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A visit to designer Sarah Campbell's Studio

27 Mar 18 - 29 Mar 19

Gipsy Hill, London SE19 1SR



Sarah, who many of you will remember from last year’s conference, started Collier Campbell with her sister Susan, in the 1960’s. They collaborated with leading designers and manufacturers, including Liberty’s and Habitat. Sarah, now working on her own, invites us to her studio where she paints, draws, cuts out, sticks, prints, sews, writes and invents. Come and observe her creativity. A selection of treats for sale, handmade cards and scarves.

Report by Kay Staniland

The visit to Sarah Campbell’s studio was, everyone agreed, an enormous privilege as well as a very informative session about the work and approach of a textile designer. We would like more, please! Some in our group had textile design training whilst others were ‘just interested’, so I’m sure that aspects of what Sarah so generously told and showed us impacted differently. But appreciation for the session was universal and I hope that this came through to Sarah and her ever helpful assistant Molly. My mind continues to reel as a result of being so immersed in textile design and inspiration, and is still full of questions I failed to think of at the time.

In the 1960s and 1970s I used to drool over the Collier/Campbell textiles in Liberty’s, but could only occasionally afford to splash out on reduced remnants; I greatly enjoyed Sarah’s Q & A session with Mary Schoeser a year or two back, whilst her South Bank exhibition at the time had brought on a powerful bout of nostalgia. Therefore it was extremely interesting to catch up with Sarah and her present mode of working. Much has changed since the sad early death of her sister and collaborator Susan Collier, and Sarah’s decision to go solo: both have necessitated a rebuilding of a professional career later in life and at a difficult time personally.

Sarah explained her current modus vivendi, now working for a select group of clients, and showed us many of the designs she has produced for them. Some of these have been accepted and put into production and therefore we were able to see the printed end-product, appreciating how modern printing methods can affect aspects of the original design. Some designs have been used for quite unplanned purposes (a jewellery box, for instance, or melamine cups), whilst other designs had been rejected (no reason necessarily given). It was illuminating when, from time to time, Sarah discussed the viability of one of these designs – ‘that could do with a further look’ was a response she shared with Molly and us. It is vital for her to be able to tailor her innate design approach to meet the styles required by her different clients, perhaps toning down her preferred love of a bright palette, or drawing inspiration from a client’s specified design theme – bird life, rugs, etc.; much research and thought is then required to familiarise herself with these area’s and identify appropriate design potential in them. Creation rather than imitation is what is sought by Sarah and her clients. Not being conversant with Marks and Spencer’s furnishing/bedding products using Collier/Campbell designs I found it most intriguing to learn a little of the extent of thought behind the design and co-ordination of bedding; for example, the grading of a design to suit bed-covers and produce matching, scaled-down or appropriate designs for pillow covers, etc. I will certainly examine stock a lot more carefully in bedding departments in the future!

We all felt we benefited greatly from being allowed to see Sarah working on a new design for a client (sorry, we are sworn to secrecy about what might be hitting the market next year!) together with her running commentary on approach, techniques and materials; interest in the latter suggests that some members of our group will be pursuing acquisition of some of these and applying them in their own work. Certainly this session stimulated a number of us to think of getting back to paint and paper, if only for fun! As one totally inhibited by making my own marks on paper, I hugely admired Sarah’s very assured handling of brushes and paint, coupled with the way she handled development of design as her ideas progressed. Her enthusiasm for her work was apparent and highly infectious.

With her typical generosity –and trust - she allowed us to look through some of her many sketch books. From these we could see initial ideas, rapidly noted down and often accompanied by possible variants and colour combinations. This careful preparation indicated much thought, which clearly informed Sarah’s development of satisfactory designs. ‘I thought about the idea for some time before starting work’ became a typical response from her, a ‘thought bank’ very evident to us as she worked on what might turn out to be a final design. A powerful object lesson, I found.

We were even able to come away with souvenirs! I had expected to acquire something which would remind me of the Collier/Campbell designs I admired so long ago, but in the end succumbed to a delightful small print ‘Plovers and Pebbles’ in muted colours. This will be a constant reminder of a very special afternoon, one which will remain with all my companions in different ways. Thanks both to Sarah and the Textile Society for making this possible!

On the bus home it occurred to me to think of the eighteenth century textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite and how fascinating a similar session with her would have been!