bespoke pattern for Birmingham BHX

Designing bespoke pattern for clients is something that I have made a key professional design interest. Communicating a sense of place, historic reference or activity as pattern is what I really enjoy and over the years I’ve been on many site-visits to interesting places to learn about what the client would like or definitely not like. This visit was no different. I love the anticipation of finding out more, a new project to get to grips with, and all my design experience to apply to the challenge …

Some of my previous design work was used as a reference for context images by the original architects, proposing my patterns and stating my details – note – never send artwork without your contact details attached! Phone calls were made, samples were sent, bids were accepted and then a call-up. Please come to the airport for a meeting. There’s a tight deadline, a budget, and something the client knows they want. In a nutshell the brief: Celebrate Birmingham’s buildings in a one colour, repeating pattern that works close up in detail and from a distance as a visual rhythm. Buildings need to be identifiable.

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With any project I carry out research, ask the client lots of questions and evolve a design approach subject to the answers to my questions. Production methods, fabricators, material choices, colours, budgets, time-scales and of course client ambition for the project shape the design language and development of the project. I set off to take photographs of central Birmingham and climbed tall landmarks to get good views. I took photographs, made sketches as well as notes. I had some buildings in my mind I knew needed to be included but I also wanted to use others , less iconic ones, as visual rhythms to play with negative and positive shapes across the composition.

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Back in the studio I chose paper cut-outs as a clear graphic way to create the buildings, as I have done for several commissions including for the Barbican and TfL posters. Once the individual buildings were cut out I scanned in the artwork and spent many hours moving everything around in Adobe Illustrator. I was testing rhythms in and out of repeat and shifting scale, proportions and pairings. This can send me back to re-cut something or add new details. To some people those hours of making subtle tweaks and changes wouldn’t even be noticed but to me it’s so important that every inch of the design works the best it can and it can be time-consuming – but it will be worth it. I can’t stress this enough to students embarking on their Final Major Projects at the moment! When you know what scale the final artwork will be produced at you need to check the correct level of detail as working at a computer screen can be very misleading for artwork several metres long!

A concept sheet and initial design piece was sent to the client for approval and at this point I had to label the buildings I’d included. Once approved I was able to continue building the full repeat, adding further buildings, and make test prints with the help of the team at the Window Film Company – who I already have award-winning work with! They really know their stuff and several phone calls later to check small details regarding file specifications and production issues resulted in the excitement of samples to sign off, both by me and the client. A couple more proofs for colour matching and scale of design was checked and then we were good to go. Quality is everything when it as your name on it, and making sure that everything about the design is right BEFORE it gets installed is rather important. Sleepless nights before installation of projects has been known!

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This project originally came my way almost a year ago with some scoping phone calls and emails, and now I’m able to share photographs with you. I’ve had people let me know they’ve seen work that looks like mine at the airport – hoping I hadn’t been copied – but no, this time it is mine! When Birmingham Airport tweeted the pictures last week I was delighted that I can now share images of this project from 2018 – when I was Birmingham-based as it states, and now it feels rather a fine farewell to the place I called home since 2005.

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(onsite pictures – official photographs from Birmingham Airport)

Yes it is by the toilets, yes I have already worked on two commissions for public toilets (Colchester / Dedham many moons ago), and I can’t promise this will be my last!

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Gardening with Mr Bawden

So this is the week my book ‘Gardening with Mr Bawden’ is being published by Design for Today. It’s been many months in the making, so I’m very excited to be able to share the details and for other people to hold the book in their hands.

What began as a project brief for a book with interesting folds that celebrates Edward Bawden’s love of gardening has become a project I am very proud of and have thoroughly enjoyed for lots of different reasons, pushing me creatively along the way. I love a design challenge and returning to the subject of gardens has been a pleasure, having launched my garden-inspired Plot to Plate collection back in 2012 and being a keen allotmenteer. I’ve moved away from my usual diagrammatic visual interpretation of gardens, towards a more illustrative manner, following on from my Parks and Gardens commission for posters for London Underground last year. It has also been a joy going back to paper engineering and book art – having made many editions of artists books over the years following an MA in the subject from Camberwell in 1998.

The images below show some design stages of this project with Design for Today. There is an early paper maquette as I worked out the structural narrative in relation to the imagery. Several of these were posted between us to allow for discussion and deliberation. At one point there was a cut-out pond but I was unhappy with how it worked on the back of the page so I left that behind. I cut lots of lino, with each page requiring at least two blocks – one for each colour. Although I had an idea of the key focus and composition for each spread it wasn’t until I was cutting the lino did I tie precise detail down. Only a couple of times I decided to completely abandon a page spread and rework it – and I’m so glad I did! Each block was hand-printed and hung to dry in the studio before being scanned to make a digital file that could be prepared for the lithographic printing process of the final edition at Calverts.

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Once the final sheets were litho printed and die-cut / creased we have had to fold them one by one, sign the special edition and pack them up. We even decided to hand-cut out a window pane of the greenhouse in the edition of 100. We are delighted that the Special Edition sold out fast, well before the publishing date – thanks all! Those lucky people will receive the book along with a little booklet of the project and greetings cards, any day now!

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This collaboration with Joe has been a really positive experience as we are both passionate about doing a great job. He was always happy for me to tweak something one last time as we signed off proofs, and understood the reasons why I turned sentences inside out in the booklet, to say exactly what I wanted to. Joe and I have discussed page size, paper weight and the folded structure on several occasions as well as how you take inspiration without copying, and the issue of creating something in relation to, but not derivative of.

I am sure people who know my work will recognise my style in there, despite it being a little bit more illustrative. Pattern making relates to both Bawden, and myself, so it made sense to include a nod to wallpaper designs too, inside the greenhouse, as pots of plants become floral wallpaper. I wanted to use lino because both Bawden and I have used the printmaking process. I also wanted to create a light-hearted feel to the imagery, that is so often in Bawden’s commercial illustrations. As I wrote before in a previous post, we researched lots of snippets of information to guide the imagery and are grateful for there to be so much writing and research available at the moment, but it was never intending to be a guide to the garden at Brick House, more to express the pleasure Bawden would have got from his garden, as so many of us do. I also wanted to take the reader on a journey through a garden, rather than show you all in one go, so I hope the reader can navigate their way around!

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This book is the outcome of a great collaboration. (Thanks Joe!) So as the book is published today we celebrate this journey of designing and making, and can announce it will be stocked by some great places, including the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where a brand new Bawden show opens this week. Check out the social media accounts of Design for Today for updates. Final thanks ought to go to Mr Bawden himself, who has inspired so many of us, and who gave Joe and I cause to make this book.

learning to look

I’m fascinated with how artists and designers stylise what they see. It’s a creative journey that drives me in my work too. Look at this image below of a wood engraving ‘Butterflies’ by Enid Marx, 1939. The same sort of leaves have been executed in several different ways to provide visual interest, tonal variation and depth, communicating different information about the leaves.

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This is also a great example of how to use negative and positive shapes in printmaking / monochrome imagery, again to create visual interest and movement around the elements in the composition. I took this photograph from the fabulous Enid Marx -The Pleasures of Pattern book by Alan Powers published by Lund Humphries – I recommend it!

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Also, I’d recommend a trip to Compton Verney to see her design work alongside her Folk Art collection.

special edition news!

If you follow me or Design for Today on social media you will have seen updates of the book we have collaborated on celebrating artist / designer Edward Bawden’s love of gardening. The book is titled ‘Gardening with Mr Bawden’. It’s been the perfect project for me as I also love gardening, have a background in making artists books and also love lino-printing.

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I’ve designed the book taking inspiration from some of the research I’ve found about Bawden, such as his preference for structural plants, his competitive growing of sunflowers, and the ongoing problems with snails. I’ve also made reference to some of the artwork made by Bawden and his dear friend Eric Ravilious, including the view under the tree with the table and tea things, as well as the bench Bawden designed.

All the motifs are my own but I’ve made reference to the sort of patterns Bawden was designing while living at Brick House, Great Bardfield in Essex. I’ve blended the idea of plants growing in the greenhouse, becoming wallpapers in the house. There is a pull-out greenhouse!

There are limited edition sets available to pre-order now which includes a signed book with four greetings cards and a collectors book explaining the project. Click here to order.

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woven landscape

It seems right to me that as someone keen to draw images I chose print as my medium of design rather than weave but I do think there is a strong sense of the spirit of woven cloth in how I see things, and for that I thank my upbringing in Norfolk. The strong horizontal line of the sky meeting the fields interrupted by vertical fence posts or reeds creating visual rhythms can leave me feeling utterly complete. Back in Norfolk this Easter, once again I breathed in the space, the horizontal and vertical of Horsey; one of the most perfect places.

I removed colour from this image as I wanted to clearly show the structure of the stripes, but colour is much of the joy in this landscape – the purples, greens, yellows, varying from minute to minute in the ever-changing light. I add them below. One day I will weave again.

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talking to myself through teaching

I’ve spent many hours over the last couple of years reflecting on my teaching career that stands at about 18 years, give or take a bit. In order to apply for Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy I had to write thousands of words that explain and reflect on the impact I have made on not only the students I have taught but the colleagues and peers across the industry I relate to in my professional practice. It has been a big ask to fit my diverse experiences in to the word count along with the cross referencing required, but I’m delighted to say my hard work over the ‘holidays’ and the work of my colleagues in writing supporting references has meant I achieved Senior Fellow and I’m rather relieved / proud. (I was however disappointed to discover that rather than receiving a fine water-marked, embossed and foil blocked certificate I had to download it! … I digress.)

I’ve written many times about how important it is for me to combine my design practice with my academic career and although it doesn’t make my life easier, it certainly makes it more fulfilling. They really are mutually supportive. The reason I am so driven to support the students in reaching their goals is because I know how rewarding a career in design can be. From having the confidence to draw in a different way, to picking up the phone to a new client, to realising your dream of seeing designs commercially available…, to be paid to do what you love doing… why would I not want to help others to do those things?

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It’s also important to hear myself saying these things to students. It’s as if I am telling myself as well as the students! Yes I must chase that lead, make sure I’m paid a fair rate or keep my website up to date! Each creative has different ideas about how and where to move forward with their ambitions and the art of teaching is to work out how to nurture, support, push and challenge positively. Being creative is not easy. You put your sensitivities on the line to be judged, sometimes by those with less creativity than yourself, but who holds the budget. There are certainly pages in my sketchbook I wouldn’t choose to share at a group tutorial, but the process of knowing you are not alone in learning the creative process is so valuable. It’s also the case that it’s often easier to critique someone else other than yourself! Would you listen? Maybe one mis-perception is that once you graduate you stop learning – I plan to keep learning forever! Each project I work on is an excuse to learn more, not only about myself as a creative, but new practical or technical skills to take on board for me, as well as sharing with colleagues and students.

I’m very aware the reality behind social media may be far different than the stories being told online. I make sure students are made to think about that, – use the benefits of social media while considering the stories they read and the stories they create. While I like the way we can find out so much more about what’s going on, and who we need to know (can you imagine only having the yellow pages?!) there are complications with so many aspects of our practice being shared. Copying, audience expectation, peer competition versus mutual support, networking and peer validation are ups and downs of today’s design world. I approach my teaching very much like my designing. Honesty, integrity, and fulfillment…. support, encouragement and creative ambition! Even writing this is like giving myself a tutorial! What’s my homework?

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telling stories

Each project I create is part of a longer narrative of my practice and as I look back over the years it is easy for me to see common aspects and joined up thinking spanning those projects. As I teach this year’s final year students on the BA programme I lead I am reminded of my own journey starting out in design, and the questioning I did to work out what sort of work I wanted to be represented by in my step beyond graduation. The challenge of the Final Major Project!

I understand the battle and pressure to work out your own style, the look or handwriting to be yourself, but funnily enough I don’t think that is the thing that holds my practice together anymore – you may disagree, and I’d be interested to know! What has become the common thread holding so many of my projects together has been the story, the narrative within each project. I could never have imagined this all those years ago, even though I was making books! I’ve made many artists books that contain single narratives, but I’ve also worked on large-scale projects that involve public toilet doors that act as pages of the book with a story across them. This is also true for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where my designs are laid out in gravel across three huge roof-scapes. I’ve also been challenging how to place pattern within single designs, such as in my Plot to Plate tea towel design, telling the tale of growing, cooking and eating food. I’ve made series of prints, and a set of posters, all held together by a narrative. The more I look the more examples I can see.

If only the graduate me back then could have told me that the key aspects of my practice would work themselves out I would have worried less, but then again, it is the search for these answers that take you on the creative journey in the first place. Some people like to know what they are going to design, design it, then be pleased it looks as they planned. As for me, I like learning as I go, push myself that little bit more, find a bit of creative strength to step out of my comfort zone, and then be pleased I got somewhere I didn’t know existed. The creative process is a difficult thing to explain, but it’s all the more interesting for being that way.

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Top left: artists book in collaboration with Wes White for Sherborne House, Dorset, 2004

Bottom left: visualisation for the roof-scape at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Birmingham, 2009

Right: Plot to Plate tea towels, 2014