m. The rise of new routes to market, such as digital selling platforms like Etsy and Folksy, has helped, making it easier to find and purchase handmade items.

Make Your Future has meant the Crafts Council has been able to go into schools and meet pupils. It’s about looking at craft in different ways, Ms Dewar says: “Maths through knitting or the chemistry of ceramics.” The council hopes young people will broaden their minds as crafts careers span a wide range of skills and industries, from interior design, manufacturing and television to fashion and automobiles.

The council is working on making sure crafts are more inclusive of people from different backgrounds. “We feel that craft education and being able to engage with it needs to be available to everybody,” Ms Dewar says. In this regard she highlights that schools should not reserve access to craft as a reward for high achievers, or for those struggling in school as an opportunity to “use their hands”.

School closures have added to the challenge of access as “hybrid learning” involves more screen time and less opportunity for hands-on classroom activities. Similarly parents can be guilty of discouraging their children from such careers — the perception of the “struggling artist” endures.

Former chronic pain recovery coach Maria Hammond, 32, is studying product design and craft at Manchester School of Art. Despite coming from a family of makers — her father built their house and her mother did the interiors — she was discouraged from pursuing a career in craft. They felt it was something that gives you joy, but that she should get a “proper degree” and a “proper career”. But Ms Hammond continued to renovate houses and make furniture while working, “and that’s when I realised [that’s when] I’m most happy,” she says.

Due to the pandemic, Ms Hammond has deferred her studies until the studios are accessible again. In the meantime, she has pursued evening courses in jewellery making. And while she and her fellow students were prevented from presenting the usual end-of-year show, a Zoom session with Mr Cox provided an opportunity to display her latest project, “Wantnotwastenot”, where she used waste materials from a restaurant to create items it could reuse or give to diners as keepsakes.

Nadine Wilde finished her degree in textile design from Loughborough University in June and also had no end-of-year show (her graduation is postponed until next April). “It was disheartening,” she says. “A rough end to the year.” However, the weaving specialist, who is tapping her Bulgarian heritage for inspiration, adds that meeting Mr Cox in the same Crafts Council session “was amazing”. She received useful feedback on her portfolio, had a chance to see what other students had been doing and was able to make promising connections. 

She now has a studio in Stoke with her sister, who is doing an MA in textiles at the Royal College of Art. During the pandemic she put together some successful online weaving workshops, which she might continue. She will also continue to build on her connections with Bulgaria’s last weaving villages.

“Their work blew me away,” says Mr Cox. The company is now looking at how best to establish an apprenticeship. “I would love to have three or four apprentices, but it has to be very carefully thought out,” says Mr Cox.

In the meantime, they will encourage those in the Young Craft Citizens collective to think about “what they really want to do as a job”, he adds, “and aim for the pinnacle so that they learn from the best”.


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