Designers are rediscovering the wealth of knowledge and technique which decorative print design accumulated over hundreds of years. Mixing digital and traditional has brought about a creative renaissance, as Mark Penfold finds out.
Until recently, pattern design was on the slide - heading towards the creative dog house. So much so that the minimalism of the 90s can be seen as a reaction to poorly thought-out 'new design' and the careless overuse of watery Victorian alternatives. Focusing all efforts on taming the computer, design had taken its collective eye off the ball. Today, that slide has been (at least partially) halted. The decorative arts are being rehabilitated by a growing band of designers and illustrators keen to rediscover the craft, techniques and history of pattern creation and decoration.
Blending traditional production methods with modern tools and tactics, they're turning out an exciting array of wallpapers, textiles and ceramics, all marked with the prize of individuality. These designs decorate our living-spaces and will, in time, come to denote this period. Fortunately, some of them are beautiful and will speak well on our behalf.
The lessons of history
Scottish designer Johanna Basford makes an important opening observation: "Trends come and go, but pattern and ornament in decoration is evident throughout the centuries. One unique feature of pattern is its ability to adapt." These things did not disappear for decades, they were simply neglected while design underwent a series of revolutions, digital and otherwise.
Taking a narrow view of the subject, patterning as a form of interior decoration really began to hit its stride as early as the 17th century, when wallpapers started to show up in Elizabethan London. Prints were generally single sheets, single colour, impressed from wooden blocks - but techniques rapidly improved.
By the 18th century, wallpaper had made it onto the roll, and printing technology had entered the home straight, with full-on mechanisation dead ahead. By the time of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts revival of the 19th century, steam-powered rollers were producing multi-coloured designs without a hitch.
There was still massive specialisation, though, and this is key to the current resurgence. The French worked in a more compositional direction, producing designs of great finesse and accomplishment, while the British continued to unearth new techniques and surfaces to which they could be applied. And all the while, marvels of art and technology continued to arrive from the East.
Design developed in tandem with printing technology. Even today, new inks, surfaces, applications and techniques continue to expand the horizon. However, one thing remained seemingly impervious to the march of progress: economics. William Morris may have espoused socialist philosophy but he charged top dollar for his prints.
By the 1950s, professional designers had begun to take charge of the visual landscape and things were showing signs of improvement. But the fact remained that printing was a drawn-out and expensive business which required detailed technical expertise, often surface-specific. You just couldn't do type design one week and textiles the next.
Out of fashion
Computers changed all that, but at a price. While the design world was busy discovering exactly what was possible with its new toy, design for things like wallpaper become mediocre. "Certainly," agrees Paul Simmons, co-founder of Glasgow's Timorous Beasties. "The things that were available in the 1980s were either very badly designed fabrics and wallpapers or old archives just reproduced, and that was it."
He and partner Alistair McAuley set up their print studio in 1990 with the express purpose of countering this trend. "Back then," Simmons remembers, "when I told people I was working on a wallpaper, I'd see their faces kind of crumple up in horror." Wallpaper had become a dirty word. Proper designers didn't make it, and people with any taste didn't use it. "People's preconceived idea of what wallpaper was had become very bad," he says.
With the advent of the digital age, design became like print's rebellious teenage offspring - determined to prove it didn't need those old-fashioned ways any more. Then at some point the tide turned, explains Sam Borkson of US studio Friends With You: "As the information age races on exponentially, there is a genuine want for people to feel more human, to want to feel things and touch them."
Matt Duckett, founder of NICE, takes a laid-back approach to the onrush of technological progress. "There's a hell of a lot of things we've missed already," he says, "so I like to go back and look at things again." Not that he doesn't use a computer to do his looking, but he's understood the nature of the medium. "I find if you stay on the computer too long, everything ends up looking the same. So I like to use random programs to see what different feel I can get into things," he says.
Johanna Basford helps us pinpoint exactly what it is about the process of creating hand-printed work which people love. "After so many years of stark minimalism and mass-produced goods, consumers are beginning to crave individuality again," she says. Designers are now being presented with the chance to get to know their medium in a way which looked lost for most of the 1990s. As Paul Simmons observes, the buying public responds to that change: "People can see a quality that's special or interesting without having to know how it's achieved. You can just perceive it."
There are in fact two currents to the renaissance in modern pattern design. The first is this rediscovery of the craft of printing. A love of ink and block, silk screens and gold leaf, and, says Simmons, "for want of a more polite word, the fuck-ups you have with hand printing". Its counterpart is the application of modern concepts and concerns. Matt Duckett acknowledges this when he says: "There's almost this fight between something which is visually pleasing and something which is a good idea."
Concept plus creation
Timorous Beasties loves to hand-produce its paper and fabric prints where possible, but this is always going to be a limited exercise when it takes a full day to deliver four rolls of wallpaper. But mass production need not eliminate the designer's hand from the process: "There are different versions of what you'd call hand print," Simmons reveals. And, the designer can reach an audience with ideas.
Illustrator Marcus James argues that the content and concept is the most important thing. "The repeat is a matter of good composition," says James. He goes on to explain that, ideally, a good design has to "say something about the surface it's applied to". Matt Duckett is of a similar mind: "I can't just do a pattern for the sake of it. There has to be some kind of twist to it, something clever."
Modern design is a freely associative thing. It's not confined by the rules of the past. In fact, argues Duckett, sometimes it helps to have a naive approach rather than being informed by historical movements: "Sometimes, when you know about something, it changes your view." You could become bound by precedent. For example, early viewers of Timorous Beasties' Glasgow Toile assumed it was a "Hansel and Gretel fairytale scene" not a depiction culled from the streets of a living city.
Design has come to a turning point with its use of the computer - people are learning not to apply technology's talent for replication with such a vicelike grip. The results of a more creative approach can be exceptional, and, as more designers begin to explore this territory, the disciplines will continue to proliferate, evolving new patterns and processes as they go, and using them to help us apply meaning to the space that surrounds us.