I feel very honoured today to be featuring one of my long time mentors and go to people for textile design and history. John Hopper is the author and curator of The Textile Blog. Over the past eight years whenever i google a textile related subject, i am directed to John's blog. It is now one of my go to places for indepth and accurate information on textile design movements and techniques. With such a great wealth on knowledge and such a heart for education i was eager to pick John's brain.
Thanks Jonh for all the work you put into preserving and documenting textile history and for sharing with us at Pattern Occurring.
Anne Marie - Where did your interest in textiles and surface design stem from?
John - I have always been interested in cultural history ever since I was young. It mattered little to me where it was in the world, I was just intrigued as to how diverse humans were and the many ways they used decoration to express themselves. I built on that general interest when I started a generalised Art and Design course at Falmouth School of Art. I felt that a general course would give me a good taster of all the main disciplines and then I could choose which suited me best. When I got to textiles I instantly fell in love with the idea of both forms of textile design printed and woven, although I eventually specialised in constructed textiles (weave, tapestry, knit) when I completed my degree in Scotland. To me there was something about textile design that was fundamental. I became intrigued with the idea that textiles were inextricably intermeshed within the history of humans. It is something that we often trivialise, but it is also something that has allowed us to develop as a species, anything from the development of string that allowed us to easily carry large bundles around with us, to the development of felt to keep us protected from the elements. Although we often feel divorced from these fundamental developments, particularly in urban living, these were fundamental aspects of our technical culture, aspects that kept us alive and allowed us to flourish.
Anne Marie - What inspired you to start your own blog in 2008? You were ahead of the curve!John - When I was at college, the design history department often ignored textiles altogether. I remember being in a lecture about the Bauhaus where textiles were not mentioned once, despite the fact of being an important and very visual aspect of the school. It seemed to me that textile students deserved to know a little more about the history of their discipline, but also to celebrate a discipline that had such a rich and wide spectrum. Therefore, The Textile Blog has tried to cover as many aspects of textile design as it can. Therefore, even though it is hard work, I have tried to produce articles on printed, woven, carpet, tapestry, embroidery and lace, making sure that all are treated with equal merit. I have also introduced the concept of the designer as a multi-disciplined creative, showing work that designers produced in other disciplines as well as textiles.
Of course, The Textile Blog has expanded from its initial start in 2008. It now has a platform that includes regular updates on twitter, facebook, google+, pinterest, tumblr, flickr, youtube, as well as an expansion into ebooks that are also now available through Amazon. It takes a lot of work admittedly, but the results are always worth it. Every aspect of The Textile Blog is internet based, and this has allowed me to build up a following that is irrespective of contemporary politics, something I am particularly proud of. Therefore, the blog has followers on every continent and from nations as diverse as the US to Iran, Argentina to Vietnam.
I always wanted The Textile Blog to reflect the history of textiles. However, the historical aspect had to linked with the contemporary, I was not happy with the idea of a site that merely dealt in nostalgia. As I say on the blog ‘We should be able to learn from the past by using the work of previous generations as an inspirational starting point, but also to understand, appreciate and integrate the best of these practises as we look forward to the rest of the twenty first century’
The more you learn about history, the more you find similarities with your own time period. A good example of this is the English Arts and Crafts movement of the later nineteenth century. It is a movement that uses a vocabulary that instantly strikes a chord with the early twenty first century. There were concerns in the movement about such things as localised sourcing, sustainability, environmental impacts, the degradation of the human experience, irresponsible consumerism, and so on. The Arts and Crafts movement is a great example in how the past, rather than being a dead and discarded entity, can help to show us the way to the future. That to me is the essence of what I want The Textile Blog to be.
Anne Marie - Who is your personal favourite designer or movement?
John - I am not sure if I have a personal favourite. However, there are different designers that I admire for different reasons. I admire such individuals as William Morris, A W N Pugin and Owen Jones for their sheer dynamism and their belief in nature as the point of fundamental inspiration, but I also admire the German designer Hans Christiansen for being such a perfect example of the multi-disciplined designer.
As to a particular movement, that is perhaps not so hard to pinpoint. I have a great admiration for the Arts and Crafts movement, not just the English, but also its many different regional and national incarnations. I do understand that many see the Arts and Crafts movement as a reactionary one, a movement that wanted to set back the clock to a pre-industrial past, but that is really to misunderstand much of the internal dynamism of the movement. I don’t want to go into that here, but I would say that why I admire the movement so much is that in many ways it mirrors so many of the concerns that we have in our own contemporary era, particularly when it comes to such fundamentals as sustainability and the role of the consumer.
Anne Marie - Who in your opinion are the unsung heros of textile and surface design that any designer worth their weight should be aware of?
John -That would have to be the countless generations of designers and makers, many of whom were women, who were never remembered by name. Weavers, embroiderers, lace makers and others have added enormously to the vocabulary of textile design. It is to them primarily that we owe so much, particularly as to the creative journey that textiles has made over the generations.
Anne Marie -Which books do you think are essential on a textile designers shelf?
John -Personally, I don’t like to be pinned down to specifics. I have a very eclectic mix of books, I always have. I have books on Islamic design, Art Nouveau, Ancient Egypt, embroidery, the Bauhaus, as well as books on satellite photography, wild flowers and illustration. I always think that the broader the spectrum of reference books the better. However, I must admit that I don’t tend to buy nearly as many books as I used to as I use online sources which are getting much better and certainly more diverse as time goes on.
Anne Marie - Where are your favourite places to go to find interesting design and content?
John -I live in a rural county about 300 miles from London, with little if any proper resources as far as design is concerned. However, I don’t really mind that much as so much can be found online nowadays. I enjoy the international aspect of the internet, which means that I can browse anywhere and anything. I can visit a museum or gallery in the US and then travel to India to do the same. To me this opens us up to all sorts of stimulation, not just the few thousand who happen to live within distance of say the Victoria and Albert of Metropolitan Museums.
Anne Marie - What do you think of the current textile/surface climate? Is there and increased interest in this field?
John - There are so many issues with the global textile industry at the moment, none of which have really been seriously addressed. We tend to dance around the edges making small concessions and changes. There is a huge problem with the raw material, particularly cotton, which encompasses degradation of the environment through depletion of the soil and the hogging of water supplies, pollution of river courses caused by large-scale dyeing. Another pressing problem is one of labour and consumption. Some parts of the world want their clothes to be cheap, therefore as a consequence another part of the world has to undercharge and over work their labour force. These problems have been around for a long time and are still with us, unresolved, often purposely so.
As to the general interest in textiles, it seems as buoyant as ever, and although there is much talk, particularly in Europe of super textiles, textiles that are linked with technology, the world still seems very much in love with big, bold, colourful textile patterns.
Through The Textile Blog I get approached by a lot of newly graduated textile designers and the standard seems particularly high, which is always a good sign for the future. One thing that I have noticed is how international textile design is becoming. There some excellent new designers from all corners of the globe, there doesn’t seem to be any hegemony as their used to be.
Anne Marie - How can contempoary/high street textile design move on from mear iterations of runway prints?
John - Personally, I am not a big fan of closely following fashion in any of its forms. I would much prefer a textile design industry that was based on the creativity of the individual, rather than weak imitations of what was seen in Milan or New York. Textile design should always be based on personal experience, personal observation, and personal inspiration. It creates a much healthier and certainly a much wider base for the consumer.
The design industry in general is beginning to shift in its perception of itself. More and more designers are beginning to take responsibility for their own creativity. It is becoming increasingly common for designers to circumvent the middleman and produce short runs of a specific design for a specific purpose. It seems a system that is gaining momentum, being based as it is on precision consumer demand, rather than the blanket consumerism that we are so used to. It comes down to the alleviation of waste and the practicality of sustainability, concerns that will help constrain the fashion industry of the future, which will also fundamentally change the textile design industry as well.
Anne Marie - What makes a good design in your opinion?John - Honesty. If a design is true to the principles of the creative individual through first-hand observation and experience, the result should be strong enough to survive. I personally am a great believer in nature as the fundamental for all decorative work. It dominates the decorative history of human cultures across the planet irrespective of political, social, or religious differences. We have spent, as a species, at least 98% of our history living deep in the natural environment. We have a fundamental affinity with the flower and the leaf, which has been redeployed in textile design consistently over successive generations. I don’t see that ending any time soon.
Thank you again John for your time and thoughtful answers!