Barn the Spoon is not happy to see me. A flannel-clad mountain of a man, he shakes my hand warily at the urban farm where I’ve found him, before assuring me that he absolutely does not have time to talk with me. He is about to fly to Sweden for a speaking engagement, and he has a class to prepare for, which—he turns to his assistant, who does a quick check—is completely full and therefore could not possibly admit another person even if only to observe. He also, he says, nodding toward a tripod set up across from him, has a video to shoot. I prepare to slink off, duly chastised for thinking that I might just waltz in and interview a man who carves spoons for a living. Clearly I’ve underestimated what it means to be a craftsperson in London today.
What does it mean? It doesn’t take the existence of a subscription-based spoon-carving video channel to know that craft is having a moment. There are artisans everywhere these days, and whether they’re making sour beer or wingtips, they all seem to be members of the same aesthetic cult: rough-hewn apron, well-trimmed beard, carefully styled Instagram account.
But in London, somehow, craft doesn’t feel so trendy, or at least not merely trendy. Maybe it’s because the city’s history as an important center for the handmade is still imprinted on its geography, in street names like Threadneedle Street and Goldsmith’s Row. Maybe it’s because 110 livery companies—the city’s original trade associations—many of them centuries-old heirs to the medieval guild system, maintain a strong presence there, holding craft exhibitions, training new artisans, and in some cases even overseeing quality. Or maybe it’s due to the tenacity of craftspeople today, thriving in the face of the rampant real estate development and skyrocketing housing prices that threaten to turn the capital into one big shiny shopping mall for bankers and oligarchs. Handmade quality is fighting back against mass-produced quantity. And if you seek out the right neighborhoods, you can find the artisans who are saving ancient London’s very soul.
Three train stops from the 95-story skyscraper known as the Shard, the Peckham district’s relatively reasonable rents draw artisans looking for work space among the neat houses and reggae-blasting tropical fruit markets. There, I find Blenheim Forge, wedged, like so many latter-day creative work spaces, into one of the city’s long-disused enclosed arches beneath the train tracks. A dark tangle of tools, sparks, and noise, the knife-making workshop looks like it could have existed in the Victorian era. A hulking metal-rolling mill, acquired from a factory in Sheffield, once England’s cutlery-making capital, dominates one corner. Grease tattoos the hands of the three men who run it. But James Ross-Harris, Jon Warshawsky, and Richard Warner did not step out of some Dickensian nightmare of yawning flames and forced labor. They chose their métier mostly because, well, it seemed fun. “We were interested in the process more than the knives themselves,” admits Ross-Harris. “It was supposed to be mythically hard.” He was already working as a blacksmith when he became intrigued by what he had heard about Damascus steel, a legendary compound metal used in blades that have surfaces etched in acid, imparting a complex pattern of rippling waves. To his and Warshawsky’s surprise, they got the component metals to stick together on their first try. To their even greater surprise, they failed every time after that. It would take them a year before they got it to work again, but by then they were hooked on the process. They quickly impressed some well-known chefs with their new creations. “We did a barbecue with [star Argentine chef] Francis Mallmann,” recalls Ross-Harris, “and he came up to us afterwards and said, ‘I’ll take the whole lot!’”
Joined by Warner, they’ve been making knives full time for four years now, and on a good week turn out 30 blades. As I watch them work, I’m struck by how much skill it requires to transform a chunk of steel into something so precisely tapered and subtly flexible, durable yet delicate. Just don’t call them artists. “We’re manufacturers,” Ross-Harris says. “We make tools.” That might explain why he finds it painful when their knives are acquired by people who like the idea of handmade more than they like the work of chopping and slicing. “They’re meant to be used,” he says. And with that, he straps on a pair of protective earmuffs and begins, like an ageless incarnation of Vulcan, to grind the edge of a blade.
Like the knife makers, Andreas Hudelmayer seems to belong to another age, though his surroundings couldn’t be more modern. Located a few blocks away from Blenheim Forge, his workshop is a banal white box in a former parking garage. Now called Peckham Levels, the building consists of seven neon-colored floors of work spaces for creative types. It houses a yoga studio and food stalls, and its rooftop deck offers fantastic views of the city. It makes an incongruously lively setting for Hudelmayer’s meditative job, which is to select blocks of wood and then cut, carve, sand, stain, and tune them into violins. Tall and serious-looking, Hudelmayer chose his path while still in high school, as a way to combine his love of music (he was then a good-but-not-professionally-good cellist) with his love of woodworking. “Pure woodwork is something you can learn,” he says. “But to make violins, you also need to listen with a musician’s ears, to be able to hear whether an instrument enables the musician to draw out different colors.”
That romantic notion could be a sound bite from the Golden Age of violin making (the late 17th and early 18th centuries), but Hudelmayer also speaks with real excitement about the ways the craft has changed recently. “Up until a couple of decades ago, it was all very secretive, and so much of what you heard about violin making was as much myth as anything. But now you can do a CT scan of an instrument to learn how it works. And about 20 years ago or so, people started sharing information online. It’s made for better instruments—maybe even ones that are as good as the old ones. It’s the New Golden Age of violin making.”
Hudelmayer’s clientele consists almost entirely of professional musicians. Caren Hartley, on the other hand, appeals to a broader market with her bespoke bicycles. Located in an industrial park in Mitcham, a suburb in southwest London whose vast lavender fields were long ago swallowed up by ironworks and cloth-printing factories, her new studio is still very much under construction when I visit. Dust speckles Hartley’s black T-shirt, paint stains her strawberry blonde hair, and she has to shout over the power saw’s whine to explain to the electrician how she wants several fearsome-looking machines installed.
Hartley has been working with metal in one form or another since high school. When a friend whose bike had been stolen offered to pay for her to take a course in bike building if she got to keep the end product, Hartley jumped at the chance. She found her calling. When she talks about it now, she sounds like Goldilocks: “With jewelry, it’s so small that I would get frustrated,” she explains, “and if it’s big, like a sculpture, it gets cumbersome. But I really enjoy the scale of bikes. They feel about right.”
Size matters a lot to Hartley. She has made a name for herself in part by designing bikes for shorter adults, especially women. Yet thanks to her bikes’ elegance and her careful attention to detail, they also draw, she says, “a lot of middle-aged men who want something obviously handmade, with all the bells and whistles.” In fact, she says, that description applies to plenty of the people seeking out artisanal products these days. “A lot of people want something unique to them. They want to be able to say, ‘No one else has this.’” They’re also willing to pay for that uniqueness. Hartley’s higher-end designs start upwards of $6,000.
Yet the higher price of handmade can’t keep up with London’s rising rents, which is why, Hartley says, so few true artisans can afford to work in the center. She’s right, which is why someone like Tania Clarke Hall knows how lucky she is. A jeweler who crafts exquisitely cut leather necklaces inspired by Maasai necklaces, she works in a studio at Cockpit Arts, a center for craftwork located a 15-minute walk from the British Museum, which is about as central as you can get in London. Cockpit is a social enterprise funded by individuals and organizations—among them some of the livery companies, including the Leathersellers’ Company and the Haberdashers Company—devoted to keeping crafts alive. “The community matters,” Clarke Hall says. “It feels good to know that you’re surrounded by other artisans who can help when you need advice or just to borrow a tool. None of us could have afforded to work in the city otherwise.” Still, one of the pleasures of exploring crafts in London is discovering the neighborhoods you might never otherwise visit. To find Peter Bellerby’s studio, I walk through Stoke Newington in north London, a once-Hasidic, now-trendy district where the streets are lined with kosher butchers and organic bakeries. I head down an alleyway and step into a place that looks like a Renaissance geographer’s workshop. Light streams through the tall windows, illuminating wooden tables, paintbrushes, and about two dozen workers who hunch over globes of all sizes, engaged in something between science and alchemy.
Bellerby got his start making globes several years ago, when he looked for one as a gift for his father’s 80th birthday. But the modern globes he found didnʼt meet his exacting standards, and the antique ones were lovely but far too expensive. Bellerby, who had been working as a real estate dealer, decided to make his own. He might have underestimated what was involved. Simply learning to stretch paper onto the sphere would take him two years. The project would ultimately require him to sell his car and then his house, but when he was done he had not only a globe but also a new business.
Cartographers help Bellerby design the maps and mark customized locations and add illustrations—a small pyramid to commemorate a trip to Egypt, whales in the Atlantic for a Moby-Dick fan—at the customer’s request. Then comes the tricky work of applying wet strips of flat map to the spheres, which are made from plaster of Paris. Once the paper dries, artists hand-color the oceans and continents. Varnished, affixed with brass fittings, and set into its holder, a finished globe takes anywhere from three weeks to six months to make, depending on size. “You can’t make something like this unless you respect what you’re making,” Bellerby says. “The thing about handmade is the love that goes into it.” Bellerby’s workshop now turns out between 600 and 700 globes a year, which is fairly remarkable considering how many of us get our information about the world’s layout from our phones. But the demand, Bellerby believes, stems in part from the blend of utility and beauty. He considers each globe a work of art. Like many of the other craftspeople I spoke with, he believes that the current revival of the handmade is a rebellion against the mass-produced. “I can’t see the point of having a house full of things that have been stamped out,” he says. “People want fewer objects, and they want them to have meaning.”
The desire for meaning, for a story, for a few good items that say something to or about their owner, and in their creation process, about London itself—all of that comes together when I finally get to speak with Barn the Spoon. I must have looked pretty dejected at that first encounter, because as I was preparing to slink off, he conceded he could probably meet me on my last day in the city, so long as I came to his shop in Hackney first thing in the morning. It turns out not to be a shop in the conventional sense, for there are no goods on display for sale, just a block of wood and a handful of tools in a tiny, glass-fronted space. Barn, whose full name is Barnaby Carder, sits there several days a week, carving spoons.
His mood has brightened, and he laughs freely, periodically emitting a multisyllabic cackle—ha-ha-ha-HA—about the unlikely turns his life has taken. Although Carder grew up comfortably and went to university, he abandoned plans to become a biology teacher and apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker. Soon after that, he made an even more dramatic change. “I made myself homeless,” he says. “And became a tramp.”
Tramping meant going to live in the woods half the year, with only the bare minimum of clothing, a few tools, and no roof or walls. In winter, he carved spoons and sold them, sitting outside on a town sidewalk. It was a hobby he had started as a teenager. He liked the fact that spoons are simple and functional, yet require tremendous control and skill to make well. “They’re like little sculptures,” he says. He lived that way for three years. The summers in the woods were among the happiest times of his life, but the winters were more complicated. “When I used to sit on pavement, I was a very angry person,” he recalls. “I liked it because I felt like I had the moral high ground, having stripped away so much, but I was almost aggressive about it. A spoon monk.”
Working with green (recently cut) wood and carving traditional designs, the spoon monk began to gather customers, media attention, and even the occasional acolyte. By 2012, he had enough of a business going to open the shop. Now people come to see him almost as if they’re on pilgrimage. “I think they love that I just make spoons, the bloody-mindedness of it,” he says with another cackle. “It’s a couple of tools, a man, a spoon. Doesn’t take much explaining.”
He also teaches courses in spoon making, films instructional videos, and has written a book on the subject. He started a woodworking school called the Green Wood Guild and cofounded Spoonfest, which bills itself as the “Worldʼs Largest Spoon-Carving Festival.” Tickets to this year’s four-day gathering sold out in 12 hours.
By almost any measure, then, Carder has attained the artisan’s version of success. He earns a living from his hands, making functional objects appreciated by a broad audience. He is respected for his knowledge and skill. And yet he’s not sure he’s happy. “When I lived in the woods, I had zero stress, paid zero rent, didn’t owe taxes. Now, I wake up stressed. I have PowerPoint presentations to make and flights to book.” He shakes his head. “Part of me wants to give up and go back to the woods.”
During this whole story, his hands have never stopped moving. Over the course of our conversation, the block of cherrywood he started with has been transformed into a serving spoon, its handle beveled, its bowl curving to a point. He’s not entirely satisfied with it—the indentations where the handle meets the bowl aren’t right, he says. But the passerby on the street outside, who stopped to watch Barn through the window as he carved, doesn’t know that. The onlooker nods his approval, and then, like centuries of Londoners before him, continues down Hackney Road on his way into work.