Armed with a brush, a powerful sense of color, and a sheer disregard for convention, Sarah Campbell designed some of the most iconic textile designs of the past 50 years. The hand-painted prints and patterns she created alongside her sister, Susan Collier, are unmistakable. And this past year, Sarah Campbell collaborated with west elm to create some incredible small-scale floral prints and pattern designs for an exclusive collection of products.
We were honored to visit this groundbreaking designer’s studio, get some advice, and learn more about Sarah Campbell.
Of all the iconic patterns from your archive, are there any that you are particularly fond of?
Now you’re asking! Out of the thousands of patterns we’ve done it’s a challenge to pick, and the answer can vary from week to week.
At the moment I’m very fond of the Herbaceous Border scarf [below] – painted in the early ’70s for Liberty of London and taking its inspiration from Christopher Lloyd’s garden. The original had a cat walking along the garden wall, but he had to be painted out – that memory always makes me smile.
And Cote d’Azur [above], partly for being such a good hard-working design and partly for reminding me of the value of a pattern with a clear point of view. At the time it was a design risk that was well worth taking.
What was the inspiration behind some of the new patterns you made for west elm?
The garden path design has a particularly pleasing story – it was inspired by the very first pattern I ever sold! I had drawn a big landscapey panel for the backdrop of my final year diploma show at art school; it was bought by the producer at Liberty of London Prints and was always seen as a bit of an idiosyncratic purchase on his part.
Actually the themes of landscape and views have been a lasting interest and inspiration for me – and it’s been really fun to redraw that original pattern and give it another life at west elm.
The little indigo flowers grew from the idea of Japanese blossoms, and the spring flowers give a nod to an old piece of Japanese embroidery I once saw.
How has your studio practice changed rom the time you first started as a freelance designer in the 1960s to the present day?
In some ways it’s hardly changed at all: I still sit or stand at my table, mix my colors in palettes and pots using gouache paint. I draw and paint directly onto paper to the scale of the finished design. And I trace, put down, and paint the repeats all myself.
Of course a huge change in my daily studio life is the loss of my sister Susan, my work companion for over 50 years, in 2011. The sharing of thoughts, ideas, plans, dreams was integral to our partnership and our business, and I do miss that exchange tremendously now.
How come designing patterns by hand so important to your process?
Firstly I happen to really enjoy the physical act of drawing and painting – and having that pleasure is of great importance to me: there’s nothing like a nice fat brush laden with paint and a plain sheet of paper.
Secondly I believe in the power of the painted mark – it has its own energy and integrity and when it works it is a generous, compelling force.
Thirdly I believe that the relationship to scale is best understood in painting to size rather than designing on a small screen. I could go on…
What are the two most important qualities for aspiring designers to foster?
Really listen and really look. A customer needs to be heard. A design and its context need to be well observed.
If you’re in NYC, we are throwing a party for Sarah Campbell’s new collection at west elm Broadway on Thursday, 11/15. Come celebrate with us and meet the designer herself!
Images: Sarah Campbell