made to measure

drawersThe sitting-room desk I sit at for ‘office work’ is one designed and built for my parents in the ‘forties. It’s somewhat dilapidated now, and the broken hinges of the flap-down door (of the section that became the gramophone records storage space – LPs were introduced in 1948) are presenting us with a mending problem. The desk is in four sections: two sturdy units with different types of drawers, the shallow, balancing central pen drawer, and the fourth – the long top, surface inlaid with maroon lino – sits above and unites them all like a bridge. I’ve always liked this idea – the whole bulky thing, nearly 9′ long, fits together so cleverly. In fact the friend who invented it was an architect.

parents tableMy parents were in the habit of getting things made it seems – my kitchen table was theirs too, made of oak planks bought by my dad for three pounds, and habitually, under my mother’s regime, scrubbed every week with Vim and hot water.


So it’s been exciting to commission nephew Oliver to help resolve my continually pressing storage needs – primarily for equipment and books. The slim new studio sideboard arrived on saturday – thanks to a young neighbour for help with unloading. It glided up the ramp and over the bridge to the front door on its six red wheels, up-ended into the lift, swished elegantly into the flat and fitted snug into its chosen spot – immediately at home. I love the oiled ply top and the three-channel sliding doors, simple and smart. Book-cases next…

olivers sideboard

Making to commission is of course the designer’s role; I’m frequently asked whether I mind being asked to design to a commercial customer’s specific requirements (realities of size, colour, price, use, market etc) for which I may or may not have sympathy. My answer is that I love it – my job is to do just that. Sympathy or no, any skill I may have – and I’ll assume people ask me for that reason – is used to understand and respond in my particular way to their request. I welcome the challenges that constraints demand, to maximise the possibilities. The magic of a repeating pattern is that it can withstand the industrial rigours of the printing and production processes and bring life to a length of cloth. Even the most welcome ‘open’ private commission has its boundaries – hand-painted curtains need to fit particular windows after all.

sarah painting

DSC05683Tibor Reich was constantly inventing solutions and new design methods in his work. Born in Hungary in 1916, he arrived in England in the late ‘thirties, bringing his inventive wits with him, as the comprehensive exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery shows. His design was part of my landscape as a young woman and it’s fascinating to see his approach, his imaginative attitude to marketing and his irresistible play with his own cultural images. He was famous for his use of colour, perking up the rather drab post-war industry here, and for his innovative weaves. This woven stripe is nowhere near as simple as one might think!

tibor reich

The Gallery’s beautiful new buildings and cafe are a delight. We ate our delicious lunch surrounded by trees real and steel (Anya Gallaccio’s replacement London Plane sparkles in the sun) and as we walked through the gallery unexpected windows gave us the treats of surprise views and magnificent garden vistas. We had a quick peek at the wallpaper show – where we spotted Pat Albeck’s famous Palladio Sunflower, and a good look at Revolutionary Textiles too. There were marvellous designs by the American Ruth Reeves, which I’d not seen before, and I enjoyed some of the Barron and Larcher fabrics for the first time too, and of course Dufy


Altogether a great textile-y day out, as Manchester was followed by a quick trip to Macclesfield on the way home to visit the printers and pick up some new samples for a Chinese customer.

Fun to see the latest batch of Cote d’Azure scarves hanging up to dry too. They’re definitely a best-seller – online here and from the Fashion and Textile Museum shop too. We’re printing it on Irish linen now too – soon to be available as a cushion, and yardage to order…

new product

silkMacclesfield was famous for its silk-weaving. The mulberry is the sole food of the silk worm, and King James 1, in an attempt to develop our own silk industry, planted a large acreage of mulberry trees in Chelsea, and imported ten thousand trees from France, to be planted across the land. Unfortunately he wrongly chose the black rather than the white mulberry and thus his efforts were a failure. A Mulberry Walk in Chelsea remains to this day, though not, I think, his special gardeners – the Kings Mulberry Men.

In the gardens at Dulwich Picture Gallery there’s a lovely mulberry currently dotted with red fruits

mulberry tree

We saw it on a visit to the Winifred Knight exhibition. She was a revolutionary artist in her own way, gaining prizes and recognition hitherto unawarded to a woman, but I found her work uncomfortably constrained. Meticulous tracing, plotting and measuring I understand – I have to do it myself – and her drawing, composition and colour skills are exceptional, but I felt the weight of the Slade men somehow bearing down on her with those extraordinarily strict rules of the discipline of Decorative Painting, her chosen area of expression. I longed for her to break out somehow, but her paintings grew in their eerie silence and stillness. Even her most famous and prize-winning painting The Deluge, which depicts panic and action, is, to me, strangely frozen. Born in 1899, she died aged 47 of a brain tumour – had she lived perhaps her full female energy would have found more vibrant expression; I like to think so. However – the Gallery has taken matters in hand and in September is hosting dance performances by Exodus in direct relation to this exhibition!

winifred knight

A portrait of my mother emerged from storage this weekend. It’s not an especially good painting, but there are reasons why I value it. One is the fact that the dress she’s wearing in the sitting was designed, hand-printed and made for her by the artist and his wife, Bocquet and Freeman. I have the dress, kept safe by their daughter. It pleases me that the whole process – the friendship, the commissions, the outcome – is proof of something special and familial to me, including the importance of the hand. Working artists, working actress.

portrait of patience

ikat in devon guild exhibition

I’d like to see the show at the Devon Guild – this little ikat woven by Trudie Timlin Brown looks intriguing, and further afield to visit the Cooper Hewitt in New York – I love this fancy snail!90049_93feb9c7b6208216_x-560x340

Sadly I’ve missed the latest Talking Textiles series at Goldsmiths (will they run another?), but there’ll be time to catch the super facade at Cubitt House for this September’s London Design Festival. I felt lucky to see the magnificent run of paintings in RoomIII at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – Ayres, Scully, Bowling, Keiffer – but I left wondering why so much of the work seemed to me to be ugly and dreary; maybe that’s the new modern?


Thanks to Molly, Steve, Camille, Frances Pritchard, Sally Freeman, and my nieces and nephews.


6 thoughts on “made to measure

  1. Pingback: currents and cloth | Sarah Campbell Designs

  2. Pingback: a little local colour | Sarah Campbell Designs

  3. Dear Sarah,

    Enjoyed your blog, which not only reveals your extraordinary energy but also is so informative.
    Maybe you should get a couple or three lectures together on your view on the nature of design supported by your knowledge. It would be most interesting to hear. Thanks for the usual way you manage to hold your audience. Thanks too for the book by Adam on education which I am digesting together with Hazy. See you again soonish. Love David xx

  4. I have only just now discovered your website and your blog but your and your sister’s patterns have been on my mind since the “early days”. I was lucky to have a place nearby that sold bed linen ‘seconds’ (grade B) quite affordably and I would buy lots and lots of sheets with your patterns and make tablecloths and place mats for myself. Then later I was working to spruce-up a couple of dingy beach condos and used the sheets to sew ‘up a storm’ making bed dust skirts, duvet covers, pillow shams, slipcovers, etc… very economically. Your patterns are so fabulous that they put every beach condo renter into a completely vacation state of mental bliss :o)

    I just ordered your Archive book and I do want to tell you that I think it is fabo that you write such an interesting and detailed blog and, amazingly, find time to answer blog commenters yourself.

    I wish I could have been amongst the designers taking your class that I just read about. I will ck back periodically to see if you are ever coming the States for a teaching engagement.

    Your fan in Alabama, Lundy Wilder

    • Thank you for getting in touch Lundy – very nice to read your cheerful account of using our designs! I’d love to come teaching in the US – no offers yet – but meanwhile enjoy the book!

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