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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threads of an idea

It’s perfectly normal for me to begin a project by looking back at work I have made but not quite resolved. I keep sketchbooks of ideas and samples of constructions that will never see the light of day but somewhere among the pages there will be inklings of ideas that appear to connect and weave in to something right for now.

I wanted to get back to printing so I took the opportunity to explore a number of processes, including mono printing and lino printing to explore line qualities I’d sampled before, and soon I was back on the idea of woven yarns, linking my construct collection launched in 2015. This was a collection inspired by woven cloth, with drawings using hand-made tools dipped in ink that were used to create a series of repeating patterns I went on to collaborate with Formica with. I wanted to challenge the abundance of ‘faux’ material surfaces on the market, digitally printed wood-effect pattern, for example. Ideas were still left open…

Running in parallel to this has been a long term paper project I have been toying with since about 2002; paper constructions that explore the depth of space beyond the page, a sculpture, but also a book. The build series grew to explore woven space of over and under. You can see some of the pieces below.

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I see the threads collection as an extension to construct, but is equally quite able to stand on it’s own. I have produced several editions of prints and paper constructions that led to where I have come and I enjoyed printing in Payne’s Grey to not be distracted by colour.  All of a sudden I’m working with clear, colourless window film – it all makes sense. I am delighted to have worked with The Window Film Company to develop the patterns for windows. They have been an amazing company to work with. Cheerful, prompt, generous and supportive in all aspects of working with the team – a big thanks to you guys!

I was also pleased to return to laminate and Formica to enable bespoke production and am delighted with the results. I’m enjoying working on designs for harder surfaces but I still can’t help but sample other materials, so the collection I shall show at London Design Festival includes a new rug sample, screen printed cloth, and hand-made notebooks featuring patterns from the collection as well as vinyl and laminate.
If you are visiting London Design Festival I hope you will come and say hello at Tent at London Design Fair. Hall T1 stand G18

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Modernist patterns in the making

Over the last few months, actually for most of this year, I’ve been working on a commission with the Barbican Centre London to create bespoke patterns for products in their newly developed retail space, ready to launch in the Autumn. It’s been a fabulous project as I’ve developed the designs with plenty of dialogue with Head of Retail, Adam Thow, to-ing & fro-ing by email. The brief has altered only slightly since the beginning and I feel really proud of what we’ve produced. There’s a more detailed interview about the project over on their blog.

The idea was to explore the Barbican Centre, famous for its architecture, but to also include its activities as a cultural centre of music and performance. I explored lots of ideas and pattern compositions but settled on the idea of a sheet of music, and ended bottom right with the bold double bar lines. Within the patterns I referred to musical notation, and made links between the architectural features and those of instruments, including a violin and oboe, to create a sense of narrative, playing with strong negative and positive shapes. Each of the motifs were hand cut in paper, scanned in, and combined using Adobe Photoshop.

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Last week we shared the first images of the design work so I thought I’d share here too. The images here show my developmental design work above, and the final limited edition screen print and pattern for products. Visit @barbicancentre on instagram for more final product shots.

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patterned walls and windows

They have been a while in the making, with lots of drawing, designing, discussions and sampling over the last ten months but my designs for Tektura Wallcoverings have been launched, and I’m delighted to be able to share them here. There are five in total so do visit the Tektura website to see them all. The images of the drawings are mine, the product shots are courtesy of Tektura.

I was working on the designs at the same time that I was developing my ‘construct’ collection and Tektura really liked the look and potential of those designs but I needed to build two distinct looks to avoid a conflict of interest. You will see similarities but I utilised different drawing tools and pattern systems to explore a variety of options in my markmaking. I created many sheets of paper full of inky motifs that eventually, after a lot of design development over several weeks both on paper and at the computer screen, became digital artwork to hand-over for production. At Tektura the colours and scale of pattern were sampled and marketing / sales information was created for the launch. One thing I find hard is naming the designs, and this was no exception. The thesaurus was called upon, as was Google to check existing references, and a colleague at BCU also contributed – thanks Clare! In the end the names pretty much describe the pattern. I won’t be a poet anytime soon!

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My past experiences of working on large interior / public art projects enabled me to work with the scale of the potential interior environments that Tektura provide for in my mind the whole time. These designs for Tektura can be customised and applied to wall and glass surfaces and so as I designed I maintained modular components that can be re-coloured or omitted for each client’s specifications. This is a wonder that digital production can provide; enabling bespoke solutions.

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For me this project highlights key values in my practice: the importance of drawing and hands on image-making, knowledge and understanding of digital production and product context, and the value of working relationships and good communication. Each client I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last fifteen years or more, whether it’s the design director, art officer or buyer can really shape the design process they are commissioning. From outlining the brief, to negotiating the design direction as well as final sign off, these things make a big difference to the designer, often working far beyond the hours intended in order to allow sufficient time to reflect on the design process and outcomes. Digital communication allows artwork and thoughts to be shared and discussed in minutes, and decisions can be made together.

The great thing about working with companies such as Formica and Tektura is that they are industry experts with fabulous products, trusted by the market. By working with this expertise I learn more and get to understand the design world from their standpoint. Who would have thought my patterns would be on such a stunning shiny surface as Glint (below)! Working with Tektura Wallcoverings has been a pleasure and I’m proud to show the designs off. Thanks to Angela and the team!

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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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print pattern show up and down… at Tent London

After months of planning, designing, making, printing, promoting and talking about the show… the time finally came… TENT LONDON! With very heavy bags, a display diagram, carefully planned tool kits, shelves, fabrics rolled, and so much more we set off to Brick Lane, London to put the show up. Our lives with small children are full of logistics, and this day tested us! Trains, tardy paint, luggage & childcare kept us busy and in relay between London and Birmingham so the show could take shape. By the end of the first day the majority of display items were on the right walls, fixed securely, and I headed home to the midlands.

The next day…. I set off again with ANOTHER heavy bag (these things don’t always get mentioned in trade show prep talks!) and completed the stand dressing, including the mood board for ‘construct’. It always takes longer than you think… I attached the vinyl, tidied up and left for a good nights sleep before the LONG first day of 10am – 11pm!

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The first day of a launch / show is always exiting and scary. Will people understand the new work, and will they like it? This particular morning was not helped by being stuck in a lift across town with my dear sister and only what sounded like a fax machine to talk to. Eventually after 20 minutes we were told the lift engineer couldn’t get the door open, “you are in a precarious position”!!! I’m not sure what customer care training he had received about talking to distressed people stuck in a lift. For anyone in this job, do not use the word ‘precarious’! We got out after nearly half an hour…

For the rest of the day I felt half an hour behind, but I launched my new collection with free limited edition screen prints which appeared to be gladly received by visitors. The collaboration with Formica Group was a really popular element to my new collection, and the mood board featuring my drawing tools as preliminary artwork inspired lots of really interesting conversations. Being a solo designer can be a very lonely, self-reflective existence so it’s great to get feedback from those you design the work for. Architects, interior designers, specifiers, stylists, press, retailers and many more visitors invested time to talk about all elements of my work, and for that I’m grateful. ‘Plot to Plate’ was launched in 2012 and has evolved over time to be a ready to buy interior and gift collection but ‘construct’ works differently. Only the cushions are available for immediate sale, and the rest is printed to order to allow for the distinctive element of the collection, the bespoke production. By working with Formica Group and Surface View my designs have been printed on a range of surfaces for the residential and contract markets.

When designing the stand I had to consider what I wanted to communicate and who I wanted to relate to. Over the years I’ve refined the ideas of what I want to do and the contexts in which I thrive creatively and this design show gave me the opportunity to put that understanding across. It was important to explain that I have lots of experience of creating bespoke pattern for clients and having just designed a new pattern for David Mellor celebrating the ‘Pride’ cutlery this was a great thing to show. It was really well received and orders have already been dispatched!

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It is very hard work minding a stand of your own, by yourself for several days. Every show I’ve done has been helped by the wonderful community of fellow stand holders nearby and this year at Tent London was no different. I met kind and sharing exhibitors I hope to stay in touch with, and I will certainly watch and support their practices on social media with interest. Thanks to you!

I’ve written this previously too, but as ever, I was visited by past students of mine from both my CSM teaching days as well as BCU Textile Design graduates, some visiting to inform their practices, others in their roles in industry. It makes me proud! I am also pretty good at spotting students and as long as they don’t just grab the postcards I support their efforts and questions as they are being proactive and engaging with the industry. London Design Festival offers something for any creative so it’s good to support the next generation.

Last year I made a dress using one of my new prints, and I did the same this year, much to the delight of the Tent London ladies! It was a great way to demonstrate the flexibility of my print designs, and a good way to make conversations; it became my uniform.

I also won a design competition for tote bags at the show to be printed with a ‘construct’ placement print, so some lucky people have a very limited edition screen printed bag!

The end of the show has mixed blessings. After a long few days and months of preparation it’s great to have achieved a strong show – many kind people commented on how good my stand looked, but it also means the adventure is over, and it’s sad taking the show down, packing it up and saying farewells. Even in a few days routines are created. We struggled back on the trains with what we measured later as being 59Kgs of exhibition and assorted support luggage between two of us, ready to follow up the contacts made…. and to sit down!

So what have I learned?

  • I learned that I really am making the work that I want to make, and did manage to communicate that with the right people.
  • I’m really proud of both collections, and am delighted at the reception that ‘construct’ received
  • and latch hook rug making! I learned how to make a rug and now know why they cost so much… but really enjoyed making it… with British wool!
  • I learned how important it is to take risks, to put work out there to be judged… to keep learning

Thanks to all those involved: family helpers, the Tent team, Formica Group, Surface View, fellow exhibitors and for everyone who came to visit.

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Launching the pattern collection: ‘construct’

I’ve always started designing by picking up some sort of drawing tool, and exploring ideas that will have been developing in my head for some time. Concepts of pattern and purpose as well as communicating an idea using pattern is what really inspires me, this is no different for ‘construct’. A stunning image of lace in a book I was looking at while researching for one of my textile lectures on historical design caught my eye and an idea joined with other ideas of print looking like weave, as many people commented that my Plot to Plate VVV design did (left hand side of first image), when I was at Tent London in 2014. The seeds were sown.

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I’ve never hidden my loathing for faux surface / material effect pattern such as printed wood effect flooring. Why do we have to lie, why can’t there be another stunning and suitable design alternative?! With this is mind I’ve played with the idea of taking textiles as a starting point for this collection with the intention of subversively adding textile-derived pattern to other surfaces but in an evocative statement rather than a digital print of textiles. This is not a collection that copies textiles, rather that textiles suggests a way to draw; provides a set of rules to begin playing with. The title ‘construct’ is a reference to constructed textiles such as weave, knit and lace but also refers to the putting together of a new way of thinking about pattern for surface, building a collection that has been designed to cross material specifications and provide bespoke solutions.

Having been working on my Plot to Plate collection and related prints for the last five years it was a big challenge to start from scratch and move away from the safety of a kitchen garden, but I was also excited about the challenge. I’d been working on some other pattern commissions and revisited drawing processes that had got me thinking. I didn’t rush to get somewhere; I designated studio days to play with thread, ink and paper. I created a sketchbook of so many ideas and directions but eventually I began to formalise ideas and work out which direction felt right for the collection. Some of the other directions have already been moved on to commercial projects, and the others I’ll revisit over the years as and when.

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I usually sample patterns in black and white so I’m not swayed by colour rather than the success of the pattern. Having said that I was really adamant that blue was going to feature. Right from the beginning I was thinking of the strong Mediterranean blue of Greek churches, and the Blue Nude series by Matisse. Strong colour has been making a presence in interiors for a while, influenced by key exhibitions and trends. I knew I wanted to stay well away from Memphis colour palette and the reworking of 1980s colours. Sonia Delaunay has also inspired many designers and retailers thanks to the striking show at Tate Modern. I’m aware of trends, I have to be as an academic who teaches textile design, but I’ve never been inspired to follow them. I have my own creative path I’m on and I also would like my patterns to exist well beyond a season or two. Having said that one has to be aware of what drives buyers in retail to spend their money and for some it is likely to be informed by trends.

As those of you who have read more than this post might know, I like cutlery, and I can’t help laugh that the drawing tool that I’ve come to love is a sort of handmade fork! I’ve made many for this collection and they are so simple and inexpensive but all made by me to create exactly the right sized marks and the right sort of line. I’ve definitely got better at them. Weeks of testing many design structures and resulting rhythms left me with pages of patterns and the need to edit. Further weeks and I decided to test some screen printing on to fabric. Although I knew this collection was going to explore alternative surfaces I wanted it to work on fabric too. The weave of some of the fabrics was too dominant, and the scale of some of the patterns was less successful. Really valuable sampling!

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I’d contacted and discussed collaborations with choice companies relating to my ambitions for the collection and it was very exciting to sample on a range of substrates. I really wanted to embrace the ‘bespoke’ capacity that several manufacturers in Britain offer as a way to provide interior designers and architects for example, a choice for their clients. Choosing from off-the-shelf surfaces is not always exciting – there are exceptions! I wanted this to be a collection of pattern in anticipation of the product. Ten years ago I was a winner in the Formica ‘design a laminate’ competition and it felt good to be in discussions with a company with such a strong heritage for pattern. Surface View also demonstrate a contemporary approach to wallcoverings and surface pattern, enabling me to discuss my intentions for the collection and the concept of bespoke production and it being met by expertise and clarity. Having carried out several public art commissions over the years I’ve become used to discussing colour systems and file types, tweaking of production elements to manage the different industry requirements. It’s good to have that experience behind me.

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So here I am as Tent London is underway and I am extremely proud of the patterns that have made it to the final collection. There are repeat designs, small and larger scaled rhythms and placement patterns featured across the collection including a particular Tent London tote bag competition…. There are hand printed cushions ready for shop shelves or customers’ sofas and contemporary bespoke pattern for those wanting a graphic pattern rather than printed granite in their lives. The patterns can be licensed and collaborations can be discussed. Alongside all of this in order to fully convey the concept of the collection I’ve learned the skill of latch-hook rug making and committed many hours to mastering the skill of constructing pattern in yarn – not natural for me as a printer! I’ve sampled laser cutting and etching to varying degrees of success, I’ve made a dress for the show featuring ‘flow’ AND I’ve screen printed two limited editions of prints for launch day.

I’m interested to find out how it is received after so many solo months of nurturing, worrying and wondering. It’s time to let the pattern do the communicating…. do let me know what you think!

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