pattern informs the piece: Zandra Rhodes exhibition review

Finding a couple of hours to spare in London last month I took the decision to head across the river to the Fashion and Textile Museum, and specifically, the Zandra Rhodes: 50 years of Fabulous exhibition. It proved to be a perfect visit for where my head was at; juggling fashion and textile design in both a design commission and my academic life.

Zandra Rhodes is first and foremost a textile designer although it is her fashion designs that carry the printed and embroidered pattern she is famous for. The silhouettes of the garments, constructed often from multi layered draping fabrics are guided in their execution, in fact dictated by, the pattern design of Zandra’s strong handwriting or pattern, and executed using print processes and surface manipulation.

I’ve included plenty of images of these outfits in university design lectures over the years, discussing how the designer maintains the focused design style and aesthetic but also manages to evolve the work through the decades.

As ever it is very different when you get the chance to see the fabrics in real life. The white printed pigment on chiffon from the ‘Lovely Lilies’ collection (below right) and the quilting over screen printing of her signature swirling motifs as borders and placement prints provides the evidence that Zandra Rhodes is first and foremost exploring fabrics to lead garment design.

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The variety of fabric manipulation and surface embellishments was fascinating to see, some rather crude and some pieces held their own more than others. The ease in which the textiles worked as one with the garment design is certainly demonstrated throughout the exhibition, and it was useful to see the screens for printing to see the composition of the designs later on in the exhibition.

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The theatricality of Zandra Rhodes’ work was a perfect match for opera costumes, and upstairs in the gallery a number of interesting examples were showcased. I also enjoyed seeing original sketchbooks alongside a film of the designer talking about how important drawing is to her. I hope many textile design students visit the show and take her advice.

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There is a significant body of work on exhibition here and it is important to view it as a considerable output of a single designer with a thirst for carnival. Her practice spans fifty years, hence the exhibition title and although her style is not for everyone, her contribution of bravery, exuberance and fabric play should inspire others to take creative risks and find a way to make the work they want to make.

I would also recommend the small showcase of company overview and embroidery work by Norman Hartnell as you enter the gallery – stunning pieces from a different era.

The show is on until the 26th January, 2020.

Creative downtime in Devon

The summer is over and I reflect on one special week away last month that gave me lots of time to think and be creative.

My family and I were invited to participate in a creative field school at Ashridge in Devon, and despite not knowing much about what was in store, we took the very long and scenic route to Devon, down some scary narrow and steep lanes, the car full to the brim, and arrived many hours later, at the most beautiful hidden-away gem of a farm where we settled in for what became a week to remember (Devon via Stonehenge is a long way from Norfolk).

Over the first few hours we met the other intrepid creatives joining us for the time. We were all tasked with delivering one workshop during the week that everyone else, no matter what age, could attend. There were to be some communal meals, talks and evening events including a cabaret – less said about our contribution the better! There was even a printed book we all received ahead of the holiday with a schedule and other useful information in it but once in Ashridge the blackboard outside the studio became our go-to schedule, with times slipping as we relaxed in to the pace of the place. The one clear day from workshops saw us all explore in different directions, and rather unscheduled but special all the same was how we all chose to reconnect with the group when we returned home, back to the studio that evening to share our findings and keep creating.

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We learned different skills: from making natural rope using brambles and nettles, we made constructions to share with the group, we made zoopraxinoscopes (animations), boodie-ware picassiettes (mosaic plates), monoprints, ceramic pictographs with rubber stamps, printed aquariums, masks and sashes …

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My workshop was called Patterns of Ashridge and I started off by discussing how to draw and stylise natural forms to create patterns, inspired by illustrator Gwen White’s book, A World of Pattern, (left-hand image below) first published in 1957. Everyone committed to the exercise of drawing trees to illustrate a point about stylising through drawing, and then set about gathering things to study for their individual pattern ideas. There were some really successful outcomes completed as folded books, and lots of interesting conversations about what else could be done next.

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What felt so special was the shared time; the learning through the workshops and the time available for informal social gatherings. Coffee time at 11am, or afternoon tea was spent clutching the sewing project or nettle cordage as we embraced the new craft skills and helped each other remember what our workshop leader had told us. Having only met a few of the other people before this week, we all took the time to share the experience. We found common grounds; the shared networks including academics in common.

We all appreciated the lack of internet connection and took pleasure in the secluded and peaceful environment of Ashridge. We swam in the sea, explored in the river, picked blackberries and generally appreciated the natural world around us, including newts and owls – it all felt many worlds away from the everyday routines we find ourselves launching back in to as the Autumn comes.

We send a huge thanks to Des and family for such a wonderful and generous experience!

I shall be talking about Gwen White and her books at the Women in Print symposium at the House of Illustration on the 16th September.

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The church kneeler above was from Modbury Church, Devon – there’ll be another post about those in due course!

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creative sparks in Armenia

Combining a design career with an academic role often means my weeks are busy and varied, but I had a week at the beginning of this month that was very different to the rest! I’ve been lucky enough to be given an amazing experience as academic at Norwich University of the Arts – a trip to Armenia. The university was successful in securing a British Council bid to work with students at the Tumo Institute in Yerevan, Armenia to help students to create design work with the aim of making products to sell when they come to work at the university in a few weeks time. This is speed educating! A team of three of us, Will – a business mentor from the university, Mia – a graduate from the BA in Textile Design and me – the lead subject academic. Fortunately we all got on brilliantly, complimenting each others’ skills and all being very happy to adapt in order to make the most of the experience. I was only able to be there a few days, while the other two stayed longer.

The journey was long, transferring in Istanbul and we arrived in Yerevan in the middle of the night so it wasn’t until the morning that we could see what the city looked like. We had some time to rest, so we didn’t! … and instead got up and explored … of course! The architecture was a mix of Modernist Brutalism, Art Deco and Post-Modernism mainly and a pink stone was dominant. Many of the buildings featured wonderful carvings and at many points all three of us were heads and cameras up capturing the city. The food in Yerevan was a complete hit with us and I could have stayed far longer and become far wider. Everywhere we went there was wonderful fresh produce: cheeses and meats, pastries, vegetables and breads, all beautifully presented. Luckily we were all happy to share the dishes to ensure we could try as much as possible.

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There was much excitement as we went to meet the team of students we were going to be working with, and we took examples of our work to introduce ourselves as well as a general plan, and open ears, so we could discuss with them all their own creative ambitions. These first few days were really important to get the project up and running before I had to return to the UK. Tumo studios was set up on the first floor of what was previously home to a wealthy family and there were signs of the better days including murals on the ceilings and ornate tiles. The workshop spaces were really inspiring, catering for print, ceramics, jewellery, sewing and more. Products made by students were available for sale too.

Everyone was very friendly and helpful, as well as really excited to get stuck in. We shared our ideas and thoughts about the project and Mia and I talked briefly through some of our own work. The first afternoon went by quickly and then the three of us were off to explore the city again – I really wanted to see Mount Ararat – the mountain taller than Mont Blanc, (and apparent resting place of Noah’s ark) that has in history been on Armenian soil, but is now behind a Turkish border. We climbed steps and more steps to the highest part of the city giving us views over the varied levels of prosperity in the capital . With sunglasses on, when there was a break in the clouds we could just spot the snow and shady top of Ararat, but sadly the view was not easily captured on camera – Wikipedia has better pics!

The next day was a very long but hugely inspiring one. With our local guides and our researcher eyes in we set off to visit three fabulous places to gain inspiration. The city museum presented the history of Armenia. We learned about traditions, society, historic events and politics, and of course the section about the Armenian genocide was hugely upsetting. We were not allowed to take photographs there but we had other places to go so we crossed the city, including a short trip on the metro (it has one line) to get to the Folk Museum. This was a smaller museum but packed with so much beauty! Here we heard about and saw the traditional crafts and our guide explained the processes, tools and materials involved. I took many photographs! The lace and filigree were particular favourites of mine.

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We were full of inspiration but needed energy so lunch was in a restaurant with our hosts helping us to navigate a menu of local dishes – I had lamb soup with pomegranate and mint – it was very good! Soon we were whisked off to the carpet museum / factory and the journey was a great opportunity to see more of the city and suburbs. It was fascinating to hear the history of carpet / rug making in Armenia and I even had a go at learning the right knot but I was very slow in comparison – there is video footage somewhere – and in the picture below, top row, right hand side, you can see my four cream coloured tufts that they have no doubt got rid of once I turned my eyes!

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The colours used to dye the yarns are still made from natural ingredients and it was right up Mia’s street! There were some secret ingredients of course! We were all inspired by the sights, stories and the motifs, border patterns and processes involved. What an amazing day. We headed back to the studio to think about what we had seen, captured some ideas on some post-it notes and discussed the plans for the next day. Another evening of foraging fabulous food in the restaurants of Yerevan did us well – we all ate too much again.

My final full day was spent in Tumo studios leading some workshops to develop the projects. Will, Mia and I planned the next week of workshops and activities, sharing all our different knowledge and experience, alongside talking through the individual ideas with the participants. I ran a session about motif and composition development and it was fascinating to see how differently these young people took on the challenge compared to the undergraduates in England I have worked with. These students were far happier to play with the process and not worry about it not working, and gave the testing much more time. Can this be the different schooling? Several attempts at the same thing, sharing and much discussion, lots of giggling and trying again got us to where we needed to be, lunch!

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We decided to eat all together in the studio so we ordered in food, (I tried cheese soup – it really is like fondue) and as we sat together we tried to learn some of the language … we laughed a lot. We were also bought a local honey cake to try which was very good. In the afternoon I led a practical session about repeat patterns and design rhythms, and again we talked through individual ambitions for design ideas and product potential. The participants will be heading to Norwich next month to develop and resolve product outcomes to test in a commercial setting. We discussed differences between Norwich and Yerevan and about the next phase of the project. At times we had visitors popping in to see what was going on but we kept on track and too soon I was having to say my farewells and leave the group – with the silver lining of knowing I’d see them in Norwich in May.

One more meal, a final evening with Will and Mia, a supermarket sweep around a 24/7 shop to buy gifts, back to the hotel to pack up, a twenty minute nap and that was that, it was Thursday – I flew out of Yerevan in the very early hours, swapping ‘planes in Istanbul and on to home.

I was so sad to leave the people and city, and was so envious that Mia and Will had another week to see more. In only a few days I had experienced somewhere so interesting that before getting there had felt daunting. Everyone we met were so friendly, helpful and proud of the city and country. I had the chance to learn about a different country and textile culture while working on a really different project, testing my teaching in a very different situation. It really was a great opportunity, hooray for saying yes!

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Thanks to Will and Mia for some of the photography and being such great team mates!

Letter box spotting

I shared this photograph on instagram earlier this week and thought it appropriate here too. I have lots of collections and I’ve mentioned several on the blog over the last few years. Some are from certain times in my life, this being one of those.

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During the 1990s I was fascinated by the post and all things related. In student holidays I worked in the Royal Mail sorting offices in Leeds & Norwich, sorting and delivering mail, day & night and was even offered a permanent job – but I went back to graduate in design! I still have my uniform belt & badge, I wore number LS394.

Much of this time I was a student and I was attracted to the graphic qualities of the imagery related to the system of handling post too. I loved the labels and sacks and used some of this language in my final major project on my degree course in Printed Textile Design. I also discovered the GPO Len Lye films etc and couldn’t believe money was spent on such avant garde films to encourage people to post early for Christmas. I love the fact I held in my hands people’s exam results, postcards and letters to Father Christmas and helped distribute them across the world. I liked working the nights with huge machinery that I fed with post as it sort. It was a great feeling to be part of the huge system. For my training I and a dozen others were trained to sort post without error and had to sit an exam to prove it, in order to work the shifts – I still remember too many postcodes, and my geography of Britain improved! My interest in everyday design around me was fuelled … and I’m pleased one of my design heroes David Mellor designed a box. I’d love to design a Royal Mail stamp!

I also loved spotting the different post box designs up and down the country and before  knew it I had rather a few! These photographs include locations across Britain, France, Spain, Israel, Denmark, taken by me and loyal / tolerant friends. Some photographs are very poor quality but the prints on Kodak paper are something of my past. I used to wallpaper my student room with new additions as I got them back from the developers. Thanks to all those people who helped – I’m not sure what to do with them now but let me know if you recognise any of the locations! I have more than this image shows but it gives you an idea of the collection. I’m not sure I’ll start collecting these again but it was a nice trip down memory lane to discover them again.

bespoke pattern for Birmingham BHX

Designing bespoke pattern for clients is something that I have made a key professional design interest. Communicating a sense of place, historic reference or activity as pattern is what I really enjoy and over the years I’ve been on many site-visits to interesting places to learn about what the client would like or definitely not like. This visit was no different. I love the anticipation of finding out more, a new project to get to grips with, and all my design experience to apply to the challenge …

Some of my previous design work was used as a reference for context images by the original architects, proposing my patterns and stating my details – note – never send artwork without your contact details attached! Phone calls were made, samples were sent, bids were accepted and then a call-up. Please come to the airport for a meeting. There’s a tight deadline, a budget, and something the client knows they want. In a nutshell the brief: Celebrate Birmingham’s buildings in a one colour, repeating pattern that works close up in detail and from a distance as a visual rhythm. Buildings need to be identifiable.

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With any project I carry out research, ask the client lots of questions and evolve a design approach subject to the answers to my questions. Production methods, fabricators, material choices, colours, budgets, time-scales and of course client ambition for the project shape the design language and development of the project. I set off to take photographs of central Birmingham and climbed tall landmarks to get good views. I took photographs, made sketches as well as notes. I had some buildings in my mind I knew needed to be included but I also wanted to use others , less iconic ones, as visual rhythms to play with negative and positive shapes across the composition.

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Back in the studio I chose paper cut-outs as a clear graphic way to create the buildings, as I have done for several commissions including for the Barbican and TfL posters. Once the individual buildings were cut out I scanned in the artwork and spent many hours moving everything around in Adobe Illustrator. I was testing rhythms in and out of repeat and shifting scale, proportions and pairings. This can send me back to re-cut something or add new details. To some people those hours of making subtle tweaks and changes wouldn’t even be noticed but to me it’s so important that every inch of the design works the best it can and it can be time-consuming – but it will be worth it. I can’t stress this enough to students embarking on their Final Major Projects at the moment! When you know what scale the final artwork will be produced at you need to check the correct level of detail as working at a computer screen can be very misleading for artwork several metres long!

A concept sheet and initial design piece was sent to the client for approval and at this point I had to label the buildings I’d included. Once approved I was able to continue building the full repeat, adding further buildings, and make test prints with the help of the team at the Window Film Company – who I already have award-winning work with! They really know their stuff and several phone calls later to check small details regarding file specifications and production issues resulted in the excitement of samples to sign off, both by me and the client. A couple more proofs for colour matching and scale of design was checked and then we were good to go. Quality is everything when it as your name on it, and making sure that everything about the design is right BEFORE it gets installed is rather important. Sleepless nights before installation of projects has been known!

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This project originally came my way almost a year ago with some scoping phone calls and emails, and now I’m able to share photographs with you. I’ve had people let me know they’ve seen work that looks like mine at the airport – hoping I hadn’t been copied – but no, this time it is mine! When Birmingham Airport tweeted the pictures last week I was delighted that I can now share images of this project from 2018 – when I was Birmingham-based as it states, and now it feels rather a fine farewell to the place I called home since 2005.

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(onsite pictures – official photographs from Birmingham Airport)

Yes it is by the toilets, yes I have already worked on two commissions for public toilets (Colchester / Dedham many moons ago), and I can’t promise this will be my last!

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weaver extraordinaire: Anni Albers

If you are interested in textiles and haven’t heard about the Anni Albers show now on at Tate Modern in London, then a.) where have you been? and b.) get there fast if you can!

This has been a much anticipated show for me. Having been enjoying many other people’s pictures via Instagram since the exhibition opened I was most excited to get to the show and I’m so glad I did – I went round it several times and breathed in the history I had learned as an art student myself; typewriter patterns from Bauhaus lessons, the infamous diploma piece with sounds absorbing properties in the yarn, and those classic Bauhaus photographs, but there was so much more. Colour, cloth, pattern, rhythms, photographs, works on paper, products … The woven structures and yarns drew everyone in for a closer look – so much so that the alarms kept being set off and the guilty took a sheepish step back! There was a fascinating display of the research of historical textiles from Albers’ own collection that made perfect sense in how she interpreted and worked with the process of weaving.

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Experimental, commercial commissions, religious pieces and jewellery are some of the aspects of this considerable show. As with most well-received shows, the audience conversations themselves were fascinating; lots of discussions about experiences of weaving, hours at the loom as well as working out what she must have done.

It has been the architects, the painters and the product designers, usually men, who have become far more well known from the Bauhaus, including Anni’s husband Josef Albers. The avant-garde German art school’s first director Walter Gropius stated there were equal opportunities for all when it was established in 1919 and yet women were generally encouraged towards the textiles workshop, a place and craft deemed more suitable. Anni never let this distract from her focus despite wanting to be a painter. Her creative output of a lifetime, as edited in this exhibition, goes a long way to demonstrate her will to explore both the context of design and the development of art. She will have no doubt inspired many who have been introduced to her as a result of the show and her legacy will continue to influence far beyond the context of textiles as a craft for women. I came away with many notes and a head filled textile excitement – happy weaving everyone!

Exhibition ends: 27th January 2019

New / old horizons

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, and it’s been a life-changing couple of months. Resigning from my academic role at Birmingham City University and relocating the family to Norfolk was a huge decision for us all, but we are out the other side, living in Norfolk, settling in and enjoying the change of scene. I’ve taken up a new role as Course Leader for both the BA Textile Design course and the BA Fashion course at Norwich University of the Arts, and I’ve received a warm welcome. I’m enjoying spending time back in central Norwich too and the campus is made up of some fabulous buildings, see below.

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I knew the change in environment was going to be for the better but I’d underestimated quite how good it would be. Commuting to work on a bus rattling along the country lanes is a world away from the streets and railway tracks of Birmingham. We are making sure we are out in the landscape as much as possible and visiting new and old places to find our feet including Rockland St. Mary, Ranworth and Winterton. I feel as if I can breathe more deeply, and yes, their will be more photographs of reeds and the drawings may well feature horizontal lines!

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