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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weaver extraordinaire: Anni Albers

If you are interested in textiles and haven’t heard about the Anni Albers show now on at Tate Modern in London, then a.) where have you been? and b.) get there fast if you can!

This has been a much anticipated show for me. Having been enjoying many other people’s pictures via Instagram since the exhibition opened I was most excited to get to the show and I’m so glad I did – I went round it several times and breathed in the history I had learned as an art student myself; typewriter patterns from Bauhaus lessons, the infamous diploma piece with sounds absorbing properties in the yarn, and those classic Bauhaus photographs, but there was so much more. Colour, cloth, pattern, rhythms, photographs, works on paper, products … The woven structures and yarns drew everyone in for a closer look – so much so that the alarms kept being set off and the guilty took a sheepish step back! There was a fascinating display of the research of historical textiles from Albers’ own collection that made perfect sense in how she interpreted and worked with the process of weaving.

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Experimental, commercial commissions, religious pieces and jewellery are some of the aspects of this considerable show. As with most well-received shows, the audience conversations themselves were fascinating; lots of discussions about experiences of weaving, hours at the loom as well as working out what she must have done.

It has been the architects, the painters and the product designers, usually men, who have become far more well known from the Bauhaus, including Anni’s husband Josef Albers. The avant-garde German art school’s first director Walter Gropius stated there were equal opportunities for all when it was established in 1919 and yet women were generally encouraged towards the textiles workshop, a place and craft deemed more suitable. Anni never let this distract from her focus despite wanting to be a painter. Her creative output of a lifetime, as edited in this exhibition, goes a long way to demonstrate her will to explore both the context of design and the development of art. She will have no doubt inspired many who have been introduced to her as a result of the show and her legacy will continue to influence far beyond the context of textiles as a craft for women. I came away with many notes and a head filled textile excitement – happy weaving everyone!

Exhibition ends: 27th January 2019

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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The versatility of Ravilious & friends

There are a flurry of exhibitions on and books out at the moment relating to Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, as well as their peers. Since the fabulous Ravilious show at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 / 04 curated by Alan Powers, it seems this really has been their revival. Certainly according to my social media feeds we are all loving this celebration of talent from days gone by, and many contemporary designers are inspired by the styles of these greats.

The exhibition, Ravilious & Co. at Compton Verney explores this network of friends and collaborators in an extensive and beautiful show of art and design pieces, demonstrating their skills, creativity and versatility across products and for varied clients. Having seen this show in Sheffield; a touring show curated by Andy Friend and the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, and previously being familiar with much of the era’s iconic designs it’s nice to see some of the exhibits rather like old friends, as well as others new to me.

Ravilious_ComptonVerney1images kindly shared by Compton Verney:

Eric Ravilious, Sussex Church, 1924. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Eric Ravilious, Portrait of Edward Bawden, 1930. Royal College of Art

There are also new pieces and names to discover. One thing that struck me was the talent of others in the group that have not received quite the same fanfare, but should be rewarded with the recognition – Helen Binyon in particular as a print-maker in my opinion. My notes recall ‘The Wire Fence’, 1935 specifically, such a beautiful interpretation of the subject through pattern and print. I kept returning to admire it!

A section of exhibition text also struck a chord for me. It stated that Paul Nash had “believed a good artist could turn his or her hand to many things – and would need to if they were to earn a living from their talent”. Nash had taught some of this new generation of designers at the Royal College and was also seen to live by this approach of traversing the landscape of art and design. Famous for his paintings both as a War Artist and not, he also carried out commercial design briefs for companies such as Cresta Silks (owned by Patrick Heron’s father) and Edinburgh Weavers (directed by Alastair Morton) and established the rather short-lived Unit One, bringing together artists and designers of the time.

When the individuals such as Bawden and Ravilious turned their creative hands to making drawings and prints, or designing ceramics, book covers, end papers, posters, murals, fabrics and much more, they did so with such confidence and accomplishment – an understanding of each product, the form and audience, each outcome intelligently designed for the specific brief. This isn’t a case of one image translated on to multiple surfaces as so much of today’s designing tends to be – I feel strongly about this when educating my own design students! Don’t do a ‘Cath Kidston’, (not the only company to do this!) and apply any / every pattern to any surface, but consider the requirements and potential of each product, learn from the expert manufacturers about how the production of the image or pattern can work best, and learn from what has gone before while creating something of its time.

KFarley_Marx_Angus_1Image details, photographs by Kate Farley from publications: Enid Marx by Alan Powers / Peggy Angus, by James Russell:

Enid Marx, study for ‘Spot and Stripe’ Utility fabric, 1945
Peggy Angus, Tile mural, staircase, Whitefield School, Barnet, 1953/4

Yes a designer can earn a living with their versatile skills, but I also have no doubt that Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Peggy Angus and others of this time thrived on the creative challenges of the commercial brief alongside their fine art practices. It’s known that Enid Marx liked the confines of designing Utility fabrics for the reason the design restrictions gave her boundaries to challenge. An open brief can be far more stifling! How would you hold the cup, turn the page or approach the wall, and how can pattern relate to the space? I love learning the particulars about each new production method or new application / context I design for.

Returning again to the subject of this particular exhibition at Compton Verney, items on show include drawing studies, proofs, original painting and drawings as well as commercially printed products. The most moving item was a letter from Bawden to Ravilious’ wife Tirzah after hearing news of Eric’s death, lost over Iceland on a mission as a War Artist, that demonstrated the strength of friendship the two men had for each other. Tears filled my eyes. It’s a big show, and it takes time – you will need to be fueled by cake!

My hope as a designer and educator is that this sustained interest in such a talented network of designers whose work reached across the public domain may rub off on the new generations of designers visiting this exhibition as well as on the vision and ambition of those who commission us too! While it’s lovely to see re-issues of these great designers work, I’d like us to move forward and create a new exciting design era built on this intelligence, empathy and skill. In the meantime, see this show if you can! It ends on 10th June – so get moving!

KFarley_plate_EricRaviliousImage detail, photograph by Kate Farley of plate by Eric Ravilious for Wedgwood

Also check out:

Edward Bawden at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London until 9th September 2018

Enid Marx, House of Illustration, London until 23rd September 2018

Bawden’s Beasts, The Higgins, Bedford until 27th January 2019

Gardening with Mr Bawden

So this is the week my book ‘Gardening with Mr Bawden’ is being published by Design for Today. It’s been many months in the making, so I’m very excited to be able to share the details and for other people to hold the book in their hands.

What began as a project brief for a book with interesting folds that celebrates Edward Bawden’s love of gardening has become a project I am very proud of and have thoroughly enjoyed for lots of different reasons, pushing me creatively along the way. I love a design challenge and returning to the subject of gardens has been a pleasure, having launched my garden-inspired Plot to Plate collection back in 2012 and being a keen allotmenteer. I’ve moved away from my usual diagrammatic visual interpretation of gardens, towards a more illustrative manner, following on from my Parks and Gardens commission for posters for London Underground last year. It has also been a joy going back to paper engineering and book art – having made many editions of artists books over the years following an MA in the subject from Camberwell in 1998.

The images below show some design stages of this project with Design for Today. There is an early paper maquette as I worked out the structural narrative in relation to the imagery. Several of these were posted between us to allow for discussion and deliberation. At one point there was a cut-out pond but I was unhappy with how it worked on the back of the page so I left that behind. I cut lots of lino, with each page requiring at least two blocks – one for each colour. Although I had an idea of the key focus and composition for each spread it wasn’t until I was cutting the lino did I tie precise detail down. Only a couple of times I decided to completely abandon a page spread and rework it – and I’m so glad I did! Each block was hand-printed and hung to dry in the studio before being scanned to make a digital file that could be prepared for the lithographic printing process of the final edition at Calverts.

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Once the final sheets were litho printed and die-cut / creased we have had to fold them one by one, sign the special edition and pack them up. We even decided to hand-cut out a window pane of the greenhouse in the edition of 100. We are delighted that the Special Edition sold out fast, well before the publishing date – thanks all! Those lucky people will receive the book along with a little booklet of the project and greetings cards, any day now!

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This collaboration with Joe has been a really positive experience as we are both passionate about doing a great job. He was always happy for me to tweak something one last time as we signed off proofs, and understood the reasons why I turned sentences inside out in the booklet, to say exactly what I wanted to. Joe and I have discussed page size, paper weight and the folded structure on several occasions as well as how you take inspiration without copying, and the issue of creating something in relation to, but not derivative of.

I am sure people who know my work will recognise my style in there, despite it being a little bit more illustrative. Pattern making relates to both Bawden, and myself, so it made sense to include a nod to wallpaper designs too, inside the greenhouse, as pots of plants become floral wallpaper. I wanted to use lino because both Bawden and I have used the printmaking process. I also wanted to create a light-hearted feel to the imagery, that is so often in Bawden’s commercial illustrations. As I wrote before in a previous post, we researched lots of snippets of information to guide the imagery and are grateful for there to be so much writing and research available at the moment, but it was never intending to be a guide to the garden at Brick House, more to express the pleasure Bawden would have got from his garden, as so many of us do. I also wanted to take the reader on a journey through a garden, rather than show you all in one go, so I hope the reader can navigate their way around!

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This book is the outcome of a great collaboration. (Thanks Joe!) So as the book is published today we celebrate this journey of designing and making, and can announce it will be stocked by some great places, including the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where a brand new Bawden show opens this week. Check out the social media accounts of Design for Today for updates. Final thanks ought to go to Mr Bawden himself, who has inspired so many of us, and who gave Joe and I cause to make this book.

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.