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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poster proud

Every designer is likely to have a goal or two, a particular ambition to aim for. Last week I reached one of mine… I have designed posters for London Underground. They are up on the system as I write. I’ve been bursting to share the prospect that this may happen for several years, and now it’s real!

The underground poster archive at London Transport Museum is full of great examples of graphic design, with work by my heroes such as Edward McKnight Kauffer and Abram Games. These designers have inspired me in my quest to explore visual communication through print and pattern for as long as I can remember and now my design work is on the network hopefully catching the eyes of commuters in London, as theirs did.

I was pleased to be given the brief of ‘Parks and Gardens’ and was keen to move the visual qualities on from my Plot to Plate collection of kitchen gardens and parterres, although you may recognise in poster 3, ‘Community Gardens’ some of my motifs from that time. I have continued to play with elevations and perspective, while giving a polite nod to one of the other poster giants, Tom Purvis, whose poster I’ve had on a wall in our home for more than a decade, enjoying it every day. His series for LNER, ‘East Coast Joys’ appears to be made from cut out paper, the picture is made from flat colour in bold shapes. Having used this method for my commission for the Barbican last year I was keen to explore this again. You can see in my first cutout sequence I did begin to connect each poster to the next, as Tom Purvis had in his 6 LNER posters but I found this limited the scope for each poster composition in this instance.

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I began by gathering lots of imagery by making drawings and taking photographs and considered four different approaches to parks in London, one for each of the posters, from traditional activities such as rowing, to pitch & putt and the formal model boating lake. I wanted to create nostalgic content combined with a contemporary aesthetic. I remembered a hot day rowing on the Serpentine with a friend, I thought of many visits to Brockwell Park and all the different aspects of the ‘rooms’ it has within it. Greenwich was also an obvious one, Clapham Common and Hampstead Heath too. The posters represent lots of different aspects of parks, not four specific ones, and only one suggests a particular skyline looking across at the city.

Once the initial ideas were set I began to cut out the posters as general compositions, as well as single details / motifs to add. I combine both traditional drawing skills and digital manipulation in my practice, and this is how I worked here, scanning in paper drawings (cutouts) and subsequently working in Adobe Illustrator for final compositions / print artwork. I was able to make changes as required, including colour and motif placement options.

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As a designer I’ve always loved working across different surfaces and products, working with the industry experts in order to learn the best approaches and pitfalls of each context. Posters are large, but someone may look at it for less than a second… it needs to grab attention without being noisy. Large areas of pale colour might encourage graffiti… edges are as important as the centre, and so on. For people who have known my work for many years the look of the posters might not surprise, but my more recent work has been much more graphic, and understated so maybe some of you may not see these as so clearly of my handwriting. Let me know what you think!

Once I was told the posters were going up I had to go and find one. Luckily I was in London for the Design Festival so with wide-open eyes I took to the system and eventually found my first one at Embankment. I’m not sure I can put in to words what that felt like – I wanted to point and shout they were mine! The ticket barrier chap kindly took a picture of me alongside ‘playing a round’. Later that day I came across two more at Euston, and friends have let me know their sightings too!

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Design projects can take a long time to get to fruition, it is not unusual for years to pass. This can be frustrating when you want to shout out and tell everyone what you’ve been doing in the studio each week. I am always mindful of what I can share on social media, respecting my clients who might want to have control over a specific product launch. Now the posters are up I’m delighted and proud to shout about it… let me know if you see one on your travels!

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You can also buy them from the London Transport Museum shop.

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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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

floral inspiration for textile patterns

One of the reasons I love to teach students drawing for textile design is the journey of enlightenment when introducing someone to the world of not only looking, but also of seeing. There are many ways to see when drawing and I’m really interested in the journey from reality to abstraction, whether its a state of mind, a way of transforming or whether it’s a methodical process applied to something in order to arrive at a motif for pattern.

My drawing process has evolved over years of practice but the way that I see is not so different to two decades ago. I remember reading the book ‘Drawing with the Right Side of your Brain’ by Betty Edwards and realising that I already did that and it all made sense. I enjoy playing with perspective, elevation, mapping of whatever it is I’m drawing, whether it’s a landscape or twig. Turning the three-dimensional thing in front of my eyes in to a two-dimensional drawing is always exciting, and challenging, but that’s half the fun. I think the process of printmaking that I further translate my drawings to really suit the clarity of motif dissection, separating colours or specific details on separate blocks or screens for printing for either a limited edition print or commercial textile design.

Each year the pear blossom at the allotment arrives and each year I’m reminded of how perfect they are in all ways. The beautiful petals and the bits I don’t know the names of, all there, waiting to be celebrated in drawing. No doubt Charles Rennie Mackintosh would have made an exquisite watercolour and graphite study. The flowers also remind me of drawings and prints I have made in the past, and not only of blossom, but of flowers that I make diagrammatic in a way to understand and explain the ingredients of the flower. When I discovered the work of Gwen White, and particularly the book ‘A World of Pattern’ I was excited to see someone else communicating what I see and how I translate form to pattern. This method doesn’t suite everybody and it would be a dull world if we all made drawings that looked the same, but every now and then it’s nice to know that my creative brain works like someone else’s brain and that my eyes see what others have seen before me.

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Pear blossom, photograph, Kate Farley

‘Hanbury’ wallpaper, Kate Farley

Passiflora, lino print, Kate Farley

illustrations from Gwen White’s ‘A World of Pattern’ (RH column)

 

Design inspirations 3: winning games

I have always felt that one’s upbringing has a huge influence over the aesthetics of that designer. The house, the landscape, the products and fabrics that are present in the early years; everyday things, that at the time may not have been seen as important then can be blamed or celebrated in the later career of artists and designers. No doubt plenty of people would disagree with me, that’s not the point. I can clearly see a link between my own aesthetic, and my upbringing, and I’ve written about it in the past- read here  &  read here

On a trip back to the family home in Norfolk I came across the old games we used to play and was mentally transported back years before, simply by seeing the beautiful graphic qualities, clean lines and visual communication that I hold dear in my own practice. My visual language doesn’t necessarily mimic those designs but it’s more of an approach, a set of values & expectations that I set myself. We can expect things to be very different in the future with such digital aesthetics taking firm hold of so much of every day lives for my children and those of tomorrow. From how we create art and design, to how we view it on screen as well as on fabrics and surfaces much is very different. It is not necessarily a criticism of today, but more an appreciation of the inspiration I had and continue to thrive by. I sincerely hope that there will be art and design education in place over the next few years which will inspire the future textile designers, setting the benchmark for beyond that.

Here’s some of the graphic wonders. Red is a very popular box colour and it’s worth noting that many of the games proudly state they were made in England. Pieces were metal, wooden, proper card, nicely printed and beautifully boxed… there, a bit of nostalgia too! It also might be worth noting that in the ‘careers’ game The Arts was kept firmly in the box while ecology, sports, politics and big business made it on to the cover of the box!

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The season of textile design portfolios

As a student traveling up and down the country for interviews for a place on a degree course back in the mid 1990s I had little idea of what I would do on the degree course, let alone beyond the eternity of three years studying. My A1 black portfolio demonstrated my love of drawing, printmaking, pattern and ‘potential’. Now, in my role of lecturer at Birmingham City University each year I participate in the rounds of interviews to select the new members of our textile community and each year as I help them open the black A1 folio it reminds me of the journey I started all those year ago. The industry has changed, the world has changed, technology is utterly different and yet those nerves belonging to those individuals are as real as ever, and I remember that feeling so clearly. The unknown, the untrodden path I stumbled along; the Norfolk girl living in Leeds to turn drawings in to designs.

I’ve questioned most decisions I’ve made along the way, worrying about whether I should study art or design, printmaking or illustration, book art or textiles and yet somehow I seem to have all of those elements in my everyday practice, and that suits me fine. I remember the challenging task of confirming a description of myself and practice for my graduation show and degree postcard. (I opted for Artist / Designer, in case you wonder.) I couldn’t get the wording right, and really thought it mattered.

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Having spent last Saturday interviewing students, on introduction I described myself to the visitors as a Printed Textile Designer, which in so many ways completely fails to describe what I do, but somehow seemed right to say at the time. Now I ask myself why it doesn’t fit and maybe I conclude that the term feels too predictable, so tidy, so comprehensive, and yet the thing I am most proud of in my career to date is the breadth of art and design experience I have gained, the materials I’ve designed for, the clients I’ve had, and the lessons I’ve learned, despite as a student, no idea that all that was possible on graduation.

Many times through the day I spoke with interviewees about their art and design experiences and came to realise that their own understanding of art and design had more to do with the educational delivery they were currently receiving and far less about how they defined themselves. An interesting conundrum, and after all that, does it really matter? What made me most excited about being part of the interview process was that all the students were starting out on their own journeys, some of which I hope I shall be involved in, and with the potential of a great course to guide them through, inspiring staff and great facilities they really can do all they understand they want, and so much more than that. Daunting, and exhilarating, and I wish them all good luck!

I didn’t know it at the time but the work I was creating all those years ago as a student still holds such relevance to me now, and it doesn’t matter what label I give myself, it’s all about the creative process, and I don’t worry about boundaries there…