printing pattern progress

My mind tends to want to be busy and I often develop several ideas in parallel. Pattern making and pattern evolution ideas are shaping up so I went back to the lino block and started to cut – I find it best to make the idea come to life so I can work through the potential and pit falls. Watch this space …

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drawing to see, drawing to notice.

Drawing has always been a great leveller for me and now is no exception. I make drawings to capture something I like the look of even if I haven’t got a clue how it might be useful at that time. Picked grasses, a homegrown tulip or a fragment of fabric all provide challenges that relax me but also creatively inspire my lifetime of looking to draw – it’s not a coincidence there’s a play on words with drawing in my blog name.

Having some time spare while sat in the car at the local farm shop car park three weeks ago I took a good look around me at the view and with the luxury of time I took out my sketchbook and drew a line. This was a landscape already familiar, but in drawing a subject it is with a closer examination that one can see more.

Firstly I noticed the skyline meeting with the trees in the distance but as I drew that line it was being interrupted by the nearer trees cutting over the fluidity of the horizon. The trees contained strong shapes but not as the summer masses they will hold in full leaf in due course. The branches were clearly defined, but the added haze of smaller branches suggested the fuller form.

I made reasonably quick sketches of the same view several times, each time starting with a different area as a focus. Sometimes it was the gap between two trees, or a distant field and as I became more familiar with the shapes in front of me I engaged with details of branches to define the structures of the trees. I focused on three clusters of trees that provided different visual qualities but were united by the view.

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The process of drawing and re-drawing the same thing is something I love to do – just as Monet would have painted the same cathedral or hay stacks. Where Monet was fascinated with the changing light and what that did to the colour and shadows, for me it is a process of understanding and familiarising in order to stylise and to interpret, usually in line and shape. As I get to know my subject I can edit in and out the information to simplify what I am seeing in working out how to record it.

This blog post shows the same landscape being drawn on three different trips to the farm and I think you can see the familiarity allows for more freedom of the information I saw and captured. In week 2 I also took to scissors to cut out the shapes in pieces of white paper, asking myself to identify the positive and negative shapes within the landscape – see the image below. I cut out the same trio of trees several times and they work well layered, as the interpretations of the same subject matter is similar but evolves too.

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This notion of repetition in order to get to know something is a really key part of my practice as a pattern designer and I’ve evolved this relationship in my drawing over the years. As far back as art school I drew and printed in series of works on paper, with the evolution of seeing in order to pare back being the really important part of my process. I teach drawing as a ‘getting to know you’ strategy too. I suggest a student does not spend the first hour asking the really personal questions of the subject sat in front of them, but to make small talk, get to know the subject superficially first of all, then you can be more up close and personal over time. I think I’ve written about this somewhere on the blog before.

I’m really pleased that within a very short time of drawing I have looked, learned and recorded the view, and once again taken away my way of seeing that landscape overlooked by so many of us in our day to day routines. I’ve returned to this task and now have about twenty drawings from three consecutive visits. The trees are hinting at holding more green but the summer fullness is a while away for now. The buzzard circles and the tractor gets to work, I shall be back again, see below for the drawings in week 3.

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international pattern collaboration

It all began in an email with the subject line, ‘Hello from Tokyo’ I received in November 2017, letting me know how much my tea towels for David Mellor were admired in a Japanese design company. The email went on to ask if we could discuss a potential collaboration for a capsule fashion collection featuring a print designed by me. Firstly I was excited to think my patterns had made their way to Japan, but secondly, that sounded a great idea, tell me more! A few email exchanges later, and we agreed to meet the next time the company director of Stamps Inc. was in London so I could show him my portfolio to discuss the idea for the new pattern they would like to commission for their fashion collection.

The meeting with Shu and his colleague Yoko in a central London hotel was exciting; I showed my work and it was met with positive discussion. I was also reintroduced to the tea towels that had made it to Japan all the way from my studio, via a David Mellor Design shop! We sat at a large table and I showed them my portfolio, spreading the many sheets out covering the whole surface. Having shown all the other work and following some discussion in Japanese between colleagues, the director chose the very first page he had seen – the cover page! The choice was not what I was expecting but we shared and developed ideas for me to sample: colours, time-lines and garments. We then took some photographs to record the start of the project together, for when we would be able to share our story – and even asked the hotel doorman to take a pictures of the three of us with a London bus behind us.

The selected design was a graphite pattern of pencil scribbles of varying tones and rhythms, later to become the title of the collection: Scribble. There are lots of variables such as scale, rhythm, tone and  overall order in the pattern we had to make decisions before I set about creating the final artwork. I emailed across some small sketches to explain the repeat process for production to check we were understanding each other as we had to ensure we understood the terminology that each of us used in our different languages.

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I shared several images of new drawings to provide the variations / considerations over email before committing to the final design. The final fabrics were to be screen printed so I planned to draw out the whole design in full repeat by hand (approximately 60 x 90cm), scan it in and transfer it to Japan for screen print production. I started the large final drawing twice as I wasn’t happy with the first one. Initially the marks I drew appeared tense, but I also had to work out how to create the different qualities with the pencils across a vast piece of paper, and how not to smudge the areas I had drawn. I drew the design at 80% scale to make scanning it in possible, meaning I had to take in to account the slight increase in the size of the marks in the final result. I also had to ensure the top of the design matched the bottom, as the edges were to act as a cut-through for the screen printing process of repeating the pattern, fitting like a jigsaw, top to bottom. The design was edge to edge, left to right, fitting the width of the fabric so there was no horizontal pattern-repeat.

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The final artwork took almost ten hours to draw, and I did that mainly over two long evenings. I had it scanned in at a very high resolution, adapted the size of artwork to 100% and sent the digital file to Japan – with my fingers crossed that the printer could work their magic, including colour separating the graphite tones for the two screens each colourway would require!

There was a wholesale launch in Tokyo so I sent some of my original drawing samples over to feature as framed artwork in the exhibition and I was sent photographs of the lengths of fabric on show. Very exciting! Orders were placed and there was a good response. A further email request came from Japan, to meet again in London to see the fabric. Another exciting moment – also scary – what if I didn’t like the results!? In the stylish interior of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel lounge there was no need to worry. Great care had been taken to translate my drawing to screen printed cotton lawn fabric, in two colours – referencing the two colours of my David Mellor patterns Chelsea, in grey, and Pride in blue. The fabric felt beautiful and the printing fabulous. It was a special meeting.

I was able to see the marketing material including my name alongside Japanese text I couldn’t decipher, describing our meeting and the collaboration. I have had to be patient while the wholesale launch orders were being produced before we can promote the project I’ve had to keep under wraps for well over a year … until now!

It has been an absolute pleasure working with Shu and Yoko, learning about the company and their pride in who they work with including the products they develop. It has been a highly successful collaboration from my perspective in that we have discussed all the aspects of the process and trusted each other to do the best for it, each learning about the other and having good communication throughout. We have shared news of the differing seasons and national events over the course of the project, and they’ve watched via instagram as I’ve moved homes and jobs. I’ve loved having this connection with people in another corner of our world, created as a result of some tea towels I designed over five years ago!

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pattern informs the piece: Zandra Rhodes exhibition review

Finding a couple of hours to spare in London last month I took the decision to head across the river to the Fashion and Textile Museum, and specifically, the Zandra Rhodes: 50 years of Fabulous exhibition. It proved to be a perfect visit for where my head was at; juggling fashion and textile design in both a design commission and my academic life.

Zandra Rhodes is first and foremost a textile designer although it is her fashion designs that carry the printed and embroidered pattern she is famous for. The silhouettes of the garments, constructed often from multi layered draping fabrics are guided in their execution, in fact dictated by, the pattern design of Zandra’s strong handwriting or pattern, and executed using print processes and surface manipulation.

I’ve included plenty of images of these outfits in university design lectures over the years, discussing how the designer maintains the focused design style and aesthetic but also manages to evolve the work through the decades.

As ever it is very different when you get the chance to see the fabrics in real life. The white printed pigment on chiffon from the ‘Lovely Lilies’ collection (below right) and the quilting over screen printing of her signature swirling motifs as borders and placement prints provides the evidence that Zandra Rhodes is first and foremost exploring fabrics to lead garment design.

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The variety of fabric manipulation and surface embellishments was fascinating to see, some rather crude and some pieces held their own more than others. The ease in which the textiles worked as one with the garment design is certainly demonstrated throughout the exhibition, and it was useful to see the screens for printing to see the composition of the designs later on in the exhibition.

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The theatricality of Zandra Rhodes’ work was a perfect match for opera costumes, and upstairs in the gallery a number of interesting examples were showcased. I also enjoyed seeing original sketchbooks alongside a film of the designer talking about how important drawing is to her. I hope many textile design students visit the show and take her advice.

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There is a significant body of work on exhibition here and it is important to view it as a considerable output of a single designer with a thirst for carnival. Her practice spans fifty years, hence the exhibition title and although her style is not for everyone, her contribution of bravery, exuberance and fabric play should inspire others to take creative risks and find a way to make the work they want to make.

I would also recommend the small showcase of company overview and embroidery work by Norman Hartnell as you enter the gallery – stunning pieces from a different era.

The show is on until the 26th January, 2020.

bespoke pattern for Birmingham BHX

Designing bespoke pattern for clients is something that I have made a key professional design interest. Communicating a sense of place, historic reference or activity as pattern is what I really enjoy and over the years I’ve been on many site-visits to interesting places to learn about what the client would like or definitely not like. This visit was no different. I love the anticipation of finding out more, a new project to get to grips with, and all my design experience to apply to the challenge …

Some of my previous design work was used as a reference for context images by the original architects, proposing my patterns and stating my details – note – never send artwork without your contact details attached! Phone calls were made, samples were sent, bids were accepted and then a call-up. Please come to the airport for a meeting. There’s a tight deadline, a budget, and something the client knows they want. In a nutshell the brief: Celebrate Birmingham’s buildings in a one colour, repeating pattern that works close up in detail and from a distance as a visual rhythm. Buildings need to be identifiable.

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With any project I carry out research, ask the client lots of questions and evolve a design approach subject to the answers to my questions. Production methods, fabricators, material choices, colours, budgets, time-scales and of course client ambition for the project shape the design language and development of the project. I set off to take photographs of central Birmingham and climbed tall landmarks to get good views. I took photographs, made sketches as well as notes. I had some buildings in my mind I knew needed to be included but I also wanted to use others , less iconic ones, as visual rhythms to play with negative and positive shapes across the composition.

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Back in the studio I chose paper cut-outs as a clear graphic way to create the buildings, as I have done for several commissions including for the Barbican and TfL posters. Once the individual buildings were cut out I scanned in the artwork and spent many hours moving everything around in Adobe Illustrator. I was testing rhythms in and out of repeat and shifting scale, proportions and pairings. This can send me back to re-cut something or add new details. To some people those hours of making subtle tweaks and changes wouldn’t even be noticed but to me it’s so important that every inch of the design works the best it can and it can be time-consuming – but it will be worth it. I can’t stress this enough to students embarking on their Final Major Projects at the moment! When you know what scale the final artwork will be produced at you need to check the correct level of detail as working at a computer screen can be very misleading for artwork several metres long!

A concept sheet and initial design piece was sent to the client for approval and at this point I had to label the buildings I’d included. Once approved I was able to continue building the full repeat, adding further buildings, and make test prints with the help of the team at the Window Film Company – who I already have award-winning work with! They really know their stuff and several phone calls later to check small details regarding file specifications and production issues resulted in the excitement of samples to sign off, both by me and the client. A couple more proofs for colour matching and scale of design was checked and then we were good to go. Quality is everything when it as your name on it, and making sure that everything about the design is right BEFORE it gets installed is rather important. Sleepless nights before installation of projects has been known!

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This project originally came my way almost a year ago with some scoping phone calls and emails, and now I’m able to share photographs with you. I’ve had people let me know they’ve seen work that looks like mine at the airport – hoping I hadn’t been copied – but no, this time it is mine! When Birmingham Airport tweeted the pictures last week I was delighted that I can now share images of this project from 2018 – when I was Birmingham-based as it states, and now it feels rather a fine farewell to the place I called home since 2005.

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(onsite pictures – official photographs from Birmingham Airport)

Yes it is by the toilets, yes I have already worked on two commissions for public toilets (Colchester / Dedham many moons ago), and I can’t promise this will be my last!

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learning to look

I’m fascinated with how artists and designers stylise what they see. It’s a creative journey that drives me in my work too. Look at this image below of a wood engraving ‘Butterflies’ by Enid Marx, 1939. The same sort of leaves have been executed in several different ways to provide visual interest, tonal variation and depth, communicating different information about the leaves.

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This is also a great example of how to use negative and positive shapes in printmaking / monochrome imagery, again to create visual interest and movement around the elements in the composition. I took this photograph from the fabulous Enid Marx -The Pleasures of Pattern book by Alan Powers published by Lund Humphries – I recommend it!

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Also, I’d recommend a trip to Compton Verney to see her design work alongside her Folk Art collection.

talking to myself through teaching

I’ve spent many hours over the last couple of years reflecting on my teaching career that stands at about 18 years, give or take a bit. In order to apply for Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy I had to write thousands of words that explain and reflect on the impact I have made on not only the students I have taught but the colleagues and peers across the industry I relate to in my professional practice. It has been a big ask to fit my diverse experiences in to the word count along with the cross referencing required, but I’m delighted to say my hard work over the ‘holidays’ and the work of my colleagues in writing supporting references has meant I achieved Senior Fellow and I’m rather relieved / proud. (I was however disappointed to discover that rather than receiving a fine water-marked, embossed and foil blocked certificate I had to download it! … I digress.)

I’ve written many times about how important it is for me to combine my design practice with my academic career and although it doesn’t make my life easier, it certainly makes it more fulfilling. They really are mutually supportive. The reason I am so driven to support the students in reaching their goals is because I know how rewarding a career in design can be. From having the confidence to draw in a different way, to picking up the phone to a new client, to realising your dream of seeing designs commercially available…, to be paid to do what you love doing… why would I not want to help others to do those things?

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It’s also important to hear myself saying these things to students. It’s as if I am telling myself as well as the students! Yes I must chase that lead, make sure I’m paid a fair rate or keep my website up to date! Each creative has different ideas about how and where to move forward with their ambitions and the art of teaching is to work out how to nurture, support, push and challenge positively. Being creative is not easy. You put your sensitivities on the line to be judged, sometimes by those with less creativity than yourself, but who holds the budget. There are certainly pages in my sketchbook I wouldn’t choose to share at a group tutorial, but the process of knowing you are not alone in learning the creative process is so valuable. It’s also the case that it’s often easier to critique someone else other than yourself! Would you listen? Maybe one mis-perception is that once you graduate you stop learning – I plan to keep learning forever! Each project I work on is an excuse to learn more, not only about myself as a creative, but new practical or technical skills to take on board for me, as well as sharing with colleagues and students.

I’m very aware the reality behind social media may be far different than the stories being told online. I make sure students are made to think about that, – use the benefits of social media while considering the stories they read and the stories they create. While I like the way we can find out so much more about what’s going on, and who we need to know (can you imagine only having the yellow pages?!) there are complications with so many aspects of our practice being shared. Copying, audience expectation, peer competition versus mutual support, networking and peer validation are ups and downs of today’s design world. I approach my teaching very much like my designing. Honesty, integrity, and fulfillment…. support, encouragement and creative ambition! Even writing this is like giving myself a tutorial! What’s my homework?

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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

projects in the pipeline

As a freelancer there are different tasks to do at different times. Some weeks my jobs are all about liaising with manufacturers, and others while launching and promoting projects I am far more outward-facing in my to-do list, picking up the phone, or running a trade-show stand and being sociable. Other times I just get stuck in to the work and have to keep quiet about what is happening. Now is one of those times.

I’m back in the studio working on a brilliant project that is right up my street. In some ways I’m on very familiar territory and in other aspects it’s a fabulous new challenge. This makes it very exciting in my world, but in the current climate of social media requiring stories to be told it’s rather difficult to remain quiet as it looks like I’m doing nothing, when I know I’m very busy! I’ve shown no design development work online apart from the odd glimpse of a piece of lino to be cut and I’m afraid that is how it will stay for the moment. Please be assured I’ll share as soon as I can, in the meantime I’m just popping my head up from the desk to say “Happy New Year!”

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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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