Habitat is a brand that loves print, it is synonymous with each season’s collection. Martha Coates is our Print Designer for Textiles and, in this world of mass production, we thought you’d be quite surprised to learn that quite a lot of Habitat’s prints start as a flick of a paintbrush on a blank piece of paper.
Martha talks to us about the process of her prints.
“Designing prints relies on freedom. If the process is too tight and too prescriptive, it’s difficult to be creative so this is truly one of the most organic and natural processes in the design cycle of a product.
“The best example of this freedom is probably the Splatter painting designed for AW16 which was inspired by Polly’s [Dickens, Creative Director] trip to the Jackson Pollock exhibition in Venice. I actually created it in my garden, at home, so I could get the angles, throw from a distance and make a mess.
“Another print from the Splatter series was actually the background sheet, the protective paper that was covering the ground. It was the best one; probably because I wasn’t thinking about it so much, there wasn’t so much pressure. A couple of them were generated in this way and these eventually ended up being used on the silk cushion, the velvet cushion and the throw.
“Prints usually come as a result of the ‘orientation packs’ which we compile for the season detailing the stories and direction for the particular season. Some prints are specific. They may be more prescriptive in terms of their shape, layout and design; we spend time thinking about them and looking at how they’ll work across the product range. Occasionally, just through the process of developing original artwork, I might go off on a bit of a tangent as I progress through the design process. From this, something quite lovely might come out of it. It might seem far away from the main direction but is actually loved and works well within a particular story. There’s always room for this kind of ‘organic’ way of working.
“Although I do design a lot of prints on the computer, an equal amount of prints are hand printed in the studio. This is what will eventually happen in production via screen or block printing, so it feels right that we try to replicate this process at our desks. Sometimes I will work with sponges and stencils. Working in these mediums gives you slightly imperfect look that you just wouldn’t get from working on a computer.
“I tend to work in gouache, household emulsions often work quite well as we get them mixed in our colour palette, inks, some acrylics and screen printing powder dyes which you can mix with water and create inks to work with. In terms of a favourite medium, I quite like cutting and sticking: collage. I prefer to paint washes of colour onto paper or print designs off the computer and then cut these up to form another print.
“The original, handmade prints are scanned into the computer and, depending on what product they will eventually end up on, we use the computer to change colour, scale, work out the repeat and so on. Some suppliers can just be sent a section of a print and be able to work it out for, say, a vase. In textiles we’re quite specific and design prints and layouts accordingly. Rugs are completely different – the patterns on rugs are not flat, they are generated via a completely different technique like weaving or handknotting so we rely on the manufacturer’s skills to translate the design. We can work to their creativity and give them a bit of freedom.
“Designing prints is not something I can switch on. We’ve tried blanking out days just to design prints but it doesn’t work. It tends to happen over a block of six weeks, to-ing and fro-ing with Polly and then spec’ing up, ensuring the colours are exactly right, deciding what’s going on what, that the colours are balanced across the collection and its price points. Inevitably, there will always be a few add-ins where we’ve thought we need something else and these are rushed through as and when – it’s the nature of working in retail and you adapt – needs must! And often these are the best ones. The designs get sent off to India, China and Portugal and we travel there twice a year to review the samples.
“It’s impossible to calculate how many prints I generate a season. Some seasons come more naturally than others. AW17, which I’m working on at the moment, has been quite succinct but it completely varies. I try to be as controlled and formulaic as I can be, so that a lot of the prints I design do actually get used. I try to design specifically for a product and anything that doesn’t get picked can be passed on to be developed for ceramics. Not everything gets used, and not everything is developed in its purest form, it might form inspiration for another print, in different colours, to a different scale. We keep an archive of all the original artworks.
“With travel, designing prints is one of the best parts of my job. Seeing something that I flicked with paint in my back garden eventually become a silk cushion is pretty satisfying. I can remember the day I made it, I love that!”