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

Monday Moodboard: Penguin book design

Penguin Book Design Penguin book design has been an obsession of mine since I was a teenager when I spent an awful lot of time in libraries. Probably too much time if I’m being honest.

In those days I was continually on the hunt for new words, stories and worlds, I used to get lots of books out on spec. I read a lot of duds but I also came across a lot of good stuff too that has stayed with me.

The cover design played a very big part in my decision making process. From the classic orange cover fiction and stylish mid-century illustration to the glorious repeat patterns, it is all the stuff of wonder and as much of an inspiration as the words inside. As a consequence of this I read a lot of books published by Penguin; a great deal of classics and quite a few poetry collections. I’ve now bought a lot of the books that I borrowed and devoured during my teenage years (the ones I enjoyed at least).

As Creative Director of an indie publisher, I design all the books for Dunlin Press. So my youthful interest has become increasingly important now I’m a grown-up. When approaching the layout for each Dunlin Press book I always ask myself, “What would the Penguin designers do?”

 

 

Monday Moodboard: Midcentury Modern

MCMMoodboard

I’ve many go-tos for inspiration and although you may not think it, mid-century modern design and illustration is one of my favourite sources. That’s why it’s made this week’s Monday Moodboard.

Although my drawing style is heavily influenced by classical botanical illustration, I actually came to it via the route of mid-century modern. How? Well, when you look inside the original mid-century homes, as well as all those gorgeous geo designs,  amazing furniture, playful use of line and fearless colour combinations, there would always be a classic print or two hung on the wall, so I thought “if it’s good enough for them…”

Anyway this is one of my most loved periods for design and illustration I suppose it came from the fact that Dr B and I lived in mid-century apartments for the first 14 years together so we both became interested in this style in terms of design and architecture. For pure nostalgia value here are some pics of our old flat.

mid-century modern flat ellasplace.co.uk mid-century modern flat ellasplace.co.uk mid-century modern flat ellasplace.co.uk

There is so much to find in mid-century modern design, which is why it is such a rich source of inspiration.  I mean just look at the examples on the moodboard. It’s not all about Lucienne Day Calyx fabric (although I blatantly love that design and would have it in every room in the house if I was allowed) or Ercol furniture (although again I adore it and have a lovely 1960s original Ercol dining table and chairs in the kitchen). Design from this period can be ornate and playful and also simple, concise and elegant.

Why this week? I’m currently working on a poetry book for Dunlin Press, an indie publishing house run by me and Dr B. I wanted something that keyed into classic book cover design with a bit of an edge so I’ve been trawling the internet and my design books and the mid-century vibe seems to be the route to explore. I’m not saying our book will look anything like the above but whether you are designing a book cover, thinking about a fabric pattern or imagining a room scheme, in fact whatever creative endeavour you’re undertaking it’s good to have a starting point to kick start your work.

5 coffee table books that make me happy

Neubau Forst Catalogue Urban Tree Collection for the Modern Architect and Designer via http://www.ellasplace.meBooks. Beautiful books. Books you learn from. Books that transport you and books that transform you. Books that speed you through a train journey. Books by the side of a pool. Coffee table books. There’s room for them all.

Our coffee table here at Ella’s Place has been starting to groan under the weight of new books that have arrived at recent birthdays. But I love them being there, ready at hand, supplying instant inspiration at unexpected moments. I’m sharing a few of them here.

Above and below is the cloth-bound Neubau Forst Catalogue: Urban Tree Collection for the Modern Architect and Designer. It’s basically a book of trees in Berlin, starkly photographed, stripped of context on a white background (rather like my own drawings), and then pictured in silhouette. It reminds me of how wonderful the conjunction of nature and the city can be – and how I began my own journey of drawing birds and flowers while living in London’s Square Mile and watching a pair of blue tits flit from tree to tree, and balcony to balcony, along our city-centre street. It also reminds me of how I love Berlin.

Neubau Forst Catalogue Urban Tree Collection for the Modern Architect and Designer via http://www.ellasplace.me

Mary Schoeser’s stunning and sumptuous volume, Textiles, is a real feast for the eyes and huge inspiration and resource for pattern, colour and illustration. It juxtaposes historical pieces with contemporary design and I can lose myself for hours in it.

Mary Schoeser Textiles book via http://www.ellasplace.me

Mary Schoeser Textiles book via http://www.ellasplace.me

Weeds & Aliens – An Unnatural History of Plants, by B.A. Huseby is a treat for any student of book design. It’s embossed, foil-blocked and cloth-bound. It uses different paper stocks and the typography is both elegant and quite radically laid-out. It’s a collection of minimalistic photography of ‘wrong-placed plants’ (as Dr B likes to call them) and their culinary uses. It’s not exactly a book about foraging for food – there aren’t any recipes as such – but from reading it you can learn about what plants are growing under your feet, or at the side of the road, and how you might use them.

Weeds & Aliens - An Unnatural History of Plants by B.A. Huseby book via http://www.ellasplace.me

Weeds & Aliens - An Unnatural History of Plants by B.A. Huseby book via http://www.ellasplace.me

There are two large yellow books in our living room. One is a collection of drawings by Aubrey Beardsley and the other is this big book of textiles by Knoll. Tracing the period 1945-2010 it’s a history of fabric, furniture, interior design and advertising with plenty of evocative photography that captures the high points of mid-century modern.

Knoll Textiles book via http://www.ellasplace.me

Knoll Textiles book via http://www.ellasplace.me

In 2012, an original edition of John James Audubon’s giant, outsized The Birds of America sold at Christie’s in New York for nearly $8 million. My version might be considerably cheaper and smaller, but still manages to capture the timeless quality of his paintings. As an illustrator who loves drawing birds, it’s a real treat.

John James Audubon Birds of America book via http://www.ellasplace.me

John James Audubon Birds of America book via http://www.ellasplace.meSo, what are your favourite coffee table books?