What would it be like to live as William Morris and other Arts and Crafts pioneers did? The BBC put six makers and designers into a house for a month to test it out. Now they tell us what they learned from the experience – and we could too.

NORMALLY when silversmith Bryony Knox is in her Edinburgh studio hammering, as she puts it, "a piece of metal into submission”, she listens to an audiobook or music as she works. It was this that she missed at Wyndcliffe Court, where she spent a month as one of six craftspeople filmed for the BBC show, The Victorian House Of Arts And Crafts. The only music there was the occasional guitar or harmonica provided by fellow craftsman, Abdollah Nafisi. What she experienced instead was either silence or the beat of her own hammering.

“I did so much hammering,” she recalls, “I had to have ear defenders in, which makes you think more. You’re very much more in your head. So I was probably just thinking a lot more, just thinking and getting into the meditative nature of the hammering.”

For the past month BBC viewers have been following a group of six crafters, thrown together in one of the gentler reality television shows, in a house in the Welsh hills. Their time was spent without technology, with only occasional phone contact home, and nothing but traditional tools and their ingenuity and imagination to work with.

During that month they had to make a series of objects and furniture pieces, some of which drew on their experience and skillsets, others of which demanded something new. Product designer, Ilsa Parry, was tasked with making wallpaper. Embroiderer Niamh Wimperis struggled over the rush weave on a chair. Knox, who normally works with metal, collaborated on making curtains. Scottish potter Stephen Winstanley tried his hand with gesso, a substance made from rabbit skin glue and chalk.

The show was enthralling not just because of what it told us about craft and the radical principles of the Arts and Crafts movement but because it showed us real work – the blood, sweat and tears that it took, for instance, cabinet-maker Abdollah Nafisi, to make a reproduction of an iconic chair from the crude basics, without the help of modern machinery. At one point he hugs a tree trunk, exhausted by the effort it took to split it.

Watching these people hammering, stitching, weaving, sawing, or throwing clay, tapped into a yearning in many of us to get away from our computer screens and phones and do something with our hands that doesn’t involve a thumb swipe or a key stroke. The Victorian House Of Arts And Crafts seemed to chime with many of today’s lifestyle trends – the Slow Food movement, the buy local ethos, the need for mindfulness. It felt as if it might be a guide showing us what’s wrong with how we are living now and how to fix it.

“There’s a zeitgeist, isn’t there?” says swordsmith Rod Hughes, one of the more combative personalities in the show, who locked horns with fellow participants a couple of times. “I think because jobs work these days has become very impersonal. If you’re in the gig economy you’ve just got to race round doing whatever it is you have to do. I know very few people in conventional jobs who say I really love my job. Most are doing the work to make a living to make ends meet.”

The show, he says, helped him understand the work that went into some of the Arts and Crafts objects, and how radical that approach was. “I saw how monumental it was that they were espousing quality and time spent in craftsmanship at a time when the whole market was going towards cheap and cheerful.”

The key figures in the English Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, John Ruskin, Charles Robert Ashbee and others had a vision not just for how our homes should look but how society might work – and it was in direct reaction to what they felt was the dehumanisation of industrialisation and mass manufacture. It's worth remembering that, while the BBC show focussed on Arts and Crafts in England, one of the wider movement’s shining lights was, of course, a Scot, working in Glasgow, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Hughes believes the Arts and Crafts approach to making has resonance today. “There are a lot of people who are rejecting consumerism. I don’t know whether it’s tied in with Brexit and the idea of relying on ourselves or whatever, but we’re seeing another renaissance of people wanting to make things.”

Hughes, 62, began his working life as an apprentice engineer in the shipyards in Southampton. “One of the reasons that I was interested in the programme was because I’m a little bit older and I’ve come for a period where high quality and craftsmanship in everything was normal. Though even then, by the time I was schooling and learning my craft, we had lost a lot of the quality and craftsmanship.”

The BBC show, though, is not just about craftsmanship, but also the Arts and Crafts movement’s collaborative way of working. For many of those there, the environment of the house was also a world away from the solitary studios in which they work. Potter Stephen Winstanley, for instance, turns his kitchenware in the back garden of a house he shares with friends in Dundee. The experience of working with other people, collaborating, he says was one of the biggest lessons for him. “There was such a sense of community – being a bunch of makers living in the one place and sharing meals with each other. I’m very secluded in the way that I work.”

Knox, too, works mostly alone, in her magical studio in Edinburgh, where the walls are hung with tools, playful, humorous pieces of jewellery and sketches from her latest larger scale projects. What’s immediately striking is that the tools she has here are mostly the same ones that people have been using for centuries. Her craft connects back in a long thread through many generations. The chase and repoussé techniques – where metal is ornamented or shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief – date back far further than the Arts and Crafts movement. She recalls for instance visiting the National Museum Of Scotland’s exhibition, The Celts, and seeing similar work to what she does there, produced before the birth of Christ.

Knox pulls out a book and points out metalwork dating to 150BC. “This is the technique I use. It’s chasing. I remember looking at this piece. I was starting to do a few sketches, and I got closer and closer and I could see that they’ve got little herring bone costumes on and I was thinking, ‘If I made a tool that did that, then maybe I could do this.’ I started thinking, well, that’s been pushed from the back and that’s been flattened there. And as I thought that, I got this really cold feeling down the back of my neck. I thought I could just feel the people who made this. People think of metal as an inanimate material but you have to really beat it to shape it. These people would have really had to put their energy into it.”

Knox’s enthusiasm for her craft is infectious. At one point during the television show she says, “I’m lucky enough to be someone who has found what it is they are meant to do in life.” Her love of working in metal was something she discovered while at Woverhampton Polytechnic doing a course in 3D Design: Wood, Metals and Plastics. She tells a story, for instance, of how she first learned how to make screws. “I couldn’t believe that you could make screws. I remember being so excited about tapping and dying, how you could cut off the top of a rod and make it into a screw.”

Her journey, though, during the show, was an emotional one as well as an exploration of new skills. She entered the house not long after her mother died, and one of her key collaborations was with product designer Ilsa Parry, who had also lost her mother, on a weather vane. Knox recalls that the silence and remove from the busy modern world helped her grieve.

“To have time away from being a mum, from running my own business, was just what I needed at that time. Even working in the workshop on my own – I didn’t do anything collaborative until the second or third week – was just brilliant." She recalls that her one companion much of the time was a butterfly. “I was very much aware of things like butterflies when mum died, and day one this butterfly arrived in my little shed and it was there the whole way through and it died on the last day.”

Would she have liked to live back in the Arts and Crafts period, as one of the makers? “I don’t know if I would as a woman,” she considers. “It would depend upon where you were – England or Scotland?” She points out that she knows of no reports of any women metal workers in the English Arts and Crafts movement, though there were some in Glasgow. “I know from a bit of research that I had done about Glasgow School of Art that because of Fra Newbery being the head of the school of art at the turn of the century, he was really encouraging women to come to art college and they had a huge metalwork department that did a lot of repoussé.”

Among the female pioneers of her craft here were Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, wife of Charles Rennie, and her sister Frances. “Without those women,” she says, “I wouldn’t be doing what I ‘m doing now, because they were some of the first women who not only designed the piece and made the piece and then sold it.”

One of the issues that many of the crafts people raise is their concern that some of these skills are being lost. Swordsmith Rod Hughes, for instance, is even in discussion with the BBC about doing a show on 'endangered crafts'.

“There are many crafts out there that were still happening when I was young and are no more. They’ve gone, or the very last person is making that item and hasn’t passed the skills on.”

Knox echoes this concern that skills are being lost. “Charles Robert Ashbee set up the School And Guild Of Handicraft which was like a forerunner to arts colleges. But we have virtually come full circle because so many arts colleges are now disappearing. They’re losing their funding. They’re deemed as expensive courses or you can’t actually make enough money out of them. And so lots of these skills are disappearing. It’s amazing to learn these skills but you actually need to pass these skills on – which is partly why I love teaching.”

Meanwhile, is the radical philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement still relevant now? Could an Arts and Crafts way of life be for all, even today? Or is it, as some accuse the Slow movement and organic food, only really something that the rich can afford?

Hughes thinks the Arts and Crafts revolution was never going to entirely work. “It was a fool’s paradise, to be honest. I think there are numbers of amazing communities within the country that are really lovely alternative places, founded on these principles, but you’ve actually got to have quite a lot of money to live there. It’s lovely having biodynamic and organic food but it is actually 50% more expensive than having normal food. So the aspiration they had of everybody enjoying the same things as them. You had to be quite wealthy.”

But, while we may not be able to afford a hand-crafted chair, there is something we can all take away from the programme and the movement – the inspiration to make things ourselves. As Hughes puts it, “We may not be able to buy something, but we can certainly all afford to make something. I do courses with people in making swords, and they take that sword home and even if they’ve made a mistake, that thing has got so much value to them.”

This is Knox’s message too – that what she wants to get people doing is making. “It’s wonderful,” says Knox, “to be able to show people some of these skills and to make them seem accessible. Because they are. It’s just you and a hammer. It’s just having the confidence to wield it and not be afraid to bash the hell out of the metal.”

The Victorian House Of Arts And Crafts is on BBC iPlayer