Brett Payne: innovative design and craftsmanship

Brett Payne

by Angie Boyer

It was in 1996 that Paul and I first went to see Brett Payne in his Sheffield workshop and featured his remarkable jewellery in our magazine. Now, some twelve years later, we were visiting him again, chatting about how things have developed and moved on, not only for him personally, but for the British Craft industry generally.

“Strong geometric elements, a regular, identical, repeating pattern echoing the ever recurring remainder figure of a mathematical problem, always one more unit exactly the same to follow the one before. Each piece when worn transformed into a flowing shape with a balance and rhythm running through its line.” Such were my words back then when I wrote about Brett’s jewellery, and they still hold good today, but now the emphasis in his work has changed. Then Brett’s work was predominantly jewellery, he recognised the difficulties of making a professional career solely as a silversmith and wondered whether it could be possible; but during the last ten years or so he has found a way through those difficulties. “Now 95% of my time is spent on silverware not jewellery. It’s a personal thing, a new challenge. I have tackled lots of forms - from big and extravagant to everyday pieces, now other things begin to fascinate me.” Brett’s main focus is indeed his silverware, in particular the fascinating candlesticks that he has become known for. His mesmerising designs are brilliant examples of balance and form in harmony, soft and subtle yet mathematically precise. Each piece is individually hot forged by hand in Sterling Silver, “a delicate metal that demands precision and refinement during its working,” he explains. “Silversmiths generally work with the metal cold, but if treated with respect and great care, it can also be worked hot.” The art of hot forging silver has a long tradition and Brett uses this ancient process to create innovative, highly contemporary designs; elegant, flowing shapes which, when placed together, form spaces that become an integral part of the design.

Brett’s work is widely respected and collected and in future times will be closely associated with fine design and craftsmanship of this period in Britain’s creative history. I asked him whether things have simply evolved this way, or did he set himself a goal to reach in his career?

“I never really had a life plan as such,” he tells me, “but I didn’t exactly drift into this either - designing, making and selling my own work suits my personality. If you’re going to be a success (and people can define that in their own terms) in this kind of world, you do have to be very determined. This is not an easy option, constantly evaluating what you are doing, what you want to do next, how you are going to do it. It is a very small, enclosed world where you can become well known in your own field. I don’t particularly want to be famous, but it’s very gratifying when people see my work and appreciate it. This way of life is not suitable for everyone, but it works well for me and the kind of way I want to work and live.”

Brett prefers to sell his work direct to the client, often making contact with new customers through craft shows. “In very simple terms - where I am now - the marketing strategy I have is actually very similar to what it was in 1996; it has remained the same because it works. Everything is more sophisticated now of course, it was early days then. Now I have a better understanding of how it all works and I’m better able to use that understanding to make it work better.” Exhibiting at craft shows provides the opportunity to meet customers and have personal feedback and discussion, something which Brett says is too important to be left to galleries.

“I have never sold a great deal through galleries. To make everything individually means there is something of yourself, some personal element in the work. To make that worthwhile, I want some personal contact with the person who buys it. I enjoy the connection, in an indefinable way it keeps it all relevant. “And there used to be a perception that if you weren’t showing in London, your work wouldn’t be contemporary,” he continues. “But I successfully exhibit my work at events in many different regions; Brighton, Hereford, Oxford, Devon. It takes an act of faith I think, on the part of some of these organisers, to make the commitment to organise a top quality event with contemporary work in a more provincial and rural setting. I applaud their ambition to succeed with these events and people do appreciate us going to them. Makers should take their best work wherever they go; people know what they are looking for, appreciate the work and understand what you’re doing with it wherever they live, it’s not just in London that you find this reaction.

“I consciously try to present very good work in areas which are not necessarily obvious venues - and it can work, with commitment. Event organisers and makers all have to consider what they’re doing to be an investment; they need to stay with it, look at new shows long term for results. Makers need to take responsibility for their own success at events; prepare well before hand and work hard when you’re there.”

Sheffield has an excellent reputation for contemporary craft and there are now more working silversmiths in the city than for many years. Brett readily shares his knowledge and experience with some of the young people when they first start their careers. He tells me about the mentoring scheme that he, along with other established silversmiths, initiated at Persistence Works, where he has his workshop: “There are several established silversmiths working in this building and it struck us all that it would be helpful for emerging young silversmiths to have geographical access to our different skills and individual knowledge. When the graduates first come here they get to know each of us and then choose which silversmith they would like to have as their mentor for a year, it’s likefor- like pairing really. We’re not tutors, they have to make their own decisions about their work, but we’re here to advise and support, to help them become independent and self sufficient in their work.” Brett has exhibited his work widely in public shows and exhibitions, both in the UK and internationally. What advice would he give to new, young designer-makers coming into the industry, how might they succeed in earning a reasonable living from their work? “Some younger makers tend to look to me as a role model, a mentor. In recent years there has been a negative feeling about the viability of earning a living as a silversmith. I wanted to show that it is possible. In the last five years my business has changed completely. I still produce jewellery and will supply it, but what I think people like me do best is to offer them something that is not a product created as the result of any market research or cost production analysis. It is the product of an individual’s character and imagination, which by definition makes it different from anything people will ever see in a high street shop. We produce pieces that excite people - when you are a small maker, that’s the advantage you have - big manufacturers can’t do that, they produce lots of things that appeal to everybody but excite nobody - that applies to everything really, not just jewellery and silverware.

“The trick about how to make a success of it as a maker is that you have to have a character, you have to have something to say in your work - and then you have to go out there and find someone who agrees with you � because they will be your natural customers! Work is easier to sell if it has something individual and exciting about it. “Promoting your work and selling it at craft fairs can be hard work, but I tell these young makers, ‘remember, you are the world expert on you, no-one knows more about you and your work than you do! You must be confident about who you are, what you do and why you are doing it.’ I see the mechanics of running my own business as an extension of my creative process - what can I do to make this bit work better? If you produce good work you deserve a good sales process as well - every part of what you do has got to be as good as it can be.

“Making and selling your own work is not an easy option. The range of skills you need is many and varied and you have to do all of them really well. It’s a circular thing really, like cogs in a wheel, everything must work perfectly, just one weak link, one cog out of place, and it all collapses. At the time that Brett graduated from Sheffield Hallam University with a BA Hons in 3-Dimensional Design, technology probably took second place to traditional skills. Times change and computer aided design is accessible to all today, particularly those taking courses in creative skills at university. I ask Brett whether he thinks the creative use of technology is destined to become the ‘craft’ of the future?

“I do use technology in part of my practice,” he replies. “And I suppose you could say that tools are technology, I’ve always been comfortable about using machine tools as well as hand held tools

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