Contemporary Applied Arts, often called CAA, is London’s original multi-disciplinary applied arts gallery. For 70 years, we have championed and promoted only the very best of British craft. Our sole aims are to advocate for the applied arts and to campaign for and foster quality and innovation in this field.
We are a registered charity and a membership organisation with more than three hundred leading British-based craft-maker artists working in ceramics, furniture, glass, jewellery, metal, paper, textiles and wood. We view this inter-disciplinary approach as a harmonious dialogue between materials, techniques and diverse approaches to making. Selected maker members are craft professionals and are rigorously chosen by a panel of their peers. Belonging to CAA is seen as a kite mark of excellence.
Our member makers’ talent and artistic excellence is celebrated and flourishes through the activities of CAA, which include sales of makers’ work; innovative exhibitions; securing significant commissions for our maker members; facilitating acquisitions by major public and private collections; and running meaningful education, outreach and public participation programmes.
CAA does not receive any regular funding. We have no shareholders and all earned income is reinvested in the gallery and our charitable activities. Respected by our peers, our members and others working in the field and beyond, CAA has been influential and remained a beacon of excellence and integrity in the arts for seven decades.
What follows is a brief history of our first 70 years.
Contemporary Applied Arts has a long and rich history as a membership body for craftspeople and advocate for the applied arts. Paramount to everything we do is the act of making.
CAA’s mission is to promote the study, appreciation and understanding of the fine crafts in Britain.
Excellence in British craft
CAA was founded in 1948 as London’s original multi-disciplinary applied arts gallery and has continued to demonstrate the richness of craft in Britain for over 70 years.
CAA was established as a membership organisation for craftspeople and to advocate for good design in Britain after the Second World War.
CAA represents many of the most talented applied artists living and working in the UK today. All of them have been selected by a panel of their peers.
CAA actively initiates and facilitates commissions of work by our highly-skilled maker members for both public and private clients.
CAA remembers the long-standing support of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with great gratitude.
CAA is a Registered Charity (no. 235914) in England and Wales and a company limited by guarantee.
CAA’s constitution is set out in its Memorandum and Articles of Association. The Board of Directors includes seven Trustees, three of whom are CAA maker members. The staff are professionals with a passion for well-made contemporary objects.
Names can be confusing – Contemporary Applied Arts since 1987, British Crafts Centre from 1972 until 1986 and, in the beginning, from 1948 until 1972, the Crafts Centre of Great Britain.
Contemporary Applied Arts has a remarkable history. The idea of a members’ selling organisation was developed while planning the future of the crafts during the Second World War. As a result, five societies – the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, the Red Rose Guild, the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, the Senefelder Club (devoted to lithography) and the Society of Wood Engravers – came together to create the Crafts Centre of Great Britain. The Centre opened as a showcase for the crafts in April 1950. Its premises at 16-17 Hay Hill, just off Piccadilly, were fitted out stylishly by the architect Sergei Kadleigh. In 1953 the Centre became a trading body, as opposed to merely a showroom.
In 1953 the Duke of Edinburgh accepted the Presidency of the Centre. He continues to offer his loyal and informed support. During the 1950s both HM the Queen and the Queen Mother were regular visitors to the Centre.
The first Chairman was the illustrator and wood-engraver John Farleigh who served the centre with passionate commitment for almost twenty years until 1964. The advisory committee included distinguished figures like Roger Powell, bookbinder, M.C. Oliver, calligrapher, Edward Barnsley, furniture maker, Dora Billington, ceramicist, Leslie Durbin, silversmith, Alan Durst, wood carver and Marianne Straub, textile designer. From the late 1950s the role of craft and the Centre were fiercely debated. The Board of Trade via the Council of Industrial Design provided a small grant on the understanding that the crafts demonstrate their role in improving industrial design.
A series of fine exhibitions were staged, mostly group shows with an emphasis on the more traditional crafts of silversmithing, calligraphy and bookbinding. Architects were courted in 1960 in a joint show with the Royal Institute of British Architects – The Creative Craftsmanwhich was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh who made a plea for individualism in an age of mass culture.
In 1962 a strategy paper Image of a Crafts Centre, written by David Kindersley, James Noel White, David Thomas and Gordon Russell, tried to clarify the Centre’s role and that of the hand-made in the modern world. The Centre’s Government grant was withdrawn in 1961, its future was debated in the House of Commons in April 1962, its grant restored in 1964. In 1966 after a period of crisis for the Centre, Graham Hughes took over as Director and the move was made to a former warehouse in Covent Garden, converted by the architect Alan Irvine. A period of exciting exhibitions followed, including important solo shows for Peter Collingwood and Ruth Duckworth in 1964; for Gerda Flöckinger in 1968. In the same year Ken Price ceramics were shown on loan from the dealer Kasmin.
Tony Hepburn had a groundbreaking solo show in 1969, while Ann Sutton’s solo show offered a manifesto in 1969: ‘MATERIAL: being honest to, discovering properties of; related to NUMBER: systems, chance or random; related to STRUCTURE: basically textile, known or invented, using textile substances (yarns, filament, wires)…’ In January 1969 Sam Herman’s exhibition of glass led to the founding of the Glasshouse, allowing the public to walk off the street and see radical hot glass being created.
In 1972 the Crafts Centre of Great Britain was renamed the British Crafts Centre. The newly formed Crafts Advisory Committee became its chief funder and, to an extent, a rival organisation. The ceramicists Glenys Barton and Jacqui Poncelet, just graduated from the Royal College of Art, showed in 1973. A fellow ceramicist trained at the Royal College of Art, Elizabeth Fritsch, made piano music part of her show From Earth to Airin 1974
That year also saw the First International Exhibition of Miniature Textiles: ‘The object of the First International Exhibition of Miniature Textilesis to show that the vitality we have come to expect from large textiles could be communicated in the small. The exhibitors were invited to produce work up to 20cm in any direction which is a dimension believed to impose a discipline of scale and space and so encourage the artist to construct a true miniature textile rather than a large textile made small.’ In 1977, the potters Gillian Lowndes and Ian Auld and the textile artists and designers Roger Oates and Fay Morgan had joint shows that anticipated their future careers.
Tatjana Marsden became Director in 1983. There was a final name change – to Contemporary Applied Arts – in 1987. The 1980s were characterised by important solo shows marking a golden age for innovative craft: these included the potter Richard Batterham, the ceramicist Richard Slee and the artist Stephanie Bergman (who worked with textile and clay) in 1984; tapestries by Mary Farmer, and a mixed show of studio glass, as well as ceramics by Svend Bayer and Martin Smith in 1985; a joint show of glass by Steven Newell and tapestries by Marta Rogoyska; and exhibitions of work by Ewen Henderson, Tony Hepburn and Janet Leach in 1986. The jeweller Julia Manheim was paired with Richard La Trobe Bateman in 1987. Michael Rowe had a show in 1988. 1989 saw solo shows for ceramicist Gordon Baldwin and jeweller David Watkins and the important group exhibition Clay Bodiesthat included work by a young Philip Eglin.
The decade opened with a solo show for the weaver Stella Benjamin. CAA celebrated 25 Years in Covent Garden in 1992, an exhibition selected by the photographer David Cripps, the collector Lady Gibberd, the editor of Crafts magazine Martina Margetts, Victor Margrie, founder director of the Crafts Council, the former director of CAA Tatjana Marsden, the dress designer Jean Muir, Oliver Watson of the Department of Ceramics at the V&A, and Lindsay Wilcox, then chair of CAA. Alison Britton noted in an accompanying leaflet that recent CAA exhibitions had shown ‘unforeseen and hybrid work, pieces that slip between acknowledged categories… the liaison of painting and textiles, jewellery and clothing, the container and sculpture’. In 1994 there was a retrospective of the work of the late Angus Suttie and a move to Percy Street under the directorship of Mary La Trobe Bateman. The 50th anniversary of the founding of ‘this unique institution’ was celebrated in 1998, marked by a series of major exhibitions and an accompanying publication.
After Mary La Trobe Bateman retired as Director there were notable solo shows – for the weaver Ptolemy Mann and the glass artist Bob Crooks in 2003 and glass artist Colin Reid and woodworker Jim Partridge in 2004. The Perfect (2007) was a solo show for knitter Freddie Robins who explained of her work: ‘This new body of work deals with the constant drive for perfection. It is made using technology that was developed to achieve perfection. Technology developed for mass production to make garment multiples that are exactly the same as each other; garments that do not require any hand finishing, garments whose manufacture does not produce any waste, garments whose production does not require the human touch. Garments that are, in fact, perfect.’ In 2007 CAA boldly mounted the text-led show Place(s) curated by Think Tank: A European Initiative for the Applied Arts with an accompanying series of talks. The jewellers David Watkins and Wendy Ramshaw shared an important exhibition in 2009, and in the same year there was a first sighting of ceramicist Felicity Aylieff’s remarkable collaborations with workshops in Jingdezhen. For a brief period – 2011-2013 – CAA also co-ran the jewellery gallery Electrum.
In 2013 CAA moved to new premises in Southwark Street at the invitation of the architects Allies & Morrison, on the ground floor of a Victorian building owned and refurbished by the architects. model:making (2013) curated by Brian Kennedy celebrated this new relationship. Christine Lalumia was made Executive Director in late 2013; the following year the potter Emmanuel Cooper had a posthumous retrospective. A Leap into the Unknown (2015), an exhibition exploring happy mistakes and surprises in eight makers’ practices generated discussion and provided a platform for experimentation and growth. Other notable exhibitions included Richard Batterham (2016), an 80th birthday retrospective for this distinguished potter, and Bloomin’ Jewels, guest-curated by Corinne Julius in 2017. Home from Home: Ceramics by international artists working in Britain (2017) was curated by Christine Lalumia, ceramicist Kochevet Bendavid and Clare Maddison. It was accompanied by a short film and a publication bringing the makers’ voices to the fore, focusing on 25 contemporary potters born elsewhere who made Britain their creative home. Matthew Warner: Social Objects (2018) and Adi Toch: Echoes of Process (2018) gave insights into the unusual work of two young makers, a potter and a metalworker.
CAA continues to be the only membership selling body that includes all the crafts. It is a non-profit charitable organisation and it deserves all our support – now and for the next 70 years.
Text by Tanya Harrod, September 2018