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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yellows

I’ve always enjoyed working with colour; choosing combinations, mixing inks and matching colour. I am interested in how we relate colour to brands, how colour suggests quality, market levels, football teams, trends, and this week in particular political parties. Sometimes people say they do not really like colour – but what they often really mean is that they don’t like strong and vibrant colours, but in my mind bright colours are no more important than the whites on white; equally powerful if used well, just not so extrovert.

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I like seeing the way an inky grey sky makes fields of corn glow golden, and how the crepuscular blue sings out before the night sky takes over. Relationships that colours have can bring connotations, evoke distant memories and create moods. I remember a bag of hand-me-down clothes was excitedly torn open by my twin sister and I, hoping for fabulous new items to wear – in the eighties, when what was actually presented was everything brown and purple – from the previous decade. So disappointing!

Getting the right colour isn’t about a broad brush of red, it’s about seeing the nuances. You’ve only got to see a sale-rail to see the buyer got the shade of mustard a bit too green, or the pink too candy, and not blush. Any colour can vary hugely, our personal perception of colour not only is affected by the technicalities of sight, but also our own relationships with colour, built on past experiences. It took me a while to wear navy, having had to endure it for school for several years.

A friend described my ‘black’ screen prints for the Barbican, and I had to explain it was actually dark grey – it makes a considerable difference to the final result, but if both examples are not shown side by side most people would be none the wiser that the designer made a conscious decision to make a grey look not quite a black.

So here’s some yellow, photographed in Norfolk a few weeks ago. Enjoy, what ever it means to you!

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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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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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