building aesthetics

For the last few years, I’ve been lecturing on the subject of design history to first year students of Textile Design at Birmingham City University as part of a module aimed at introducing historical design considerations. Styles specific to an era, the influence of globalisation, the role of Fine Art, architecture, film and graphic design in shaping textile design, and where we are now, in context to where we have come from are presented alongside social commentary, introductions to colourful characters, controversy and a spot of light entertainment! It’s a huge ask to expect students to remember all the information I share, but my main focus is showing them how much it matters that what has gone before are the results of the times in which things were designed, whether it be superfluous decoration or trailblazing technology. From contemporary trends in fashion, to why we don’t choose certain colours for our bedrooms, I think it vital that our students have a working knowledge of design history as a foundation of understanding, as designers themselves. This knowledge feeds back in to their studio projects in the working knowledge of aesthetics, linking the look of something with the connotations that others might bring to a piece. Is it beautiful? Now there’s a rather complex question!

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Last week I shared my ‘interest’ in forks, and more can be read on that matter here. As I move towards the present day, bit by bit each week – Arts & Crafts, Morris et al, Art Nouveau etc this Friday, I introduce words to help grow their critical vocabulary, and help them to see and read this history that remains around us. Walking through Birmingham demonstrates how different styles of ornamentation jostle for attention. Arts and Crafts flourishes appear fussy in contrast to the rather robust Deco motifs. Twenty first century obsession with flimsy superficial solutions such as the facade of New Street station’s mirror panels, and other examples not far away, are put to shame by the care and craftsmanship of carved stone, worked iron, and intricate tile work of over a century ago – still intact. Now as the wrong library remains standing (in my opinion) I dread the day I hear that the concertina signal box loses the fight to stand. I digress…

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I’m fascinated in how something can contain the belonging of a time, a style, a movement, just in the detail of a line, or a point in a curve – I’m specifically referring to pattern and decoration here but this observation can also be made with architectural detail. The shape of a leaf, the ‘stylisation’ of a flower, has the ability to communicate its belonging or differences in a glance. As a designer it’s important to know these references, especially in relation to a client’s brief – you wouldn’t want to offer Baroque when Neo-Classical is required! This knowledge of visual language crosses design disciplines and it’s fascinating to identify the same aesthetic approach on printed cloth that is also worked in silver with a terrine.

I enjoy the challenge of creating design motifs that tell the story, the unwritten references in the pattern, making a statement to belong. My recent commission for the Barbican shop illustrates this point; that architectural styles, in this case Brutalism, and the approach in which I take to the design process is fundamental in demonstrating through the aesthetic, the design language of the project.

It’s difficult for me to imagine not being able to hear the jazz age when spying an Art Deco border, or to think of Athens with the hint of the Greek key pattern. Despite not exactly loving history at school I now see the importance of it in adulthood. It’s a sad week as it’s announced we lose Art History A-Level as a subject in school, making it harder still for those with an interest in art and design to learn their passion. In Birmingham we have examples of Pugin’s design work in St. Chads cathedral and the hand of the Pre-Raphaelites in St. Phillips.  I hope my lectures feed the students’ imagination to want to know more, to feel proud when they differentiate the Deco from the Nouveau, and to go on to be informed designers, telling the right stories with the curve of a line and the style of a flower.

All photos taken in Birmingham by ©Kate Farley 2016

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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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an alternative view

I’m not so keen on this time of year. Despite the crocuses being up it doesn’t feel anywhere near summer, and there is still a small chance that snow will fall before anything but parsnips can be harvested on our plot. Having been brought up in the Norfolk countryside I miss what the countryside offers. It is important to me that I notice the seasonal changes that shape our year, despite the suburban home I find myself in, here in Birmingham. I miss the big skies, the open fields, and the greens of each season, still in existence, I just can’t see them from here.

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Looking though photographs from last summer I found this shot. I took it from the car as we sat aboard the Windermere ferry, crossing back towards the motorway, heading south to the Midlands from our final holiday of the season. It really was a grasped shot of the closing summer, peering through the window, breathing in the view. A last look across to the beautiful hills of the Lake District, unaware of what sort of wet winter was in store for so many in the region. In getting the link to the ferry for this post I’ve just discovered there’s a ferry-cam. I’ll check back to it in daylight, and dream of the summer holiday.

Today it was sunny in Birmingham. I had a short run around the park nearby and pretended it was the countryside, imagining I really could feel the heat of the sun through my hat, gloves and coat. I think we have a while to wait. The ground underfoot reminded me all to well of school cross-country in winter!

I think I’m in need of another holiday to the country!

 

 

printed mapping

Printed interpretations of landscape have been a challenge in my practice from the beginning, and really formed the backbone of my practice during my degree course in Printed Textiles at Leeds College of Art and Design in the 1990s. I explored various ways to represent the world around me, and although it might seem odd for those aware of my drawing, as there is little similarity now, I was really inspired by the Norwich School and painters such as Cotman and Crome. I saw the way they formed shapes of colours as elements in the landscape and I set about creating contemporary versions of Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds in term-time, and rural Norfolk in the holidays.

Over the years my focus has shifted from rural to urban, resulting in more geometric, grid-like patterns, fighting the urge to be illustrative. As Print Technician at Central Saint Martins I used to create mono-prints including embossed features, representing the Farringdon skyline and dominant buildings. I also explored experimental processes, such as liquid emulsion and photograms of drawings on acetate in the photographic darkroom. I had a fantastic year on a part-time printmaking course at the London College of Printing (now Communication) at Elephant & Castle, and despite a broken elbow I produced many prints including lithographs, screen prints, collagraphs, etchings and lino prints. The expertise of the staff, and the discipline of the day a week of technical experimentation was a brilliant thing.

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The images above include some of the many ways I have printed the landscapes I’ve experienced, and show some of the ways that I play with line, shape, texture and colour. Those of you who have seen my drawing evolve will probably recognise a preferred line quality, or mark I favour, the economy of mark, and visual rhythms. I am also interested in perspective, elevations and mapping interpretations. I continue to explore landscape in my ongoing sketchbooks, as part of commissions, but also because I simply want to draw and capture the flat fields, the lines of fence posts, and sweeping hills interrupted by a barn.

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I’ve also created many editions of bookworks over the years, and although I’ve written about them here before, I thought I’d include the ones predominantly featuring printed journeys. I love the way the sequence of pages, and folds of paper creates narratives through a landscape. Again there is maybe a familiarity of line quality, and drawn shape, as drawings, prints and books are often developed together, as part of the same creative process. Working summers in France, familiar territory in London and train journeys are regular inspiration for the books shown here. It is a challenge to design the book to work with a particular sized printing plate or sheet size of paper, considering grain direction and readability, but I enjoy the problem solving. Drawing and image has to work with structural content.

Often what is occupying my time in terms of design collections actually grow from ideas explored in those pages many years before. I like to see my relationship with landscape as the constant in the variety of what I do. Having spent some days in the country during the recent holiday I have refuelled that desire to draw horizons again.In hearing of the death of Ellsworth Kelly I am reminded of how instrumental he was at showing me how to see pattern in the environment we live in. I owe the excitement of the journey to many artists who themselves have worked hard to capture the places they know… Patrick Heron, Ben Nicholson, Eduardo Chillida, Eric Ravilious, to name a few.

Since creating these works on paper I show here (some over fifteen years old) I’ve launched ‘Plot to Plate’ and ‘Construct’, but they wouldn’t be here without the many sheets of paper before them. Who knows what else is in store in the next few years…

miles on wheels

I was brought up in a very keen cycling family, as a useful form of transport from a-b as well as for touring holidays and adventures. Growing up in Norfolk meant ignorant bliss when it came to real hills, and yet we did know that it can feel as if you have a headwind on four sides of a flat field!

With the Design Museum’s bicycle focused ‘Cycle Revolution‘ exhibition now on, the theme of their Twitter #FontSunday recently was bicycle brands. This got me thinking. I own many bikes, and each one for different reasons and I have many happy memories of times on two wheels. I took a few photos and started to remember…

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My early school photos show evidence of me learning to ride. Scars, bumps and bruises across my face, the result of falling in to the ditch of the edge of the disused airbase runway in rural Norfolk. I’ve fallen off with full panniers on, in fords deep enough with water to soften the landing, and I’ve broken my elbow as a result of hitting a pothole that was so small it could hardly be photographed for evidence! I’ve cycled Boxing day charity CTC runs, made others fall in love with touring on wheels, and ran round the park being brave enough to let my own children pedal away from me.

I inherited the silver ‘Falcon’ after my dad died, and once I’d grown old enough to fit an adult frame. With huge sentimental value, I love the bike I’ve covered miles and miles on. Youth hosteling with friends in Norfolk, and further afield: Scotland, Wales, France and Denmark. Loaded high and wide, on the open road, enjoying the same freedoms my father had experienced on the same steel frame.

My ‘Rudge Whitworth’, a heavy gent’s black butchers bike with rod breaks and wicker basket was purchased for a tenner from a fellow student at the art school in Great Yarmouth. I loved riding along, with my art box in the basket, seated so high up that I could peer over fences and be nosy. It takes hard work to pick up real speed, and yet once going, it’s impressive. The stopping is more interesting / less easy!

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My life changed colour with the purchase of my ‘Turkish Green’ Brompton, from BikeFix in London. I ordered it before I’d seen the true colour but as the staff pointed at many products in the shop, saying, nearly this, bluer that that, brighter than those, I chose my new bike. On the day it arrived I excitedly arrived at the shop to discover the true colour, and to receive ‘training’ of how to fold and unfold the bike before I was allowed out on the streets. When I lived in London I headed off with the bike, all over the place, leading bookbinding workshops, before packing it all up, and heading off to the train home again, some miles cycled, others on tracks. Now this bike is my regular commuter bike to the train and I’ve covered so many miles in over ten years. I transport my children on it when they are too tired to walk, I load up the rack with runner beans in trays ready for the allotment, and I carry the harvest back from the plot, strapped up in front and behind. I fold it without a second thought now.

There are other bikes too. The borrowed, hand-built racing bike I cycled Lands End to John O’Groats on back in 1994, all 1144 miles of it. Then the Dawes Galaxy with ‘modern’ gears, that made me embrace cleats on the pedals instead of the rat traps. The red Falcon that I had before I was tall enough for my Dad’s old bike, I still have that one too.

Each bike I own was made with a different rationale to the next one, in different times, in different workshops and factories, with different ambitions. Each one I own has been part of a different story too.

 

 

summer to autumn colours

We’ve been treated to some clear blue sky days over the last few weeks and this makes the transition from summer to autumn a bit more tolerable. I always hate having to acknowledge that the summer warmth has gone for another year, and that the plot has given us most of the harvest for the year. We will wait for the frosts before we dig the parsnips, but I’ve gathered the squash and picked the final runner beans we will eat. The last of the sweet peas still offer their scent, but their strength of colour has passed. It’s a constructive time at the plot as we take down the netting, pull up the spent corns and clear ground for new anticipation.

Poppies, marigolds and nasturtiums still bloom such strong summer colours, daring the frost not to strike for a few more nights… I have my fingers crossed too…

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A change of background colour

It’s the holiday season and we’ve been taking part. A camping trip to the Lake District offered a dramatic difference to the usual scenery we live within here in the Midlands, and it was refreshing change for being so. Everywhere seemed so green, really really green, not just the local park green but intense, vivid greens that lush meadows could offer. Naturally with that comes rain, but even then the colours were vibrant. Lichen was glowing, moss saturated, even the sheep were blue! Some colours took me back to studio projects, Pantone references, British Standard colours and colour choices, others offered a welcome diversion.The strange thing is, that when I compiled the image to include with this post the images looked really grey, but it really wasn’t like that through my eyes!

This change of scene is just what the mind needed after an intense workload juggling several design projects and at the end of a hectic academic year. I like what the seasons do to us, make us adapt and notice the time passing. This time of year feels like a celebration, as harvests ripen in the sun (ummm..) and we prepare for a new season of productive design work, education and research.

I shall remember the vivid greens, the birds circling overhead in the sky of blue; the vast views that some people get to enjoy day in day out. I shall remember the feeling of change, and rest, and stopping just for a short while, as a warm memory in the depths of winter when working in the studio. I am bound by the academic year, as well as the seasons on the allotment, the trade show calendar, and birthdays, as so many people are. It’s good to recognise the rhythms and differences brought on by change. Hooray for holidays!

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