women designers, lost and found

Sometimes themes seem to rattle around in my head, connecting with other dialogues I have had. Last week I attended a really interesting Study Day at the House of Illustration as part of the Women in Print series organised by Desdemona McCannon on the theme of Enid Marx and contemporaries. The subject of women’s careers, and specifically their profile compared with their male counterpoints was discussed – not a new idea, but as a recurring theme I thought it worth revisiting here. In the same week Stylist magazine featured an article about the price of artwork made by women compared to men. It was such a coincidence I’ll expand some thoughts here.

It’s not a secret that women often have a harder time gaining recognition in many lines of work in comparison to their male peers. I wrote in a previous blog post about Eric Ravilious and friends at Compton Verney that it certainly wasn’t lack of skill that kept the women such as Helen Binyon from comparable public attention, and therefore further opportunities through their careers. There are highly talented women in history who we are only just giving air-time to, but the fact is their careers may not have excelled in the way their male counterparts did, or if they did they may well have been paid less for the work because they were women.

Enid Marx chose not to take issue with gender-bias in her career, and got on with a multi-disciplined design portfolio, with impressive outputs including books, textiles and patterns which were beautifully communicated through the exhibition at the House of Illustration (sorry it’s just ended!) – but you can visit Compton Verney instead. We got to see the exhibition as well as listen to knowledgeable speakers such as Enid Marx expert Lottie Crawford giving a really insightful illustrated paper about the legacy that Enid Marx and her peers have created for us today, as well as Jane Audas taking us through a fascinating journey of clients and sales put in to a broader context of who’s who.

I have heard people wonder why we need to make a point about this being a gender issue, but I would say that this has been said from a male perspective, and not from those being subjected now and in the future to selective opportunities due to gender. As a woman designer, and female academic training mostly women to have design careers where there is a history of undervaluing female contribution, I remain concerned.

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It is sometimes the case that research can be discovered more easily about men because they were promoted more and as a result have a higher profile, whether through greater self-confidence, the social / commercial networks or marketing material, from family or company archives, past exhibitions or publications. During the study day in London the point was made that there was also a sense that women got on with the designing, often alongside raising a family or carrying out other domestic tasks. Did they lack the opportunity to promote themselves, didn’t see the need, or couldn’t find the time? Working in isolation at home can certainly challenge one’s self-belief compared to working in an office with colleagues who can praise you and your work as and when required. This reminds me of the freelance work of Sheila Bownas, almost accidentally discovered and collected by Chelsea Cefai, and brought to a new appreciative public in the last few years. The family knew little of the extent of her prolific output of designs as a textile designer until Chelsea pieced the jigsaw together, and thank goodness we know of her now!

There is another consideration here. Does the discipline these women are working in make a difference to their profile? Enid Marx worked across illustration and textiles, but her illustrations are better known. Is this because as an illustrator your name is usually on the cover of the book, even if it is on the inside, or on the poster? For freelance textile designers it can be quite different. The name of the company is usually printed as legend details on the selvedge, but historically not always the name of the designer. If this is the case we may never trace the designer. This remains the case today in industry when big name brands buy in freelance patterns and the designer’s name is not carried through.

The article in Stylist compares Mark Rothko and his fine art paintings to Anni Albers’ textile practice; the subject of a show coming to Tate this Autumn. When the Bauhaus opened its doors in Germany in the Twentieth century the founder, Walter Gropius, stated anyone could study any discipline, and yet the women were rather heavily steered towards the weaving workshop, considered suitable for women. That was where Anni Albers learned her skill, fell in love with the teacher Josef Albers, took his name on marriage and continued to live in his shadow; he led a fine art practice of painting while she made textiles. I can’t wait to see the Anni Albers show – and for Anni to have the publicity men with lesser creative careers have had before.

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Craft, seen as a second-rate subject to Fine Art is part of the discussion throughout the article in Stylist, and it also makes the point that textiles is seen as a domestic activity, thanks to the increased leisure time during Victorian era. Grayson Perry has made significant strides in opening up the conversation about value of craft, but far more needs to be done to change opinions. As an academic one of my biggest concerns is the lack of respect textile design currently receives as a subject in the education curriculum and agenda. It’s becoming one of my catch phrases but I really mean it – we all wear pants! How can textiles be seen predominantly as a past-time, a hobby – when we all wear textiles, sleep under textiles and protect ourselves with textiles? How dare this government puts at risk the supply chain of future textile designers because it doesn’t see it as important enough to be a GCSE? Fashion is nothing without textiles, and this industry is one of the big ones on the global stage – don’t get me started on that!

Refocusing back on the study day, we also discussed the nature of research carried out by women, and that the particular approach / nature of research writing holds a female voice that may not be considered intellectual enough; often relating to social networks, domestic arrangements and family life. Several female audience members agreed that they doubted their own confidence when finding their research voice alongside the traditional academic tone / content they believed was expected by their male counterparts. Are women undermining themselves and lacking confidence in their own abilities?

I don’t have the answers but this is not a conversation that should stop. More dialogues involving men and women about historical and contemporary design practice, craft and textiles are needed. There is not one way, this is not binary, but we need to make sure the different voices, approaches, strategies and practices in the creative subjects and beyond are given a platform. The diverse ways of being whatever it is we are should be valued, and represented by a diverse community. Wouldn’t it be lovely if talent and opportunity were really the key ingredients for building profiles, gaining opportunities, and writing about it!

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seeing new things …

There is nothing like a change of scene to recharge the batteries – here’s a couple of images of near and far sightings from our recent backpacking / camping trip in France, and I plan to write a longer post in due course.

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taking some time from tasks..

It’s the end of the academic year and I’ve got lots of admin tasks to complete and fortunately some trips to prepare for. The life of an academic is no longer one of summer holidays stretching out ahead of us until leaves turn red with plenty of time to catch up with rediscovering the in-tray, or making time for creative practice. Graduate shows, marking retrievals, timetables and planning new modules are only some of the things have been on my list. Many jobs fight for my attention – including the veg plot! Despite the jobs it’s so important to get out and about, see things and make time for oneself! I’ve got a number of projects planned for the next few months and taking stock is always a good start. Here’s to some time to think, and some time to draw, amongst the admin of the summer!

If you want inspiration and have time to see an exhibition I can suggest the Edward Bawden show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – it’s brilliant. My daughter and I got chatting to two ladies who were enjoying it as much as us; spotting small details and playful touches in the commercial designs including the London Underground roundel as a pigeon’s eye, and several cats lurking! The versatility of processes and visual language, the playfulness, the draughtsmanship and scope of commercial clients is all there to admire. As ever, seeing the old favourites as well as those works new to me, in the flesh is always better than on a screen … Do go if you can – before September 9th!

I was very proud to also see my ‘Gardening with Mr Bawden‘ book published by Design For Today in the exhibition shop. The handling copy was a shadow of its former self, so I did my duty and folded it up properly again. The sales assistant commented on how well they are selling, so I’m grateful to those customers too!

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The versatility of Ravilious & friends

There are a flurry of exhibitions on and books out at the moment relating to Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, as well as their peers. Since the fabulous Ravilious show at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 / 04 curated by Alan Powers, it seems this really has been their revival. Certainly according to my social media feeds we are all loving this celebration of talent from days gone by, and many contemporary designers are inspired by the styles of these greats.

The exhibition, Ravilious & Co. at Compton Verney explores this network of friends and collaborators in an extensive and beautiful show of art and design pieces, demonstrating their skills, creativity and versatility across products and for varied clients. Having seen this show in Sheffield; a touring show curated by Andy Friend and the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, and previously being familiar with much of the era’s iconic designs it’s nice to see some of the exhibits rather like old friends, as well as others new to me.

Ravilious_ComptonVerney1images kindly shared by Compton Verney:

Eric Ravilious, Sussex Church, 1924. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Eric Ravilious, Portrait of Edward Bawden, 1930. Royal College of Art

There are also new pieces and names to discover. One thing that struck me was the talent of others in the group that have not received quite the same fanfare, but should be rewarded with the recognition – Helen Binyon in particular as a print-maker in my opinion. My notes recall ‘The Wire Fence’, 1935 specifically, such a beautiful interpretation of the subject through pattern and print. I kept returning to admire it!

A section of exhibition text also struck a chord for me. It stated that Paul Nash had “believed a good artist could turn his or her hand to many things – and would need to if they were to earn a living from their talent”. Nash had taught some of this new generation of designers at the Royal College and was also seen to live by this approach of traversing the landscape of art and design. Famous for his paintings both as a War Artist and not, he also carried out commercial design briefs for companies such as Cresta Silks (owned by Patrick Heron’s father) and Edinburgh Weavers (directed by Alastair Morton) and established the rather short-lived Unit One, bringing together artists and designers of the time.

When the individuals such as Bawden and Ravilious turned their creative hands to making drawings and prints, or designing ceramics, book covers, end papers, posters, murals, fabrics and much more, they did so with such confidence and accomplishment – an understanding of each product, the form and audience, each outcome intelligently designed for the specific brief. This isn’t a case of one image translated on to multiple surfaces as so much of today’s designing tends to be – I feel strongly about this when educating my own design students! Don’t do a ‘Cath Kidston’, (not the only company to do this!) and apply any / every pattern to any surface, but consider the requirements and potential of each product, learn from the expert manufacturers about how the production of the image or pattern can work best, and learn from what has gone before while creating something of its time.

KFarley_Marx_Angus_1Image details, photographs by Kate Farley from publications: Enid Marx by Alan Powers / Peggy Angus, by James Russell:

Enid Marx, study for ‘Spot and Stripe’ Utility fabric, 1945
Peggy Angus, Tile mural, staircase, Whitefield School, Barnet, 1953/4

Yes a designer can earn a living with their versatile skills, but I also have no doubt that Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Peggy Angus and others of this time thrived on the creative challenges of the commercial brief alongside their fine art practices. It’s known that Enid Marx liked the confines of designing Utility fabrics for the reason the design restrictions gave her boundaries to challenge. An open brief can be far more stifling! How would you hold the cup, turn the page or approach the wall, and how can pattern relate to the space? I love learning the particulars about each new production method or new application / context I design for.

Returning again to the subject of this particular exhibition at Compton Verney, items on show include drawing studies, proofs, original painting and drawings as well as commercially printed products. The most moving item was a letter from Bawden to Ravilious’ wife Tirzah after hearing news of Eric’s death, lost over Iceland on a mission as a War Artist, that demonstrated the strength of friendship the two men had for each other. Tears filled my eyes. It’s a big show, and it takes time – you will need to be fueled by cake!

My hope as a designer and educator is that this sustained interest in such a talented network of designers whose work reached across the public domain may rub off on the new generations of designers visiting this exhibition as well as on the vision and ambition of those who commission us too! While it’s lovely to see re-issues of these great designers work, I’d like us to move forward and create a new exciting design era built on this intelligence, empathy and skill. In the meantime, see this show if you can! It ends on 10th June – so get moving!

KFarley_plate_EricRaviliousImage detail, photograph by Kate Farley of plate by Eric Ravilious for Wedgwood

Also check out:

Edward Bawden at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London until 9th September 2018

Enid Marx, House of Illustration, London until 23rd September 2018

Bawden’s Beasts, The Higgins, Bedford until 27th January 2019

woven landscape

It seems right to me that as someone keen to draw images I chose print as my medium of design rather than weave but I do think there is a strong sense of the spirit of woven cloth in how I see things, and for that I thank my upbringing in Norfolk. The strong horizontal line of the sky meeting the fields interrupted by vertical fence posts or reeds creating visual rhythms can leave me feeling utterly complete. Back in Norfolk this Easter, once again I breathed in the space, the horizontal and vertical of Horsey; one of the most perfect places.

I removed colour from this image as I wanted to clearly show the structure of the stripes, but colour is much of the joy in this landscape – the purples, greens, yellows, varying from minute to minute in the ever-changing light. I add them below. One day I will weave again.

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poster proud

Every designer is likely to have a goal or two, a particular ambition to aim for. Last week I reached one of mine… I have designed posters for London Underground. They are up on the system as I write. I’ve been bursting to share the prospect that this may happen for several years, and now it’s real!

The underground poster archive at London Transport Museum is full of great examples of graphic design, with work by my heroes such as Edward McKnight Kauffer and Abram Games. These designers have inspired me in my quest to explore visual communication through print and pattern for as long as I can remember and now my design work is on the network hopefully catching the eyes of commuters in London, as theirs did.

I was pleased to be given the brief of ‘Parks and Gardens’ and was keen to move the visual qualities on from my Plot to Plate collection of kitchen gardens and parterres, although you may recognise in poster 3, ‘Community Gardens’ some of my motifs from that time. I have continued to play with elevations and perspective, while giving a polite nod to one of the other poster giants, Tom Purvis, whose poster I’ve had on a wall in our home for more than a decade, enjoying it every day. His series for LNER, ‘East Coast Joys’ appears to be made from cut out paper, the picture is made from flat colour in bold shapes. Having used this method for my commission for the Barbican last year I was keen to explore this again. You can see in my first cutout sequence I did begin to connect each poster to the next, as Tom Purvis had in his 6 LNER posters but I found this limited the scope for each poster composition in this instance.

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I began by gathering lots of imagery by making drawings and taking photographs and considered four different approaches to parks in London, one for each of the posters, from traditional activities such as rowing, to pitch & putt and the formal model boating lake. I wanted to create nostalgic content combined with a contemporary aesthetic. I remembered a hot day rowing on the Serpentine with a friend, I thought of many visits to Brockwell Park and all the different aspects of the ‘rooms’ it has within it. Greenwich was also an obvious one, Clapham Common and Hampstead Heath too. The posters represent lots of different aspects of parks, not four specific ones, and only one suggests a particular skyline looking across at the city.

Once the initial ideas were set I began to cut out the posters as general compositions, as well as single details / motifs to add. I combine both traditional drawing skills and digital manipulation in my practice, and this is how I worked here, scanning in paper drawings (cutouts) and subsequently working in Adobe Illustrator for final compositions / print artwork. I was able to make changes as required, including colour and motif placement options.

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As a designer I’ve always loved working across different surfaces and products, working with the industry experts in order to learn the best approaches and pitfalls of each context. Posters are large, but someone may look at it for less than a second… it needs to grab attention without being noisy. Large areas of pale colour might encourage graffiti… edges are as important as the centre, and so on. For people who have known my work for many years the look of the posters might not surprise, but my more recent work has been much more graphic, and understated so maybe some of you may not see these as so clearly of my handwriting. Let me know what you think!

Once I was told the posters were going up I had to go and find one. Luckily I was in London for the Design Festival so with wide-open eyes I took to the system and eventually found my first one at Embankment. I’m not sure I can put in to words what that felt like – I wanted to point and shout they were mine! The ticket barrier chap kindly took a picture of me alongside ‘playing a round’. Later that day I came across two more at Euston, and friends have let me know their sightings too!

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Design projects can take a long time to get to fruition, it is not unusual for years to pass. This can be frustrating when you want to shout out and tell everyone what you’ve been doing in the studio each week. I am always mindful of what I can share on social media, respecting my clients who might want to have control over a specific product launch. Now the posters are up I’m delighted and proud to shout about it… let me know if you see one on your travels!

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You can also buy them from the London Transport Museum shop.

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.

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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.