Have you heard the one about the composer who hit a creative block and couldn’t write a note for weeks?
One night he had a dream – at last he’d managed to write something; he jumped up in the morning, rushed to his piano, played his new piece straight through, all the way. It was then that he realised that what he’d invented in his sleep, note for note, had already been composed by Chopin sometime earlier! It’s a true story (I caught it on BBCRadio3 recently, though I may have mistaken the name) and it tells how easy it can be to ingest work, to sponge it up, to commandeer it, to forget the source. It did shift his block by the way.
This is a montage showing one of Susan’s and my most well-known designs – ‘Bauhaus’. It was commissioned by Blair Pride, the design producer at Liberty of London Prints, in response to the 1968 Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy – the first retrospective of that short-lived but hugely influential movement. We took our lead from Gunta Stolzl’s silk tapestry Red/Green. We made a painted design, first for a printed scarf panel and then as a repeating fabric, interpreting the shapes in our style and our colourways. We always acknowledged the source, as the name itself manifests. It wasn’t until we were writing the book 40 plus years later that I learned that Liberty paid the Bauhaus archive a sum of money for the use of the name in this instance.
Over the years Susan and I were knocked off many times; we viewed this simply as the slings and arrows of outrageous commerce – the natural and expected price for being original and influential. We managed occasionally to force the most blatant replicas off the market or to be recompensed financially – once or twice even both – but it was an impossible and thankless task for us as independent designers to be constantly on patrol.
For a while in the ’80s there were even a pair of female designers who made it their business to emulate our hand-drawn style and colour philosophy, and seemed to follow us from customer to customer! In the States our look became a design category, as they said, in the bedlinen industry.
These days I’m frequently sent pictures of patterns by people who are sure they’re ‘one of yours’ and would like to know the name, date etc. Often they aren’t, they’re lookalikes, but because we stood for colour and pattern they are, by association, what I now call ‘sub’ the original Collier Campbell. I always answer the emails by the way!
In my opinion an up-to-date example of this style-echoing is currently sitting in the windows of Oliver Bonas, as quite a few friends have pointed out, eyebrows raised; and some familiar leaves are sitting pretty over at Monsoon Home! It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; it may indeed underline the fact that one is on the right path, but it’s infuriating to have done the work, having taken the risk, only for someone else to take inspiration, credit and appear to make a turn.
We all know that within the fashion industry the pressure to copy the catwalk – ‘but not exactly’ – is intense. And then there’s the zeitgeist – if something’s in the air designers will wave their antennae and suddenly there’ll be a rash – of drawings like Frank Gehry’s sketches for instance, or silhouettes of flamingoes. The process is a continuum; a convenient and excusing phrase that’s often used is ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’, even if to a particular designer it seems like, and maybe is, a personal discovery.
We ingest ideas with the air – inspiration means an intake of breath – and they feed us in all sorts of ways, conscious and less so. But recently I have been surprisingly upset, shocked, angered even, by something different – a piece of chiffon! To a recent silk-painting course came two students, friends, who, before the day, had tweeted how excited they were to be coming, implying that they held me in high regard. One, whose designs hitherto were very controlled precise ‘computer’ geometrics, was particularly entranced, it seemed, to find a new way of hand-painting. I even tweeted her work (anonymously) as an illustration of someone having a happy creative time! To see a student making discoveries is the joy of teaching, isn’t it?
I think I am open, encouraging and generous as a teacher, schlepping bundles of my hand-painted and printed cloth for the students to see and discuss as examples of different techniques and practice.
I give demonstrations, we all practice mark-making. As I say, she took to it like a duck to water, spurred on by my foambrush for-instances. People ask to take pictures and up until now I have said yes, for personal use. It seems this student made a little composition of her own at the class showing a selection of my one-off fabrics, including this silk chiffon scarf painted with indigo and black strokes and a tiny vibrant pink border, one of my trade marks. Some weeks later she posted it on Instagram, though I didn’t see it. It’s shown below.
Imagine my surprise when I suddenly saw, on Twitter, this chiffon scarf, tied in a bow, offered for sale from her new online shop! It looks very very like mine, the one in her picture – the nature of the marks, the use of colour, the particular device of the popping pink edge.
To me this is too close for comfort – it appears to be blatant copying. So far she has resisted all attempts at contact and discussion, both from me and the college (putting the phone down on them), and has even blocked me from her twitter account – as though I am at fault! This contributes to my feeling shocked, bouleversé and more put out than I would have imagined – or would like. It seems so personal, an abuse of trust and my good nature. It’s certainly made me wary of teaching; from now on a very clear and uncompromising talk about intellectual property will begin each session. Pinching, and then selling, ideas from the rough and tumble of the public domain is one thing, but from classroom transactions is quite another. I’ve spent much time, thought, emotional energy on the matter, including discussions with ACID. What do you think?
Interestingly on her website she gives the names of some women artists by whom she’s influenced – my name is not among them!
I seem to have been much concerned with education in the last few days: looking at a selection of graduate textile students’ work I was surprised how many times I thought, and asked, ‘But did you not consider that…?’ I did feel that many students seemed let down (by their teachers?…the course?) in the important matters of the real exploration and application of creative thinking in design. Not for the first time I felt that art and design education is being undermined and dumbed-down by the tyrannies of, shall we call it, ‘funding’. How and where can I voice these concerns effectively?
Real brilliance is rare, and in any event needs hard work to bring to fruition. The doctor who attended William Morris at his death aged 62, recorded “His disease was simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most 10 men”.
I was at the WMGallery to catch the last day of the Social Fabrics show – contemporary fabrics with messages from East and South Africa. These had very particular missives and sometimes serious and political information to convey; this dress belonged to Mrs Albertina Sisulu – I liked it a lot. Textiles have long been used to tell us all sorts of stories and histories. Funnily enough I have just been working on a commission to produce some designs with the subject of Aung San Suu Kyi. Of course I have looked at the very famous graphic representations that have now become part of our visual language – such as Shepard Fairey’s posters.
The exhibition at Pallant House of John Piper’s textiles told a different story. As I’ve written before, a particular fabric of his played an important part in my own development, though I didn’t think about it at the time. He was first and foremost an artist, not a designer like me.
The skill of translating a painting into a repeating pattern has been a longstanding interest and pursuit of mine. But for me, the pieces for tapestry were the most arresting in this exhibition. These were paintings made expressly for interpretation into stitch, and the results are thrilling. The textures of the woollen yarns give such profound richness of colour, the hues well up to the surface and burst with vivacity – an invitation to approach, to immerse in their warmth and intensity. I so admire the weavers, particularly Penny Bush and Valerie Powers at the West Dean Tapestry Studio who wove these glorious textiles.
I saw this screening of Simon Godwin’s current powerful production of Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – another compelling interpretation. Paapa Essiedu is the young prince, speaking those famous lines in a re-rhythmed, re-thought way that tells us his struggles anew, funny, painful, surprising. Seeing the live action up close was wonderful; hearing it as if for the first time was a triumph.
This blog covers some serious concerns of mine. Here’s a more cheerful shot – complete with a living necklace making its way under my collar! I painted that shirt ages ago, and by now it seems more patch than pattern. One of the students at the last workshop at Bradness planned, painted and made this sweet – and original – pinny; we have one place left on the July 12-13 course.
Thanks too to Celia and the Fashion and Textile Museum for including me so generously in this piece in last week’s London Evening Standard.