The restoration sector is vital to the vintage and antique trade, and the environmental benefits of preserving well-crafted goods is well documented – yet crucial skills are at risk of being lost. Effect Magazine’s Roddy Clarke, whose childhood was steeped in the craft, writes a personal essay on the importance of ensuring these skills are passed on to a new generation
With my father being a china and porcelain restorer, the craft of restoration has been a huge part of my life. My childhood was filled with memories of witnessing him undertake intricate conservation projects and returning treasured antiques back to their former glory. The mindset of restoration didn’t just stay in dad’s workshop – it carried over into everything we bought and certain lifestyle choices we made. Nothing would be thrown away unless it had been ascertained that restoration was not an option. From pianos to furniture and even memorabilia, dad could turn his hand to a variety of different restoration techniques.
What I didn’t realise as I was growing up in the 1990s was that this circular mentality and value of longevity was rapidly being replaced with a mindset of convenience and a desire for trend-led fashion and interiors. With the high street booming and large stores offering vast ranges of mass-produced items, we became accustomed to variety, choice and the entitlement of thinking that continually updating our wardrobes and homes was the only way to stay in style. While being terrible for the environment, it also meant that restorers began to lose work. The pieces people were investing into didn’t hold the quality to be restored and, with price points lowering, consumers became sucked into this disposable lifestyle. With the industry losing traction, restorers began turning to other skillsets, changing career paths, and finding work elsewhere.
Coupled with this decline in the craft itself, the love of restoration also diminished. A lot of apprenticeship schemes were dropped and the uptake from younger generations slowed down. However, in more recent years, as the desire for antiques and vintage furniture has reignited, thanks to shows such as BBC’s The Repair Shop and an awareness of our environmental impact, the demand for these services is rising again. We are reconnecting to the narratives and passion behind restoration but, with a long way to go to preserve the integrity of its future, the need for a restoration revival is still very much required.
“You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to find restoration apprentices, despite there being so much opportunity for a long and lucrative career in this business,” says Owen Pacey, a fireplace restorer and owner of Renaissance London. “There’s also so much demand, not just in the UK – I’m getting requests from the US and Australia, too, for my expertise and products.”
With the rise of the conscious consumer movement playing its part in a renewed desire for antiques, finding restorers and maintaining the integrity of the craft is an ongoing challenge. Steinway, a company which from its outset has offered restoration as a core service to clients, is aware of the difficulties the wider industry faces. Selling instruments which are a lifetime investment, the international brand runs a full-time restoration workshop from its Marylebone location.
You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to find restoration apprentices, despite there being so much opportunity for a long and lucrative career in this businessOwen Pacey, owner of Renaissance London
“Last year we had one of our best years in terms of sales due to the pandemic,” says Craig Terry, Steinway’s managing director. “During that time, the piano resonated in people’s lives more than ever. As a result, we have seen an uplift in restoration requests over the past 24 months.” Meeting this demand has been difficult, he says, due to the difficulty of finding new restorers. “It is a hugely skilled and technical art, much of which can only be learned over time and on the job. So, we have to make sure we have a constant stream of talent to join and learn from our existing masters.” He adds: “While the role doesn’t appeal to many young people, the creative and emotional rewards are huge.”
Ensuring younger generations can interact with the craft is key, allowing them to witness the magic which lies behind restoration as a profession. While the pressure of modern technology can be too much for some, restoration offers the perfect antidote for those who enjoy working with their hands and find respite in practical occupations. “Whenever I am stressed, I will head into the workshop and get stuck into a restoration task,” Pacey reveals. “It is so therapeutic. Focusing on details and exploring the history of the mantlepiece as I work on bringing it back to its former glory is wonderful. There’s nothing like it.”
“It is a hugely skilled and technical art, much of which can only be learned over time and on the job… we have to make sure we have a constant stream of talent to join and learn from our existing mastersCraig Terry, managing director of Steinway
From an interior design perspective, the narrative behind antiques and restored items adds a depth and unique flair like no other. Upholsterer and interior designer Micaela Sharp feels it creates a patina that cannot always be achieved with newer items. Alongside this, she also states the importance of restoration as we work towards a greener future for the design world. “Restoration is a key part of designing sustainable spaces,” she says. “If we acknowledge that everything we are removing from a space needs to go somewhere, and preferably not to landfill, we start to understand the importance of repurposing and saving items. Also, it is often a cost-effective approach to interior design, tying in the balance of sustainability and affordability.”
As we look ahead to how future generations can invest in the restoration industry, we hope that an intergenerational crossover can occur to ensure these valuable skillsets are preserved. With educational organisations such as West Dean College and Chippendale International School of Furniture holding restoration and conservation as an integral portion of their syllabuses, opportunities are still available for upcoming creatives to participate. The next step in the sector’s longevity is to ensure the craft translates to a current design world – and that designers adopt a mindset of preservation as a priority, before buying or making something new. Through preserving the past, we can change the future ahead for the restoration world as we know it.
Roddy Clarke will be launching The Restoration Collective in 2023 and is working on a variety of projects to preserve the integrity of the restoration industry to ensure it can be transferred to future generations for decades to come.