Kevin McCloud - The culture of making

by Jan Lasnon

On the eve of the Balvenie Mastercraft Awards, I was delighted to be able to track down one of the judges for a quick chat about craft. Like millions of viewers, I had only really seen Kevin McCloud on his TV show Grand Designs but, as it turns out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Fortunately he was in quite a relaxed mood, having already sampled a small taster of his favourite brand of Balvenie whisky, so he laughed when I opened with a bit of a clanger, suggesting he was better known for cutting edge design than craft.
“Hmmm that’s interesting”, he said, adopting an amused tone,  “I don’t really know what people would automatically associate me with, but I trained as an architectural historian with a degree in art history specialising in architecture and my first business was craft based!”
In fact, as many people probably already know, it turns out that Kevin McCloud is extraordinarily passionate about craft and this has always been a significant factor in everything he has turned his hand to. Here then is a potted history of Kevin McCloud the TV presenter, artisan and published author.
Before his TV career began, Kevin owned a lighting business. At one time he employed 26 crafts people and had a forge. He worked with a number of different crafts businesses in Somerset that included glassblowers and ceramicists.  Between them they welded, cut, gilded, patinated, enamelled, wired, packed and finished to produce individual, beautifully created lights some of which are in landmark locations such as the hotel in which we met,        The Savoy.
Kevin has been a member of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings for 35 years. He says he is deeply in love with and respectful of traditional buildings crafts and, in fact, has lived in and repaired a series of old houses. 
He is equally passionate about the interior of the home and has produced several successful books, one of which is ‘The 43 Principles of Home’. 
“That book is all about the culture of making,” he explains, “and the narrative of things. It’s about people who love what they do. They all have a story and there is the narrative of the well made thing that makes you want to hold on to it, to keep it and cherish it. It’s about the importance of not buying things that have been mass produced. The stories behind them are often stories that you would rather not know about.”
I asked where the book could be purchased from and found him to be equally passionate about supporting your local bookshop and not buying everything from Amazon!
“My local bookshop is Hunting Raven in Frome,” he explains, “and they are excellent.  I would encourage people who buy books to always try to support their local independent booksellers.  My local bookshop is really good at supporting local authors and I think that’s the same with a lot of independent sellers. If everyone just uses Amazon,   I think local bookshops will disappear.”
It also came to light that Kevin enjoys having a go at all sorts of traditional crafts himself. In fact anyone who watched Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home, which ran from 23rd September through to 14th October, will have seen this for themselves.   However, at the time of our discussion, the series was not complete, so we talked about what was going to happen.
I asked Kevin how the programme came about.
“I have tried my hand at all sorts of traditional building crafts,” he explained, “such as lime plastering, which is something I really enjoy. I’ve also spent time in woodland felling trees, bodging, splitting timber and making things like shingles.
“Like most people, I depend on - and indeed love - the modern world… I also love technology, my car, restaurants and shopping. But amidst all the gizmos and luxury of a 21st Century life, I know that there’s something missing. I’m a consumer, not a maker.   So I wanted to make something. Something powerful and basic - a shelter to live in with some creature comforts: a chair, a window and….  some lunch!”
The idea was taken up by Channel 4, who commissioned a series of four one-hour programmes, in which a shed was to be built from scratch.
“More precisely,” Kevin continued, “I’m going back to the woods to build myself a shelter from first principles. This will involve attempting a host of craft skills, everything from woodturning to forging a knife to growing salad. 
“The series will be an exploration of the value of craftsmanship and well-made stuff by, well, making stuff. And probably by messing it up in the process!
“I fully expect not to be able to make iron ore, leather from a dead sheep, a stove, bed linen, comfortable furniture and insulation out of old moss and seaweed. There will be a spa, using water from the shed roof and heat from the wood burner I intend to construct. Failure is not an option, it is almost guaranteed - hence the need for experts and inspiring craftsmen - giants among men and women.”
Kevin McCloud’s new series ‘Man Made Home’ was broadcast weekly from 23rd September through to 14th October on Channel 4. You just know everything will have turned out OK because he’s too passionate about everything he does for it not to be, but, at the time of writing this, I’m really looking forward to seeing a programme about craft that’s completely different.
The book ‘The 43 Principles of Home’ and the shorter ‘Principles of Home’ are available to purchase through all major booksellers and, in particular, from Hunting Raven bookshop in Frome, Somerset.

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