creative sparks in Armenia

Combining a design career with an academic role often means my weeks are busy and varied, but I had a week at the beginning of this month that was very different to the rest! I’ve been lucky enough to be given an amazing experience as academic at Norwich University of the Arts – a trip to Armenia. The university was successful in securing a British Council bid to work with students at the Tumo Institute in Yerevan, Armenia to help students to create design work with the aim of making products to sell when they come to work at the university in a few weeks time. This is speed educating! A team of three of us, Will – a business mentor from the university, Mia – a graduate from the BA in Textile Design and me – the lead subject academic. Fortunately we all got on brilliantly, complimenting each others’ skills and all being very happy to adapt in order to make the most of the experience. I was only able to be there a few days, while the other two stayed longer.

The journey was long, transferring in Istanbul and we arrived in Yerevan in the middle of the night so it wasn’t until the morning that we could see what the city looked like. We had some time to rest, so we didn’t! … and instead got up and explored … of course! The architecture was a mix of Modernist Brutalism, Art Deco and Post-Modernism mainly and a pink stone was dominant. Many of the buildings featured wonderful carvings and at many points all three of us were heads and cameras up capturing the city. The food in Yerevan was a complete hit with us and I could have stayed far longer and become far wider. Everywhere we went there was wonderful fresh produce: cheeses and meats, pastries, vegetables and breads, all beautifully presented. Luckily we were all happy to share the dishes to ensure we could try as much as possible.

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There was much excitement as we went to meet the team of students we were going to be working with, and we took examples of our work to introduce ourselves as well as a general plan, and open ears, so we could discuss with them all their own creative ambitions. These first few days were really important to get the project up and running before I had to return to the UK. Tumo studios was set up on the first floor of what was previously home to a wealthy family and there were signs of the better days including murals on the ceilings and ornate tiles. The workshop spaces were really inspiring, catering for print, ceramics, jewellery, sewing and more. Products made by students were available for sale too.

Everyone was very friendly and helpful, as well as really excited to get stuck in. We shared our ideas and thoughts about the project and Mia and I talked briefly through some of our own work. The first afternoon went by quickly and then the three of us were off to explore the city again – I really wanted to see Mount Ararat – the mountain taller than Mont Blanc, (and apparent resting place of Noah’s ark) that has in history been on Armenian soil, but is now behind a Turkish border. We climbed steps and more steps to the highest part of the city giving us views over the varied levels of prosperity in the capital . With sunglasses on, when there was a break in the clouds we could just spot the snow and shady top of Ararat, but sadly the view was not easily captured on camera – Wikipedia has better pics!

The next day was a very long but hugely inspiring one. With our local guides and our researcher eyes in we set off to visit three fabulous places to gain inspiration. The city museum presented the history of Armenia. We learned about traditions, society, historic events and politics, and of course the section about the Armenian genocide was hugely upsetting. We were not allowed to take photographs there but we had other places to go so we crossed the city, including a short trip on the metro (it has one line) to get to the Folk Museum. This was a smaller museum but packed with so much beauty! Here we heard about and saw the traditional crafts and our guide explained the processes, tools and materials involved. I took many photographs! The lace and filigree were particular favourites of mine.

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We were full of inspiration but needed energy so lunch was in a restaurant with our hosts helping us to navigate a menu of local dishes – I had lamb soup with pomegranate and mint – it was very good! Soon we were whisked off to the carpet museum / factory and the journey was a great opportunity to see more of the city and suburbs. It was fascinating to hear the history of carpet / rug making in Armenia and I even had a go at learning the right knot but I was very slow in comparison – there is video footage somewhere – and in the picture below, top row, right hand side, you can see my four cream coloured tufts that they have no doubt got rid of once I turned my eyes!

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The colours used to dye the yarns are still made from natural ingredients and it was right up Mia’s street! There were some secret ingredients of course! We were all inspired by the sights, stories and the motifs, border patterns and processes involved. What an amazing day. We headed back to the studio to think about what we had seen, captured some ideas on some post-it notes and discussed the plans for the next day. Another evening of foraging fabulous food in the restaurants of Yerevan did us well – we all ate too much again.

My final full day was spent in Tumo studios leading some workshops to develop the projects. Will, Mia and I planned the next week of workshops and activities, sharing all our different knowledge and experience, alongside talking through the individual ideas with the participants. I ran a session about motif and composition development and it was fascinating to see how differently these young people took on the challenge compared to the undergraduates in England I have worked with. These students were far happier to play with the process and not worry about it not working, and gave the testing much more time. Can this be the different schooling? Several attempts at the same thing, sharing and much discussion, lots of giggling and trying again got us to where we needed to be, lunch!

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We decided to eat all together in the studio so we ordered in food, (I tried cheese soup – it really is like fondue) and as we sat together we tried to learn some of the language … we laughed a lot. We were also bought a local honey cake to try which was very good. In the afternoon I led a practical session about repeat patterns and design rhythms, and again we talked through individual ambitions for design ideas and product potential. The participants will be heading to Norwich next month to develop and resolve product outcomes to test in a commercial setting. We discussed differences between Norwich and Yerevan and about the next phase of the project. At times we had visitors popping in to see what was going on but we kept on track and too soon I was having to say my farewells and leave the group – with the silver lining of knowing I’d see them in Norwich in May.

One more meal, a final evening with Will and Mia, a supermarket sweep around a 24/7 shop to buy gifts, back to the hotel to pack up, a twenty minute nap and that was that, it was Thursday – I flew out of Yerevan in the very early hours, swapping ‘planes in Istanbul and on to home.

I was so sad to leave the people and city, and was so envious that Mia and Will had another week to see more. In only a few days I had experienced somewhere so interesting that before getting there had felt daunting. Everyone we met were so friendly, helpful and proud of the city and country. I had the chance to learn about a different country and textile culture while working on a really different project, testing my teaching in a very different situation. It really was a great opportunity, hooray for saying yes!

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Thanks to Will and Mia for some of the photography and being such great team mates!

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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