the three boxes

my flat
I inhabit a very nice, but not huge, flat; I work at home. My life and my work are inextricable.

My flat, as anyone who has visited will agree, is stuffed with stuff – papers, paintings, patterns, fabrics new and old, samples, a fair few tables and chairs, sofas somewhere under the piles, cups and plates, books, books, books – and boxes. This ocean of items ebbs and flows: the tide is high at present. Sometimes the plethora is breathtaking – visitors have been heard to gasp as they’ve come through the door. Very recently three new boxes made themselves known to me – knocked at the door and gained entry – three huge boxes, three heavy boxes – and a series of smaller incomers followed fast on their heels. What is in these three boxes? I could say my past, my present, and my future.

phoenix calico boxHere is box number one, containing the past – a sturdy plastic crate which took two people to carry – thank goodness the lift was working that day. It was brought by a printer whose father Susan and I used to work with in the ’80s, in Cheshire. He had disposed of his printworks, Phoenix Calico, and in clearing out came across a stash of samples, headerboards and paperwork pertaining to our company. Would I like them? Yes, said I.


Of course Ian didn’t just bring the crate – he brought stories.We had a good exchange about ‘the old days’, and mulled over the many changes that have happened in the printing industry. The crate was packed to the gunwales, and let forth a strong whiff of the past as I opened it. I won’t dwell on all the contents here – but in fact the bundles of old headerboards with designs and colourways couldn’t have been more timely for my work the very next day at Morley College – teaching about mixing gouache paint, colouring and designing fabric collections! What a bit of luck to have them land in my lap like that.morley colourwork Pauline

There are several strands to my working life: manufacturers to whom I license patterns; design customers to whom I sell my time; colleges, institutions, museums and private clients for whom I give talks, run courses and workshops; private commissions for painted and printed cloth and my own company for whom I produce and sell goods. At the heart of it, apart from the very real need to make a living, is my never-ending – so far – interest in colour, pattern and design.

roll of paperEvery autumn I produce the calendar for the next year – something my brother kindly first commissioned from me for 2012. I try to give it a theme, which often reflects the work of the past year; this year it’s broadly about ceramics – hence the title On the Shelf.

On the Shelf cover

I paint many designs for WestElm including for their china-ware; because of their confidentiality requirements I can’t show you the most recent work, which is always aimed a year to eighteen months in advance. But here, appearing on next February’s calendar page, are three vases which I painted in 2017 in response to a brief about faces and figures on ceramics – you may have noticed quite a few hand-painted ‘character’ pieces in the shops. These three persons were not chosen for production, but I like them nonetheless.

three vases

Another of my US customers – Michael Miller Fabrics – produces printed cotton fabric by the yard for home sewing and quilting. I’ve done several collections for them and the latest, Kashmir Gardens, is on sale now; the designs feature here in a very nice three-page spread in issue 55 of Quilt Now magazine.

quilt now articleAnd in the calendar is a glimpse of the next, the very latest, group, Table Talk. The Breton plates design was inspired by my annual late summer visit to Quimper; there are a couple of new cards associated with it too, on my website now.

breton birdie cardHere’s one showing Breton Birdie – a detail taken from the design. By the way, the calendar and my giclee prints are all printed and made locally by John and Glen, round the corner from me at Words and Pictures, and so are my printed greetings cards.

Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh is currently showing the Liberty in Fashion exhibition, which has travelled north from the Fashion Textile Museum. It’s on until Jan 12th. I’m supplying the shop there with some of our handmade archive cards – each one a unique little collage of fabrics from the archive of designs we did for Liberty in the 60s and 70s.



People have birthdays, and I usually make cards for my family and friends, often reflecting the season, their interests or simply what’s on my desk at the time.

Juana's card

This nice foldy number was made for someone who loves fuchsia and purple. There’s an echo of the workshops I run at the FTM – making sketchbooks and collages. That’s where my abundance of scraps and ephemera comes in very handy – in fact we’re frequently complimented on the quantity and the quality of the materials! Here’s some collaged and cut work made at one of the workshops. 

fragile heart sketchbook

Those 2-hour courses are mostly aimed at young people during half-terms and hols; but on December 15 we’re having a festive collage-making day open to all. Do book a place here and join me in the museum’s new studio workroom for a chance to make a special something for Christmas – all your cards perhaps. Have a day out in Bermondsey plus guidance, help and larks with the cutting and sticking. I’ve got a great new stash of old mags, papers and maps to hand…!

festive collage 2


What has all this to do with that second box – a modest brown cardboard affair? Well, it came from one of my favourite suppliers World of Envelopes. Inside were all the envelopes and cellophane bags I need to package and despatch the cards and new calendars. 

cutting stencilsI’m a late-comer to teaching, hardly ever having done any until about 4 years ago, and in turn it’s teaching me such a lot! It has become an increasingly important part of my working life – a chance to give words to my work and encourage others to experiment a little with the pleasures of making – and the surprises of it too. I  welcome students of all abilities and experience, and often the mix is pronounced – some people are accomplished painters, some absolute newcomers. We often begin simply, using a variety of brushes and sponges to investigate the rhythms and sensations of making and accumulating pattern. All future courses and workshops are listed herenew events are added as we go, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the page if you’re interested.

spongesLisabet's apron

This summer I spent a beautiful week at Chateau Dumas in France running a fabric painting workshop. One student, a chef, hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since she was a youngster – a story I often hear. She had tremendous enthusiasm and a very sporting attitude; here is the apron she made – woad-dyed and then merrily painted. It’s due to her that I received the third box – the future. This third box was a big white affair from a factory in Dubai, taped all round like a travelling fortress. 

Three Boxes Slideshow Keynote.025

Opening it up I gazed on an arctic scene of white polystyrene – sensible really as the box contained a couple of dozen heavy white china plates and dishes; very exciting. A week or two earlier that student had called me up “I’m opening a new restaurant” says she “and I’d love for you to design the dinnerware for it.” Well, I couldn’t say no could I? So we talked through the atmosphere she was wanting – in colour and design terms – a rustic, charming look… decorated simply with my hand-painted brushmarks… welcoming and Italian…. “Send me a set of the plates,” said I, “so I can get the hang of them.” They were the contents of that vast box. That night I put some dishes out in the studio and began to paint on them to get the feel of it all. I sent the pictures, she was happy, we now have to see whether everyone agrees the proposed designs pass muster – and what is realistic for the factory to produce in the rather short time we have; there’s a call scheduled for tomorrow afternoon…. a piece of the future contained in that box. 

coloured rims

Strangely enough she’s the second person in Florida to give me a special commission. Last year I was contacted about printing yardage of our Cote d’Azure fabric for an apartment in Miami – which I was happy to undertake. This year that customer contacted me again: she has a home in New York too, overlooking the park. Being perspicacious, she’d cunningly spotted a photo in our book of my studio wall in Clapham in the ’80s; pinned there was a pattern called Central Park!

central park on studio wall

Could I print that for her as a special commission? Of course I said yes – and set about looking for my references. This design, although painted in repeat, was never produced at the time. I found paintings at the archive, from the first tiny sketch, below left, to the large photocopy she’d seen folded on the wall – there’s both the past and the future to be dealt with here and now.


I was asked, in September, to contribute to a day’s seminar on the subject of Creative Minds at the Middlesex University psychology department. At one point I referred to this Central Park sequence of paintings. Here am I, somewhere behind the unfolded photocopy of the design that was spotted in the book. People have been commenting on my prolonged absence from blogdom – this may explain it – I’ve disappeared into the park!

disappearing in the park

Quite a lot of intense making is going on at the moment – in Nepal, in Yorkshire and in South London sewing machines are whirring, needles flashing, brushes painting: the Selvedge Winter Fair will be held on Saturday December 1st at Mary Ward House in central London, and we’ll be there! We’ll have some new products in our range ‘make time for…’  and of course some old favourites too.

Selvedge Winter fair Tickets can be bought in advance here; I also have three to give away. To win one just ‘like’ this blog post – I’ll put your name in my hat and pick the 3 winners…I’ll contact the winning names  by email during thursday 29th.  Keep the 1st December free…

paisley leaves napkin on plate

Thanks to Joe and Rohan, Ian Bradbury, Laura Q, Sarah Y, Smilte D, Juana L T

Tree people

keyring cords




34 thoughts on “the three boxes

  1. Pingback: a shop, a show, a show-off | Sarah Campbell Designs

  2. Pingback: …looking forward…looking back… | Sarah Campbell Designs

  3. Really enjoyed reading your recent blog, it brought back some great memories of working with Phoenix Calico and dear Mr Bradbury from the tiny office at No.43. Happy days!!
    Will try and visit the Open Studio event but if I don’t make it have a wonderful Christmas x

  4. Thank you Sara , all the various images great fun to look at and very inspiring. It all looks very easy, which of course it isn’t! But when next in my studio,sometime this week i am going to try out using lots of colours and generally ‘freeing up’.

    I hope we can arrange another supper with Sue and Christine sometime.
    meanwhile best wishes for Christmas
    Kate Baden Fuller

  5. Sarah – As always your newsletter, full of life and colour in every sense, is a pleasure to receive. As a long-term admirer of your work, I find the thought of all those samples coming back to what seems their rightful home quite moving. I am a professional textile conservator, and should you ever wish for suggestions on organising and safely storing your wonderful archive, I would be so happy to be consulted. Good luck with your current projects.

  6. A warm and fun read ! I did contact Chateau Dumas about a month ago asking when your workshop would be. They replied that there would not be one on this year’s schedule. As I am in the States, I must plan w-a-y in advance to try to get a biz class air ticket as I can no longer shape myself into a pretzel in coach class ! Please let me know if there will be a design workshop in 2018 and the details. Best wishes, Lundy Wilder–in Alabama

  7. Very inspiring post. I know I would love your flat, with all that colour and pattern surrounding you. The three boxes…..this has the makings of a fairy tale or children’s book. Thank you for sharing your colour with us.

  8. Hi Sarah Hope you are well. I am in Canada for the memorial service for my elder sister last week. Will be back Sat Aw

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  9. A very heart warming story about how your past, present and future all capitalise on your creativity. Thank you it was a fabulous read.

  10. How do you find the time to be so creative in so many directions? Your mind must be such a colourful place. I love seeing so many examples of your colours and designs and as I look up from my iPad and look round the room the colours seem so dull and understated after seeing all the colours in your flat. I love your blogs!

  11. Funny …I’m doing a new website and the titles are On the Wall and on the Floor. Xxxxxxxxs

    Sent from my iPhone


  12. Dear Sarah

    I really enjoyed reading your latest blogpost this morning! So many lovely projects on the go, it sounds very busy and exciting and I hope you’re having fun. I wish I could come to Selvedge but unfortunately I’m tied up this Saturday.

    Would love to meet up with you again for in the New Year if you have time. If you would like to, perhaps we could meet at one of my two exhibitions in the New Year: ‘Living Designs’ 3-28 January in the Barbican Library, or ‘Art+Interiors’ a solo show 5-17 February at the Fountain Gallery by Hampton Court again. I’ll understand if you’re busy but if you can, you know I always enjoy your company.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the restaurant plates when you’re ready to share pics of those.

    All the best Stephanie

    Sent from my iPhone


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