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?!

passing on pattern passion

In my role of academic as well as a designer I am regularly required to enthuse about print and pattern, and to be honest that’s fine, as I love designing and teaching pattern for print. This last week has seen me out and about to pass on my passion for pattern, firstly to Wolverhampton Embroiderers’ Guild where I was invited to talk about my practice. It’s always interesting having to consider what bit of the last twenty years to focus on, requiring reflection and evaluation, and how to tell the most relevant story without missing the bits that might be the most informative to others even if they didn’t seem so to me when living them. The audience were really generous with praise, and were really interested in my creative process, so sharing my sketchbooks, and anecdotes felt very easy to such an interested group of makers.

Tuesday saw me overseeing a morning of filming at Birmingham City University (BCU) with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and TV crew, working with our third years and our fabulous Print Technician. It was a morning of celebrating the Arts and Crafts legacy, William Morris in particular, and the importance of understanding the value of drawing to the process of pattern making. It was a pleasure promoting our talented third years, in the closing stages of their time with us.

This leads me to yesterday when I and a colleague took a coach of second year Textile Design degree students to Manchester, specifically the Whitworth Art Gallery to see several exhibitions. On walking in to the first gallery and the exhibition ‘Revolutionary Textiles 1910-1939′ I noticed a number of pieces that I had featured in my Historical Textiles lectures when I had taught this group of students as first years, including Barron & Larcher, Josef Hillebrand and Omega Workshops. It was fabulous to see the students’ excitement on recognising patterns and names of designers that had, until then remained theoretical, and not ‘actually real’. Their knowledge meant something tangible, and I think was empowering to them. It was an honour to share that excitement of learning, and understanding.

Having worked on the Tibor Reich show at BCU it was great to be reunited with the collection, also on show at the Whitworth, and to see the different emphasis this exhibition made to an amazing and extensive archive owned by the family. The students really responded to the way Tibor worked to create pattern, and explored pattern through drawing with layers of colour and line. I couldn’t help but point out Tibor’s excellent use of a sketchbook to explore ideas.

Image below: top row from Revolutionary Textiles, bottom row Tibor Reich

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The room that wowed me most was the wallpaper gallery upstairs, and again, this exhibition was exciting and inspiring to the students, leading to some really interesting conversations. There is of course no comparison between seeing metres of wallpaper stretching skywards, to a small screen of Google images. We talked about print production, the scale of motifs useful to a domestic space rather than in relation to a sketchbook page, and why thinking big should be embraced. We admired the Lucienne Day patterns that are so familiar to us, alongside new discoveries, and that is why a curated exhibition, unlike an online search can be so beneficial; the selection provides context. I encouraged the students to question how they would make the marks, the shapes and patterns without computers, and why the variation of hand-made can offer something that digital software excludes. I include an example below to illustrate my point – beauty in the irregular.

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We did have time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the cafe but also took in a quick trip to see the newly opened Fashion & Freedom exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery, one I really do recommend too.

So, more pattern inspiration for me, and hopefully some more people inspired by pattern too…

print progress

Recently I have been really busy with a variety of academic duties in Birmingham and further afield, taking me away from studio time, my freelance design practice, and of course blog writing. Also, in my teaching of Textile Design at Birmingham City University I have been leading a module of professional practice, assisting the students in learning about the life of a freelance designer. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, as the discussions between students and staff illustrated: It’s great to be your own boss, but you take all the blame when things don’t work out! You can get up when you want, but nobody pays you for just waking up!

The rhythm of freelance work is varied. Somehow it’s often the way of things that several deadlines coincide, and when you have a schedule to stick to, an urgent press request comes in. On the day you have time to make calls, those people are out of the office, and obviously you don’t get paid when you take a holiday. Yes there can be tough times, but I really like the variety of the weeks’ activities that freelancing gives me, certainly set in tandem with the academic life of very different demands. Each practice informs the other. Obviously there are freelance tasks I prefer and other ones I procrastinate over, lists are created, social media is checked and Radio 4 is listened too!

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With so much to-ing and fro-ing on trains this last month or two and with several commercial projects on slow-cook I decided to give myself time to make, test and resolve some ideas that I have been exploring, with paper and print. The activity of printmaking is a fabulous discipline to work with. I love the excitement of planning a new print, and composing the plate, often taking me back to sketchbooks and previous ideas. The physical process of cutting the block can also be absorbing, and therapeutic and I have to decide the paper stock, the ink colour, and edition size too. It is important to maintain an experimental, inquiring practice and my prints and drawings are the evidence of ideas that have sustained my creative practice for the last twenty years. Between the commercial constraints of projects shaped by clients, costs and repeat patterns, printmaking can seem so free from limitations. This is why I make sure I keep printing – the creative sort, not just the invoices!

both prints featured here are available to buy, at £46 each unframed.

Knit 1, edition of 15, lino print, 9.5 x 9.5 cm print size

Meadow Grass, edition of 12, lino print, 9.5 x 9.5 cm print size

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looks are deceiving: truth in pattern

As a student at art college I was taught the principles and beliefs of great artists, designers and theorists such as William Morris and John Ruskin, and mantras of the founders of De Stijl and the Bauhaus. As a designer myself I haven’t set out to follow any particular philosophy or approach but have developed my ethos over the last two decades as I experience diverse design contexts, clients, markets, technology and changing industry. Also, in my role as an academic at Birmingham City University delivering lectures on wide ranging art and design contexts in relation to textile design, social change and global influences I have learned considerably more and this has led to me further considering my own approach and philosophy as a designer.

My ‘construct‘ collection was developed as a response to my loathing of ‘fake’ surfaces, and the ever-growing interiors market of printed patterns of wood, stone and other natural materials, copied at ever-higher resolutions on a vast array of substrates. Is it possible to have printed stone effect on wood yet? Why would I want a copy, an imitation rather than the real thing, and would it be right to desire marble in an Edwardian semi in the Midlands of England? In my new ‘construct’ collection I’ve played with this idea by making printed pattern inspired by constructed cloth, not copying directly from the woven threads but evoking a sense of them.

As a pattern designer I spend time considering potential surfaces and contexts that pattern may exist and this leads me to the conclusion that if we stopped using copies of materials as pattern on surfaces we could find space for far more inventive, creative and exciting patterns in our world. I believe that if the material you have is not wood, why don’t you consider alternative patterns, entirely suitable, without relying on copying natural materials. I can’t decide who is providing for who here. Do consumers want fake, or do they have to buy fake because there is little else out there? (btw: If you need laminate with beautiful patterns don’t forget to consider my ‘construct’ range in collaboration with Formica!)

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The approach to honesty and truth to materials was one of many key philosophies for Augustus Pugin, known for his commitment to the Gothic revival in the 19th century and his design work on the Palace of Westminster as well as St.Chads Cathedral in Birmingham. He considered the neoclassical fashion for painting any surface to look like marble as deceitful, and wholly incorrect. He favoured flat, stylised pattern too, so as not to deceive the viewer,  designing many patterns for tiles, wallpapers and textiles for the buildings he also designed.

This week I was up in the Potteries for a meeting, and as with hourly trains, I’d just missed one so I spent 50+ minutes waiting in very low temperatures at Longport station near Stoke on Trent. Noticing my surroundings I was tickled to identify the ‘mock’ nature of the station building. All the doors and windows on the platform side have been boarded up and painted to look like… doors and windows. I assume this is some sort of security measure. As the paint has started to peel it revealed the deceit below. This sight is the cause of this blog post. I wonder what Pugin would have thought?

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printed mapping

Printed interpretations of landscape have been a challenge in my practice from the beginning, and really formed the backbone of my practice during my degree course in Printed Textiles at Leeds College of Art and Design in the 1990s. I explored various ways to represent the world around me, and although it might seem odd for those aware of my drawing, as there is little similarity now, I was really inspired by the Norwich School and painters such as Cotman and Crome. I saw the way they formed shapes of colours as elements in the landscape and I set about creating contemporary versions of Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds in term-time, and rural Norfolk in the holidays.

Over the years my focus has shifted from rural to urban, resulting in more geometric, grid-like patterns, fighting the urge to be illustrative. As Print Technician at Central Saint Martins I used to create mono-prints including embossed features, representing the Farringdon skyline and dominant buildings. I also explored experimental processes, such as liquid emulsion and photograms of drawings on acetate in the photographic darkroom. I had a fantastic year on a part-time printmaking course at the London College of Printing (now Communication) at Elephant & Castle, and despite a broken elbow I produced many prints including lithographs, screen prints, collagraphs, etchings and lino prints. The expertise of the staff, and the discipline of the day a week of technical experimentation was a brilliant thing.

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The images above include some of the many ways I have printed the landscapes I’ve experienced, and show some of the ways that I play with line, shape, texture and colour. Those of you who have seen my drawing evolve will probably recognise a preferred line quality, or mark I favour, the economy of mark, and visual rhythms. I am also interested in perspective, elevations and mapping interpretations. I continue to explore landscape in my ongoing sketchbooks, as part of commissions, but also because I simply want to draw and capture the flat fields, the lines of fence posts, and sweeping hills interrupted by a barn.

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I’ve also created many editions of bookworks over the years, and although I’ve written about them here before, I thought I’d include the ones predominantly featuring printed journeys. I love the way the sequence of pages, and folds of paper creates narratives through a landscape. Again there is maybe a familiarity of line quality, and drawn shape, as drawings, prints and books are often developed together, as part of the same creative process. Working summers in France, familiar territory in London and train journeys are regular inspiration for the books shown here. It is a challenge to design the book to work with a particular sized printing plate or sheet size of paper, considering grain direction and readability, but I enjoy the problem solving. Drawing and image has to work with structural content.

Often what is occupying my time in terms of design collections actually grow from ideas explored in those pages many years before. I like to see my relationship with landscape as the constant in the variety of what I do. Having spent some days in the country during the recent holiday I have refuelled that desire to draw horizons again.In hearing of the death of Ellsworth Kelly I am reminded of how instrumental he was at showing me how to see pattern in the environment we live in. I owe the excitement of the journey to many artists who themselves have worked hard to capture the places they know… Patrick Heron, Ben Nicholson, Eduardo Chillida, Eric Ravilious, to name a few.

Since creating these works on paper I show here (some over fifteen years old) I’ve launched ‘Plot to Plate’ and ‘Construct’, but they wouldn’t be here without the many sheets of paper before them. Who knows what else is in store in the next few years…