garden cuttings

I’ve been working away in the studio on a wonderful project with Joe Pearson of publishing company Design for Today for a while and time has come for us to begin to share the results. It is a book inspired by Edward Bawden and his garden at Brick House in Essex. Bawden was a very keen gardener and I have researched and worked with anecdotes and visual references to build a picture of what his garden may well have been like and designed the artwork of the fold book with lino prints, a process he used many, many times.


Keep an eye on social media for more updates as we lead up to the official launch in May.


telling stories

Each project I create is part of a longer narrative of my practice and as I look back over the years it is easy for me to see common aspects and joined up thinking spanning those projects. As I teach this year’s final year students on the BA programme I lead I am reminded of my own journey starting out in design, and the questioning I did to work out what sort of work I wanted to be represented by in my step beyond graduation. The challenge of the Final Major Project!

I understand the battle and pressure to work out your own style, the look or handwriting to be yourself, but funnily enough I don’t think that is the thing that holds my practice together anymore – you may disagree, and I’d be interested to know! What has become the common thread holding so many of my projects together has been the story, the narrative within each project. I could never have imagined this all those years ago, even though I was making books! I’ve made many artists books that contain single narratives, but I’ve also worked on large-scale projects that involve public toilet doors that act as pages of the book with a story across them. This is also true for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where my designs are laid out in gravel across three huge roof-scapes. I’ve also been challenging how to place pattern within single designs, such as in my Plot to Plate tea towel design, telling the tale of growing, cooking and eating food. I’ve made series of prints, and a set of posters, all held together by a narrative. The more I look the more examples I can see.

If only the graduate me back then could have told me that the key aspects of my practice would work themselves out I would have worried less, but then again, it is the search for these answers that take you on the creative journey in the first place. Some people like to know what they are going to design, design it, then be pleased it looks as they planned. As for me, I like learning as I go, push myself that little bit more, find a bit of creative strength to step out of my comfort zone, and then be pleased I got somewhere I didn’t know existed. The creative process is a difficult thing to explain, but it’s all the more interesting for being that way.


Top left: artists book in collaboration with Wes White for Sherborne House, Dorset, 2004

Bottom left: visualisation for the roof-scape at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Birmingham, 2009

Right: Plot to Plate tea towels, 2014

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.


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.


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!


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!


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!) NOW EXTENDED UNTIL MARCH 2018

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?


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.


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.


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.


learning with archives

Recently I have been sharing joys from the fabulous archive of textile samples belonging to Birmingham City University’s library, some dating back from 1901. Myself and a colleague have been showing these treasures to our students, helping them to see their own learning as part of a history of design practices. In an age of the digital file it’s been fabulous to see how much interest these portfolios have generated with our students. It’s a tough call as we worry for the protection of these fragile items, and yet value being able to see and interact with them.


Being able to turn the pages, and reveal the hundreds of printed swatches is really an exciting journey and the students really engaged with the quality and preciousness of the items. The fact that all the samples are beautifully hand mounted and labelled adds to the beauty and experience. The range of design compositions is considerable, and the detail stunning. Tiny little flecks of print; an anchor, a petal of a flower, or coral texture printed on fine cloth demonstrate quality of the day. We noted the generosity of many designs, and discussed commercial appeal and production methods available before screen printing and digital printing possibilities. Of course this is pertinent at this time of financial cuts in the support to local and national libraries and associated archives, and with arts and culture being sold to the nation as a rather nice hobby we just can’t afford at the moment.

Seeing things with our own eyes helps to engage with the subject, making things real, and adding value to the experience. I spent an extremely insightful day at London College of Communication’s Learning Through Objects event #UALOBL last month discussing this subject with fellow academics, researchers and archivists. Yes it’s easier to deliver another ppt to a large group of students, but sessions with objects and physical activity are the ones that are likely to make far more impression, and make the difference to learning we are aiming for.