Author: Suse Coon

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Friday, June 23rd, 2006 at 12:06 pm
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The Lothian area has always been brimming with talented crafts men and women, whose Portobello pottery or Edinburgh silver work brought function and pleasure to thousands of Scottish homes. Today, the craft scene is stronger than ever, with local designer makers selling well in Japan, Scandinavia and the USA as well as at home. Four years ago, a group of friends, all Edinburgh designer makers, gathered at the home of weaver James Donald to talk about self-employment and the challenges of being a designer maker in Scotland. Some wine and nibbles later, they decided to form Design-ED.


Design-ED aims to actively promote Edinburgh based makers, both at home and abroad – creating opportunities together through professionalism and creativity. The thirteen-strong collective made their debut at Artisan in Edinburgh, a Festival of Contemporary Arts designed to coincide with the Edinburgh Festival, and have since toured a 2003 exhibition called Thirteen ways to do BLUE around Scotland. As part of their international agenda, the group has exhibited at the Ambiente Trade Fair in Frankfurt and the Hilton Hotel in Stockholm, on the invitation of the Scottish Executive.

Design-ED caught the eye of then Culture Secretary, Mike Watson at their 2002 Artisan debut. He was on the eve of a ‘Scotland in Sweden’ initiative, aimed at furthering cultural ties between the two countries. Although the project planned to showcase the usual suspects – tartan, whisky and even contemporary dance, it did not include any designer makers –until Mike Watson spotted their stand. Impressed by the group’s fresh approach and wide-range of skills, he invited the group to exhibit in Stockholm. Design-ED will be returning to Stockholm this November with their new exhibition, tentatively entitled Green.

Each member of Design-ED devotes what time they can to keeping the group on track and meetings are usually scheduled for the first Monday of every month. “We have an agenda, keep minutes, and discuss what is up and coming” says textiles artist Mairi Brown. “We also discuss new members.”

Far from being dry and dusty, meetings also include drinks, nibbles and good natured gossip. Recently, group members combined business and pleasure through a weekend visit to Cove Park, an artists’ retreat in Argyll and Bute. Monthly meetings keep the group ticking over, but the retreat signaled the start of a more intensive period of collaboration. The forthcoming Green exhibition will see the group working closely together, not only conceptually, but practically. Fibre artist Anna King will make paper from other artist left over material, including slivers from glass artist Inge Panneels.

Part of the secret of the group’s success is that each individual maker has a strong signature style, but common business concerns, so tension is rarely caused by makers chasing the same custom. Both Mairi Brown and James Donald work with textiles, but the sumptuous garments and soft furnishings produced by Mairi using free machine embroidery are very different from the unique hand-woven fabrics produced by James on his computerised loom. However, all makers are faced with the challenges of efficiency, and marketing,

Inge Panneels has recently started exhibiting at Trade Fairs and belonging to Design-ED has provided immediate, practical benefits. “A number of people in the group have done trade fairs for years so there was immediately a wealth of information that I could tap into,” she says.

As well as sharing knowledge, the collective provides emotional support and this is a big plus point for founder James. The help members require can often be as simple as a friendly phone call.

Design-ED also provides a forum for members to discuss craft related issues – such as whether paint and canvas are more artistically credible than glass, thread or wool. The issue has relevance beyond theory, because hand made craft is all too often compared by consumers to mass produced products from Ikea or John Lewis.

Mairi says, “I can’t compete with that, my work has to be sold in an exclusive gallery where people know what they’re buying.”

But suitable selling opportunities for high quality craft are increasing in Scotland. Design-ED will be exhibiting in April at the Country Living Spring Fair in Ingliston, sharing a stall with Applied Arts Scotland, whose board includes three Design-ED members.

The Scottish Executive also retains a keen interest in the group. “Design-ED typifies what is best about crafts in Scotland at the moment. They are a dynamic, cohesive and creative working group, actively promoting its members nationally and internationally, bringing global attention to the quality and diversity of contemporary Scottish design,” comments John Mason, Head of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

Fibre artist Anna King asks on her website, “what language do we dream in? I dream in FIBRE”. The capital letters have the force of a small explosion, and despite a career spanning more than thirty years, Anna’s passion for her art remains undiminished.
Originally a graduate in woven textiles, illustration and photography from Edinburgh College of Art, Anna trained as a teacher, but quickly realised that she didn’t want to teach in schools. Instead, she accepted a part time post in the weaving department of Edinburgh College and remained there for fifteen years, trying to encourage students to “think beyond what they’re accustomed to”. Anna continually explores boundaries and pushes beyond.

“There is something about texts and messages that has concerned me for a long time,” she explains. “You can put a text into lots of contexts and here it is within a context of textiles.”

Until recently, Anna put her text in the context of woven baskets. “They all have a message inside them somewhere. I realised that I had a lot of secrets and wanted somewhere to keep them.” This sense of mystery often co-exists with accessible themes and Anna, a keen sailor, used the shipping forecast to create two baskets called “Storm Force Ten” and “Mist and Fog Patches”.

But Anna is keen to point out that “imagination is one of the mysteries of human nature” and her work is not constrained to small-scale, intimate projects. In 2000 she worked on ‘the Last Bale of Jute’ project in collaboration with Dundee Contemporary Arts, Verdant Works and the Scottish Arts Council. Anna produced a large tented installation and people came from all over Scotland to tell her about Jute.

“I learned so much,” says Anna, “I felt that most of the population of Scotland or their families have worked in the Jute Industry”.

The forthcoming Design-ED project on Green has already sparked Anna’s elas¬tic imagination. She briefly explains to me the basic concept of green as an environmental issue (“not going too far down the road of being frightfully good”), before pushing the concept further. “I went through the dictionary and the dictionary of quotations and got references to all kinds of things. It triggers ideas and do you know that green is half way through the colour spectrum?”

Textiles artist Mairi Brown has made some unusual bridal commissions in her time. One lady wanted a bodice swimming with fish, “before finding Nemo became popular,” whilst another wanted a dragon squeezed into an already crowded menagerie. Although happy to realise a customer’s vision, Mairi draws the line at embroidering Labradors on bespoke bodices.

Mairi studied printed textiles at the Scottish College of Textiles in the Borders, but has always enjoyed stitching into fabric and would have studied for an embroidery degree, if such a course had been offered. On completing her degree, Mairi spent a couple of years working freelance for a Edinburgh printed textiles company, before drifted into self-employment and full time stitching.

Mairi’s Leith home-studio is a riot of bespoke bodices, vibrant soft furnishings and must-have bags created using the technique of free machine embroidery. “You stretch the fabric on an embroidery hoop as if you were conventionally hand sowing,” she explains. “The machine needle is literally jumping around because there is no presser foot, and then you draw with the sewing machine, literally painting.”

It sounds challenging, but Mairi says, “I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s not difficult to me, it is just like picking up a pencil and sketching”.

Inspired by natural forms and colours, as well as by collected artifacts such as her mother’s Portuguese handbag and a pair of grey feather dusters, Mairi’s work is both collectible and charming. However, not everyone can collect Mairi’s work – because she likes to know that it goes to a good home.

“I want people who have my work to really love it. Maybe that why I’m not a very good businesswoman.”

Does loving her work means keeping it safe? “No, not at all,” she smiles. “My work has been bounced upon and children have been sick on my work and that is all fine – they do launder well”.

For Mairi, a great maker rather than marketing agent, Design-ED has been an opportunity opener – as it has been for all the members of Design-ED. Making a living from any arts based practise is not the easiest of options, but the design-ED group is all about overcoming these difficulties. Together they encourage a dynamic approach to their work, creating opportunities through professionalism, dedication and commitment. Their passion and enthusiasm is infectious, not just within the group, but also as it reaches to the audience.

Design-ED members:

Anna King: Fibre Artist

James Donald: Weaver

Mairi Brown: Textile Artist (free-machine embroidery)

Clare Brownbridge: Lighting Designer

Inge Panneels: Glass Artist

Ingrid Phillips: Glass Blower

Carol Sinclair: Ceramic Artist

Meg Hamilton: Metalwork

Fiona McIntosh: Textile Designer (screen painting)

Ruth Morns: Ladies Fashion and Acces¬sories

Claire Hullerby: Jeweller (metal and papers)

Carla Edwards: Jeweller (resin)

Janette Sendler: Felt Artist

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