patterns: printed or not

My go-to process is print, therefore the majority of my commercial projects have included print outcomes, whether that is a commissioned limited edition print, wallpaper or my patterns available on Formica’s laminate. I design as a printer; thinking of layers of colour / texture / pattern, that build in stages.

I knew early on that paint brushes are not really my friends, not unless they have to be, not compared to a print roller. When I was introduced to printing I vividly remember learning mono-printing in particular. I fell in love with the excitement of the hidden surface. I love the detachment, the indirect nature of printmaking, whether it be a lino block or litho plate, they offer a space away from the actual mark making that creates the image.

I’ve been spending the last few weeks writing lots of words with my academic hat on about my design practice in relation to my teaching practice, and this has made me think about how I learn, as well as how I teach. My design practice experience is so integrated in my teaching practice, they work so well together. I can be in a business meeting learning about an industrial print consideration I didn’t know about for a specific product and immediately I’m thinking of how I can feed that knowledge in to a module on the BA programme I lead. In my mind it makes perfect sense for academics to be practitioners too, albeit with lots of juggling!

I love to learn, whether a process, a way to see in order to draw, or a new context to place work, I am excited about finding things out. It was this mindset that got me making rugs, to challenge my skills, and to test myself with another process that works with pattern, but with very different thinking. There has been much written about the need to play, but as designers it is so important that we take time to explore, to develop our thinking. This keeps ideas moving, and the sense of creativity at the forefront. I’m also fascinated how my patterns work across surfaces / materials, requiring consideration of colour matching, scale of motifs, line weight etc. and this expertise is learned as I work with manufacturers of different materials and products, and visit trade shows across the design sectors. Don’t get me started on brands that just print their patterns on every surface that sits still for long enough… my students hear this rant often enough!

I shall continue to explore, learn, design and teach… just after I’ve finished writing this next batch of academic words…

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Images from my ‘Threads’ collection (L-R:) Latch-hook rug, original lino print: Twill, and the same design on window film from The Window Film Company.

time and sketchbook time

At the moment I’m juggling lots of different projects; one has been years (really!) in the making, another much quicker, straightforward and some more ‘surprise’ projects. They all have different requirements of my time, and in each week there may be a telephone call to a manufacturer to discuss things with, an email exchange between a client and myself to clarify details of a brief, or a call to a stylist / marketing team to plan a scheme for the future with, and the usual trade show sales team call! This all takes time, and different skills to manage.

A different skill altogether is to maintain a practice that, at the heart of it, seeks to challenge, engage and inspire the creative self that was the reason I set off in this direction at the start, twenty years ago. The sketchbook is the place I go back to, the safe place I can explore those ideas in, old and new, that keeps the journey going, the continuum that is my creative practice. Ideas do evolve over time, and the sketchbooks are testaments to the ongoing inquiry that may lend itself to something commercial in due course, but is not the reason I do the drawing in the first place.

In my role of design lecturer I regularly explain the uses of a sketchbook, the hows and whys a designer may approach the mental and physical task of working in a sketchbook. Retro-filling the pages that have post-its in saying ‘research’ needing to be completed the day before a hand-in lacks rigour and purpose, a scrap-book mentality is not necessarily the best use of printer credits unless you really do look and reflect on the relationship between your work and someone else’s. Dare I say it, I enjoy the task of working on a new white page, and see the potential, not the fear. I don’t often share pages of my sketchbooks, but here’s one page from this week in the studio, having gathered new ‘material’ at the weekend, furthering my ideas for my Grasslines print series…

I say let’s celebrate the sketchbook, the real one with paper pages that doesn’t require likes, favourites of retweets to be justified, the one you do for you. Why / how do you use your sketchbook?

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drawing grass lines

I’ve written many times over the years on this blog about the themes that underpin my work, the approaches I take to develop new work, and the things that inspire me. Here I look again at the process of evolving ideas and visual language, to introduce my latest series of prints.

As I develop ideas, often in series of works on paper before any design solutions are considered, I explore the visual language of the subject through drawings, photography and printmaking. The aesthetic nature of the new work evolves and is tested in relation to compositions and rhythms. My knowledge of pattern design, in particular in relation to textiles, feeds this investigation. The motifs, the linking forms, the negative and positive shapes and the quality of line can suggest relationships with historical styles, international influence and contemporary trends. As a designer I use this knowledge to sometimes avoid, and sometimes align to this language, communicating a context far beyond the printed paper I create.

On a cycling and camping tour around Denmark back in 2004 we came across a small book shelf in the campsite shelter containing a range of books. I can’t read Danish. We picked out a few, judging them purely on the graphic design of the spine, and I found a science book of beautiful diagrams of plant structures. I have a photograph somewhere, but the impression those diagrams made on me does not require me to see that page again. I remember the look of those diagrams, and they have fed in to this collection many years from then.

Mid C20th pattern is also something I am interested in, and for this new body of work, particularly the development of stylised florals and diagrammatic interpretation of plants. Lucienne Day was particularly expert at creating designs in that manner, with simple black lines, herself inspired by Miro, Kandinsky and Klee. This is why it’s important to be aware of what has gone before. Not to imitate the past, but to take courage from previous developments in drawing, stylising and pattern making, so we don’t recreate the past, but so we push forward with our own journeys, liberated by not inventing the wheel. I was amused to discover the current exhibition at the brilliant Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester is Lucienne Day: A sense of Growth – it seemed uncanny!

My photograph collection, both in print and digital form, contains many pictures of reeds; Danish reeds, Norfolk reeds, anywhere else reeds. I also have many records of grasses, and have always been attracted to the structure of such plants. These are often the unloved weeds that may be irrelevant and overlooked by many, but I come back from walks with handfuls of lines, some with seed heads, some without, but always lines of grass, as if nature had fun drawing them. Different stems, leaves and weights of line, and some suggesting very distinct natural habitats. I’ve always been more interested in line quality than texture, and my work over the last two decades demonstrates that very clearly.

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So that was a long-winded way of saying that this new series of works has been a long time coming, but makes perfect sense to me. I didn’t set out to create drawings of grasses, in fact I started screen printing flowers, but this evolved as part of the create process that is play. Colour came and went too, so as not to detract from the lines. There are some similarities with my threads printed editions and I have had the prints next to each other today – I think they make an interesting dialogue. This is the journey of idea development, by mixing drawing, thinking, printing, reflecting, contextualising, and doing it all again. By the way, this bit of the creative process is one that is very difficult to teach design students, more so with less and less studio time, and a full to bursting curriculum, but knowing your own creative process is halfway to success in my world. Take risks (it’s not rocket science we say) and work at playing.

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I digress. These few prints are only the start of this series, I already have new work evolving, but other projects are jostling for my time in the studio, so for now, I introduce you to Grasslines… and now you know a bit about how they came to be.

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pebble pattern collection

I know I’m not alone in having collections of stones, gathered from walks and adventures over the years. Heads down across the beach, we search for beauty in the lines, colours and patterns of pebbles. We look for skimmers, ones with holes, and stripy ones…

I was looking at some of the stones that are in my studio and realised I had the components of a traditional textile design collection. The key pattern structures often include an all-over design, a spot repeat, a stripe and a plain (from left to right in the image below). I had fun sorting the stones to find the most straightforward ‘collection’.

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learning with archives

Recently I have been sharing joys from the fabulous archive of textile samples belonging to Birmingham City University’s library, some dating back from 1901. Myself and a colleague have been showing these treasures to our students, helping them to see their own learning as part of a history of design practices. In an age of the digital file it’s been fabulous to see how much interest these portfolios have generated with our students. It’s a tough call as we worry for the protection of these fragile items, and yet value being able to see and interact with them.

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Being able to turn the pages, and reveal the hundreds of printed swatches is really an exciting journey and the students really engaged with the quality and preciousness of the items. The fact that all the samples are beautifully hand mounted and labelled adds to the beauty and experience. The range of design compositions is considerable, and the detail stunning. Tiny little flecks of print; an anchor, a petal of a flower, or coral texture printed on fine cloth demonstrate quality of the day. We noted the generosity of many designs, and discussed commercial appeal and production methods available before screen printing and digital printing possibilities. Of course this is pertinent at this time of financial cuts in the support to local and national libraries and associated archives, and with arts and culture being sold to the nation as a rather nice hobby we just can’t afford at the moment.

Seeing things with our own eyes helps to engage with the subject, making things real, and adding value to the experience. I spent an extremely insightful day at London College of Communication’s Learning Through Objects event #UALOBL last month discussing this subject with fellow academics, researchers and archivists. Yes it’s easier to deliver another ppt to a large group of students, but sessions with objects and physical activity are the ones that are likely to make far more impression, and make the difference to learning we are aiming for.

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building aesthetics

For the last few years, I’ve been lecturing on the subject of design history to first year students of Textile Design at Birmingham City University as part of a module aimed at introducing historical design considerations. Styles specific to an era, the influence of globalisation, the role of Fine Art, architecture, film and graphic design in shaping textile design, and where we are now, in context to where we have come from are presented alongside social commentary, introductions to colourful characters, controversy and a spot of light entertainment! It’s a huge ask to expect students to remember all the information I share, but my main focus is showing them how much it matters that what has gone before are the results of the times in which things were designed, whether it be superfluous decoration or trailblazing technology. From contemporary trends in fashion, to why we don’t choose certain colours for our bedrooms, I think it vital that our students have a working knowledge of design history as a foundation of understanding, as designers themselves. This knowledge feeds back in to their studio projects in the working knowledge of aesthetics, linking the look of something with the connotations that others might bring to a piece. Is it beautiful? Now there’s a rather complex question!

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Last week I shared my ‘interest’ in forks, and more can be read on that matter here. As I move towards the present day, bit by bit each week – Arts & Crafts, Morris et al, Art Nouveau etc this Friday, I introduce words to help grow their critical vocabulary, and help them to see and read this history that remains around us. Walking through Birmingham demonstrates how different styles of ornamentation jostle for attention. Arts and Crafts flourishes appear fussy in contrast to the rather robust Deco motifs. Twenty first century obsession with flimsy superficial solutions such as the facade of New Street station’s mirror panels, and other examples not far away, are put to shame by the care and craftsmanship of carved stone, worked iron, and intricate tile work of over a century ago – still intact. Now as the wrong library remains standing (in my opinion) I dread the day I hear that the concertina signal box loses the fight to stand. I digress…

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I’m fascinated in how something can contain the belonging of a time, a style, a movement, just in the detail of a line, or a point in a curve – I’m specifically referring to pattern and decoration here but this observation can also be made with architectural detail. The shape of a leaf, the ‘stylisation’ of a flower, has the ability to communicate its belonging or differences in a glance. As a designer it’s important to know these references, especially in relation to a client’s brief – you wouldn’t want to offer Baroque when Neo-Classical is required! This knowledge of visual language crosses design disciplines and it’s fascinating to identify the same aesthetic approach on printed cloth that is also worked in silver with a terrine.

I enjoy the challenge of creating design motifs that tell the story, the unwritten references in the pattern, making a statement to belong. My recent commission for the Barbican shop illustrates this point; that architectural styles, in this case Brutalism, and the approach in which I take to the design process is fundamental in demonstrating through the aesthetic, the design language of the project.

It’s difficult for me to imagine not being able to hear the jazz age when spying an Art Deco border, or to think of Athens with the hint of the Greek key pattern. Despite not exactly loving history at school I now see the importance of it in adulthood. It’s a sad week as it’s announced we lose Art History A-Level as a subject in school, making it harder still for those with an interest in art and design to learn their passion. In Birmingham we have examples of Pugin’s design work in St. Chads cathedral and the hand of the Pre-Raphaelites in St. Phillips.  I hope my lectures feed the students’ imagination to want to know more, to feel proud when they differentiate the Deco from the Nouveau, and to go on to be informed designers, telling the right stories with the curve of a line and the style of a flower.

All photos taken in Birmingham by ©Kate Farley 2016

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textile fragments

I have this textile ‘fragment’ that I think is beautiful in so many ways; the richness of colour, the manipulated folds of cloth as well as the resulting patterns of the geometric shapes of both the positive and negative folds of the fabric. There is aside to this, so much more connecting me to this old piece of cloth I acquired over twenty years ago, and when I see it, those thoughts come back to me in an instant. This is the power such materials and objects have over us.

I studied at art school, and although the main campus was in Norwich, I was at an outpost in Great Yarmouth. I loved being by the sea, and it was my first time away from home so it was a huge learning curve and time of growing up. I was learning textile and drawing skills and I have fond memories of it all. One day we had a visitor, a lady who had traveled the world collecting textiles, and she brought some of these to show us at the college. I had been interested in the Ghanaian flags of the Asafo, as well as Indian applique so I was fascinated to hear her talk and see the textiles from far-off lands.

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Sadly excitement became upset as the textile pieces were laid out in front of us. I wonder now if I was the only one thinking what I was. When I saw the exquisite fabrics cut in to pieces and crudely stapled to paper with pencil written details of where they had come from I felt so concerned for the apparent brutal way they were being separated from the original whole, their link to their heritage and provenance. It occurred to me then that other nations were losing the heritage that they owned, as the fabrics became souvenirs for others. Had someone chosen to sell them; were they ‘acquired’?

That day holds further sad memories in actual fact. My dear Grandma had died that weekend, and I really wasn’t coping too well away from home, but I got through the day and decided to buy a piece of cloth from the lady as a way of treating my sorry self. I felt torn by the decision to buy it. Would my purchase make sure it was kept safe, or encourage more sourcing of cloth from across the globe? My piece states ‘fragment’ in its description and yet is has clearly been cut from a larger cloth. ‘Fragment’ suggests to me a museum piece, a fragment of history, a clue of a larger object salvaged from ruin rather than proactively separated from its other parts to form the sum – a folded patchwork Kathiawari horse strap from India.

The colours have altered over the years since its time of making no doubt, and the fabric has become worn too. I removed the rusty staples in an act of care and conservation. I also taught myself how to create the folds and layers of fabrics to understand, through making, the construction process. The piece inspired a fabric manipulation project during my time in Great Yarmouth – mostly lost to history and probably for the best! My fabric samples are nothing in comparison to my ‘original’ fragment. The pieces I made lack the authenticity, the ageing, the integrity of originality, but they too serve to remind me of the value of heritage, of belonging and remembering.

With so much talk in the media at the moment of cultural looting across the world both past and present, I am again reminded of this piece of cloth, its heritage and place in the world. The fabric also distinctively reminds me of the loss of my grandma at that time, and yet isn’t it strange that a piece of Kathiawari cloth – not any piece, ONLY this piece, can act as a token of a memory of my Grandma who as far as I know, had no connections with India?!