Texprint 2014: Meet the Judges, Sarah Campbell

28 May 2014 by Roger Tredre

We talk to Texprint judge and leading British textile designer Sarah Campbell, best known for her 50-year collaboration with her sister as part of the original Collier Campbell.

Sarah Campbell was one half of the influential textile design partnership Collier Campbell with her sister, Susan Collier. Their exceptional client list since the 1970s included everyone from Yves Saint Laurent to Habitat and Liberty. Fifty years of their work was celebrated in an exhibition at London's Royal National Theatre, 2011, which opened just after the shock of Susan’s early death from cancer. In 2012, a beautifully produced book, The Collier Campbell Archive, 50 years of Passion in Pattern, celebrated their achievements.

So now there's just Campbell, working independently under her own name, still doing what she loves best – working with gouache paint, drawing and painting directly onto paper to the scale of the finished design. Then she traces and paints the repeats herself. Painting by hand, she believes, has an energy and integrity that makes it compelling and special – and guarantees it an important role in textile creativity, even in the digital age.

Current clients include West Elm, the US homeware company. Now Texprint is honoured to welcome Sarah Campbell as a judge for the first time. We enjoyed speaking to her at her studio in Gipsy Hill, south-east London. She has an infectious chuckle, a stack of great memories and interesting thoughts on the creative process.

Are you excited about judging?

I'm always excited about new things but I'm always apprehensive. I love a challenge and welcome new ways of looking at things. I fear I will find it very difficult indeed because there'll be an immediate response with what I like that will be genuine and instinctive but, unfortunately, may not be entirely helpful. So then I will need a response which is to do with: where has this come from, what it's doing, what it's about, what are the designer's intentions, is it fulfilling a brief and does it succeed? I don't know that I'm going to be good at this – I hope so!

Have you done any teaching yourself?

I run workshops and give talks now and then and I very directly support the next generation by going into a local secondary school every week – I work with only a very few students on the BTech course, not necessarily ones who will end up as textile designers.

That gives me an insight into what ordinary young people are dealing with on a daily basis, which is a lot of stuff... As a designer it's very helpful for me to see what's going on. So It's as much for me as for them.

Like everyone, I have my own prejudices about everything so it's very helpful to have those knocked about a bit. And I think it's quite helpful for them to have attention from someone with a very different point of view, different experiences. 

How did you start out professionally?

The way I got into textile design at all is that I went to help my older sister Susan. I was always good at drawing, and I took all that for granted. See that painting over there of a mackerel? I did that when I was eight. My dad was saying, try and get those shiny scales. When I look at my nature book, also from around that time, I realise I've hardly changed – in some of my interests at least!

So I was definitely in the way of drawing but I wasn't planning to be an 'artist'. I thought I was on the way to Cambridge to study anthropology. But from helping Susan, I went to Chelsea School of Art in 1964 and did Fine Art painting. They said after the first year, 'You finish all your paintings too quickly. You should go and be a designer.' Clearly I wasn't wracked enough!... Actually, it was a great education. A good art school education is one of the best because - there's so much you can learn and experience. And I had great teachers – it was a tremendous time, a wonderful and expansive time. I expect I took it for granted then, but I see it now.

When I left college in 1969 I continued working with Susan. I had no textile design education so I didn't have any prejudices as to what a textile designer was. And I had the sort of mind that likes to think about how to make a repeat work. I was blessed because I loved the painting and I liked the nature of repeat. The way I learned about repeat was redrawing tiny scraps that Blair Pride [design producer at Liberty of London Prints in the 1960s] would give us, saying, we need that painting up in a new repeat. I loved it. I loved thinking about the ladies who had done those drawings in the first place. It was a very modest way of learning – we were jobbing designers.

We were protected at Liberty; they wanted the best cloth, the best print, the best colour and product. They weren't interested in the cheapest or the lowest common denominator. It was a commercial venture where standards really meant something. It was a wonderful opportunity. There were many battles of course – such as over our Cottage Garden print. The salesman didn't like it, and Susan bet him that it would sell more than the William Morris. And it did! It was a struggle to get them to do it because it was so completely different. It was in a new language – a full floral painted as a natural profusion without apparent structure.

To what extent do you draw on your own archive?

My nature is to do the next thing. That's the nature of a designer. We're there to have antennae and to feel what's coming in the air and to redraw it. I can't deny my history and the fact that I've done a thousand ikats or a thousand checks. And of course they are in my head and they come back out again, but they come out differently. It's fascinating that they do. That must be the passage of time. But I focus on what I'm looking at now, what I'm feeling now, what I'm thinking now, what my brief is now.

Do you find you've sub-consciously copied yourself?

It doesn't really matter. I do do things that are very familiar and I think I must have done something like that before. And I think I revisit my themes. I have themes that I'm very interested in, but I don't mind, it's all within me, it's not like I'm stealing from another person. For example, one of the themes I love is trying to represent a landscape on cloth. In other words, to make a thing that seems to have real depth on a two-dimensional surface. I love the experiments around that. I also love the theme of the free dot. And I like the challenge of making two colours do a surprising amount of work.

You once called the famous Collier Campbell Cote d'Azur print 'hardworking'. What did you mean by that?

Designs come out of me and I make them. They go off to be printed and then they have to go out into the world and they have to do their job. And if it's a good design and people like it, they buy it and it becomes what I call hardworking. I meet people who say they had this or that for years, and they love it. And I think great – it did the job. I don't know anything about the people but that design spoke to them and it spoke to them for a long time. That gives me enormous pleasure. Cote d'Azur must have been a very telling piece of work, although I often wonder why. I guess it was a narrative without being pedantic or claustrophobic – the story was clear and it had both atmosphere and space.

You have never designed digitally and that has been challenging for you in terms of meeting client demands in the past. But an appreciation of working by hand appears to be surging back, doesn't it?

It's been quite a difficult marriage. When there are two camps, it's always hard to see each other's value. I went to Clerkenwell [Design Week] recently to Design Factory and saw Benchmark: and Sean [Sutcliffe] was in heaven because people had responded so well to his new pieces - the bringing together of the hand-hewn and the computer aided. Marvellous!

There was quite a long time in our careers when hand-painting design was absolutely the end of the world and nobody wanted it. I was antedeluvian, a dinosaur. Coming after minimalism [in the 1990s], which wanted neither colour nor pattern, the attitude became, we can do it all online on the computer and we want 30,000 designs a day. There's still plenty of that – people do thousands of designs, I don't know what the hell for! That method and that amount can make design simply a disposable commodity.

When did the tide turn?

I think since my life, working and otherwise, changed so dramatically in 2011, I'm much more in touch with it. I've had to learn [to appreciate] for myself that I'm valuable. I used to take it all for granted. I do have an unusual skill and I'm very lucky to have it. And if I value it well enough, other people will.

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