Creative Women At Work: director of Collect modern craft and design fair, Isobel Dennis

— by Alyson Walsh

Isobel Dennis photograph: Neil Mackenzie Matthews


Isobel Dennis is the director of the Craft Council’s international modern craft and design fair: Collect. No longer a dirty word, craft has been going through something of a renaissance, thanks in part to this pioneering exhibition, now in its 16th year. ‘The Crafts Council identified a market for makers producing work of museum quality, and represented by galleries in more of a fine art context,’ Dennis explains, ‘ Collect is a professional platform promoting this work and forging strong relationships with the galleries, while nurturing makers and artists.’ The 2020 exhibition showcases the work of artists, designers and makers from over 25 nations. And this spring, the art fair moves to a beautiful new venue – one of my favourite London spots, Somerset House. I caught up with Isobel in the South Wing to chat about her role as the director of an international arts fair and the process of moving an exhibition across town.

Naturally interested in people, Isobel enjoys working in a team and comes from a background in the arts. Prior to her new-ish role at the Craft’s Council, she has worked freelance for Kevin McCloud, and directed exhibitions and events for a number of organisations including the Design Museum. Studying a degree in 3D Art & Ceramics at University of the Arts in the 1980s, she then ran her own company, and this experience of designing, making and exhibiting herself has provided a framework that helps support her work, today.

I know from organising a number of my own, very small  book launches how much hard work, preparation and planning is involved. Here Isobel Dennis explains the knowledge and skill required to direct events on a much, much larger scale:

Glazed porcelain by Park Seo Hee at Llyod Choi Gallery

TNMA: The move to Somerset house is exciting, isn’t it?

ID: It’s really exciting, especially as I’ve only been in this role for 18 months. So it’s something that I was tasked with very soon after I’d started. The Crafts Council had been looking at moving, we’d been at the V&A for five years and before that spent 10 years at Saatchi Gallery. It’s good to do fresh things. There’s not a huge amount of places in London which feel right for the fair, and we kept coming back to Somerset House. When we did approach them they were really excited and they really understood what we were trying to do. The cultural fit was just right. It’s a building that has gravitas. The 18th century grandeur as a backdrop to very contemporary pieces will also be interesting. There’s so much atmosphere, it’s in a cultural hub and the another thing is that most of the gallerists will get their own room. It’ll mean they can put their on signature on it. People get used to things being familiar but moving allows you to refresh and reset things.

TNMA: Apart from being a superb organiser, what other skills does a fair director need?

ID: Well, like any good leader you surround yourself with brilliant people. You can’t do everything and you can’t have the expertise on everything. So I’m really lucky, I have a great team and great people. The team that works on the fairs is teeny-tiny, so the bigger thing for me is that I have the support of the whole Crafts Council. I work with different teams across the council and there is lovely support across the board. I feel privileged to be a part of this.

It’s also about relationships. You have to enjoy people and you have to be interested and curious, and quite frankly that comes naturally to me. If you are interested in people you care about them and what they’re doing. That gains you credibility and trust. It’s about good teamwork.

Klai Reis’ hand painted petri dishes, The Cynthia Corbett Gallery

TNMA: Which designers or makers are you most looking forward to showing at Collect?

ID: Well it’s interesting because we have so many amazing artists and designers coming through, and actually until we present we don’t know what will be the star pieces or who will be the star artists. It’s probably more about the gallerists that come and who they represent. We’ve got new galleries and returning galleries, and some who have been coming to us for many many years. We have a great glassworks gallery from Scotland called North Lands Creative, another to highlight is Lloyd Choi, he has worked with one of the South Korean collectives at Collect, for many years, and is bringing some really interesting work. And then you’ve got Katie Jones who is an absolute expert in Japanese work, you go to her house and it’s just full of boxes of beautiful work. In Asia the whole presentation is as important as the piece of work. Joanna Bird is another one who has been with us for many years. A brilliant specialist across all different mediums.

They’re all incredible people, hugely talented, knowledgeable, committed and dedicated to what they’re doing.

TNMA: Talk to me about your amazing necklace – it’s like a Bridget Riley, in rubber!

ID: So this is from my old life – for 14 years I was group director of ‘New Designers’, which was a graduate fair and exhibition. And as part of it I met a woman called Jelka Quintelier, and her company is called Black Lune. What’s amazing about this piece is that it’s black rubber. It’s so robust. It’s got amazing strength to it. People always love it because they think it’s made of leather, and it’s actually made of roofing rubber!

I do love a bit of jewellery. Another designer I’ve followed for many years is Marlene McKibbin, she does brushed steel and wire pieces and works in acrylic, as well.

Vase by Gregory Tingay, Studio Pottery London

TNMA: What’s a typical day like?

ID: There isn’t really such a thing, as fairs are cyclical. You do have to be a master of spinning plates. You have to be really organised and playful, to be adaptable as things change all the time. You do have to be fleet of foot. I also have to travel a lot, too. I travel and I cultivate. It’s all about that relationship-building.

I do feel lucky, it’s a privilege to be working on something that I love. My background way back was business design and ceramics, so it helps to have an understanding of the creative process. So, coming to Collect was sort of like coming home. It means that I can talk with knowledge. I was an exhibitor as well, selling to big stores in the States and big galleries. I understand it from a maker’s perspective and I also understand it from an exhibiting point of view, too. I understand the financial implications. And how important it is to get it right for the visitors and the curators. You have to be very customer focussed. I always try and put myself in their position and understand what their situation, to understand them as people.

TNMA: Craft is having a bit of a moment right now, why do you think that is?

ID: A moment! Craft is a movement! It’s been going for forever. And it’s always been there. It’s our 16th year. We’ve been pioneering it and pushing it for a long, long time.

It can be a misunderstood word. What is nice is that at the Crafts Council we’re dealing with everyone from four-year-old primary school children, on education, right across to development of young talent. And then we do so much with our own collection, too. We have a collection of over 1700 pieces. Our work then goes right through to Collect, which is craft in a fine art context. It’s my job to inform people and to understand craft in a different way.

Craft has always been pushing the boundaries across design and art. It really is so strong. It’s such an honest process. And it’s so incredibly skilful. One of our big themes this year is glass. And what I’ve been so impressed with, is the incredible skill in manipulating a molten material. I mean it’s bonkers! It can be blown, it can be cast, it can be stretched, clamped, it can have other materials pushed through it. This story and the people behind it really deserve that hero moment. We are supporters of living artists. 80% of the work has to be made in the last five years. So, 20% can be used as historical reference. Collect is about introducing new work onto the market, it’s about new commissions, and it’s about the living artist. And the work this year is just gorgeous.

TNMA: Taking about the future, once the fair is finished do you start planning for next year?

ID: It never stops, especially when you’ve moved. There’s so much more planning to do for what we’d call a ‘foundation year.’ We’re already planning for next year. I think we’ll nail it!



In addition to the main fair, this year’s Collect Open presents a platform for 12 new craft-led artists and collectives which will be showcased around Somerset House. The annual Collect talks programme will also return, exploring contemporary craft with leading voices from the worlds of craft, design, architecture, fashion and art.

Access to the Talks Programme is included with any purchased ticket.

Opening times

From Thu 27 Feb to Sun 1 Mar 2020. More details HERE.

Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA

Tickets available HERE.



Keep Reading

What a beauty editor keeps when Marie Kondo’ing her makeup bag

  Isobel Dennis is the director of the Craft Council’s international modern craft and design fair: Collect. No longer a dirty word, craft has been going through something of a renaissance, …