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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telling stories

Each project I create is part of a longer narrative of my practice and as I look back over the years it is easy for me to see common aspects and joined up thinking spanning those projects. As I teach this year’s final year students on the BA programme I lead I am reminded of my own journey starting out in design, and the questioning I did to work out what sort of work I wanted to be represented by in my step beyond graduation. The challenge of the Final Major Project!

I understand the battle and pressure to work out your own style, the look or handwriting to be yourself, but funnily enough I don’t think that is the thing that holds my practice together anymore – you may disagree, and I’d be interested to know! What has become the common thread holding so many of my projects together has been the story, the narrative within each project. I could never have imagined this all those years ago, even though I was making books! I’ve made many artists books that contain single narratives, but I’ve also worked on large-scale projects that involve public toilet doors that act as pages of the book with a story across them. This is also true for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where my designs are laid out in gravel across three huge roof-scapes. I’ve also been challenging how to place pattern within single designs, such as in my Plot to Plate tea towel design, telling the tale of growing, cooking and eating food. I’ve made series of prints, and a set of posters, all held together by a narrative. The more I look the more examples I can see.

If only the graduate me back then could have told me that the key aspects of my practice would work themselves out I would have worried less, but then again, it is the search for these answers that take you on the creative journey in the first place. Some people like to know what they are going to design, design it, then be pleased it looks as they planned. As for me, I like learning as I go, push myself that little bit more, find a bit of creative strength to step out of my comfort zone, and then be pleased I got somewhere I didn’t know existed. The creative process is a difficult thing to explain, but it’s all the more interesting for being that way.

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Top left: artists book in collaboration with Wes White for Sherborne House, Dorset, 2004

Bottom left: visualisation for the roof-scape at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Birmingham, 2009

Right: Plot to Plate tea towels, 2014

threads of an idea

It’s perfectly normal for me to begin a project by looking back at work I have made but not quite resolved. I keep sketchbooks of ideas and samples of constructions that will never see the light of day but somewhere among the pages there will be inklings of ideas that appear to connect and weave in to something right for now.

I wanted to get back to printing so I took the opportunity to explore a number of processes, including mono printing and lino printing to explore line qualities I’d sampled before, and soon I was back on the idea of woven yarns, linking my construct collection launched in 2015. This was a collection inspired by woven cloth, with drawings using hand-made tools dipped in ink that were used to create a series of repeating patterns I went on to collaborate with Formica with. I wanted to challenge the abundance of ‘faux’ material surfaces on the market, digitally printed wood-effect pattern, for example. Ideas were still left open…

Running in parallel to this has been a long term paper project I have been toying with since about 2002; paper constructions that explore the depth of space beyond the page, a sculpture, but also a book. The build series grew to explore woven space of over and under. You can see some of the pieces below.

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I see the threads collection as an extension to construct, but is equally quite able to stand on it’s own. I have produced several editions of prints and paper constructions that led to where I have come and I enjoyed printing in Payne’s Grey to not be distracted by colour.  All of a sudden I’m working with clear, colourless window film – it all makes sense. I am delighted to have worked with The Window Film Company to develop the patterns for windows. They have been an amazing company to work with. Cheerful, prompt, generous and supportive in all aspects of working with the team – a big thanks to you guys!

I was also pleased to return to laminate and Formica to enable bespoke production and am delighted with the results. I’m enjoying working on designs for harder surfaces but I still can’t help but sample other materials, so the collection I shall show at London Design Festival includes a new rug sample, screen printed cloth, and hand-made notebooks featuring patterns from the collection as well as vinyl and laminate.
If you are visiting London Design Festival I hope you will come and say hello at Tent at London Design Fair. Hall T1 stand G18

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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.

seeing things

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the idea of looking and seeing, and particularly how we evidence what we have seen. I have boxes of photographic prints of things I’ve seen: cracks in pavements, postboxes around the country, vapour trails in the sky, flowers I’ve grown and plants I wish I’d grown – and much more. When the world turned digital I stopped filling real boxes and filled virtual boxes, and some I look back at, but rarely do I touch the surface of the sights I have collected.

The engagement in social media, and the sharing of pictures begs me to think again about why we take pictures, and why we share them. As I spend most of my time in some sort of real or virtual context of people in the creative industries my Twitter and Instagram feeds are heavily laden with considerately photographed shadows of railings, colour combinations of socks on patterned tiles, recently obtained vintage finds, and dare I say it, beautiful breakfasts! Not only are we collecting imagery, we are proving that we are seeing and experiencing interesting / beautiful / different things and places, judged by us and hopefully ‘liked’ by others. Yes it’s marketing; a branding tool to evidence our aesthetic judgements.

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Some questions then, are we seeing more? Do we notice more, and appreciate more?

It does seem as if there have always been people who see faces in clouds, and beauty in peeling paint, but I wonder if social media is driving us to become a load of aesthetes. In my world it may seem that way.

As a pattern maker I’m always on the lookout for eye-candy, and usually of the ‘just happened to be there’ kind of pattern, rather than a designed pattern – having said that, I’m equally likely to be stopped in my tracks by a well-designed wallpaper. There have been many books over the years, and more recently blogs that feature the beauty in the overlooked, or the ugly, or the mundane. The desire to collate / curate these sights are no more in evidence than in the world of Patternity a design-savyy duo with a manifesto about pattern! Their stunning website and book and interesting collaborations are clearly tapping in to this moment of ‘seeing’. Check them out if you are so far unaware.

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Pattern really is everywhere, formally and informally and that’s the pleasure. I remember the day I was taught the mysteries of repeat pattern making, and that evening in a pub in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, I took great pride in identifying the repeat ’tiles’ in the carpet, wallpaper and curtains of the glorious / hideous 1990s pub decor.

I had the pleasure to spend time with the fabulous Sarah Campbell last month, and much of our conversation, as we were at New Designers, was about pattern making; why we do it, how we do it, and getting people to pay for us to do it. During the conversation Sarah spotted a lady beside us in a polka dot blouse, and we noted that pattern-makers never really switch off from pattern spotting (pun intended!), pattern making, and pattern appreciating. When we departed we both commented that we look forward to reading each others next blog post – well here you are, this one is for you Sarah – it was a pleasure to see pattern with you!

Plot plants and design musings

It’s that time of year when the weeds seem to grow faster than the vegetables, and with so much rain this last month, the slugs have found it very easy to slide across the plot to our crops. The courgettes have started cropping but the peas lost the fight. This has got me thinking… This gardening game is very much like the designing game.

There are highs and lows with both, rewards and lessons to learn too. Progress can at times come easy, and with other situations hindrance can be everywhere, and not of your doing. There are also joys in the changing seasons, the changing pace, the focus of attention. Preparation is needed in both garden and design studio; good tools, knowledge of good practice, even ethics come in to both!  Experience and maturity can guide you, but even then, elements beyond your control can create a set-back. How the gardener, and how the designer copes and picks themselves back up also has similarities. Both disciplines demand attention, can’t quite be put down, often filling my mind with excitement of what is happening, what is growing in to something beautiful, edible, or with great potential.

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I hadn’t really thought of this before, but now I can see the similarities I can see the sense of purpose in both, as well as the patience required. Neither can be rushed if you really want quality outcomes. You can buy a box of plants ready to put straight in the ground but the satisfaction is never the same as when you nurture the seed in to a strong plant, eat the fruit, gather the seeds and start again. Isn’t that exactly the same with designing? You can start from the very beginning, and own the entire idea, or you can take a short cut, see someone’s beginning, and take it from there. Not at all as satisfying.

There’s many ways of being a gardener, and there’s many ways of being a designer. I think what’s important is that find the thing that feels right, and works for you. Then, tired from the tasks, you can sleep well, knowing the process will keep you strong.

For reference, sadly none of the flowers above were grown by me, but by my fellow gardeners at the allotment. I did take the photos though!