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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pattern prints

I’ve been working behind the scenes, offline at least, making new prints, mainly lino prints, and developing repeat patterns with them. I’ve not wanted to show the progress until I’ve worked out where I’m going with them, but finally I’ve decided to go public, in a small way, revealing one of the new prints, hinting at the direction my new patterns are going in…

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I’m exhibiting at TentLondon again in September so between now and then I’ll show more on instagram, Twitter, Facebook and here on my blog.

textile fragments

I have this textile ‘fragment’ that I think is beautiful in so many ways; the richness of colour, the manipulated folds of cloth as well as the resulting patterns of the geometric shapes of both the positive and negative folds of the fabric. There is aside to this, so much more connecting me to this old piece of cloth I acquired over twenty years ago, and when I see it, those thoughts come back to me in an instant. This is the power such materials and objects have over us.

I studied at art school, and although the main campus was in Norwich, I was at an outpost in Great Yarmouth. I loved being by the sea, and it was my first time away from home so it was a huge learning curve and time of growing up. I was learning textile and drawing skills and I have fond memories of it all. One day we had a visitor, a lady who had traveled the world collecting textiles, and she brought some of these to show us at the college. I had been interested in the Ghanaian flags of the Asafo, as well as Indian applique so I was fascinated to hear her talk and see the textiles from far-off lands.

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Sadly excitement became upset as the textile pieces were laid out in front of us. I wonder now if I was the only one thinking what I was. When I saw the exquisite fabrics cut in to pieces and crudely stapled to paper with pencil written details of where they had come from I felt so concerned for the apparent brutal way they were being separated from the original whole, their link to their heritage and provenance. It occurred to me then that other nations were losing the heritage that they owned, as the fabrics became souvenirs for others. Had someone chosen to sell them; were they ‘acquired’?

That day holds further sad memories in actual fact. My dear Grandma had died that weekend, and I really wasn’t coping too well away from home, but I got through the day and decided to buy a piece of cloth from the lady as a way of treating my sorry self. I felt torn by the decision to buy it. Would my purchase make sure it was kept safe, or encourage more sourcing of cloth from across the globe? My piece states ‘fragment’ in its description and yet is has clearly been cut from a larger cloth. ‘Fragment’ suggests to me a museum piece, a fragment of history, a clue of a larger object salvaged from ruin rather than proactively separated from its other parts to form the sum – a folded patchwork Kathiawari horse strap from India.

The colours have altered over the years since its time of making no doubt, and the fabric has become worn too. I removed the rusty staples in an act of care and conservation. I also taught myself how to create the folds and layers of fabrics to understand, through making, the construction process. The piece inspired a fabric manipulation project during my time in Great Yarmouth – mostly lost to history and probably for the best! My fabric samples are nothing in comparison to my ‘original’ fragment. The pieces I made lack the authenticity, the ageing, the integrity of originality, but they too serve to remind me of the value of heritage, of belonging and remembering.

With so much talk in the media at the moment of cultural looting across the world both past and present, I am again reminded of this piece of cloth, its heritage and place in the world. The fabric also distinctively reminds me of the loss of my grandma at that time, and yet isn’t it strange that a piece of Kathiawari cloth – not any piece, ONLY this piece, can act as a token of a memory of my Grandma who as far as I know, had no connections with India?!

passing on pattern passion

In my role of academic as well as a designer I am regularly required to enthuse about print and pattern, and to be honest that’s fine, as I love designing and teaching pattern for print. This last week has seen me out and about to pass on my passion for pattern, firstly to Wolverhampton Embroiderers’ Guild where I was invited to talk about my practice. It’s always interesting having to consider what bit of the last twenty years to focus on, requiring reflection and evaluation, and how to tell the most relevant story without missing the bits that might be the most informative to others even if they didn’t seem so to me when living them. The audience were really generous with praise, and were really interested in my creative process, so sharing my sketchbooks, and anecdotes felt very easy to such an interested group of makers.

Tuesday saw me overseeing a morning of filming at Birmingham City University (BCU) with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and TV crew, working with our third years and our fabulous Print Technician. It was a morning of celebrating the Arts and Crafts legacy, William Morris in particular, and the importance of understanding the value of drawing to the process of pattern making. It was a pleasure promoting our talented third years, in the closing stages of their time with us.

This leads me to yesterday when I and a colleague took a coach of second year Textile Design degree students to Manchester, specifically the Whitworth Art Gallery to see several exhibitions. On walking in to the first gallery and the exhibition ‘Revolutionary Textiles 1910-1939′ I noticed a number of pieces that I had featured in my Historical Textiles lectures when I had taught this group of students as first years, including Barron & Larcher, Josef Hillebrand and Omega Workshops. It was fabulous to see the students’ excitement on recognising patterns and names of designers that had, until then remained theoretical, and not ‘actually real’. Their knowledge meant something tangible, and I think was empowering to them. It was an honour to share that excitement of learning, and understanding.

Having worked on the Tibor Reich show at BCU it was great to be reunited with the collection, also on show at the Whitworth, and to see the different emphasis this exhibition made to an amazing and extensive archive owned by the family. The students really responded to the way Tibor worked to create pattern, and explored pattern through drawing with layers of colour and line. I couldn’t help but point out Tibor’s excellent use of a sketchbook to explore ideas.

Image below: top row from Revolutionary Textiles, bottom row Tibor Reich

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The room that wowed me most was the wallpaper gallery upstairs, and again, this exhibition was exciting and inspiring to the students, leading to some really interesting conversations. There is of course no comparison between seeing metres of wallpaper stretching skywards, to a small screen of Google images. We talked about print production, the scale of motifs useful to a domestic space rather than in relation to a sketchbook page, and why thinking big should be embraced. We admired the Lucienne Day patterns that are so familiar to us, alongside new discoveries, and that is why a curated exhibition, unlike an online search can be so beneficial; the selection provides context. I encouraged the students to question how they would make the marks, the shapes and patterns without computers, and why the variation of hand-made can offer something that digital software excludes. I include an example below to illustrate my point – beauty in the irregular.

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We did have time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the cafe but also took in a quick trip to see the newly opened Fashion & Freedom exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery, one I really do recommend too.

So, more pattern inspiration for me, and hopefully some more people inspired by pattern too…

print progress

Recently I have been really busy with a variety of academic duties in Birmingham and further afield, taking me away from studio time, my freelance design practice, and of course blog writing. Also, in my teaching of Textile Design at Birmingham City University I have been leading a module of professional practice, assisting the students in learning about the life of a freelance designer. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, as the discussions between students and staff illustrated: It’s great to be your own boss, but you take all the blame when things don’t work out! You can get up when you want, but nobody pays you for just waking up!

The rhythm of freelance work is varied. Somehow it’s often the way of things that several deadlines coincide, and when you have a schedule to stick to, an urgent press request comes in. On the day you have time to make calls, those people are out of the office, and obviously you don’t get paid when you take a holiday. Yes there can be tough times, but I really like the variety of the weeks’ activities that freelancing gives me, certainly set in tandem with the academic life of very different demands. Each practice informs the other. Obviously there are freelance tasks I prefer and other ones I procrastinate over, lists are created, social media is checked and Radio 4 is listened too!

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With so much to-ing and fro-ing on trains this last month or two and with several commercial projects on slow-cook I decided to give myself time to make, test and resolve some ideas that I have been exploring, with paper and print. The activity of printmaking is a fabulous discipline to work with. I love the excitement of planning a new print, and composing the plate, often taking me back to sketchbooks and previous ideas. The physical process of cutting the block can also be absorbing, and therapeutic and I have to decide the paper stock, the ink colour, and edition size too. It is important to maintain an experimental, inquiring practice and my prints and drawings are the evidence of ideas that have sustained my creative practice for the last twenty years. Between the commercial constraints of projects shaped by clients, costs and repeat patterns, printmaking can seem so free from limitations. This is why I make sure I keep printing – the creative sort, not just the invoices!

both prints featured here are available to buy, at £46 each unframed.

Knit 1, edition of 15, lino print, 9.5 x 9.5 cm print size

Meadow Grass, edition of 12, lino print, 9.5 x 9.5 cm print size

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Visual proverbs – in Ghana and Cheltenham!

As a young student in the 1990s I became aware of the amazing Asafo flags of the Fante, from Ghana. I’d seen an article in a magazine in the college library about an exhibition on at the time, and unable to afford the trip to London I telephoned Peter Adler, curator of the exhibition, as his number was listed in the article, to share my enthusiasm. I’m not sure what I thought I’d achieve but we did have a conversation and I was inspired to find out more about the colourful appliqued flags.

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What struck me about the flags was the bold shapes of animals and people that were communicating warnings to other units of warriors of the Fante people. Proverbs such as ‘The crab is feared for its claws’, or ‘Fish grow fat for the benefit of the crocodile’ attempt to ridicule the rival warrior groups and set a tone of fear, as if toying with opponents. With influence from the European flags they had seen as adventurers explored West African coastlines and from international trading ships the flags also featured elements of geometric borders and the Union Jack. I like the stylised imagery, but particularly the visual communication of a story in one textile image. I remember I wrote an essay on the subject for a Contextual Studies assignment and I went to great lengths to dye fabric and create my own textile illustrations and book cover – I still have it somewhere.

I’ve shared images of the flags with many groups of students over the years, but as I write a research paper on the subject of visual communication in pattern I am once again reminded of these beauties, and back I go, to the wonderful book: Asafo! African Flags of the Fante, written by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard in 1992, published by Thames and Hudson. I recommend this really informative book.

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When walking from Cheltenham railway station to the town the other week along the off-road path I came across some graffiti in an underpass that reminded me of the flags, and particularly in the way the animals were used to goad. The images felt as if they were provoking and taunting rival groups by showing off their prowess in the way the artwork of the Asafo flags did. I could imagine the jibes represented in the images of the cats, and in the way the badger is attempting to deflect the attention away from his kind, to the lizards, maybe another urban tribe. I’ll share the images here.

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Asafo flags, scans of the pages from the book by Peter Adler & Nicholas Barnard, referenced in the text

Cheltenham graffiti, photograph by Kate Farley

Launching the pattern collection: ‘construct’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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