The art of the matter
As the Bristol Guild has its centenary year, Stephen Morris meets the man who's spent 60 years at the helm
Ken Stradling sits on a see-through chair surrounded by Eero Aarnio puppies and Ron Arad's body-shaped loungers.
It is a scene that begs for Yoko Ono – but Yoko's not here, and instead, Bristol Guild's guardian of style pats a red dog and talks enthusiastically about future plans for a business that has been a feature of Bristol life for 100 years.
Established in 1908 at 75 Park Street by followers of William Morris's Arts and Crafts creed, the Bristol Guild of Applied Arts was a romantic notion – a co-operative of skilled workers offering hand-crafted work to replace mass-produced goods, and to reinvent the relationship between the worker and his work.
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The word "shop" was never used – this was a guild to teach people how to use their hands and bring beauty "to the very beginning of things, in the home and in everyday life".
Working members paid half a crown (12.5p) a year plus commission to sell their work. Sadly, the mechanised slaughter of the Western Front put paid to their dream of a gentler England, and the co-operative folded in 1918. Instead, the guild was bought as a business by three private owners, one of whom was Arnold Robinson. He was a gifted designer and maker of stained glass whose work appears in Bristol University's Wills Tower and in Bristol Cathedral.
Crucially, he was also a shrewd businessman. He understood how craft skills could be applied to everyday objects and used his professional eye to import superb Orrefors glassware from Sweden, Waterford Crystal and Whitefriars, plus pottery from Fishley Holland of Clevedon, who had worked with Sir Edmund Elton of Clevedon Court.
In the Thirties, no fashionable Clifton Christmas was complete without a greetings card from the guild's legendary display. And then there's Ken Stradling, who has been around the guild for 60 of those 100 years.
"Destined" to become a civil engineer, but reluctant to commit himself after his demob from the army in 1948, Signaller Stradling walked into the guild, by then at 68 Park Street, and asked Arnold Robinson for a job. Robinson hired him on the spot.
Sixty years on, and the man who thought he "might like to try it for a bit" is still there. From dogsbody to managing director and now chairman, he has seen the guild through recovery from bomb damage, post-war austerity, public prudery and a terrorist bombing to grow and become one of Bristol's favourite shops.
In the late Fifties, the guild looked to Scandinavia for forward-looking modern design. From Denmark, came fine teak and rosewood furniture and Holmegaard glass; from Sweden and Finland a wide range of pottery and glass with names such as Arabia, Gustavsberg, Iittala and Kosta.
Local painters Ian Black, John Eaves, John Stops and Anne and Jerry Hicks exhibited throughout the Sixties, and the internationally known potters Gillian Lowndes and Dan Arbeit had their first solo shows there.
The famous range of stainless steel tableware designed by the silversmith Robert Welch for the P&O liner Oriana was first exhibited in 1962.
Not all the displays have been well received. In a joint show with Arnolfini in 1973, a window display by the artist Peter Dockley caused a rumpus when his surreal wax models of pregnancy and birth decayed in the heat, as planned.
A passing councillor turned green and complained to the police.
The vice squad paid a call, but Stradling – ever the provocateur – declined to move the display. "I did agree to limit the public view by papering over the window, leaving only a narrow slit to look through. You should have seen the queues to have a look!"
Now, with Mike Cannings as managing director, the shop is making changes to keep ahead of the game. A refit of the guild has begun, with a new window opening the ground floor to passers-by on Park Street, and there are plans to revamp the courtyard cafe.
A new jewellery room has opened on the first floor, with displays including work by Georg Jensen of Denmark. New furniture from Italy, Spain and Scandinavia will be introduced during the year.
Ken, whose practical involvement in the arts extends well beyond the guild, and who has been at the heart of traders' campaigns to promote Park Street as "Bristol's West End", rather than just a strip of clubs and cafes, stays as committed to his work as ever.
Throughout the summer there are changing displays featuring new design and some of the best of the past 100 years.
The Guild Gallery on the second floor has a different show every month, featuring South West artists including Robert Antell, Catherine Hale, Rachel Aaronson and Felix Grant. Stradling's own collection of 20th-century ceramics – now held in trust – is on public view for the first time, and as a talent-spotter of 60 years' experience, he has a word of advice for anyone thinking of investing in arts and crafts.
"Invest? Absolutely not, if you don't actually like what you're buying," he says. "Buy because you like something, go for the best you can afford, and remember what Roy Strong says – that developing your taste and learning to look is just as creative as making and doing."
He still bubbles over with enthusiasm for the guild's unique charm, spread over a rabbit warren of rooms and levels in a way that encourages customers to explore.
"We're as committed as ever to developing our reputation for quality and design," he says, "and at the same time we want to surprise and entertain people. You could call it a quirky emporium."
There's a 100-year-old ring about that phrase, but be warned. Neither the Bristol Guild nor Ken Stradling has survived into the 21st century by living in the past.
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