making one’s mark

finger printsComing back on the train the other day I sat near a mother and her little boy, two or three years old; she was keeping him well under control – he was in a bit of a squirm.

She was reeling, she said – they’d been out to lunch, she said, with an old friend visiting town from the US : he was thinking about returning to live in London. At pudding time the little boy, out of the blue, suddenly jumped up and smeared both his mucky chocolatey hands down the jumper of the friend – the clean, new, pastel cashmere jumper – right down the back! He’d never done anything like it before. I could just picture it – and though I know it was naughty I could really feel for him in the spontaneous act of making his mark – and seeing off the intruder!

hand prints

paint brush

It happens that in the last week or so I’ve been asked quite a lot about my personal history as a designer, and to reflect on the job of making one’s mark. At one discussion a youthful student asked me what should a young designer aim to be – I suggested “An old designer”! That raised some laughs, but I realise that’s what I’ve now become, more or less behind my own back. My daily practice of painting patterns has turned into my lifetime’s work – and long may it continue! I think the subject of obsession came up in the conversations too – an element of which is essential, I believe, for investigations of all sorts, in order to learn, and to produce new thoughts skilfully and with consistence. Natural curiosity helps a lot too!


At workshops I’m often asked to explain design repeats, how they work, and how to make them by hand.  So on the next course at Bradness Gallery, we’ll take the time to look at and analyse some basic ways that patterns work, as we did at West Dean, from a simple rhythmic dot to the complex intertwining foliage of Morris.  For students who would like to put this into practise we’ll develop and ‘grow’ repeats using traditional methods – with tracing paper, rulers, sharp pencils and patience! I believe there are still a couple of places available in March, and some at the end of May too, if you’re interested – book here. And I’ll be teaching at Morley College both this autumn and early next spring, and West Dean again in 2017.

painting repeat

The Liberty in Fashion exhibition runs until February 28th at the FTM; it’s been a blockbuster, and I’ve been very happy to be a part of it. At the Liberty Study Day we all had the chance to share and review the work we’d variously made for Liberty over the years – pattern, fashion, printing – and what they had done for fashion and style. From the extremely influential modernist post-war store windows and displays of Eric Lucking (thank you Bethan Bide) to the newest designs and products of today we discussed the enigma of Liberty’s success and longevity – from the start they championed the mix of tradition with cutting-edge, always with the emphasis on quality. For me it was a reunion, a revelation and a chance for re-evaluation – a lot of re’s you could say, including of course – retail.


Another ‘re’ for me was a trip to the theatre; Guys and Dolls must be one of my very favourite shows, and I wasn’t disappointed revisiting it in the production at the Savoy Theatre. The witty words cannot be bettered, the music is ebullient, I loved the dancing, and strong memories of the 1955 film starring Marlon and Frank only added to the happy evening – exhilarating.


At a different end of the dramatic spectrum is Battlefield, Peter Brook’s production of part of the Indian epic Mahabharata at The Young Vic. Both sparse and rich, we were led through the questions of life through the inevitable tragic arenas of conflict and war; who and what we are, how we must travel the paths of our lives. The brilliant music, the fifth voice, is from the drum of the Japanese master Toshi Tsuchitori.CCI12022016The power of theatre, the power of art – and then there’s the power of money; I was interested to see another take on this trinity in two advertisements recently. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam wanted to encourage more visitors to their doors; they decided to bring a painting to life – watch below to see Rembrandt’s 1642 Nightwatch re-assemble itself in a shopping mall!

van-gogh-s-chair-1889.jpgHD_I find the idea of staying in The Art Institute of Chicago’s 3D version of Van Gogh’s famous painting of his bedroom at Arles rather creepy though – but apparently one can, through Airbnb!

Artisans, designer-makers, craftspeople – these words seem to be of the moment; the product design and textile students I spoke of were on a trip from Lucerne following a thread loosely connected to that all-rounder William Morris, which had led them, in a wandering way, to me. Susan and I always considered ourselves jobbing designers, which perhaps explains our large and varied body of work – we felt we could, and should, turn our hands to all sorts of styles and genres in the pursuit and production of pattern.

I’m lucky enough to continue to have more opportunities to work in several media; these are a pair of new panels based on paper-cuts I recently made for West Elm; and this artwork for some printed ceramic bowls shows the process from sketch to repeat to product.

guinea fowl

west elm bowls 2015 3

 studio tableAt present my table is covered with fabric, cut, stretched and pinned, as I begin to paint rather a longstanding commission for some new curtains. It’s taken me time to find the space, physical and brain-wise, to start this lovely project, and I’m excited to be using linen. It seems to have a life of its own and therefore makes particular demands of the brush and the colour. I’m learning!

painted linen

I can’t help reporting that the lovely Viva range has had a great reception – and will be in a shop near you soon, or even now! Magpie took great care to reproduce the hand-painted nature of the designs – I think it adds to their liveliness, and although customers might not give words to this I’m sure it sings out. We’ll be adding more into the collection…

magpie viva

Freshly hand-made vintage Liberty fabric cards and newly hand-painted silk hankies are available both from the FTM shop and our website. And for any South London readers in particular – you may like to see this little film of West Norwood High Street made just after the war – when Liberty was bringing style to the bombed-out West End.

archive cards

Thanks to Molly, Steve, Neil and Howard.


11 thoughts on “making one’s mark

  1. I have just come back from your talk at the Wanstead WI. Absolutely fascinating and colour filled evening. We ran out of time to look at all your lovely sketches and materials. I have a hoard of materials garnered over the years and your enthusiasm for your career has underlined why I do need to keep taking them out and looking at thdm. My family think I am crazy but there you are – its nice to think Im not alone! Thank you once again

  2. Finally made it to the FTM yesterday having introduced my grand daughters (3 & 5 years old) to Liberty the day before in order to prepare them for what we were excited about seeing. We loved it, especially your room Sarah; my 5 year old and I spent ages trying to work out the pattern repeats! Thank you for your (and Susan’s) part in the history of my textile life, I’m now planning to ‘curate’ my own Liberty collection!

      • I’m waiting for you to come back to Stroud Sarah! I’ve just checked out Morely college but couldn’t find any of your courses listed.
        Keep up the good work, I loved your comment about being an old designer in response to the young student!

  3. I wish they’d do that in more shopping malls…such fun and takes the seriousness out of shopping. Stephenie

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