In the life of Neisha Crosland3 April 2018
Renowned British Pattern Designer
Neisha Crosland is recognised for her sophisticated and unusual colour combinations, impeccable attention to balance and proportion, oversized graphics and the symmetrical geometric motifs inspired by nature that characterise her designs. Her body of work has propelled her to the forefront of UK design, and in 2006 she was honoured with the title Royal Designer for Industry (RDI). She started her own textile company designing scarves and accessories in 1994, and has gone on to design fabrics, wallpapers, rugs, tiles, fine china and stationery.
Describe a typical day at the studio?
I am based in Clapham, Wansdworth London. My bedtime routine is quite late, as I like the peace and quiet of the end of the day, so I tend to not get up too early. I have my shot of coffee, and fifth gear kicks in. Eating breakfast is a bore – I’m so keen to get on with the day.
Home and studio are joined, so my commute is through the garage or if the weather is nice over the roof terrace. I have nine projects usually going on at any one time. Some are at the stage of a blank canvas while others are in the middle of being drawn or have been handed over to Irita, my design assistant, to start tracing them onto a computer. Some projects are being handed over to mills or factories, some are sitting in the studio as prototypes, waiting for adjustment comments, and some are in line for a press shoot that Ivan, my studio manager, is organising.
All my projects need tending to by way of meetings, phone calls or emails. The day starts in the studio with a catch up with team. We are a very small team, only three of us, and we will sit down to discuss what needs to be done that day. Lunch might as well be a pill – I hate the momentum of day being broken by lunch, so not a fan of going out for lunch.
Outside of the studio…
I do a gym session twice a week at the end of the working day – weight baring exercises to strengthen me and my bones and like to go jogging at the weekend. In the evenings, I might go out at least three times a week, to catch up with my sister Charlotte Crosland, who is an interior designer, or girlfriends – I do love a good meal in a good restaurant with a white table cloth and beautiful wine glasses. I also love going to the opera, concerts and the theatre with my husband.
I have two boys, my youngest has just gone to university, so it feels a little like an empty nest, and my husband commutes to Dublin. So often, for an evening meal, it is just a baked potato and beans for dinner. Most of what I call at the drawing board stage of design, i.e. the getting a new idea to work on paper is done at weekends, when I am on my own. I need at least five clear hours to really get something done. It is very important to know that there will be no distractions from anybody. I switch off my computer and phone – no emails no IG’ing, phone calls or conversations with anybody. I need to get into a sort of trance before the juices start to flow.
Tell us about your design process.
As Alan Bennett said: “the best ideas come from seeing things out of the corner of your eye”. So, inspiration can take one by surprise, but like any creative person, we have a magpie instinct to pick up on visual stimuli. I go to galleries, watch films, buy books. I also travel a lot, particularly to Japan, Morocco, Spain and Paris. Picking up inspiration is second nature to me it’s just something that happens along the way. It is the easy bit. What you do with it afterwards is what counts… the ideas need processing and there is an order to this.
I have a lot of wall space in my studio and the walls are lined with sliding metallic panels. It all starts with the chaotic pin board, which is where I throw all my bits of inspiration at it like a dart board. Anything from a trip to a museum, a coloured ribbon, a photo that I have printed… sometimes it might just be a written note to remind me of an idea.
Something might sit there for months before it triggers an idea. It is survival of the fittest! But the ideas that survive migrate or get promoted to the metal boards. I then start sketching my idea for a layout of motifs in rough repeat in my sketch book. At this point, I give each idea a working title. Sometimes, two ideas combine to become one idea, and are given a double-barrelled name, so like a board game, it skips from one metal panel to join another idea in the next panel. When I am confident that I am onto something good, I will trace it out in real life-size scale. This is very important to me and must not be done on a computer screen.
Pen to paper…
The mapping out of the design is done in black pen or pencil so as to get the shapes and repeat right -colour would be a distraction at this point.
I must get the bones of the structure of the design right, before giving any mood with colours. I am deeply embedded in the technique of hand drawing as was taught at Camberwell and the Royal College of Art. We were drilled to learn the importance of drawing and to take each step of the process as a separate adventure that eventually links everything together.
Colour has the power to give the design its mood. I create my colours by mixing paint and a combination of using the computer and scanning in colour chips. But always, even when I am doing the first mapping out in blacks and greys, I will have in the back of my mind the first colourways I want to try.
At art college, we made our own screens for printing, and even the gum Arabic to stick the cloth down on the table, as well as mixing our own dyes in a dye lab. I love the process, and that each stage adds an element of alchemy. I enjoy nursing the product through these manufacturing processes. It is very important to work closely with factories mills and printers to ensure that the designs get translated correctly. Sometimes it entails a series of trials before I am happy to press the button for production.
What is your first memory of being moved by art?
I have always liked drawing and painting from a young age.
Listening to Faure Requiem made me cry and Matisse cut outs made me smile. Francis Bacon thrilled me and The Russian Constructivist of early 20th century made me understand that minimum line is often the way to create maximum impact, which intrigued me, and I have adopted as my mantra to this day – stripe things back to the bare minimum. I couldn’t believe how these artists managed to make a thing as simple as juxtaposed shapes all crashing into each other so very bold and powerful. I felt like I was listening to a Beethoven symphony. It was a very potent visual experience that, at the time, moved me intellectually as well as emotionally, more perhaps than any Matisse or Picasso had by then.
What is your first memory of pattern?
I am very short sighted, and my early life started in close-up until I realised at about seven or eight that I needed glasses – so everything was a haze unless I looked very closely, but when I did look closely at things it was an amazing magnified view of the world. My first memory of pattern was getting very close up to a Fritillaria tulip – the ones with little checks on them – we had them in the garden and I must have been 10 when I first noticed them appear one spring – it was covered in dew drops. I thought it looked as if a fairy had come and painted little checks on them over night. In the house, there was a little painting of the very same flower that I had not noticed before. I learnt that this was a sketch for Derby porcelain dinner service.
I then was constantly on the lookout for pattern and decoration on everything; shells, feathers… the idea that pattern from nature could then decorate man-made objects came later.
But you could say that I was part of a repeat pattern as a child. I was the eldest of three sisters, a year apart, and my mother used to dress us identically, in sizes one, two and three. We dressed in colourful, patterned clothes, which she would buy on her travels as a stylist. Our hair was put up on the top of our heads in tightly pulled fountain-like ponytails. We were like three bouncing cockatiels.
I also remember as a very small child, sitting in the bath, surrounded by mirrored tiles on all three sides. Strange images of me went on and on and I remember thinking, ‘where will it end?’ I suppose the chaotic never-endingless of it might have been frightening, but the kaleidoscope of shapes, endlessly repeating themselves on different planes, intrigued me. I’d spend hours trying to count them, taking great comfort in the escape of just looking and looking.
The first colour that you remember?
Sobranie coloured cocktail cigarettes in jade, tangerine orange with gold tips against a dark brown painted wall. Actually, it was my earliest memory of anything – I must have been about 3 or 4 it was our living room! I wonder whether this has anything to do with why I use gold in my colouring!
Do you have reoccurring influences?
Spokes, angles, and circles.
What makes a good pattern design?
I have come to understand that a good pattern is one that people can to connect with – it must have a sense of familiarity about it, but at the same time the design must surprise them with its freshness. This is always a bit of a conundrum for the designer but the job of good design. It must always be beautiful and must have emotional appeal – one that excites and delights both the eye and mind of all who look at it.
What do feel about the digital era and its effect on design?
In the past decorative patterns were 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 with at the click on the keyboard, manipulated to produce a pattern so easily. I worry that this has produced a slap dash, trigger pulling attitude to pattern making which can lead to soulless results that can spread like a bad rash.
I feel very lucky as I have the best of two worlds – the experience of pre-digital age, Art school with lots of drawing painting and experimenting with print techniques, without the distraction of computers combined with the current digital age speed, which enables me to work on several projects at once.
If you took a year out from surface pattern design what would you do?
I would shut myself off and just produce artwork on paper it would still be pattern making but it would be naked pattern if you like – pattern with no intention to be anything more than an artwork – so no reliance on alchemy of the manufacturing process or to be product appropriate. The only things to consider would be choice of paper, scale, where to cut the pattern away from its repeat and how much space to leave around it and what would it look like framed and hung on a wall. I think this would be interesting and I would live in France in the country to shut myself off – no distractions!
I would love to do a cookery course. There is nothing more I would love than being able to cook well, with ease, so that inviting friends and family would be more relaxing for me, and the food more delicious for them! They could visit on weekends!
But I could never stop thinking about pattern.
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