HomeJournalDiving into the Handmade in Spain
28 Apr, 2024

Diving into the Handmade in Spain

Author
Suzanne Wales
Suzanne Wales, based in Barcelona, writes about architecture, design, travel in Wallpaper, Dwell, National Geographic, Times Travel, and more. Her book 'Made in Spain: A Guide to Artisans and Their Crafts by Region,' highlights her unique perspective.

From wicker baskets to leather boots, artisan culture in Spain is booming thanks to old masters and young crafters.

The Industrial Revolution came late to Spain, meaning that traditional crafts survived longer than in many other European countries. Still today, handmade goods form part of the everyday landscape in Spain, boosted by a wave of young artisans creating new, design-led interpretations of age-old skills. With a push towards more sustainable consumption and natural aesthetics, luxury fashion brands and interior designers are increasingly sourcing handmade objects and decor too, giving artisan creators a much-needed boost. Far from relics of the past, craft in Spain is dynamic, modern and very much alive.

Ceramics & Pottery

Everywhere you travel in Spain, you will see colourful ceramic ware. From souvenir shops in the cities to roadside warehouses, designer homeware emporiums and open-door workshops. Cheap to make from water and earth, and in existence in Spain since pre-Roman times, pottery is the most ubiquitous and enduring of all the Iberian crafts.

But how do you define ‘Spanish’ pottery? Like most crafts in Spain, there is no one homogenous style. Aesthetic finishes, patterns and forms vary from region to region, evolving from local culture, historical twists and societal necessities. In the south of Spain, ceramics are heavily influenced by the geometric motifs that were brought over to Andalusia from Islamic Morocco. In Catalonia, pottery has a much more rustic, utilitarian appearance - often devoid of any hand painting at all.

The most prolific ceramic industry in Spain is Talavera de la Reina; a regional town in the province of Toledo. Pottery making has flourished here since the Moorish period but took off in the 16th century when King Phillipe II, who was an avid patron of the arts, brought over Flemish and Italian craftspeople who developed the lavishly florid blue and white ‘Talavera’ style. In 2019, UNESCO declared Talavera’s ceramic industry an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Historically, pieces crafted in Talavera workshops have been exported to homes and cities all over the world: the signature tiled fountains of Seville and the iconic cobalt blue street signs of New Orleans were both fired in Talavera’s ovens for example. For the committed ceramic shopper, there is no better place in Spain, with dozens of studio outlets and an excellent ceramics museum too.

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Valencia also has a long history of handmade ceramics and tiles and is the home base of one of the most famous ‘Made in Spain’ brands - Lladró.

Now 60 years old, the firm employs an army of artisans in its Ciudad de Porcelana - a giant workshop situated on the outskirts of Valencia. Although its scale is massive, everything inside is created by hand, right down to the smallest flower petal.

[Photo: Suzanne Wales]

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While Valencian ceramics have always had a reputation for the highest quality, lately they have been hitting the register of design aficionados as well. Ana Illueca is a Valencian ceramicist who expresses her very personal vision in contemporary and bespoke art pottery for architects and interior designers.

“When I first started, everything was a traditional style,” Ana says from her atelier in Valencia’s port area. “I wanted to do something folkloric but in a modern way. People these days are wanting more meaningful ceramics pieces.”

Copia de DSC05023Ana Illueca, a ceramicist from Valencia, molds her unique vision into bespoke art pottery, blending folkloric tradition with modernity. [Photo: Suzanne Wales]

Basketry and Natural Fibres

In 2023, the winner of the Spanish National Crafts Award was Álvaro M. Leiro, a basket weaver from rural Galicia. The fact that this prestigious prize was given to an artisan working in an everyday skill mostly associated with peasant fishing and farming communities was surprising, but not completely out of the ordinary, considering a rebirth of interest in basketry and fibre weaving in Spain. Leiro himself has recently collaborated with the country’s most prestigious high-fashion house Loewe on a series of bags that translate his weaving techniques to strips of fine leather.

SagarminagaGabriela de Sagarminaga's esparto grass creations blend traditional Basque influences with contemporary design. [Photo: Suzanne Wales]

A move towards organic materials and references to nature has created a new wave of young artisans working in wicker, flax and natural grasses. Fresh from displaying her work at Habitat, Spain’s annual design and furniture fair, Gabriela de Sagarminaga creates large-scale decor pieces using esparto grass that are often inspired by Basque cultural symbols and heraldry.

In Madrid, Javier S. Medina is another young artisan who turns an outmoded icon, this time the hunting trophy, on its head, by rendering it in a natural material, horns and all. His pieces can be seen in the trendiest cafes and homes in the capital.

The award-winning artisan Idoia Cuesta is also optimistic about the future of basket-weaving crafts in Spain. “They are still very much alive,” she states from her home-workshop in a Galician village. “If you go to any village market, you still see basketware for sale. Older, retired people are still making them, and people in villages still use them, for collecting fruit from their orchards or chestnuts in the forest.” Cuesta herself creates bespoke pieces for prestigious homeware brands, and gives classes in her signature, abstract knotted, plaited and interwoven designs - a technique she has likened to creating a bird’s nest.

Leather Goods

Although Leather Guilds have existed in Spain since the Middle Ages, it was the nobility who elevated the skills through their necessity for fine footwear and horse tack to get around their mammoth estates. Andalusia still proudly displays this love of horsemanship in nearly every festivity. The region is the best place to order a bespoke pair of boots or a saddlebag from a handful of leather dynasties such as Guarnicionería López in Seville and Manuel Cejudo in Huelva, reportedly where the Princess of Wales orders her riding boots.

LeatherContinuing a rich heritage, Spain’s expert cobblers, from Seville’s Guarnicionería López to Barcelona’s bespoke ateliers, create exquisite shoes for connoisseurs and royalty alike. [Photo: Suzanne Wales]

Spain’s excellence in footwear however was sealed in the fledgling years of industrialisation, when production was set up in small factories and goods were exported to all parts of Europe. Mallorca was the capital of this thriving business, partly thanks to an early adoption of Goodyear welted sole technology. Founded in 1866, Carmina Shoemaker still hand-makes its elegant men's and women’s shoes on the island, as does Lottusse, a company that first flourished selling study brogans to European armed forces.

On the mainland in Barcelona, a handful of ateliers excel in the exacting art of bespoke shoe-making. Former architects Ignacio Aldanondo and Catuxa Fernandez trade under the name aldanondoyfedez from an airy workspace in the hip Raval district. Their avant-garde designs, each of which takes between 50 to 100 hours to craft, are very much in demand by Spain’s fashionistas. Close by, Norman Vilalta’s men’s brogues, moccasins and ankle boots enjoy a more conservative clientele, which is rumoured to include King Juan Carlos I. Vilalta, who is originally from Argentina, studied shoemaking in Florence. “My maestros were classicists,” he declares. His haute couture shoes, which can cost in the vicinity of 1000 euros, take time and commitment; firstly with careful measurements, then carving a wooden last, before a trial shoe and the final version is made.

Glassware

3. COCOL GlassIn Cocol's Madrid store, these hand-blown glass pieces celebrate Spain's vibrant glassblowing artistry. [Photo: Suzanne Wales]

In the early 1700s, King Phillip V of Spain ordered the construction of the Real Sitio de San Ildefonso - ‘La Granja’ for short. Situated in Segovia and modelled on the Palace of Versailles, the complex was not only a royal summer retreat but also a place for artisan skill enhancement and learning. The Real Fábrica de Cristales de la Granja is still today the most prestigious centre for glass blowing in Spain, an art that has diminished in other parts of the country with a few notable exceptions.

Around the same time that the furnaces La Granja’s furnaces were churning out crystal chandeliers and goblets for lavish banquets, the young Aragonese glassmaker Blas Rigal arrived in Palma de Mallorca and applied for permission to set up a factory. Three centuries later, Gordiola is run by Rigal’s descendants, now in their eighth generation. The company still produces icons of Mallorcan glassware, which is known for its colour and characterful ‘bubbles’, creases and textured appearance. Iconic designs include a curly-handled, faintly baroque olive oil dispenser for the kitchen, and water glasses strewn with contrasting coloured ‘drops’ and criss-cross patterns. Both can be sourced in Gordiola’s shop in Palma or factory in the centre of the island where you can watch the mesmerising spectacle of glassblowers at work.

Natural Wood

Wood is to wet northern Spain what clay is to the dry south. Blanketed in thick forests of oak, pine and ash trees, carved, turned, built and even branded timber is part of the everyday landscape. Items crafted in wood range from decorative, such as the distinctive street and shop signage seen in Basque towns, to furniture and kitchen and tableware.

In rainy Galicia, where wooden clogs are sometimes worn by farmers toiling in damp soils, Berros is known as a town of woodturners. With an abundance of raw material growing on the river banks, people came from all over the region to place orders. Under the name Atalanta Madera, siblings Ana and Isabel Neira craft stylish plates, bowls, scoops and other home and kitchen objects. The Niera clan has been turning wood for 200 years, so when their father died without a male heir, the girls decided to learn the trade themselves.

“I knew that I was perfectly capable of learning it,’ says Isabel.” And this theory of wood crafts being a male domain, well really, what is that about?”

In remote Asturias, self-taught wood crafter David Santiago also applies his skills to objects and tools for the culinary arts, an interest that was spanked whilst working as a baker.

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David made a giant spatula for hauling loaves out of the bread oven for himself, and requests from fellow bakers followed.

Today, his sleek, crafted wooden bowls, plates, pepper mills and even cutlery grace the tablescapes of some of Spain’s most lauded restaurants - an important niche market for many creators in a dining culture where presentation is a huge part of the experience.

“I was never really interested in ‘artistic’ crafts,” he says. “The ones you see in museums and galleries. I was interested in functional handcraft, the stuff you use every day, and that is within everyone’s reach.”

[Photo: Suzanne Wales]

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The Metal Arts

Should you be in the market for a sword, head to the city of Toledo. More famous perhaps as the birthplace of El Greco, the city was also the royal seat of Spain for five centuries, and as such a local weapon and armour industry thrived.

Out of the hundreds of blacksmiths that toiled in and around Toledo, only two workshops remain - Artesania Arellanos and Espadas Mariano Zamorano. White the market for genuine Spanish steel swords has unsurprisingly waned, a reprieve has come from the film and television industry and the popularity of blood and guts historical dramas.

Damascene was another metal craft that once flourished in Toledo. The art of intricate etching onto blackened metal surfaces was brought to the city by the Moors and became very much in demand as a way of decorating weapon handles and shields.

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Though the souvenir shops in Toledo are full of intricate Damascene objects, only a small percentage is still made in the city by a dwindling number of practitioners. When her father retired, Racquel de la Torre was determined to keep the family Damascene tradition alive by creating a more modern, less ostentatious version of the art, which she does under the name Togashi Damasquinos.

“I aim to make the black metal stand out and let it breathe,” she says.

[Photo: Suzanne Wales]

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Like many young artisans in Spain, de la Torre hopes to bring a younger and fresher feel to the craft, helping to keep it relevant for generations to come. ||