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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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

book lovers unite in support!

You may have already heard about the fire that has destroyed a storage unit in Croydon that includes an irreplaceable collection of family photographs and research, as well as a precious collection of prints and books belonging to Joe Pearson of Design for Today. This includes stock of all the books that he has had published including our ‘Gardening with Mr Bawden’ published last May, as well as many other beautiful books.

There has been a gofundme page set up by Alice Pattullo and Joe’s family to raise money to get the collection re-established and the books reprinted. This will be a huge task but there has been an amazing wave of online support in the first 24 hours, and long may it continue.

Joe is fully committed to publishing beautiful books by illustrators, creating special publications that are often intriguing structures and subjects, with more than a hint of mid-century admiration! He is involved with all aspects of the book development and spends hours working to achieve. He researches, discusses design decisions, organises printing etc, and puts in the time folding and constructing books, packing them up, exhibiting at fairs and promoting the designers he collaborates with. He is an absolute joy to work with and I’m so gutted that this has happened. My sadness goes far beyond knowing that my own books are destroyed – as any collector knows, it’s the experience of building a collection, making choices, keeping an eye out and committing to the task. Joe has built a substantial following on social media as he shares his love of printed matter with the wider world and now needs our help to get things up and running again.

Check out his website if you’ve not done so before, and if you are a lover of printed matter and can spare some change do support the fundraising effort to get Design for Today back up in business and collecting again.

You can read about our book collaboration here.

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Plot 8

This summer has been a funny one for harvest on the allotment. The long period of heat and lack of rain resulted in tiny potatoes and very  late runner beans but somehow despite this, vast marrows! This year of gardening has been rather chaotic, with sparse visits fitted in around our working patterns and family life, but once I’ve made the time and put in the effort to get there I have always really appreciated the head space the plot gives me in a somewhat full-on / stressful academic / design career. An hour of digging is so good for my mind and body, far better than any gym visit. Connecting with nature helps me register the seasons, and home-grown fruit and vegetables are the best!

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This year started off like any other: hoping for bumper crops, trying to stay on top of the weeds, while trying to clear old ground for new patches of earth to cultivate. Then an opportunity arrived and we made a big decision that has been in the back of our minds to make for a while, couldn’t work out how to do it, but is now coming true. We are leaving Birmingham and moving to the country – Norfolk to be precise (yes I was born there, no I’m not going home) – where I am taking up a new academic role, and it’s all-change! Anyone with a sense of British geography knows we will be nearer the sea, we will see more sky, and the horizon will be flatter! We are not moving up or down, we are moving across!

This process has been taking shape over the summer months and during this time I’ve had to come to terms with leaving plot 8, in an allotment site in south Birmingham that I’ve worked so hard on, dug intimately and harvested crops from since 2006. My children have slept in their prams in all weathers as I’ve carried on digging, they’ve chewed on runner beans when teething and learned to grow their own plants too – as well as digging large pits to fill with grass seeds, much to my horror! I’ve dug alongside friendly birds, untangled a hedgehog from the bindweed and been startled by a fox; it’s rarely lonely at the site. I’ll never tire of the first scent of sweet peas each year. Here are a few images from over the years:

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I’ve written many posts here about the plot and the process of growing food, colours, harvests, the community spirit and the way it has inspired my first commercial collection of patterns: Plot to Plate, launched in 2012. I’ve made many editions of prints as a result of mapping the crops growing here. The joys of growing my own food were celebrated in the design featuring tools used on the Plot to Plate title design across tea towels. Without this space – this haven of nature in the big city, I would have struggled far more from living here. As I worked at the allotments I would often think of all the shoppers in the Bullring on a Saturday afternoon, wondering why they made their choice to do so, rather than garden like me.

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This post is written to register the anticipation and excitement of change despite the vast upheaval, both physically and emotionally: saying goodbye to friends and colleagues who have shaped the last 13 years of my life, as well as this plot, that has paid its part in taking care of me. We’ve gathered the tools, taken our last harvest, handed back the keys and now hope that someone else will feel the joy of plot 8 in years to come!

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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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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

Gardening with Mr Bawden

So this is the week my book ‘Gardening with Mr Bawden’ is being published by Design for Today. It’s been many months in the making, so I’m very excited to be able to share the details and for other people to hold the book in their hands.

What began as a project brief for a book with interesting folds that celebrates Edward Bawden’s love of gardening has become a project I am very proud of and have thoroughly enjoyed for lots of different reasons, pushing me creatively along the way. I love a design challenge and returning to the subject of gardens has been a pleasure, having launched my garden-inspired Plot to Plate collection back in 2012 and being a keen allotmenteer. I’ve moved away from my usual diagrammatic visual interpretation of gardens, towards a more illustrative manner, following on from my Parks and Gardens commission for posters for London Underground last year. It has also been a joy going back to paper engineering and book art – having made many editions of artists books over the years following an MA in the subject from Camberwell in 1998.

The images below show some design stages of this project with Design for Today. There is an early paper maquette as I worked out the structural narrative in relation to the imagery. Several of these were posted between us to allow for discussion and deliberation. At one point there was a cut-out pond but I was unhappy with how it worked on the back of the page so I left that behind. I cut lots of lino, with each page requiring at least two blocks – one for each colour. Although I had an idea of the key focus and composition for each spread it wasn’t until I was cutting the lino did I tie precise detail down. Only a couple of times I decided to completely abandon a page spread and rework it – and I’m so glad I did! Each block was hand-printed and hung to dry in the studio before being scanned to make a digital file that could be prepared for the lithographic printing process of the final edition at Calverts.

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Once the final sheets were litho printed and die-cut / creased we have had to fold them one by one, sign the special edition and pack them up. We even decided to hand-cut out a window pane of the greenhouse in the edition of 100. We are delighted that the Special Edition sold out fast, well before the publishing date – thanks all! Those lucky people will receive the book along with a little booklet of the project and greetings cards, any day now!

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This collaboration with Joe has been a really positive experience as we are both passionate about doing a great job. He was always happy for me to tweak something one last time as we signed off proofs, and understood the reasons why I turned sentences inside out in the booklet, to say exactly what I wanted to. Joe and I have discussed page size, paper weight and the folded structure on several occasions as well as how you take inspiration without copying, and the issue of creating something in relation to, but not derivative of.

I am sure people who know my work will recognise my style in there, despite it being a little bit more illustrative. Pattern making relates to both Bawden, and myself, so it made sense to include a nod to wallpaper designs too, inside the greenhouse, as pots of plants become floral wallpaper. I wanted to use lino because both Bawden and I have used the printmaking process. I also wanted to create a light-hearted feel to the imagery, that is so often in Bawden’s commercial illustrations. As I wrote before in a previous post, we researched lots of snippets of information to guide the imagery and are grateful for there to be so much writing and research available at the moment, but it was never intending to be a guide to the garden at Brick House, more to express the pleasure Bawden would have got from his garden, as so many of us do. I also wanted to take the reader on a journey through a garden, rather than show you all in one go, so I hope the reader can navigate their way around!

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This book is the outcome of a great collaboration. (Thanks Joe!) So as the book is published today we celebrate this journey of designing and making, and can announce it will be stocked by some great places, including the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where a brand new Bawden show opens this week. Check out the social media accounts of Design for Today for updates. Final thanks ought to go to Mr Bawden himself, who has inspired so many of us, and who gave Joe and I cause to make this book.