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.

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Summer gold

As the weather turns I always feel a sense of sadness for the summer that is over. The start of term arrives and soon it is coat weather, and lights on to read in the evening.

I have taken many photos over the summer, some for projects that are taking shape and some for my archive, waiting for their turn. These two photographs go rather well together to remind me of the warmth of summer and the beauty that is East Anglia.

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Top image is from inside the light house at Southwold, Suffolk, and the second one is a view across the marshes at Stiffkey in Norfolk. Each a special place in my heart.

Pattern appreciation at the Whitworth

The Barbara Brown exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester is really worth catching, especially if you like patterns.
The layout of the gallery enables an overview; the broad visual statement of the textiles designed by Barbara Brown during the 1960s and 1970s, to be seen straight away and makes for a striking sight. Large-scale pattern in different colour-ways jostle for attention and yet the small gatherings of textile designs within the gallery also create more local dialogue for consideration. The repeats are large, not in the Marimekko sense but larger than we often see, taking the full width of the fabric to do the talking. Seeing the textile lengths on exhibition really shows off the bold rhythms of each pattern.

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The designs on show demonstrate a variety of motif units across the fabric, some halved, some quartered, others full width. The corner of the gallery most impressive in my opinion was the monochrome series that really pushed her design prowess forward. Although strong graphic statements, these are far from flat patterns. The curves in Ikebana (below left) and Automation (below, third from right), both from 1970, differ in how they control and divide the space, toying with depth and dimensions. There is a sense of sci-fi and computer generated environments across this mono-chrome series. Escher should also get a mention as the optical illusions on the architectural scale appear to pay homage to him too.

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I have my favourites, but I really want to highlight the breadth of pattern compositions here. The design statements include many geometrics with cubes, columns and dots. There are stripes, spots, architectural themes and florals. I see more than a hint of Op Art, Psychedelia and modernism across the printed fabrics, some more than others, but the designs appear experts at communicating the populist aesthetic of those years.

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As a teaching aid for textile design, this exhibition does rather well. Design students can understand the potential to grow large repeats rather than stop at small ‘plonk – plonk’ designs we see far too much of – maybe a result of designing on computer screens. Designers need to understand that even domestic interiors can cope with so much more than a motif 10cm in diameter. Brown’s shapes are also not always contained by outlines, and this presents bold, solid shapes that hold their own. Colour statements include monochrome and full-on colour including oranges and blues. There is a sense of the colour palette dating the patterns but the combinations communicate bravery. The monochrome designs have a very formal spirit, and although different in style do remind me of some of the black and white, large classical columns Timney Fowler print designs of the 1980s.

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Barbara Brown was working in a very different time, and artwork was not created in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Hand drawing full-scale repeats gives you a very different relationship with pattern compositions. Some designs appear not to show signs of drawing, but others do, almost standing out for doing so – particularly Sweet Briar, 1959 (above left).

The exhibition was dominated by the printed fabric lengths but a couple of later knitted pieces offered an insight in to the designer’s creative career progression, and reminded me of the direction Lucienne Day took with her silk mosaics, making a clear distinction away from the commercial print designs. The juxtaposition of some small ceramic pieces next to fabric lengths offered an interesting pause for thought too. Would you have matching china and curtains? Maybe not, but the patterns held their own at both scales and on the different surfaces.

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This is one of those examples of why you need to see exhibitions in the flesh, and not rely on the computer or phone screen to do the job. Seeing Barbara Browns patterns are eye-catching on a small screen, but they are far more impressive in this setting.

The exhibition is on show until January 2018 (and they always have several interesting things on at the same time – and I can recommend the cafe!)

http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/currentexhibitions/barbarabrown/

comings and goings

As it is the season for comings and goings I made this image of photographs recording swallows learning to feed and fend for themselves, with some demonstrations from their parents, taken this week in the Lake District. We stood for over five minutes watching them as they swooped over our heads, paying us no attention. It was fabulous to watch, but it did remind me that Autumn is around the corner and soon these birds will be flying south…

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yellows

I’ve always enjoyed working with colour; choosing combinations, mixing inks and matching colour. I am interested in how we relate colour to brands, how colour suggests quality, market levels, football teams, trends, and this week in particular political parties. Sometimes people say they do not really like colour – but what they often really mean is that they don’t like strong and vibrant colours, but in my mind bright colours are no more important than the whites on white; equally powerful if used well, just not so extrovert.

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I like seeing the way an inky grey sky makes fields of corn glow golden, and how the crepuscular blue sings out before the night sky takes over. Relationships that colours have can bring connotations, evoke distant memories and create moods. I remember a bag of hand-me-down clothes was excitedly torn open by my twin sister and I, hoping for fabulous new items to wear – in the eighties, when what was actually presented was everything brown and purple – from the previous decade. So disappointing!

Getting the right colour isn’t about a broad brush of red, it’s about seeing the nuances. You’ve only got to see a sale-rail to see the buyer got the shade of mustard a bit too green, or the pink too candy, and not blush. Any colour can vary hugely, our personal perception of colour not only is affected by the technicalities of sight, but also our own relationships with colour, built on past experiences. It took me a while to wear navy, having had to endure it for school for several years.

A friend described my ‘black’ screen prints for the Barbican, and I had to explain it was actually dark grey – it makes a considerable difference to the final result, but if both examples are not shown side by side most people would be none the wiser that the designer made a conscious decision to make a grey look not quite a black.

So here’s some yellow, photographed in Norfolk a few weeks ago. Enjoy, what ever it means to you!

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drawing grass lines

I’ve written many times over the years on this blog about the themes that underpin my work, the approaches I take to develop new work, and the things that inspire me. Here I look again at the process of evolving ideas and visual language, to introduce my latest series of prints.

As I develop ideas, often in series of works on paper before any design solutions are considered, I explore the visual language of the subject through drawings, photography and printmaking. The aesthetic nature of the new work evolves and is tested in relation to compositions and rhythms. My knowledge of pattern design, in particular in relation to textiles, feeds this investigation. The motifs, the linking forms, the negative and positive shapes and the quality of line can suggest relationships with historical styles, international influence and contemporary trends. As a designer I use this knowledge to sometimes avoid, and sometimes align to this language, communicating a context far beyond the printed paper I create.

On a cycling and camping tour around Denmark back in 2004 we came across a small book shelf in the campsite shelter containing a range of books. I can’t read Danish. We picked out a few, judging them purely on the graphic design of the spine, and I found a science book of beautiful diagrams of plant structures. I have a photograph somewhere, but the impression those diagrams made on me does not require me to see that page again. I remember the look of those diagrams, and they have fed in to this collection many years from then.

Mid C20th pattern is also something I am interested in, and for this new body of work, particularly the development of stylised florals and diagrammatic interpretation of plants. Lucienne Day was particularly expert at creating designs in that manner, with simple black lines, herself inspired by Miro, Kandinsky and Klee. This is why it’s important to be aware of what has gone before. Not to imitate the past, but to take courage from previous developments in drawing, stylising and pattern making, so we don’t recreate the past, but so we push forward with our own journeys, liberated by not inventing the wheel. I was amused to discover the current exhibition at the brilliant Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester is Lucienne Day: A sense of Growth – it seemed uncanny!

My photograph collection, both in print and digital form, contains many pictures of reeds; Danish reeds, Norfolk reeds, anywhere else reeds. I also have many records of grasses, and have always been attracted to the structure of such plants. These are often the unloved weeds that may be irrelevant and overlooked by many, but I come back from walks with handfuls of lines, some with seed heads, some without, but always lines of grass, as if nature had fun drawing them. Different stems, leaves and weights of line, and some suggesting very distinct natural habitats. I’ve always been more interested in line quality than texture, and my work over the last two decades demonstrates that very clearly.

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So that was a long-winded way of saying that this new series of works has been a long time coming, but makes perfect sense to me. I didn’t set out to create drawings of grasses, in fact I started screen printing flowers, but this evolved as part of the create process that is play. Colour came and went too, so as not to detract from the lines. There are some similarities with my threads printed editions and I have had the prints next to each other today – I think they make an interesting dialogue. This is the journey of idea development, by mixing drawing, thinking, printing, reflecting, contextualising, and doing it all again. By the way, this bit of the creative process is one that is very difficult to teach design students, more so with less and less studio time, and a full to bursting curriculum, but knowing your own creative process is halfway to success in my world. Take risks (it’s not rocket science we say) and work at playing.

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I digress. These few prints are only the start of this series, I already have new work evolving, but other projects are jostling for my time in the studio, so for now, I introduce you to Grasslines… and now you know a bit about how they came to be.

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season’s colour

A beautiful pocket of Norfolk provided this colour palette for us at the weekend. Surrounded by greying reeds and rotting down leaves the bright sunshine lit up the sulphur-yellow lichens, orange shooting willow whips and mauve feathery seed heads of the reeds. The more we looked the more colour we saw. I took several photos and as I focused the lens on details the overall variety of colour and tones were lost, hence the palette I’ve made here.

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If you ever get the chance to visit, I strongly recommend this place. Wheatfen is a nature reserve in Norfolk, managed by the Ted Ellis Trust, founded to continue his valuable work in raising awareness of this fragile environment and to make accessible this landscape for others to learn about and to enjoy. It doesn’t feature dramatic mountain passes or high waterfalls, but for me it is perfect. If you are lucky, as we have been over the years, you might spot an otter, a heron or a Swallowtail butterfly, and lots of reeds! It’s a pocket of tranquility that I could lose myself in for hours.

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