From 17–27 May 2016, British Council and the SUPPORT Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand (SACICT) brought six promising designers, craftspeople and craft and social entrepreneurs from Thailand to the UK for an exhibition on “Scottish-Thai Craft and Design Exchange” in Edinburgh, followed by Clerkenwell Design Week in London, as well as study-tours to artists’ studios and galleries.
The strong sense of social enterprise, the holistic approach to business and the attitude to community engagement struck us most. One of the best practices we visited was Whitmuir Farm, and its concept of “Creating a Living Learning Space”. Whitmuir Farm is a working organic farm with a shop and restaurant, garden plant nursery, wood shack selling artisan woodwork, and walks and trails. One of its noteworthy project was the “2000m2 – Food for One Year” project funded by the Climate Challenge Fund, which supports community growth, cooking and composting on the farm. Throughout the year the farm also organises farm tours, food sharing sessions and workshops demonstrating how we can reduce our carbon emissions by growing our own food, reducing food waste and composting waste for future growth. The farm also hosts the Dancing Light Gallery, a gallery showcasing contemporary and original artworks such as paintings, ceramics, woodwork, glass, jewellery, sculpture and textiles. Exhibitions change every eight weeks. The gallery was keen to showcase some of the products of the Thai designers and social entrepreneurs. Considering the distance from the city, Whitmuir Farm focuses on marketing itself as lovely place to spend the day. Considering social issues are everyone’s concern, Whitmuir Farm attempts to encourage more people to take part by making them an intuitive part of their daily lifestyle.
An extraordinary way to discover hidden gems in a city is through the eyes of local creative people. In London we were lead around by fantastic guides: David Cramp, Head of Business Incubation, and Madeleine Furness, Business Incubation Programme Manager for Cockpit Arts, an award-winning social enterprise and the UK’s only business incubator for craftspeople. Cockpit Arts has been partnering with British Council and SACICT through the Business and Investment Readiness Programme, supporting more than 170 of the country's best designers, producers and small businesses at its two centres in central and south London. We were given an exclusive meeting with some of these creative individuals to hear about their inspiring stories, just before one of their ‘open studio weekends’ organised twice a year.
The other enriching part of our study-tour was the visit to actual merchandising and creative studios where we met business owners and representatives of social enterprise initiatives to discuss different kinds of business approaches. One notable one was The New Craftsmen, a network of over 75 producers working in textiles, silverware, furniture, ceramics, jewellery, glassware and beyond. It really represented a vision of sustainable, real luxury, expressed through dedication to supporting craftspeople, materials, methods and design. We also visited the Goldsmiths’ Centre, a workshop for the professional training of goldsmiths with an aim to create a skilled workforce, boost the economy and promote craftsmanship in the UK. The other place we stopped by was Contemporary Applied Arts, a premier exhibition and retail venue for the appreciation, education and purchase of the best British crafts, which champions and promotes the best applied artists residing in the UK.
We paid a visit to many shops, including the Tate Modern museum shop. There we saw a great number of artworks reproduced and displayed on a variety of products ranging from leisure to functional items, educational materials to tourist souvenirs, which lead to an interesting discussion about copyright and reproduction. Another aspect we considered was that having a product displayed or sold at the museum shop is a symbol of recognition for artists and craftspeople and their original idea. Products there are not cheap, despite some similar ideas being copied for many tourist markets; however, shoppers who really appreciate the original work are prepared to buy genuine reproductions regardless of the higher price. Besides learning about social enterprise, we also realised that it is everyone’s duty to be social responsible towards intellectual property.
The visit to the UK was an eye-opening experience. We noticed that even though individual artistic styles can be quite distinguished, working together as a collective is a strong driving force for a network’s existence and sustainability. We hope and wish such atmosphere could occur more frequently in Thailand. With the steps we made, we have no doubt that the knowledge gained is beneficial for designers’ and producers’ professional development. Last but not least, we strongly believe all the connections we have made may lead to flourishing collaboration in the future.
Written by Sasiwimon Wongjarin