One of the great perks of assisting on the program for London Craft Week 2017 was the opportunity to meet great creative Londoners. On a visit to Neisha Crosland’s studio back in November we discussed the relationship between craftsmanship and design (as well as our mutual love for chunky gold rings; we both wear many at the same time). Unfortunately for many, craftsmanship and design tend to be positioned at opposite ends of the creative spectrum. I disagree with this viewpoint. For London Craft Week 2017 I was on a mission to highlight the inherent relationship between the two.I discussed this with Neisha further as well as her career trajectory to date.
I’ve read so many interviews of you online. All start off with you being one of Britain’s most successful designers, but which was your defining moment, the one you said ‘I’ve made it’?
When I was elected by peer designers from all design disciplines (architecture, product design, lighting, as well as fashion and textiles) to receive the title of RDI Royal Designer for Industry. A maximum of only 200 designers can hold the title at any time. For me the recognition from respected designers is the best sort of accolade and affirmation, better than any commercial success. Recently the UAL (University of the Arts of London) awarded me with an Honorary Fellowship, which I will pick up in July at the graduation ceremony. However, I have to say that the thrill of spotting anybody wearing a scarf of mine or walking into a restaurant to be greeted with my wallpaper on the wall is a pretty good feeling too!
If you had one piece of advice to share with a budding designer what would that be?
Just keep going and always keep in mind that a fresh point of view is the only interesting point of view.
Could you describe the steps in your design process from conception to delivery? Is there one set route or does it differ from pattern to pattern or project to project?
All visually creative people think in colour and form, and have a magpie instinct for picking up and retaining anything that is beautiful or strikes a cord with them. I have a pin board, where I pin all of my sources of inspiration: everything from a ribbon or postcard, to a photograph of a painting or ceramic seen in a museum, antique shop or gallery or even in a book. I even pin up doodles, seemingly random pictures of things that have caught my eye. I also write notes and pin them on the board. I then live with these inspirations until I get the urge to do something with them.
I start to sketch some ideas roughly in a sketch book, and I find that it really helps to give them names at this point .The ideas will join up with each other and evolve or just get edited out. It’s a survival of the fittest!
When I am confident that I am onto something, I’ll map it out life size in black and white using a pencil or pen, never on computer size. As pattern has a repeat motif that has to work in a set of dimensions, for example, wallpaper within a roller circumference or a rug sized up into a rectangular dimension or a pattern wrapped around a cup, it is important to get the structure of the design correct before I start colouring.
The repeat gives the pattern its energy and rhythm like a tune in music; it is the trickiest thing to get right. Colour gives a design its mood.
I usually have an idea of how the design should be executed what technique should be used to make it and there will be a meeting with the makers at several stages of the design process. Once the design is handed over to the factory or maker there will be further meetings and sampling or prototyping until we get it right.
For the wallpaper collection I go to the factory in Lancashire for 2 weeks to work from there on the colour proofing. I love doing this. It is one of the highlights of the year!
How often do you launch a new collection?
It depends on what product I am designing a surface pattern for. For scarves for Hankyu Department store in Japan, we launch two collections a year. Furnishing fabrics, wallpaper tiles and rugs the we release a collection once a year or every two years.
Recently, the fashion industry has come under fire, as the strict collection dates are held responsible for the financial woes that some brands have gone through. Designers are burning out due to exhaustion. Do you find adhering to strict release dates necessary for your brand seeing it is already so established?
No, it is not strictly necessary. Unlike fashion accessories, where last season’s designs are totally obsolete the following season, interiors can sell for many decades following the product launch. Think about William Morris who is still selling the same designs created 164 years ago ! Patterns for wallpaper, fabric, rugs and tiles have a longer shelf life. For small companies that do not do volume like mine, strict release dates are not so necessary, but you do need to get some good PR to accompany the launch of a new product and you do need to keep the momentum going with launching new things.
What collection are you working on at the moment, and where are you drawing your inspiration?
I am working on a wallpaper collection and tile collection – both botanical with an Ottoman /15th C Spanish tin glazed earthenwear feel.
When I first moved to the UK it struck me that there was something inherently British in the study and practice of textile designing. I may be wrong but as you’ve been in this sphere for so long would you say that there is an obvious British textile style and pattern?
Yes I would agree. I think you might mean that sort of Bloomsbury /Charleston look.I think we have lost this a little with the digital computer aided programmes that are so universally used.
The art and craft aspect of textiles is being lost. Students now spend too much time touching plastic key boards rather than getting their hands dirty with dyes and paint tubes, which are such wonderful sensory tactile experiences. It is through this process that you get to respect the different stages of a process as well as giving you time to think. It is a bit like when kneading bread.
When I was at art school, before the age of computers, we drew and painted and mixed our dyes and made our own silk screens. All this has been replaced with obtaining digital skills instead. In the past decorative patterns were of course all hand drawn, hand painted, hand carved, hand woven, all with skills that demanded patience, a lot of practice, real thought and close live examination of nature.
Today images of plants or geometry can be scanned, downloaded and at the click of a keyboard manipulated to produce a pattern so easily. Pattern can be applied to everything quite easily now with digital technology. I worry that on the whole this has produced a slap dash trigger-pulling attitude to pattern making, which can lead to soulless results.
I feel very lucky as I have the best of two worlds: pre- digital age art school experience, where the syllabus encouraged lots of drawing, painting and experimenting with print techniques without the distraction of computers, and the post- digital age speed which enables me to work on several projects at once.
When I was asked to curate LCW2017 interiors I really wanted to bring to the forefront the relationship that exists between designer and craftsman. I wanted to show that the two are complementary not conflicting. To what extend do you consider yourself a craftswoman and to what a designer, and what is your professional relationship with craftsmanship?
Most of my products are made in mills and factories by machines that were invented by humans. Close communication with the manufacturing of my products is essential. For example, a design can be ruined if not nursed through the manufacturing process. I therefore have a great interest in this process and respect for all who are involved in it, whether it is a highly mechanised factory or a team of hand embroiderers. If manufacturing did not exist I would not get my designs made. They would simply remain as ideas or artwork.
London Craft Week considers craftsmanship a core pillar of British luxury. For you personally what do you think defines British luxury?
Luxury in any country is the same: It is the result of a well thought out idea that is realised into a product by a set of skills that care for the end result and only the end result, not just the commercial value. I suppose that it is the luxury of not putting the commercial value as the remit and not just following consumer trends.I think Britain values this very much particularly today.
And, which direction do you think this is going in?
The more commercial the world becomes the more homogonised we become. As a result some people hanker for a bit of soul and individuality that can be achieved through the handmade process. Personally, I think luxury is sincere design made thanks to people with skills and dedication.
You are collected by the V & A museum, which is such a fabulous accomplishment. I am hoping that you are also keeping your own archive of your work. Which is your favourite piece from the past and why?
My most cherished archival pieces are my boxes of swatches of textile printing experiments that I did for my scarf collections between 1996 and 2008 with Belford Prints. This was always an incredibly creative part of the process of pulling together a scarf collection, and something that you could not ever do today in a factory.
At the RCA and Camberwell School of Art I spent most of my time fiddling around with dye recipes and finishing techniques on all sorts of different fabrics. With the support and scientific mind of Patricia Belford we concocted all sorts of magic on cloth .I still raid these boxes for ideas. My next tile collection is inspired by some of these effects on cloth.
Not so long ago you published a book, almost a retrospective of your work. Can you tell us about this?
Last summer I published a book with MERRELL publishers called LIFE OF A PATTERN – my only book or I should better say my first book!
I wanted to present pattern like the telling of a story. You see, pattern is a form of visual language. It is forever retelling and translating a story, which has already been told but every time it is told a new dimension is added to it.
The book tries to trace in a simple way the most important sources of my inspiration, which then led me on a road of discovery of where the sources of the sources of inspiration came from.
I took a Desert Island approach to come up with my selection and have delved deeply into the development of my designs, tracing my steps back to childhood .I wanted to show that it is thanks to the endless exchange of ideas from person to person, through the ages, that I believe is the sustenance of all that is creative.
I wanted the design to leap out at you at the page and surprise you. Misha Anikst, the book’s designer, took the photos to ensure we achieved this.
It is a book that is mostly full of images.
And, where can one purchase it?
On our online store here and at bookshops including John Sandoe, Waterstones and Daunts. Your local book shop can always get it in. And, of course Amazon.
Your studio and home are right next to one another. Does this make it challenging to keep work and home time separate?
YES but it also has its advantages. I can have the stockpot on the stove or meat in the oven whilst working next door. On the flip side quiet time in my studio at weekends is heaven, and I just slip next door for lunch.
Your home is gorgeous. You must be so home proud. I especially loved the Ian Harper mural in your living room. Did you use many craftsmen like Ian to complete the interiors in your home? Which are your favourite features?
As well as Ian Harper, I also had Rosie Menem do a mural in my hall and study cupboard doors. Jim Howett from Marianna Kennedy studio did my bedroom and drawing room cabinets. I love all these things.
As you may know, Fox & Squirrel Ltd started off as a London creative walks company. I’d be interested to know which is your favourite walking route in London?
Along the river from Ham House to a good lunch at Petersham Nursery Gardens. A lunch at the end of a walk is most important !
Neisha Crosland is in conversation with Lucie Hague at her studio on the 4th of May. Tickets to the event can be purchased at London Craft Week here