The British Academy commissioned the textile artist and designer, Michelle House, to make two wall hangings for the alcoves above the staircase in 11 Carlton House Terrace. Michelle describes the processes involved in designing and making the two pieces.
I’ve been printing one-off textile art pieces for around twenty years. I caught the printing bug whilst studying textiles at Goldsmiths College and have loved it ever since. I work from my home and studio in South London.
Through my gallery Contemporary Applied Arts, London, I was invited to produce two wall hangings for the British Academy. My approach to a new piece of work often starts with photography, so I spent quite awhile at the Academy taking photographs of the library, stairs, banisters, marble floor and various other architectural details. I’ve always been inspired by architecture so focusing on aspects of the Academy’s building seemed a logical step. I also found the very impressive collection of books and library a source of inspiration.
Layering is a feature of my work and something I really enjoy playing around with. For the wall hangings, I decided to bring together some of the building’s architectural details with imagery of books in the library. I set about selecting and editing the images and creating designs on the computer. Using computer software enables me to visualise how a design will look once printed.
Once the designs had been agreed, I could set about ordering the fabric and other materials and start to prepare my screens. My work often features fabrics of different weights and textures. For these pieces I decided to use a mixture of smooth cotton satin, textured linens and natural flax linen to reflect the different surfaces within the building. Different fabrics absorb and reflect light differently and also affect how the surface and edges of a print will look.
Before printing onto textiles, much has to be done to prepare the materials and the print table. This involves cutting and ironing the fabric, washing and gumming the print table (which is 1.5m x 6m so quite a good workout!) and then ironing the fabrics down. Screens need cleaning, coating, exposing and taping. Lastly the pigments are mixed, which for these pieces totalled thirteen colours.
The photographic images were printed onto tracing paper and matched with screens of the right size, which in turn were coated with photographic emulsion and exposed to ultraviolet light to transfer the image.
A print out of the designs was marked up with measurements for each separate area of prints, ensuring that the seam allowance was taken into account. Colours and layers of print were applied to the six different sections of fabric using the screens and hand cut paper stencils. When there is no one around to hold the screen (which is most of the time) I have to kneel on one end of the screen and stretch to pull the colour across with the squeegee - if the distance is too great you can end up lying on the screen! As I couldn’t reach across some of the larger areas of these hangings, they had to be painted by hand.
The difference in scale between the printouts and the physical hangings is huge. A composition has to be re-evaluated once the work has been printed to size and sometimes the design will need another element added before it looks complete. For these two hangings, I printed a couple of extra sections, before I was satisfied that the pieces were balanced and finished.
Once the final colours had been printed, the prints were ironed to fix the colour and the sections were joined together. Finally, a lining fabric was hand stitched onto the back. This part of the process takes a significant amount of time and involves a lot of measuring, ironing and pinning."
Contemporary Applied Arts, often called CAA, was established in 1948 to support and encourage the making of fine crafts in Britain – and to keep them firmly in the public eye.
Today CAA acts as a vocal advocate for the crafts in Britain generally. It offers to the public examples of the richness of craft in Britain today, highlighting the huge, often unnoticed role which the applied arts have played over centuries – and continue to play – in both our domestic lives and in the wider, built environment.
CAA champions only the very best of British craft. Currently it represents 350 leading professionals who create unique pieces in ceramics, glass, jewellery, metal, paper, textiles, wood and furniture, demonstrating a perfect harmony of technical skill and artistic vision. The act of making is paramount, and members often use ancient, traditional skills, many of which are in danger of being lost forever. With experience and creative vision, these skills are interpreted by the makers and expressed in their own unique voice and in contemporary idiom. The results are often both stunning and thought-provoking.