Close to Home, Guardian Weekend, 18 June 2016

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A new generation of designers are going back to their roots to tell the stories of their hometowns through the objects they create. Katie Treggiden explores the on-going quest for local identity in design.

With homes and high streets the world over starting to look eerily similar, environmental concerns about flying furniture around the globe, and a lack of transparency enabling international brands to hide bad behaviour, it’s no surprise that globalisation is experiencing a backlash. So what is the alternative? A growing contingent of designers is embracing ‘localisation’ instead.

Novacastrian was founded by an architect, a graphic designer and a metal worker, who grew up together in Newcastle. Using local materials, they make furniture inspired by their city. “The North East is steeped in industrial heritage,” says co-founder Mark McCormick (the graphic designer). “It has mined coal, built ships and invented steam trains. It has a creative force that we find really inspiring.” Originally designed for a riverside café, the brand’s Staiths shelving unit references the Dunston Staiths – industrial timber structures built in the River Tyne at the turn of the 20th century to expedite the transfer of coal from rail to river. “The Staiths weren’t built to be attractive,” says McCormick. “They are utilitarian, functional and industrial, but the elegant rhythm of their latticework has its own beauty.”

Another Novocastrian product, the Slate Binate coffee table, comprises a blackened steel frame topped with Cumbrian slate quarried just 75 miles from their workshop. “It’s about elevating local materials,” explains Richy Almond (the architect). “Slate is seen as a boring bumpy building material, but lift it off the ground by 350mm, frame it with a little brass trim, and it becomes something totally different. A honed finish brings out the natural grain and suddenly it’s as beautiful as Italian marble.”

For Indian-born surface pattern designer Kangan Arora, it was a case of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. When she came to London to study, homesickness led to a debut collection inspired by the colour and chaos she had left behind in the Punjab. “I can still find inspiration on every corner,” she says and her latest collection consists of three prints, Radium, Painter and Jali, sparked by a recent trip home. Radium references the offcuts of vinyl used to decorate commercial trucks in India: “They end up stuck to every surface in the workshops and create this incredible colourful camouflage,” she says. Painter comes from the traditional hand-painted signs that vinyl is slowly replacing: “I’ve taken their brushstrokes and enlarged them into a Memphis-style pattern.” Jali echoes decorative steel screens used protect Punjabi windows. “They are functional objects, and yet they have such beautiful, intricate patterns,” she says. Arora screen prints her products by hand in her South London studio and attributes her success in the UK to exactly what inspired her very first collection – the vibrant hues of her homeland. “London is an incredible city, but it is rather grey,” she laughs. “I think people are drawn to my colours."

Arora and Novocastrian are not alone in their celebration of location. When furniture designer Sebastian Cox was studying sustainable design at Lincoln University, bamboo was en vogue thanks to its fast-growing and self-replenishing nature. “I couldn’t help thinking: I’m sure coppiced hazel does the same,” Cox recalls. He now uses hazel, coppiced from the woodland where he grew up, for his Underwood collection, which showcases this British hardwood by leaving the bark intact. “Hopefully people will notice hazel in the woods and make that connection,” says Cox. Using the hazel ‘in the round’ also reduces waste from a typical 50% to just 10% and limits processing, which reduces the environmental impact and enables Cox to keep prices down. “If sustainability is going to work, it needs to be democratic,” he says.

Ceramics designer Charlotte Jones finds her inspiration in our most south-westerly county. “Living in Cornwall opens your eyes,” she says. “It might be the grain of local granite, an old Delabole slate roof, or some dead leaves, but something always sparks an idea.” Jones makes her pots from white stoneware clay, coloured with oxides and clay she digs herself. She burnishes their surface with a pebble before firing them. “I wanted a pebble-like surface so using a pebble I found on a local beach seemed only right,” she explains.

Nearby, Tom Raffield designs and makes steam-bent furniture from a workshop in a tree-filled Cornish valley. “The woodland is my main source of inspiration,” he says. “I wouldn’t be making the work I am if we were anywhere else – I only need to step outside and an idea could be staring me in the face." A case in point is his Scots Light, a lampshade made from 80 individually cut and steam-bent shards of ash, inspired by cones that fall from the scots pine trees surrounding his workshop.

It is these details, these local references, that give each one of these products their sense of place and stop them from becoming part of the homogenous world that globalisation is leading us towards. "Clients are becoming less concerned solely with price, and more interested in locally sourced, locally made pieces with a strong backstory,” says Novocastrian’s McCormick. What sets the design of tomorrow apart, then, might not be affordability, or even functionality, but whether you can see, right there on the surface, the roots from which it grew.

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