Brilliant Britain editor Henrietta Thompson meets British designer and craftsman Simon Hasan to talk about craftsmanship and his bespoke designed pieces.
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Britain is a nation with a rich history of craftsmanship, and London based Simon Hasan is one of a new generation of designers intent on rediscovering this heritage. Combining industrial techniques and materials with those such as medieval armour and rope making Simon describes his approach as a type of Design Archaeology; his process includes diving into history books for research as well as much hands-on experimentation in his Shoreditch (soon to be Bermondsey) based studio.
I have long been a big fan of his leather pieces, having first come across them in his graduation show. Using a technique called “Cuir Bouilli” (Boiled Leather was always going to sound better in French) to make vases, stools and chairs – they were all made in limited editions and sold to collectors all over the world. Never having got my hands on one to own myself I was very happy to find out that Simon has just launched a new collection of leather accessories, including carafs, vases and lampshades, and furthermore that – as this time the leather is baked, not boiled, they will of course be available much more widely. Of course. Actually, no, I’m puzzled. Tell me more!
The new pieces are beautiful. But what’s the difference between boiled and baked leather?
Although they’re both rooted in the same principle (the use of heat to deform and set the leather), it’s about how far you push the material. Boiling the leather is a much brutal processes, and truer to how a lot of medieval objects were probably made. It’s aesthetically challenging and not so suitable for volume production since the process degrades the material somewhat. Baking the leather is a gentler application of heat so the material stays intact and it’s easier to control.
How did you originally start working with these processes?
Whilst at the RCA in 2006 I read about a 15th century technique of boiling leather to make armour and drinking vessels with wonderful names like ‘blackjacks’ and ‘bombards’. As a designer I’m fascinated by old crafts techniques and when I first read about this, I was intrigued by the possibility of using heat alone to harden leather. It was really enticing, especially as leather is something we usually associate with refined luxury, not brutal medieval processes. So, the interest is not solely the material, but the extreme method of processing it which is a sort of material alchemy. It was too irresistible to not try to revive the technique.
Richard Sennett, author of “The Craftsman” famously claimed that it takes 10,000 hours to learn a craft – is that true?
So that’s about three and a half years of eight hour days…? Sounds a bit short to me… I’m still learning, but perhaps because I’m not interested in repeating myself, but trying new things with the material and process that I haven’t tried before. Perhaps you should ask a craftsperson…!
Do you believe craft is the future of design?
I think craft is the future of design and design is the future of craft. They both need each other. The industrial revolution meant that the crafts were made largely redundant by industrial design and mass production. Designing for manufacture meant that crafts techniques were no longer necessary, nor aesthetically desirable. But I think we’ve come so far, to the extent that increasingly the physical object is now replaced by software, data, and slick surfaces that are so shiny or refined you can’t see the thing itself. The crafts are wonderfully positioned to bring back physicality and texture to things, and add an additional layer of context and rootedness which is so often missing. That can only be an enriching thing. But, I think it’s up to the designer to take this forward, since designers have a foot in both worlds – craft and industry.
What does “Made In Britain” mean these days (as in other than the obvious)?
It’s something that we shall increasingly see at home and issues of provenance can only be a good thing. Other than the obvious associations with MIB, is it desirable to have something made in Britain and sold on the other side of the world? That’s a big carbon footprint. Perhaps there’s a new model where things are designed in Britain and made much more locally to their point of use, or where some parts are made in Britain and combined with other parts that are made overseas for logistics or economic reasons. It’s a complicated issue and there are no absolute answers but at least these things are being talked about.
What is the most exciting thing to you about being British?
This will sound like a cliché but I do love the multitude of languages, colours, foods, styles, architectures, etc. that are crammed into this small island. But London is very different to the rest of Britain. Perhaps it should be its own country…?!