Despite having spent the last few years being fairly careful about what we buy, my household now owns a hangar-sized shed bursting with stuff. A move to a little house with only enough space for our A-list possessions has left our B-list ones waiting in a holding pattern in the back garden. Our shed contains: lovely memories in the form of outgrown toys and children’s clothing; disappointments in the form of near-new but broken and probably unfixable goods; and unflattering evidence of my spins on that silly merry-go-round known as fashion.
William Morris said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” and by moving to a smaller house I have accidentally finally achieved this. But I find that modern purchasing decisions are somewhat more complicated than in Mr Morris’s time. We live in a world awash with cheap, disposable goods churned out by poorly-paid, anonymous hands in far-flung countries. Turn on your television and you will face a barrage of advertising shouting at you to buy stuff. Leave your letterbox unprotected and it will get stuffed with junk mail offering you an orgy of consumerism. Open a magazine and you will face a dizzying conveyor belt of fashions, trends and fads.
Partly as a result of our bulging shed and partly in a backlash against this unsatisfying materialistic torrent, I have become an economist’s worst nightmare. I now buy very few things and what I do buy I intend to keep until either it pops its clogs or I do. I am a far fussier shopper than Mr Morris as I usually only buy things that I know to be useful and believe to be beautiful, plus they must be the best quality I can afford in the hope that they will actually last. No shouting from televisions is required to make me reach for my purse on the rare and happy day that I find something that meets all my strict criteria.
Luckily for me, I am a maker, and therefore the criteria extend to include some things which may not generally be considered beautiful and/or useful but are to me: my stash. My carefully boxed and labelled collection of old fabrics and haberdashery promises time doing what I love most: spending joyful hours with my hands busy and my mind free to wander. I love liberating the images in my mind by creating them as real objects in the world. I love the pleasant hours spent methodically and meditatively stitching the marks already present on the imagined version. I dream of the wonderful moment when the object in my hands materialises looking even better than imagined. (There will also be trips down creative cul-de-sacs with only discarded, sub-standard prototypes to show for it, but that is just part of the deal.)
In a time when many of the practical skills we all once possessed have been outsourced either to machinery or to people in other countries, I cherish my outdated skills and challenge myself to develop them further. This no longer makes much economic sense, but financial rewards for the things I create are only part of the story. That’s because for me there is great joy in the actual making process.
As I toil in my workroom I think of the many people who have told me, “You could make that!” about some other maker’s fabulous creations. It’s meant as a compliment, but it is because I am a maker and I know what is involved that I recognise how misguided that phrase is. Indeed, for me that phrase is like fingernails down a blackboard and I’ve learned to reply with just “No, actually, I couldn’t”, because otherwise I’d start ranting. I dislike it because it fails to recognise both the process (collecting materials, influences, prototyping, ditching inadequate results, learning techniques, shelving and revisiting an idea) and the characteristics of the maker (perseverance, patience, restraint, specialisation, focus, daring and experimentation). But worst of all it fails to recognise the maker’s evolution of their own style, their handwriting or signature, that wonderful thing where a maker has such a strong look that you can recognise their new work the second you see it in an exhibition, magazine, shop, market or wherever. So just as anyone could retype a novel they love (but where is the fun in that!), what they could never do is write that author’s next novel or the one after that. And so it is with making things.
And this brings me to one more category of goods which can persuade me, the reluctant shopper, the economist’s worst nightmare, to perform the rare action of reaching for my purse: I covet beautiful, handmade objects crafted by individual designer/makers at the top of their game.
It is precisely because I could not, or would not think to “make that” that I find myself seduced by a work: I marvel at a quilter’s impressively minimalist work because I have a tendency to go too far. I love a potter’s monochromatic work because I would find such restraint torturous; I love a textile printer’s painstakingly accurate work because I cannot imagine having such patience. I admire makers who have specialised in one technique because I want to dabble in everything. I even admire makers who are capable of reproducing multiples of the same lovely items year after year, because I certainly don’t have the patience to do that. But most of all I admire makers who handle the same materials as me, who use a similar toolbox and the same set of techniques that I use, yet come up with something so different from what I produce because just as the things I make come from my influences, needs, moods, current interests and design sensibility, so do theirs.
And that is where Vita Cochran’s hugely covetable work comes in. An endlessly surprising yet cohesive collection of joyous objects enter the world via Vita’s workroom; from the pretty Flora Bags to the disconcertingly attractive glove bags she displays her inimitable and instantly recognizable style. Petal Scarves, Venn Diagram Bags, and Orbit bags all feature her assured signature colour combinations. Her superbly crafted and timeless work nods respectfully at the work of past makers, waves cheerily at its silly cousin fashion, then confidently saunters off in its own direction. Vita’s vision and way with (sometimes mundane, actually most impressively when they are mundane) materials could never be taught or reproduced and that is what I admire most about her work.
Admirers of her work wait patiently for her next offerings then aspire to own them – no shouting from televisions required. These creations will never be relegated to living in a shed. Instead the A-list heirlooms she creates will be treasured by daughters and granddaughters for generations to come, or will quietly make museum visitors stop, admire and smile.