If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know very well how much I love Liberty London Prints so can you imagine my surprise and excitement when the lovely people who represent textile designer Sarah Campbell got in touch for a meeting with her.
Sarah and her sister, Susan founded textile design company Collier Campbell in the 60s, collaborating with Liberty, Habitat, Marks & Spencers to name a few. They also inspired Yves Saint Laurent on his first off the peg clothing line.
Today, Sarah is working with West Elm, Michael Miller Fabrics and also teaching workshops in London.
There is also an exhibition with many of their prints, currently running at The Fashion and Textiles Museum, exploring Liberty’s impact on British fashion …
How did you originally become a textile designer ?
I grew into it, almost behind my own back ! My sister, Susan Collier, had already begun her career as a textile designer in her early twenties and was also a mother of two small girls; she ‘ got busy ‘ and asked me to come and help. As I could draw and was an obliging younger sibling – I did. I was a teenager, and had no ambition to be a designer, or even anything ‘ artistic ‘ at all, but it turned out well – I had a feel for it – and we continued our working partnership for 50 years.
You’ve had an incredible career so far with Collier Campbell and now working as Sarah Campbell Designs, spanning over 5 decades – what have been your highlights and challenges since you first started ?
Yes, we had a wonderfully productive career together and with our marvellous studio. Maintaining a business based on ‘ creativity ‘ is quite a challenge in itself, and the fact that there were two of us to withstand and share the slings and arrows was definitely important.
Some of the highlights have come as awards from our peers and the industry, the most prestigious of which was The Duke of Edinburgh’s Design Prize in 1984, given for our Six Views Collection. We were the first women to win this, and apart from one other, the only ones in its 52-year history – which is rather shocking.
There have been many feelings of achievement, and many knock-backs too. Looking from where I am now I think the whole collaboration with my sister and our extraordinary body of work is a tremendous cause for pride. There is a lovely book published about our years and work together – ‘ The Collier Campbell Archive ‘. I meet all sorts of people who tell me about patterns of ours that they’ve lived with and cherished over the years, and I feel very pleased that those fabrics went out there and did their jobs so well!
My challenge now is to continue solo, as I have been since Susan’s death in 2011, to invent and celebrate new and interesting patterns – I’m fortunate to be doing just this, and long may it last !
How have you managed to keep your feet on the ground with such a busy life and so many high profile collaborations ?
I’m not sure that I have always kept my feet on the ground … I think that maintaining busy-ness and good working relationships probably requires one to balance the fabulous flights of fancy with being pretty down-to earth; that takes acrobatic experience ! Children are helpful – watching the saturday football matches in the rain is an excellent exercise in remaining steady – especially when it’s muddy ! Susan and I saw ourselves as jobbing designers, which is a service as well as an inspiration – we earned our living by painting patterns, and I still do; as such income is determined by customers – generally very good levellers ! Success is so exciting and heady – but things can change quickly and there are no laurels upon which to rest for very long …
Collier Campbell inspired Yves Saint Laurent’s first ever ‘ off the peg ‘ clothing. What was it like working with one of the greatest ever fashion designers ?
I have to clarify here: the original company Collier Campbell company wasn’t formed until 1979 / 80. All our work prior to that ( Liberty, early Habitat, Soiries Nouveautees etc ) was produced under our own names. When it came to YSL – he was an established customer of Liberty of London Prints, the then wholesale arm of Liberty. Having said that, it was incredibly exciting when the European salesman Gilbert Saada told us that St Laurent wanted our prints. We had done a series of very freely painted folk-inspired patterns, and one in particular – patterned bands with a bird – took his fancy. It suited the Gipsy look that he was developing for his first off-the-peg collection – very Matisse and Russian blouse. But he didn’t want the birds ! So we repainted it, and made a little group of designs to be printed on Liberty’s lovely Tana lawn cotton; these then formed an integral part of his first famous ready-to-wear fashion collection. We loved painting those patterns, and went to it with gusto – and lots of singing and dancing ! The fact that one of the greatest French couturiers wanted our designs was a tremendous confirmation of our belief in the hand-painted, spontaneous look that we were developing ( among many others ).
Has your design process changed over the years ? If so, how ?
In essence I still hand-paint my designs in repeat as I always have done, and for the most part I use gouache on paper. But added to that – for one of my customers I often send sketches, constructions and ideas in different mediums for them to work up for their own particular needs and products.
The process of translation and reproduction has changed: when we started, each colour would be hand-traced by the engraver to make each separate screen or roller. In the early days we often had to stop engravers from ‘ tidying up ‘ our paintbrush marks ! Every colourway was painted and balanced, and the skilful eye of the printer in matching was integral to the success of the cloth. Nowadays designs are scanned, separated and colour-matched by computer – though in the case of my work the starting point remains the same – the hand-painted mark. One of the advantages of digital printing is that each nuance of colour and gesture can be translated onto the cloth should one wish it, whereas traditionally conventional printing is about understanding flat colour and screens. These are different skills – but all worthwhile and full of adventure.
Where do you find your inspiration ?
Everywhere really; I can’t stop things jumping into my eye, or setting me off on a train of investigation. New briefs can send me seeking new materials – brushes, papers, techniques, types of paint – which in themselves bring their own inspiration. And particular requests often require research. But there’s nothing like just starting with a clear surface and the hint of an idea waiting to grow – they can push me down all sorts of self-inspirational alleys !
When working on projects for brands – are you generally given a free rein with your ideas ?
Customers each have their own particular identities and needs, their place in the market and their history. I think people come to me for a fresh point of view about colour and pattern, and a skill in its execution – to see what I’ll make for them. Customers often say one thing, but in the course of a conversation may be unconsciously stroking a piece of paper with quite another thing on it – that’s the pattern they’re really drawn to ! It’s worth remembering – and listening very hard – in order to be able to use one’s skill to bring it all together and take a step forward at the same time. And if someone can never sell green, for instance, it’s a good idea to take note… but not necessarily to leave it at that …
The Liberty in Fashion Exhibition is celebrating 140 years of the company. How do you think Liberty have had such a strong impact for so long, with their fashion and interior prints ?
It’s an interesting question; certain names hold their magic for a long time through thick and thin, the ups and downs of fashion and the market. To start with, the word itself – liberty – has special meaning and significance, a freedom to which we may all aspire.
The first Mr Liberty began his company with a clear position – providing beautiful cloth, interesting patterns, considered design, artistic integrity. He had a real feel for his customers and from the start he appealed to a particular clientele who shared these values. The company also achieved the remarkable feat of selling cloth, via both retail and wholesale, to everyone from your granny to Yves St Laurent – as the exhibition shows so well. But I think the secret of their success is that they have maintained their standards in design, quality, colour and have stood by their original commitment to excellence in cloth and pattern, newness and tradition – and there are very many customers who feel the same way and want to be able to be part of that.
What are you currently working on ?
Yesterday I sent off the latest batch of ideas and sketches to WestElm in Brooklyn for their spring / summer ’17 ranges; for the last three years or so I’ve worked for them for ten days each month developing new ideas and solutions to their briefs. It’s a really lovely collaborative job, and so exciting to see what they make of my work.
Today on my table is the new collection for Michael Miller Fabrics, actually for this summer; it’s our third together, and I’m busy completing the repeats just now. These gorgeous cottons are sold into the home-sewing and quilting market and are available worldwide; I so enjoy making a range and seeing the yardage coming through with its different colourways. I’d like to have the time and wherewithal to make some quilts myself – I’m often sketching plans for them; we have made some adorable art dolls with the fabrics though.
I’m also completing the preparations for teaching at West Dean next week; running short courses and workshops is something new I’ve been doing in the last few years and I really enjoy it. This one will be exploring pattern – how it works and how to make it. I teach painting directly onto cloth as well, both silk and cotton, and have several courses lined up at Bradness Gallery in the spring and summer, and at Morley College in the next academic year. And I’m invited back to Guadalajara to teach there again later in the year – exciting. Oh, and I’m hoping to run a flag-&-banner-making workshop in the Herefordshire woods later in the year…
Then there’s the next blog to write and illustrate – something I do every three weeks or so and due any day now. And a commission to hand-paint some curtains; I have to admit this has been waiting its turn for some time and now I’m just about ready !
I’m planning a new collaboration specifically with upholstery in mind using both printed and hand-painted linen on particular pieces. And I’m always sampling new products for our on-line shop – scarves, cards, painted creatures …
And although the design work for this range was done a little while ago I’m really looking forward to our new collection of ceramics and homewares coming on the market any minute now. It’s called Viva ! and brings an abundance of colourful geometrics to the dining table – and the tea – tray.
Can you give any advice to anyone wanting a career in textile design ?
Love pattern, listen to your customer, enjoy being useful !
Thank you so much to Sarah for sharing her inspirations and advice. Do you have a favourite Liberty London print ?
If you’d like to have a look at her website. Here it is – Sarah Campbell Designs.
Have a good day.
Photo credits: Image 1, copyright of Virginie Guiriaboye. Image 5 copyright of Polly Eltes ‘as seen in Period Living Magazine’. All others images copyright of Sarah Campbell.
You can find more inspiration over on my instagram.