ISSUE 03 | NEW ARTISAN
Face Furniture Fanatic
How does someone go from being a rock musician to making handcrafted eyewear?
By Clare Dowdy | Photography by Trent McMinn
In his youth, Rocco Barker found some fame as a guitarist in Flesh For Lulu, a 1980s Gothic rock band with a cult following.
“I’m not a particularly great musician,” he admits, “but I was lucky and I had the right haircut.” Barker, now 60, still boasts groovy locks, but these days sports a brown Open All Hours-style overall and a pair of his own statement frames.
Flesh For Lulu did well in the US, where they toured for ten years. But even while he was playing clubs and theatres, Barker was becoming increasingly fascinated by glasses. For him, they were a hangover from the 1960s and a symbol of instant cool.
He began picking up old frames in flea markets when he was on tour, and amassed a 20,000-strong collection, much of it pre-1970s and hand-made.
When the internet and downloads put paid to his career in the music industry, he rented a shop on London’s Portobello Road and started selling his collection. “But once they were gone, they were gone, and I thought they can’t be that difficult to make.”
So Barker drew on his happy times in his east London school’s metal-work department, and started teaching himself to make spectacle frames.
“Up until the late 1970s, Britain had a huge eyewear industry in the Kent area,” Barker says, “it was semi-skilled factory work.” But by the time he got interested, most of the UK’s eyewear manufacturers had closed down.
Caren Downie, founder of new eyewear brand ByOcular, backs this up: “There are very few spectacle makers left in the UK.” One of the remainers is Lawrence Jenkin of The Algha Works. Now home of the brand Savile Row Eyewear, Algha was set up by a German emigré in the 1880s and made John Lennon’s iconic Round Eyes specs, alongside pairs for Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter.
As well as learning from Jenkin, Barker spent several years unearthing the handful of remaining “old guys still making eyewear out of their garden sheds” and picked their brains. Some of them even gave him their old machinery, and he built other machines himself, gradually assembling “the bare bones of a production line”. He then spent two years perfecting the painstaking art of making a pair of glasses.
“I have been promising Mick Jones of the Clash and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols frames for years, but haven’t got around to making them yet.”
He now operates out of the cosy basement of Kensington Heights Opticians, opposite Brutalist architect Erno” Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in north-west London. Here, dozens of bits of ageing machinery sit alongside hundreds of acetate frames in various states of completion.
With his friendly, laid-back manner, Barker still has a whiff of rock and roll about him – not least his easy confidence in front of Furnace’s photographer. His frames adorn the faces of a few of his music industry friends, such as Keith Richards’ guitar technician, a Pulp band member, and “I have been promising Mick Jones of The Clash and Paul Cook from The Sex Pistols frames for years, but haven’t got around to making them yet.” His stockists include specialist eyewear store Bridges & Brows in Shoreditch, and ByOcular, for whom he makes glasses to customers’ specifications.
“When we heard that Rocco was setting up, it seemed an amazing opportunity to begin something new and exciting together,” says Downie of ByOcular. “I have always been passionate about proper craft, and bringing the craft and process of manufacturing back to the UK.”
Downie and Barker’s next step will be to take on apprentices, “so that the skills can be passed on and we don’t lose the heritage”, she says.
Barker and Downie are not the UK’s only eyewear crusaders. Fashion accessories tutor Flora McLean is pushing to introduce eyewear design and optometry to London’s Royal College of Art. “There’s no course like it in the UK, and it’s a no-brainer for me,” says McLean. “It ticks all the boxes: it’s technical, you learn how to do structure, it works in the fashion sense, and as face furniture it’s got the design aspect. All the luxury fashion brands are making money with accessories like eyewear, because there’s such a big mark-up. That means there’s a huge opportunity for students.”
The RCA already has form. Its jewellery graduate Alyson Magee has collaborated with famed French-Armenian eyewear designer, Alain Mikli, and with international couture brands. And as part of the annual 100 per cent Optical fair, RCA students can enter an eyewear design competition.
Designing some specs is one thing. But actually making them by hand is another. As Barker demonstrates to Furnace one spring morning, it’s a time-consuming, fiddly, exacting labour of love. He happily walks and talks us through the 50 or so steps to making a single pair. Needless to say, it involves much precision-cutting, milling and polishing, and working a six-day week, Barker can now produce 50 pairs a month. “It’s lovely work to do, it’s like model-making,” he says.
Take-out: Even waning industries can be revived with the right amount of fanaticism and tenacity