time and sketchbook time

At the moment I’m juggling lots of different projects; one has been years (really!) in the making, another much quicker, straightforward and some more ‘surprise’ projects. They all have different requirements of my time, and in each week there may be a telephone call to a manufacturer to discuss things with, an email exchange between a client and myself to clarify details of a brief, or a call to a stylist / marketing team to plan a scheme for the future with, and the usual trade show sales team call! This all takes time, and different skills to manage.

A different skill altogether is to maintain a practice that, at the heart of it, seeks to challenge, engage and inspire the creative self that was the reason I set off in this direction at the start, twenty years ago. The sketchbook is the place I go back to, the safe place I can explore those ideas in, old and new, that keeps the journey going, the continuum that is my creative practice. Ideas do evolve over time, and the sketchbooks are testaments to the ongoing inquiry that may lend itself to something commercial in due course, but is not the reason I do the drawing in the first place.

In my role of design lecturer I regularly explain the uses of a sketchbook, the hows and whys a designer may approach the mental and physical task of working in a sketchbook. Retro-filling the pages that have post-its in saying ‘research’ needing to be completed the day before a hand-in lacks rigour and purpose, a scrap-book mentality is not necessarily the best use of printer credits unless you really do look and reflect on the relationship between your work and someone else’s. Dare I say it, I enjoy the task of working on a new white page, and see the potential, not the fear. I don’t often share pages of my sketchbooks, but here’s one page from this week in the studio, having gathered new ‘material’ at the weekend, furthering my ideas for my Grasslines print series…

I say let’s celebrate the sketchbook, the real one with paper pages that doesn’t require likes, favourites of retweets to be justified, the one you do for you. Why / how do you use your sketchbook?

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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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gardening spirit

As this is the start of National Gardening Week it seems appropriate that I reflect on how important gardening is to me. Growing up in a gardening family, with a self-sufficient attitude to growing vegetables I suppose it was inevitable that one day I’d have a garden of my own to tend. For years I’d visit mum and be walked around the garden having updates on the state of things, nodding but never knowing the names of things, but seeing the pleasure the process of gardening gives to her. Now I understand.

Here in Birmingham we have an allotment to grow the vegetables and fruit in, and we grow flowers in our garden. We have spent over a decade digging and harvesting plot 8; learning to respect weeds for their various ways of making their presence known – I still want to try weaving couch grass. The feeling of success when we pick the first strawberries of the year, or fill the rucksack with runner beans that can be filling the freezer for wintertime is certainly worth the hours of graft. Last weekend I picked over a kilo of purple sprouting, and we commented that the harvest would probably cost well over £10 in the shops, as organic produce – but with no plastic wrapping or air miles included. Of course our food tastes so much better too! Gardening spells out the seasons as we check for frosts, or pick the first fruits, and enjoy the harvest and flowers of each changing month. The beds of wallflowers make me so happy this time each year, signalling the excitement of the growing year getting underway.

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It was at the allotment plot that I first developed my pattern collection ‘Plot to Plate‘, launched in 2012. I had been drawing the allotment beds on the site, as well as National Trust kitchen gardens for a while, and a language of graphic pattern made from lino cuts evolved, firstly as limited edition prints, and secondly as motifs to explore repeat pattern with (for example: Plot to Plate VVV textile design – final image with the Auricula). The title design is slightly different in the fact that it was hand drawn, and is an over-sized dog tooth check featuring tools of growing, cooking and eating, such as garden rakes, spades, whisks, wooden spoons and cutlery as a visual narrative up the tea towel, celebrating the journey from plot to plate – available in Brassica green or Brassica purple. plottoplate_ttowels_katefarley150

This collection has evolved to incorporate more formal pattern compositions such as Parterre (below) and Hanbury, inspired by National Trust’s Hanbury Hall and Gardens in Worcestershire, featured on hand screen printed cushions and wallpaper, where I make links between pattern design for textiles and formal garden design.

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These days my design practice has moved away from the inspiration of the formal gardens but I continue to dig. Our potatoes are in the ground for this year and the greenhouse is working some magic. Gardening provides me with not only creative inspiration but also head-space – a highly valuable asset in today’s world. As a designer and an academic, juggling a young family too, things can be frantic and I’m often running for trains. Faced with two hours of hard clay to dig I’m actually very happy. I can focus on the job in hand while chatting to the friendly robins, making myself physically tired, seeing the result of the work, and at the same time having time to think and mull over some of the other stuff of life. There’s also the sense of community with other allotmenteers; we share the same weather and battles but also share the excess harvests. Every time we get to the point of questioning ourselves about the allotment and if we have time, I remember all that it does for me, how my hard work there actually keeps me well; gives me a sense of well-being I can’t imagine getting from anything else. I shall keep digging, and knowing, for so many reasons, why I do!  Happy National Gardening Week!

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seeing red

My world is pretty colourful; on a daily basis I’m in contact with colourful textures, materials and surfaces from fashion, interior and architectural contexts. Not only do I work with hard and soft surfaces in my design practice, I also teach undergraduates to work with colour in relation to textile design. It’s important to see beyond the broad definition of colour by name and to think about the context of colour; the surface qualities in that colour, the effect the material has on colour, such as gloss, matt and opaque for example.

Last week I managed to update some colour charts in my studio resources and it made me think about how we tend to have particular favourites when it comes to colour. I certainly have a comfort zone in sections of the colour charts and other areas I’d have to be persuaded to go near. Commissions often include discussions with clients about the intended colours of products, and I enjoy the challenges of pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone – within reason! I have a different palette I’m happy to wear compared with what I’d live with, and I certainly dress in colour relating to the mood. I remember many years ago dressing in very colourful clothes only to receive a rejection for something that mattered. I felt gutted I’d dressed for the wrong outcome!

Here are some REDs… I love the border colours between red and orange.

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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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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!