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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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…

print progress

Recently I have been really busy with a variety of academic duties in Birmingham and further afield, taking me away from studio time, my freelance design practice, and of course blog writing. Also, in my teaching of Textile Design at Birmingham City University I have been leading a module of professional practice, assisting the students in learning about the life of a freelance designer. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, as the discussions between students and staff illustrated: It’s great to be your own boss, but you take all the blame when things don’t work out! You can get up when you want, but nobody pays you for just waking up!

The rhythm of freelance work is varied. Somehow it’s often the way of things that several deadlines coincide, and when you have a schedule to stick to, an urgent press request comes in. On the day you have time to make calls, those people are out of the office, and obviously you don’t get paid when you take a holiday. Yes there can be tough times, but I really like the variety of the weeks’ activities that freelancing gives me, certainly set in tandem with the academic life of very different demands. Each practice informs the other. Obviously there are freelance tasks I prefer and other ones I procrastinate over, lists are created, social media is checked and Radio 4 is listened too!

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With so much to-ing and fro-ing on trains this last month or two and with several commercial projects on slow-cook I decided to give myself time to make, test and resolve some ideas that I have been exploring, with paper and print. The activity of printmaking is a fabulous discipline to work with. I love the excitement of planning a new print, and composing the plate, often taking me back to sketchbooks and previous ideas. The physical process of cutting the block can also be absorbing, and therapeutic and I have to decide the paper stock, the ink colour, and edition size too. It is important to maintain an experimental, inquiring practice and my prints and drawings are the evidence of ideas that have sustained my creative practice for the last twenty years. Between the commercial constraints of projects shaped by clients, costs and repeat patterns, printmaking can seem so free from limitations. This is why I make sure I keep printing – the creative sort, not just the invoices!

both prints featured here are available to buy, at £46 each unframed.

Knit 1, edition of 15, lino print, 9.5 x 9.5 cm print size

Meadow Grass, edition of 12, lino print, 9.5 x 9.5 cm print size

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print pattern show up and down… at Tent London

After months of planning, designing, making, printing, promoting and talking about the show… the time finally came… TENT LONDON! With very heavy bags, a display diagram, carefully planned tool kits, shelves, fabrics rolled, and so much more we set off to Brick Lane, London to put the show up. Our lives with small children are full of logistics, and this day tested us! Trains, tardy paint, luggage & childcare kept us busy and in relay between London and Birmingham so the show could take shape. By the end of the first day the majority of display items were on the right walls, fixed securely, and I headed home to the midlands.

The next day…. I set off again with ANOTHER heavy bag (these things don’t always get mentioned in trade show prep talks!) and completed the stand dressing, including the mood board for ‘construct’. It always takes longer than you think… I attached the vinyl, tidied up and left for a good nights sleep before the LONG first day of 10am – 11pm!

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The first day of a launch / show is always exiting and scary. Will people understand the new work, and will they like it? This particular morning was not helped by being stuck in a lift across town with my dear sister and only what sounded like a fax machine to talk to. Eventually after 20 minutes we were told the lift engineer couldn’t get the door open, “you are in a precarious position”!!! I’m not sure what customer care training he had received about talking to distressed people stuck in a lift. For anyone in this job, do not use the word ‘precarious’! We got out after nearly half an hour…

For the rest of the day I felt half an hour behind, but I launched my new collection with free limited edition screen prints which appeared to be gladly received by visitors. The collaboration with Formica Group was a really popular element to my new collection, and the mood board featuring my drawing tools as preliminary artwork inspired lots of really interesting conversations. Being a solo designer can be a very lonely, self-reflective existence so it’s great to get feedback from those you design the work for. Architects, interior designers, specifiers, stylists, press, retailers and many more visitors invested time to talk about all elements of my work, and for that I’m grateful. ‘Plot to Plate’ was launched in 2012 and has evolved over time to be a ready to buy interior and gift collection but ‘construct’ works differently. Only the cushions are available for immediate sale, and the rest is printed to order to allow for the distinctive element of the collection, the bespoke production. By working with Formica Group and Surface View my designs have been printed on a range of surfaces for the residential and contract markets.

When designing the stand I had to consider what I wanted to communicate and who I wanted to relate to. Over the years I’ve refined the ideas of what I want to do and the contexts in which I thrive creatively and this design show gave me the opportunity to put that understanding across. It was important to explain that I have lots of experience of creating bespoke pattern for clients and having just designed a new pattern for David Mellor celebrating the ‘Pride’ cutlery this was a great thing to show. It was really well received and orders have already been dispatched!

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It is very hard work minding a stand of your own, by yourself for several days. Every show I’ve done has been helped by the wonderful community of fellow stand holders nearby and this year at Tent London was no different. I met kind and sharing exhibitors I hope to stay in touch with, and I will certainly watch and support their practices on social media with interest. Thanks to you!

I’ve written this previously too, but as ever, I was visited by past students of mine from both my CSM teaching days as well as BCU Textile Design graduates, some visiting to inform their practices, others in their roles in industry. It makes me proud! I am also pretty good at spotting students and as long as they don’t just grab the postcards I support their efforts and questions as they are being proactive and engaging with the industry. London Design Festival offers something for any creative so it’s good to support the next generation.

Last year I made a dress using one of my new prints, and I did the same this year, much to the delight of the Tent London ladies! It was a great way to demonstrate the flexibility of my print designs, and a good way to make conversations; it became my uniform.

I also won a design competition for tote bags at the show to be printed with a ‘construct’ placement print, so some lucky people have a very limited edition screen printed bag!

The end of the show has mixed blessings. After a long few days and months of preparation it’s great to have achieved a strong show – many kind people commented on how good my stand looked, but it also means the adventure is over, and it’s sad taking the show down, packing it up and saying farewells. Even in a few days routines are created. We struggled back on the trains with what we measured later as being 59Kgs of exhibition and assorted support luggage between two of us, ready to follow up the contacts made…. and to sit down!

So what have I learned?

  • I learned that I really am making the work that I want to make, and did manage to communicate that with the right people.
  • I’m really proud of both collections, and am delighted at the reception that ‘construct’ received
  • and latch hook rug making! I learned how to make a rug and now know why they cost so much… but really enjoyed making it… with British wool!
  • I learned how important it is to take risks, to put work out there to be judged… to keep learning

Thanks to all those involved: family helpers, the Tent team, Formica Group, Surface View, fellow exhibitors and for everyone who came to visit.

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teaching for them and for us

I’ve combined my academic career with my art and design practice since the late 1990s and I’ve felt that each informs the other. Some weeks I’ve wished there were more hours for one than the other, but the two occupations are, for me, valuable and complementary to each other.

My art and design practice is one of learning, journeying and discovering new ways to look, to draw, to interpret the world about me in a visual, drawn or printed language. I feel as if I’m on a really long adventure that won’t stop until I get put in a box. Each commission, or self-established project offers a small experience that builds the bigger lesson that takes me further along that creative path to who knows where. Facilitating the discovery of this excitement in creative exploration is what drives me to teach students in Higher Education.

I have recently visited the excellent Peter Green exhibition: Sixty years of printmaking, at Mascalls Gallery, Kent (the exhibition has just finished I’m afraid), which got me thinking…  It was made clear in the design and content of the show (St. Judes and Emma Mason Gallery with Mascalls Gallery) that Peter combined his printmaking career with an academic one, and a high achieving one at that.

Printmaking is such a physical experience, and although simple in principle, the intricacies of a process and resulting prints can be hard earned. The exhibition of Peter Green’s work really demonstrated the pleasure of investigation, of material, colour and surface quality, not as passing ideas, but as a sustained dialogue between practitioner and process, and between ink and paper. The exhibition showed the drawings, the printing plates, the tools, the sampling and final resolutions. Peter’s vast experience and significant creative journey was evident; and through the exhibition I felt as if he is teaching us to learn from him, not for the technique, but for the commitment and value of doing and pursuing something. I believe that this is fundamental in teaching, whether in formal education or not.

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It was interesting to read in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition that he said, “knowledge is about common ownership […] we should learn from each other.” This is how I feel about my relationship with education. We should not be masters to preach the skills and experience, but instead we could share in the experience of learning together. That’s not to deny that someone needs the skills and experience in the first place, but the attitude of someone like Peter who clearly enjoys the creative journey will inspire those a step or two behind him. I think it’s important that those who teach are also those who do.

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I strongly believe that there are no short cuts, or right answers along the path of art and design. There is no ‘one’ way of doing things. Sadly, so many students come through school thinking they are looking for the tick in the box, the correct result. We try at degree level study to nurture in them the understanding that you learn far more by investigating, questioning and journeying, rather than heading straight for one destination. This is again echoed in Peter’s investigative approach to printmaking – the finding out along the way is as important as the final state.

I read in the catalogue that Peter had moved away from wood engraving as a process as it required a more calculated journey and pre-determined images. I think I work like this too, looking to uncover the solution rather than to execute the obvious, not with wood but as a designer. This makes me think of new or less experienced teachers over-planning and worrying about the outcome of a session; what the students will achieve at the end, as a tangible result. Those with more experience and confidence in their teaching and the learning experience can take risks with that journey of learning and therefore participate rather than dictate. This sounds comparative to Peter’s more recent prints that evolve over time without the planning, but with an open-ended investigation. The exhibition celebrates sixty years of Peter printmaking [today in collaboration with wife Linda], so with such a busy and extensive journey the prints are an exciting archive of process and investigation, with common themes, colour relationships and familiar motifs in evidence during this time, as well as textile designs more recently in collaboration with St. Judes.

No doubt those of us who live with creative practices do so for many reasons, and those of us who teach will each tell of reasons why we do too. The combination of a creative practice and a teaching role is, in my mind, a really good combination, a two-sided relationship, where hopefully the give and the take work themselves out for the benefit of all! Thanks to Peter for reminding me of that good partnership as we embark on another academic year…

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Thanks to Simon Lewin of St. Judes for permission and access to the images of Peter Green’s prints:

top: Welsh Landscape No.1 1960

middle: Red Night 1963

bottom: Evening Estuary 2013

Useful links:

http://www.mascallsgallery.org

http://www.stjudesprints.co.uk

http://www.emmamason.co.uk

A change of background colour

It’s the holiday season and we’ve been taking part. A camping trip to the Lake District offered a dramatic difference to the usual scenery we live within here in the Midlands, and it was refreshing change for being so. Everywhere seemed so green, really really green, not just the local park green but intense, vivid greens that lush meadows could offer. Naturally with that comes rain, but even then the colours were vibrant. Lichen was glowing, moss saturated, even the sheep were blue! Some colours took me back to studio projects, Pantone references, British Standard colours and colour choices, others offered a welcome diversion.The strange thing is, that when I compiled the image to include with this post the images looked really grey, but it really wasn’t like that through my eyes!

This change of scene is just what the mind needed after an intense workload juggling several design projects and at the end of a hectic academic year. I like what the seasons do to us, make us adapt and notice the time passing. This time of year feels like a celebration, as harvests ripen in the sun (ummm..) and we prepare for a new season of productive design work, education and research.

I shall remember the vivid greens, the birds circling overhead in the sky of blue; the vast views that some people get to enjoy day in day out. I shall remember the feeling of change, and rest, and stopping just for a short while, as a warm memory in the depths of winter when working in the studio. I am bound by the academic year, as well as the seasons on the allotment, the trade show calendar, and birthdays, as so many people are. It’s good to recognise the rhythms and differences brought on by change. Hooray for holidays!

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redesigning the ‘brand’ self

I’ve been out in the ‘real world’ so to speak for nearly twenty years, and while I found that such a scary idea during my time at art college, having little idea of what I really wanted to do, now I realise it’s okay.  I look back and remember so many exciting things that I’ve been up to and so many great people I’ve worked with that I am grateful for living the portfolio career in art and design.

I made the choice to lead an academic career alongside my own practice and both really support each other. I am sharing and honest in my own learning experiences from industry working across art and design contexts. The students’ creative journeys also inspire the creative investigation in me. We talk of ‘branding’ and ‘professional identities’ in the Second year that I am currently leading in the Textile Design degree course at Birmingham City University, and consider how we and others see us and what we can control and what others interpret. I’m not a corporation or multinational company and yet the word ‘brand’ is commonly used for the self-employed too. Language used in promotional material as well as social media build a story, whether we like the tale or not. Does my design integrity come across? what about my inspiration? is the market level clear?…

I’ve been redesigning my website over the last few months. This is always an opportunity to ask myself more questions, and to reflect on where I’ve come from, where I’ve been and where I plan to go within the world of design, and specifically pattern. I’ve been excited by the process. I’ve chosen headings / page titles that more accurately reflect my current practice and edited substantial information relating to projects of years gone by. I’ve made it more image-based and updated text, again to reflect the shift in my design practice interests. With social media being a really key part of building a ‘brand’ these days this process has been happening as I go, but I’ve finally embraced instagram, having enjoyed Twitter over the last three years.

So, for all the bookbinding workshops I’ve led, the public consultation exercises I’ve participated in, the colours and materials I’ve sourced, the flowers I’ve drawn and the prints that I’ve pulled, this is where I’m at now…

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