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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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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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.

passing on pattern passion

In my role of academic as well as a designer I am regularly required to enthuse about print and pattern, and to be honest that’s fine, as I love designing and teaching pattern for print. This last week has seen me out and about to pass on my passion for pattern, firstly to Wolverhampton Embroiderers’ Guild where I was invited to talk about my practice. It’s always interesting having to consider what bit of the last twenty years to focus on, requiring reflection and evaluation, and how to tell the most relevant story without missing the bits that might be the most informative to others even if they didn’t seem so to me when living them. The audience were really generous with praise, and were really interested in my creative process, so sharing my sketchbooks, and anecdotes felt very easy to such an interested group of makers.

Tuesday saw me overseeing a morning of filming at Birmingham City University (BCU) with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and TV crew, working with our third years and our fabulous Print Technician. It was a morning of celebrating the Arts and Crafts legacy, William Morris in particular, and the importance of understanding the value of drawing to the process of pattern making. It was a pleasure promoting our talented third years, in the closing stages of their time with us.

This leads me to yesterday when I and a colleague took a coach of second year Textile Design degree students to Manchester, specifically the Whitworth Art Gallery to see several exhibitions. On walking in to the first gallery and the exhibition ‘Revolutionary Textiles 1910-1939′ I noticed a number of pieces that I had featured in my Historical Textiles lectures when I had taught this group of students as first years, including Barron & Larcher, Josef Hillebrand and Omega Workshops. It was fabulous to see the students’ excitement on recognising patterns and names of designers that had, until then remained theoretical, and not ‘actually real’. Their knowledge meant something tangible, and I think was empowering to them. It was an honour to share that excitement of learning, and understanding.

Having worked on the Tibor Reich show at BCU it was great to be reunited with the collection, also on show at the Whitworth, and to see the different emphasis this exhibition made to an amazing and extensive archive owned by the family. The students really responded to the way Tibor worked to create pattern, and explored pattern through drawing with layers of colour and line. I couldn’t help but point out Tibor’s excellent use of a sketchbook to explore ideas.

Image below: top row from Revolutionary Textiles, bottom row Tibor Reich

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The room that wowed me most was the wallpaper gallery upstairs, and again, this exhibition was exciting and inspiring to the students, leading to some really interesting conversations. There is of course no comparison between seeing metres of wallpaper stretching skywards, to a small screen of Google images. We talked about print production, the scale of motifs useful to a domestic space rather than in relation to a sketchbook page, and why thinking big should be embraced. We admired the Lucienne Day patterns that are so familiar to us, alongside new discoveries, and that is why a curated exhibition, unlike an online search can be so beneficial; the selection provides context. I encouraged the students to question how they would make the marks, the shapes and patterns without computers, and why the variation of hand-made can offer something that digital software excludes. I include an example below to illustrate my point – beauty in the irregular.

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We did have time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the cafe but also took in a quick trip to see the newly opened Fashion & Freedom exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery, one I really do recommend too.

So, more pattern inspiration for me, and hopefully some more people inspired by pattern too…

building / constructing / space / paper

I’ve been working on a new series of works on paper that have evolved from paper cutouts and manipulations I first created over ten years ago. Back then I was experimenting with sculptural paper engineering that aimed to convey meaning through the structural content as well as the printed image. This may sound very much like ‘bookart’ talk, and it is really, as I moved from artists book maker to something different, including public artist and surface pattern designer, see below.

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It’s a strange thing when ideas that had seemed so disparate appear to come together to form a ‘whole’ different idea – and feels right. I’m sharing the first of many new prints evolving along these lines here.

As a result of my design collection ‘construct’ I launched last year I’ve explored the idea of woven threads and constructed surfaces. This led me to explore the space and environment of a page, a sheet of paper, and what could constitute the printed page. I used embossing to create a sense of space and depth, and slotted the ‘print’ to the paper as if floating. I am keeping the ink a neutral Payne’s grey so it doesn’t conflict or distract from the structure. I explored several different printed patterns too, and this, a lino print provided me with sufficient visual noise, but allows the embossing to be seen too.

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So, what do you think? Does it make sense? I’m looking forward to exploring this further over the next few months.

How will these pieces link to the work I shall make in another ten years?

Springtime shopping of Plot to Plate gifts

My ‘Plot to Plate’ collection inspired by gardening is celebrating Springtime with a special offer in my online shop. For orders over £20 placed during March and April there will be free gifts included.

All products are printed and made in England. Tea-towels, bags as well Hanbury and Parterre cushions are screen printed. Greetings cards are printed with British paper.

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