evolution in practice

I’m thinking about different aspects of marketing and promoting businesses in textiles for a lecture tomorrow and I came across this image which got me thinking about how my practice has evolved and my priorities have changed since I took this picture only a few years ago. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to shape and alter the practice I have, to take on projects that suit me at the time. Hooray for portfolio careers! Right, what’s next?…




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.


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

my motifs in design

I consider everyday design to be important in shaping our lives for the better or worse, and that includes cutlery design. For regular followers of this blog you will know I like cutlery. My special relation with cutlery started as a child, I collect forks, particularly disposable ones and now as an educator I use cutlery to teach design thinking despite my subject being textile design. I’ve also designed several pattern designs using motifs of cutlery including a collaboration with David Mellor Design.

The first time I made a formal design using cutlery I won a prize! I entered Formica’s Design-a-laminate competition in 2005 and won the Retro category for producing “a skillful houndstooth pattern using knives and forks, a reference to Formica’s conventional use if Fifties’ diners and kitchens”, (Blueprint magazine, April 2005). (top left pattern – made by a rubber stamp – see my instagram feed)


Many years later, in 2012, I launched a new variation of this pattern on gift and home-ware products including a tea towel, and moved the dogtooth check pattern on by incorporating a visual narrative into the design. At the bottom of the graphic I had garden tools such as spades and a rake, then in the middle I incorporated kitchen utensils such as whisks, wooden spoons and fish slice, before topping the design with cutlery – therefore illustrating the journey of plot to plate, (garden, kitchen, dining) using the tools that we use. This has been really well received and I sell through my website and have shown the design at several trade shows and exhibitions. Subsequently I updated the colours to Brassica green and Brassica purple in 2014.

Continuing my design journey of cutlery I approached Corin Mellor to suggest we collaborate on a design to celebrate his Chelsea cutlery in 2013, inspired by the production method of making cutlery and the beautiful shapes of the salad servers. Following the success of this I was asked to create a second design in 2015 inspired by his father’s winning cutlery design ‘Pride’. Both designs of tea towels sell incredibly well both online and their three shops and I’m delighted with the responses I receive – from as far away as Japan!

So why do I remind you of when I designed these patterns…?

With my pattern designs of cutlery out in the public domain since 2005 I received a message from someone I know telling me they had seen my cutlery design on a surface I hadn’t applied it to…., was it new?… alarm bells! I haven’t designed this product! The feeling of being cheated, of being violated, ripped through me leaving anger and frustration at the lack of other people’s respect to a fellow designer – that’s putting it mildly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for being told, it just took my day in a different direction from my plans. My afternoon was spent searching online to find examples of this product, and there it was… I am offended!

I could take to social media and rant, name and shame and get it off my chest – that’s one way but I’m in a difficult position if I can’t prove someone has copied my work. If I’m not careful I can find myself being accused of slander – hence I’m not telling you the product the design is applied to, but you can see my designs here which gives a clue. You can do your own searches and draw your own conclusions, but please understand why I’m not making wild and angry claims. In the world of design law this is something of a challenge to prove, and having already gone through this with a dear design friend, know it’s a nightmare that is part and parcel of our design careers. The thing is we need to promote our work and get it seen by people. I can’t have a design career while hiding everything.

The internet enables us to share our design stories but also leaves a trail – and at this time I’m grateful my designs are well documented. I pride myself on originality, and for creating high quality designs. The pattern that I believe is too close to mine for comfort lacks any sort of rigour, consideration and refinement compared to mine. If I was going to copy I’d at least make mine better than the original! Why record a cover-version that doesn’t compete with the quality of the first song?

It is always a worry that someone looks at your work and thinks they can ‘take inspiration’ from it. I’m not saying I should be the only textile designer using cutlery as motifs – no way! Both as a designer and academic I take the issue of imitation very seriously, stressing the importance of originality to my undergraduate students to a point they  clearly know my thoughts on intellectual property. If anything, I drive a very wide path clear of anything that can be seen as similar, knowing how damaging it can be to a designer of being accused of copying… there are enough case studies out there! My reputation matters to me.

How can imitation be flattery, as we are told in primary school, if it makes me feel so angry and violated? I’m having to think about what to do next, and also I am rather in need of some time away from a very busy last few months… but I shall seek advice and work out what to do next.

Season’s greetings, and thanks for reading… I’ll let you know next time I design a cutlery pattern! If in doubt, ask…



Summer gold

As the weather turns I always feel a sense of sadness for the summer that is over. The start of term arrives and soon it is coat weather, and lights on to read in the evening.

I have taken many photos over the summer, some for projects that are taking shape and some for my archive, waiting for their turn. These two photographs go rather well together to remind me of the warmth of summer and the beauty that is East Anglia.


Top image is from inside the light house at Southwold, Suffolk, and the second one is a view across the marshes at Stiffkey in Norfolk. Each a special place in my heart.

Pattern appreciation at the Whitworth

The Barbara Brown exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester is really worth catching, especially if you like patterns.
The layout of the gallery enables an overview; the broad visual statement of the textiles designed by Barbara Brown during the 1960s and 1970s, to be seen straight away and makes for a striking sight. Large-scale pattern in different colour-ways jostle for attention and yet the small gatherings of textile designs within the gallery also create more local dialogue for consideration. The repeats are large, not in the Marimekko sense but larger than we often see, taking the full width of the fabric to do the talking. Seeing the textile lengths on exhibition really shows off the bold rhythms of each pattern.


The designs on show demonstrate a variety of motif units across the fabric, some halved, some quartered, others full width. The corner of the gallery most impressive in my opinion was the monochrome series that really pushed her design prowess forward. Although strong graphic statements, these are far from flat patterns. The curves in Ikebana (below left) and Automation (below, third from right), both from 1970, differ in how they control and divide the space, toying with depth and dimensions. There is a sense of sci-fi and computer generated environments across this mono-chrome series. Escher should also get a mention as the optical illusions on the architectural scale appear to pay homage to him too.


I have my favourites, but I really want to highlight the breadth of pattern compositions here. The design statements include many geometrics with cubes, columns and dots. There are stripes, spots, architectural themes and florals. I see more than a hint of Op Art, Psychedelia and modernism across the printed fabrics, some more than others, but the designs appear experts at communicating the populist aesthetic of those years.


As a teaching aid for textile design, this exhibition does rather well. Design students can understand the potential to grow large repeats rather than stop at small ‘plonk – plonk’ designs we see far too much of – maybe a result of designing on computer screens. Designers need to understand that even domestic interiors can cope with so much more than a motif 10cm in diameter. Brown’s shapes are also not always contained by outlines, and this presents bold, solid shapes that hold their own. Colour statements include monochrome and full-on colour including oranges and blues. There is a sense of the colour palette dating the patterns but the combinations communicate bravery. The monochrome designs have a very formal spirit, and although different in style do remind me of some of the black and white, large classical columns Timney Fowler print designs of the 1980s.


Barbara Brown was working in a very different time, and artwork was not created in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Hand drawing full-scale repeats gives you a very different relationship with pattern compositions. Some designs appear not to show signs of drawing, but others do, almost standing out for doing so – particularly Sweet Briar, 1959 (above left).

The exhibition was dominated by the printed fabric lengths but a couple of later knitted pieces offered an insight in to the designer’s creative career progression, and reminded me of the direction Lucienne Day took with her silk mosaics, making a clear distinction away from the commercial print designs. The juxtaposition of some small ceramic pieces next to fabric lengths offered an interesting pause for thought too. Would you have matching china and curtains? Maybe not, but the patterns held their own at both scales and on the different surfaces.


This is one of those examples of why you need to see exhibitions in the flesh, and not rely on the computer or phone screen to do the job. Seeing Barbara Browns patterns are eye-catching on a small screen, but they are far more impressive in this setting.

The exhibition is on show until January 2018 (and they always have several interesting things on at the same time – and I can recommend the cafe!) NOW EXTENDED UNTIL MARCH 2018


comings and goings

As it is the season for comings and goings I made this image of photographs recording swallows learning to feed and fend for themselves, with some demonstrations from their parents, taken this week in the Lake District. We stood for over five minutes watching them as they swooped over our heads, paying us no attention. It was fabulous to watch, but it did remind me that Autumn is around the corner and soon these birds will be flying south…


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…


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.