At Home with Sarah Campbell

SarahCambellMemmIt’s rare to meet a true design icon, rarer still to be welcomed into one’s home. So it was a great pleasure to be invited to Sarah Campbell’s colourful and exciting abode.

You may think you don’t know Campbell but believe me you probably do. Working with her sister Susan Collier since the sixties, their vibrant creations have charmed design and illustration junkies like myself over decades, with collaborations with Liberty, Habitat, Jaeger and Conran. In fact when I was researching Sarah I was delighted to discover that I had some of the Liberty designs at home.

After her sister’s death in 2011, Sarah has been working independently and as a lover of her vibrant, painterly style and celebration of shape and colour I couldn’t wait to ask her about her practice and, if I’m being honest, get some tips of making my own work as exciting and effortlessly original as hers.
Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk Warm welcome
As you walk into Sarah’s fab mid-century modern home, you are immediately struck by colourful designs and a delicious array of textiles. It was heartening to see this – I was pleased it wasn’t a sterile space or simply too cool for school. In fact the exuberance and vibrancy of her illustrative work truly extends to her main room, with vivid soft furnishings and a bright green wall enhancing the foliage outside.

“Colour is the stuff of life,” she says. “When babies are very young we’re told they see colour as the contrast of black and white. But they very soon come to love real colours. It’s very important, colour is a magnet – people are drawn to it. Even in a home that’s all white or cream, I’d be hoping to see a bunch of red flowers or a merry postcard.”

There is an emotional connection too, she adds. “I went to a magnificent newly refurbished house recently where they had painted their kitchen wall a lovely turquoisey green. I couldn’t help but remark upon it. They told me that they’d had the colour in their previous home and just couldn’t live without it. I thought that was wonderful – a great anchor for a new ship if you like. It’s like they know they’re home.”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukAs well as the attractive combination of textures, shapes and hues in the house, I was also pleased to be greeted by a Matisse poster in the sitting room. Sarah’s work has always reminded me of this artist (one of my favourites) and I couldn’t help but ask her about this…

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk“Well you can’t do better than Matisse as an inspiration. I think of him as a friend. There are lots of aspects of his work I love. He was brought up in a weavers’ town in northern France so he really understands textiles. They way he uses patterns in his paintings reflects his childhood surroundings. When I look at something like his painting The Pink Studio, I imagine him under the weaving machine observing all the different angles of the pattern.”

I think Sarah shares Matisse’s understanding of shape and composition, and while this looks free and playful, it is of course much more complex than that.

“You look at people like Matisse, Picasso, Dufy – they can all draw. You can’t reduce something to its simplest form unless you understand it. Drawing is the key. An artist’s essential line is a wonderful thing – it’s just lovely.”
Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukSarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk Mark making
I see a lightness of touch in Sarah’s work, the approach feels joyful and I get a strong sense of maker’s hand in her products. She credits this to being open to influences and enjoying the process of creating.

“My pieces start with painting on paper so it is a very tactile process. People at my workshops say happily that the work is hard but like playing and I say ‘well you can see why I’m so cheerful.’ Everything has influence. I have a very large storage cabinet in my brain. New work can be inspired by a new type of paper, or a simple set of pens or brushes that make me  think in a different way, so I can approach it with an inquisitive attitude.”

“When I do workshops I say, ‘we’re not all going to be old masters but we can all enjoy making marks’. Everyone can get something from this experience. People so often have their creative urges curtailed at one point or another. The words, ‘can’t’ and ‘I’m rubbish’ are often used when it comes to creative endeavours – these words are banned at my workshops. I encourage people to have fun and surprise themselves by their own capacities. ”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukThe pleasure of creating
It is this sense of enjoyment and a child-like curiosity that Sarah believes keeps her work fresh and enables her to innovate.

“I have to earn a living, I need to send things out to clients for their approval but the sense of exploration has to be at the heart of work. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had a lifetime of painting patterns. I still enjoy that exploration.”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukAs a commercial artist, I imagine she must have been under pressure to ‘churn out what has worked’, so I ask her if she’s ever tempted to repeat past glories or stick to a particular formula that she knows to be popular.

“I have thought about revisiting some of our classics, and indeed have reprinted some of our most famous designs, like Cote d’Azure, as scarves and cushions and possible yardage – they stand the test of time and I still want them to be seen by a wider audience. The old designs certainly retain validity, no doubt. And, of course I do have my own style and way of working. I know what colour combinations and compositions work and naturally I want to make the best use of my experience. When I look back over the archive I can see there are interests that come and go, and motifs and ideas that reoccur, but I’d be a bit embarrassed to go back to the same thing again and again. The market changes, fashions and interests move on all the time, and production possibilities are developing constantly. The main impetus of work is looking and going forward, not back – after all, that’s the designer’s job.”

She continues… “Although it’s clear that building a brand successfully can be done by relying on a very succinct design look, Susan and I built our identity by creating lots and lots of different patterns for our many varied customers. Possibly commercial life might have been simpler if we’d only developed one or two signature motifs… but we enjoyed thinking of new things, couldn’t help it  – and I still do.”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukTrail blazers
In such a crowded and competitive arena, Campbell is still very active; collaborating with West Elm, producing collections with Michael Miller Fabrics plus producing a new range for homewares and ceramics, Viva, with Magpie. So what advice would she give to up and coming designers?

“There is still a huge appetite for colour and pattern. Wherever you come from, I believe drawing and the enjoyment of it is fundamental. Keep listening, keep looking, keep your observation skills honed and keep working at your designs. Don’t dismiss what you think of as the mistakes – they are useful. Keep records and date your work, sketches and all that way you know what you did, what you learnt and achieved during that period.”

As you can tell by that last comment, while Sarah is a warm, friendly, unpretentious person, she’s tough. Of course she is, she has been working in the design industry for more than 50 years and there is a strength and wisdom to her that I found very inspiring.

“I’m most proud of still being here doing it. It’s not easy. My sister and I  did, I suppose, break through a number of barriers but there were two of us and we brought our individual talents and qualities to the partnership. It’s great to still be working. I welcome new commissions and mainstream customers. I also love working with individuals on bespoke designs for curtains, furniture, clothes and walls. It continues to be great fun and very rewarding.”

See more of Campbell’s work at sarahcampbelldesigns.com

Easy ways to display cut flowers

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.ukI love using fresh flowers to brighten up my spaces. Even when I was a poor student and lived in the worst house in England* I would buy some daffs and irises for a pound a bunch and display them in mugs and tin cans (this gaff did not have vases – in fact I would be being kind if I said the place was basic at best).

My love of fresh flowers grew way after I graduated and I went on a  Paula Pryke training course (amazing) and even worked as a Saturday girl in, in my opinion, one of the best florists in London; Rebel Rebel – two kinder, sassier and stylish women you will never meet, they were wonderful to me and I learnt so much from them in terms of floristry but also kindness and generosity.

Every time I arrange blooms for my home I remember my PP training and time spent with RR. The things that have stuck with me is the PP team’s celebration of colour and form. RR taught me to be brave, to enjoy design and look out for classic blooms and unusual receptacles ( I once spent an entire day sticking red glitter to shoes for table centres – it was brilliant).

Below are just a few ideas to spruce up your floral displays – I’ve deliberately kept the arrangements themselves quite easy that don’t take any skill, after-all this is simply to brighten up your spaces not to create something formal.

Go wild with vintage vases

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk

Myself and the good Dr B quite like a ceramic and over the years we’ve amassed lots of vases, jugs and decorative bowls in various styles, all of which are great for displaying flowers. I like to cluster pieces from around the same period when I’m putting flowers in them to great a mini still-life.

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.ukThis collection of shop-bought irises and home-grown daffodils and rosemary has been very loosely cut to size (always cut stems at an angle as they have greater surface area to drink the water) and very informally placed in some beautiful mid-century jugs. This arrangement now lives on my (very hardworking, aka scruffy) dining room table.
Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.ukBe bold and punk up charity shop finds
Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk

Wherever I am one of my favourite things to do is to spend a day scouring local charity shops. In the mid nineties it used to be for clothes (I may well do a post on my nineties style but then again maybe not) now it’s for homewares that I can either display with pride or customise and up-cycle. When I found this swan vase it was very twee, achingly so and not even in a good way. Initially I sprayed the vase in a beautiful neutral blue and white paint for a Homemaker Magazine project that you can see here.

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.ukThis time I wanted something brighter and more edgy. So I got this fab Rust-oleum neon spray paint in pink and yellow and went to town on punking this bad boy up! I also wanted it to be rough and ready so I like the little  bits of dust that have gathered (if you like it sleek you can avoid this by thoroughly cleaning and dusting your object beforehand).  I used the spray in a well ventilated area and you should too.

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk

I didn’t want a big, tight pom-pom style arrangement as I did with the Homemaker one, as I say the brief I set myself was quick and informal. So I simply filled the vase with water and filled with stems of white spray chrysanthemums. These blooms are usually used to fill out a bouquet and I normally avoid at all costs, however their spiky petals look rather apt here.

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk

Embrace easy charm with clear jam jars

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.ukOne of the first things Dr B did when we moved into this house was to plant hellebores as he wanted something beautiful in the garden in the first few months of the year. I must say he made the right choice. We have beautiful light and dark versions all over our patch in Feb and March and they really are lovely. Because we have so many I’m always snipping a few buds off to display indoors!

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk I like to show off these garden cuttings in clear glass jam jars to celebrate each individual stem. There’s a good reason why jam jar displats have been so popular in wedding tables, bars and restaurants – they don’t disrupt your eye-line but are elegant and stylish while being super practical. Honestly if I could get away will filling my house with flowers in jam jars I would.

Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk
Create a chic up-cycled arrangement
Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk
This is inspired by my time with Rebel Rebel. On my first day I helped out on a wedding doing the tables (which were long and thin). I was really worried as I thought this was going to be really complicated but the arrangement was beautifully simple and very effective. We lined the table with clear and cut glass receptacles at various heights (bottles, vases, jars, bowls, tea-light holders etc), filled them with water and placed blooms in shades of burgundy and crimson. It looked stunning. We then illuminated the glass with tea lights all down the table. Class, pure class.
Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.uk
Since then I am always on the look out for bottles and jars with interesting shapes and indentations that I can use for flower display. I admit these Italian fruit juice bottles are a bit fancy (the drink was nice too) but I’ve put flowers in milk and cola bottles before now. The trick is to have more than one and keep to the same colour bloom so they look like a display.
Home flower display ideas ellasplace.co.ukThis post was longer than I anticipated and I hope it’s useful to you. It’s actually been really nice to share some of my memories with you from my floristry days.

(*Re the worst house in England. A bit of an exaggeration, but it was a horrible place to live. A monument to all things beige, it had layers of dirt built up over decades and to be honest me and my two flatmates only added to it. The mould made me ill and then the house had a major infestation of mice, then ants. Still, you know, student times.)

10 Texty Buys

10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk

Years and years and years ago I had an Anthony Burrill ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People’ print in our London flat. I can’t flipping find the print now – it’s been missing since the move. Anyway, at the time the whole slogan print thing wasn’t particularly fashionable and every time we had visitors round we’d spend a good part of the time discussing the words, the print, the notion of having a ‘statement’ on your wall.

Those days are long gone. It seems to me that words and phrases are now an everyday feature of a modern home, so to keep things stylish I think the key is to not go mad on it, the trick is less is more here I reckon, sometimes like words themselves (although no-one would ever accuse me of that). I keep my slogans fairly low-key with little postcards and on my notebooks (see how you can do it by clicking this link).

Anyway here’s my pick of 10 texty buys available right now…

10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Be Brave Banner Secret Holiday & Co from The Calm Gallery
10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Alphabet Pillows from Nubie
10 Texty Buys ellasplace.co.uk
She Believed She Could Print from Not On the High Street
10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Ben De Lisi My Side/Your Side Cushion from Debenhams
10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Gin Notepad from Of Life and Lemons
10 Texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Liberty And Wire Name Sign from Not On The High Street
10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Slogan Votive Candle from Primark
10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Love Art Print from Etsy
10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Love Mugs Set from Oak Room Shop
10 texty buys ellasplace.co.uk
Slogan Hi-ball (set of four) from George at ASDA

Meet Ella’s menagerie

Meet Ella's Menagerie When we moved into our new house it was our mission to create a little menagerie of cool animals and characters – admittedly they are almost all ceramic, fabric or wood, but Dr B and I love them nonetheless and have invented back stories for all of them.

We have a collection of characters ‘protecting’ every room; here is a selection of our favourites…

Ceramic Bulls (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Ferdinand and Isabella
We met this couple of bulls at Judy’s Vintage Fair in Bethnal Green. We got them for a song (I think a fiver for the pair). The mother and son duo are from Pamplona in Spain, Isabella is a bohemian pacifist and really didn’t want her boy getting into bull fighting so she came to East London after hearing that was where the art was at. However when Isabella heard about Wivenhoe’s amazing artistic heritage and community she was convinced this pretty estuary town was the perfect place to bring up her son – especially when she read about Wiv’s connection with Richard Chopping, Dennis Wirth-Miller and Francis Bacon in this article here.

Ceramic Bulls (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Ceramic Cats (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Henry and Matilda
This Anglo-French couple were first introduced to us at Divine Intervintage. Theirs is a beautiful story of love beyond the boundaries of class. Henry is a good East End boy, poor but honest with a musical hall past. Matilda, on the other hand, went to the finest Parisian finishing schools and dined with the créme de la créme of French society. According to Matilda the duo met when some cad had left her stranded outside the Royal Opera House in the rain. Henry was passing by and charmed her with his ready wit and impeccable manners – he has certainly charmed us!

Wooden Sparrow (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk
Cedric the Sparrow
Standing proud and resplendent in maple, Cedric may be a beautiful wooden turned Sparrow by designer Lars Beller Fjetland but what isn’t so well known is that Cedric’s also a leading academic. He has given lectures all around the world and is an expert in Egyptology – in fact he was working in the Cairo Museum of Antiquities when it all started kicking off in Tahrir Square. He prefers doing his research in the modernist masterpiece that is the Essex University Albert Sloman Library.

Wooden Sparrow (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Wooden Figure (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Thoreau
Cedric is very close to our resident poet Thoreau, an Alexander Girard handmade doll. He’s had a fairly colourful life, spending time in Havana, San Francisco, Ibiza and a period with Andy Warhol at the Factory. However he is notoriously discreet so he’s rubbish for getting gossip out of. But BRILLIANT for screenprinting and film-making tips!

Wooden Figure (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Cloth Cat (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Ian
This cloth cat has been friends with us for a long time. We met him at Family Tree in Exmouth Market. Ian’s life has been, well, eventful, and while he is mostly sober, sometimes we have been known to find him in a smoke-filled haze listening to Black Sabbath or hard-core nineties rave very loudly on his headphones with a thousand-yard stare on the go – we don’t judge him. We love him.

Cloth Cat (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Wooden Owl (C) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.uk

Mark
Luckily Ian has Mark. Mark is a Christian and, while DrB and I are not ‘believers’ we respect this wooden owl’s views. He has a qualification in counselling and is very understanding of Ian’s erratic behaviour having worked in various hostels around the country.