Close your eyes. Think of the stern touch of leather. The delicacy of embroidery. The soft blur of an oil painting, varnished 200 years ago, now licked with a patina of time and legacy. Now open your eyes.
What you’re experiencing is at the heart of British interior design; an obsession with craftsmanship and tradition.
Today, we’re delving deeper into one of the cornerstones of this mighty island’s design identity. And we couldn’t take this trip alone. We’d like to present you to Richard Parr, Architect and connoisseur of Britain’s oldest furniture and architectural traditions. From his work on Farmyard at the Newt to his personal paradise in the Cotswolds, Parr has dedicated much of his career to reinvigorating the forgotten homes of England, and giving them a contemporary second life that inspires a connection between the inhabitants and nature.
To better understand the origins of this country’s intimate connection with craftsmanship, we need to go back to the basics…
Richard Parr and the value of artisanship
The United Kingdom has a myriad of long-standing artisan furniture and architectural products, ready to be used by designers and architects alike. Many of these have their origins in the Middle Ages, yet their beauty has not waned since.
Richard has been interested in artisanship from an early age. “Pottery at school, drawings and making models. I think that this leads seamlessly into my architectural studies, where the architects that I admired went beyond plans and specifications but worked with materials and skills to create something unique”.
For the British architect, artisanship is about the “journey trodden before (him)”, yet these techniques have a place in the present and future. “It is becoming more and more important because I am trying to employ local and natural materials for environmental reasons. There is knowledge owned by craftsmen, and the artisanal aspect of this is fundamental to creating legacy buildings”.
Artisanship in action, today
Many traditional design elements have been substituted by more cost-effective ones, often leaving aside artisans and their ancestral methods. While there is obviously a time and place for contemporary design, the beauty and importance of traditional furniture and architecture cannot be overstated. By sourcing from traditional craftsmen, designers boost local economies and assure the survival of these incredible pieces into the future.
Richard Parr agrees that “the biggest threat to craftsmanship is generic specification and cost.” According to him, “We have a duty to design things that don't merely cater to a building's specifications or aim to be the most economical option. We can also take our clients on a journey. We achieve this by involving them in commissioning pieces, from cabinets to masonry. This personal involvement not only enhances the role of the artisan but also enables the client to actively engage, observe, and relish the process.”
If you’re struggling to find these artisans, it might just take a more astute eye and some of Richard’s recommendations. “Degree shows, word of mouth and craft fairs are great sources. Collect at Somerset House is one of my favourites”.
Given the importance of artisanship to Richard, we wondered whether designs are built around the artisans pieces, or otherwise integrated into the project. His answer was direct; “Yes, we do this all the time; if the project offers the opportunity to do so. First, we identify areas where individual pieces can be utilised. We then create a brief for this, which aligns with our design aspirations for the project. This is followed by a shortlist of makers, and ultimately, our clients commission the work. Sometimes we will arrange this ourselves, but we have found that involving the design team and sharing the process with clients is a more productive way of working.”
Project Spotlight: The Newt
In the development of the new Farmyard section at the NEWT HOTEL in Somerset, England, architect Richard Parr faced the dual challenge of rejuvenating 18th-century structures and creating fresh designs. The existing buildings, including a threshing barn, cheese-making barn, stables, and granary, had fallen into disuse due to changing agricultural practices, presenting initial challenges of disrepair and neglect. Nevertheless, Parr was inspired by the site's natural beauty and creative potential.
In addition to restoring the existing structures, Parr introduced new elements to the property, such as a horseshoe-shaped buggy shelter and a building accommodating two suites. His design also featured a modern interpretation of an English barn, complete with a vast glass panel that seamlessly integrated the interior with the natural surroundings. The concept was to transform traditional spaces into versatile and contemporary settings.
The outcome, known as the Farmyard, successfully merges contemporary design with the luxurious ambiance of Hadspen House. Parr's attention to detail and respect for the historical context shine through in the choice of local materials, preservation of original silhouettes, and the addition of captivating elements like a mural made from Italian ceramic tiles. The project achieved a harmonious blend of old and new, creating a multifaceted experience for all who visit—a true testament to the purpose and pleasure behind every design choice.
Sneak peak: Richard Parr’s upcoming projects
To get us excited, we had to ask Richard about his upcoming projects involving artisanship. “We are exploring a multitude of areas involving artisanal craftsmanship. These include casting and firing clay panels to clad a Paragraph 80 project in Surrey, handcrafted timber-framed buildings at The Newt, rammed chalk walls in the Chilterns, bespoke tile hanging in Sussex, a contemporary reinterpretation of thatching in Suffolk, and a modern approach to 16th-century timber panelling for a Grade II* manor house in Wiltshire. The list could continue indefinitely.” To keep updated, don’t hesitate to check out Richard’s social media.
Artisanship in detail
If this article is throwing you into a British craftsmanship rabbit hole, we have more for you in this section. Learn about textiles, ceramics, silversmithing, stained glass, furniture, ironwork and royal patronage in one (quick) scroll.
A tapestry of textile traditions
Britain's love affair with textiles and weaving can be traced back to mediaeval times. However, with the early advent of the industrial revolution to Britain, textile artisanship and know-how developed exquisitely fast and powerfully, giving rise to a long-standing textile tradition. Today, regions like the Scottish Highlands and the Yorkshire Dales are celebrated for their distinct tartans and woollen textiles, each telling a unique story of regional culture and craftsmanship. Traditional hand weaving techniques, such as handloom weaving and spinning, have been lovingly preserved, allowing artisans to continue creating bespoke textiles that exude authenticity and character.
The powerhouse of British ceramics
British pottery and ceramics have earned a global reputation for their exquisite craftsmanship. Staffordshire, often referred to as the "Potteries," was at the heart of the ceramic production during the Industrial Revolution. Names like Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton are synonymous with fine porcelain and earthenware, cherished for their time-honoured techniques and artistic mastery.
Richard has taken the lead on British ceramics, even in unorthodox ways. “We have recently worked to design our own glazed sinks and tiles. Taking colours and glazes which are unique to a project is an exciting idea. In Suffolk we found pieces of 19th Century local glazed earthenware on the shore and we are looking to revive this within a project”.
The art of silversmithing in Britain has produced some of the world's most sought-after silverware. Renowned silversmiths like Paul Storr and Hester Bateman crafted intricate pieces that continue to captivate collectors. Today, contemporary silversmiths uphold these traditions, employing techniques like chasing, repoussé, and engraving to create heirloom-quality silverwork.
Stained glass stories
Stained glass has adorned British architecture and ecclesiastical design for centuries, adorning the interiors of iconic structures like Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. Expert stained glass artists carry on this tradition, crafting bespoke pieces that infuse spaces with the luminous beauty of coloured light and intricate designs.
This type of art is personally important to Richard Parr. “One of my favourite works, often described as a masterpiece by experts like Spence, is the Baptistery Window at Coventry Cathedral. This impressive creation comprises 198 vibrantly coloured glass panels and stands at an impressive height of 26 metres. The artist responsible for designing this stained glass marvel is John Piper. His vision for the project revolved around the idea that with 198 individual sections to fill, the glass required a vibrant and abstract pattern to establish a sense of unity. He collaborated with glassmaker Patrick Reyntiens, resulting in what I believe is a highly underappreciated pinnacle of British 20th-century design.”
Furniture-making with timeless appeal
British woodworking and furniture making traditions are a testament to meticulous craftsmanship. Styles from regions like the Cotswolds are defined by simplicity, exposed joinery, and the use of high-quality woods. Modern artisans continue to create handcrafted furniture pieces that seamlessly blend heritage techniques with contemporary design sensibilities to this day.
“Being based in Gloucestershire, in the heart of the area where the Cotswold School worked and flourished, I am, therefore, a devoted fan and collector of everything that originated from there, including Gordon Russell furniture. My Gimson chairs hold a special place among my favourite pieces of furniture.”
Ironwork for the ages
Blacksmithing and ironwork have shaped both practical tools and decorative elements throughout British history. From functional iron gates to ornate railings, traditional blacksmiths and ironworkers are keeping the craft alive by creating custom pieces and restoring historic ironwork.
Royal patronage: A seal of excellence
Throughout history, British monarchs and the aristocracy have been champions of traditional craftsmanship. Their royal patronage elevated artisans to national prominence and ensured the continuation of their craft. The Royal Warrant of Appointment, a prestigious mark of recognition, further reinforces the deep connection between traditional artisanship and the monarchy.
Richard Parr believes that “recognition in whatever form is needed to keep artisanal work alive. Royal patronage has very much been replaced by a new wave of patrons and we need to celebrate that when it occurs”. Absolutely!