Earlier this month I had the pleasure of catching up with fabric designer extraordinaire Penny Seume over a cup of tea at her pop-up shop in Clerkenwell. I’ve admired Penny’s work from afar for a while so couldn’t wait to find out more about her and her work. Here’s how our chat went:
So Penny, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you go about designing your wonderful fabrics?
Yep, I’d love to. I’ve been painting and drawing all my life but my real inspiration is the colour of places. When I visit cities or countries it’s the colours and textures of a place that really catch my eye. I always carry a camera with me to be able to snap places quickly. It isn’t always convenient to be whipping out a sketchbook or carrying pastels with you. So typically I’ll take photos then go back to my studio and do little drawings, paintings and sometimes pastel versions of the same view. I then use digital printing to turn my paintings into prints.
So you mention you’ve done a bit of travelling, are there any places you particularly love or find inspiring?
Oh yes, plenty of places. I do love New York. I went there about three of four years ago and did a trade show a couple of years running. There’s something about the place that’s so unexpected. I was imagining it to be very cold and austere with the skyscrapers but was astonished at what a warm place it is – very rich brown buildings and surprisingly leafy as well. I love just walking around and hearing the accents as well but obviously you can’t paint accents.
Italy in general is also great – I love Rome, Venice and Naples, and visited Pompeii when I was there last. I took lots of photos that will probably be my inspiration for autumn. People have said I should call the collection “Positano” because it sounds posher but actually I like the idea of a Naples collection.
And any favourites in the UK?
London is where I’m from and I love whenever I come back. There are so many amazing buildings here – we’re spoilt really. And of course Bath is very beautiful – it’s where I studied at college so has a special place in my heart.
So you’ve told us a bit about your outside inspirations but now I’d really like to know a bit more about your inspirations at home.
Right, so you mean my actual living environment as opposed to my working environment…that’s tough! Ok, well… in general there’s a lot of colour. In the living room I have Liberty print curtains with turquoise motif going up. There’s a Derek Balmer painting I have on the wall which is of a landscape in Italy. The fields are all different colours – there’s lavender and golden corn and it’s rather abstract. I never get bored with it and the painting lights up the whole room– it’s beautiful.
In the breakfast room and kitchen I have my skyscraper print fabric as curtains because it’s quite jolly. There’s also a French dresser rammed full of very kitsch objects like tea trays with Victorian women made out of old sweet wrappers and things. My daughter says I should get rid of it but I like it. The kitchen is mainly duck egg blue which I’m really fond of, I have it in a lot of my designs and find it goes with a lots of colours.
Those are probably the two most thought-out rooms in the house. The bedroom is very plain. It’s pretty much plain white I think because I need to have some calm. I love colour but the house can be a bit chaotic as well. Especially when I’m doing shows because everything seems to end up in the house. Cushions and lampshades take up a lot of space! Other inspirations are from going out and about and collecting things. Also going to exhibitions and seeing amazing things at shows.
Have you been to any exhibitions recently that you thought were particularly good?
Well I think possibly one of the best exhibitions I’ve been to is actually the Alexander McQueen one in New York. That was amazing – really atmospheric. I think it was his inventive use of materials and sense of anticipation that was so exciting. There was also a Thomas Hetherwick exhibition at the V&A probably a year ago showing all the astonishing bridges and buildings he’s built. Everyone of course knows him for the Olympics crucible but I love his bridges. So it’s not necessarily textile people who inspire me, it’s more architecture and artists who have amazing minds and use materials in interesting ways. Peter Doig had a fantastic show at the Tate Modern a few years ago. The scale of his textured paintings is superb. Some of them are a bit menacing too which I quite like. You get a shiver of anticipation and you’re not quite sure what’s going on in the painting which makes them unexpected.
So you’ve mentioned you like texture.
Yes, you could say I’m obsessed
Haha, that comes out a lot in your work. How do you go about choosing the materials?
So specifically I’m thinking about this cushion from when I went to New York for the first time. I was on the subway and it was a freezing cold day with a really cold blue sky. The light was hard but when the sun came through the subway windows it just caught on the glass and refracted into millions of little sparkly gold motes. So you could see the skyscapers looking out through a gold haze. I took lots of photos of that and it was textural for me. So I was determined to recreate that effect somehow in a painting. After painting I had to work out how to show that on fabric. Silk is too flat, linen it wouldn’t work but velvet seemed perfect because it has depth.
So you have a few different collections here would you like to give a slight run down of your most recent ones perhaps?
Well it’s funny when you say most recent as often I go back to things. I might start out doing New York and then at a later point I’ll think there were some paintings I haven’t used and am still interested in. I then go back and re-explore them. If you’ve taken the trouble to paint something you were interested in in the first place then you want to go back to see how far you can take it.
With the Bath inspiration, I did a collection largely based on a view from Sion Hill. At the top of the hill you can see these gorgeous trees and beautiful houses. When it’s dusk you can see the street lights twinkling through. That’s actually the view there (points at scarf hanging on the wall).
The little flashes of light in the background are probably the lights of cars driving down the hill. I’ve used that painting in several different ways, for example on scarves but equally I’ve just tried it this week on a lampshade that would look quite alluring in a corner with the light shining through the oranges and yellows.
Recently Anthropologie opened a shop in Bath and they commissioned me to make quite a lot of lampshades and cushions based on my Bath inspiration. The fact that it was location-specific really worked for them. I particularly enjoyed putting a large painting onto velvet for two chairs.
So you’ve mentioned Anthropologie – have you thought of doing any collaborations with other people?
Yes I have thought about it – it’s just time isn’t it. I think it’s exciting and keeps people fresh with lots of different ideas coming in. At the moment I collaborate with the lady who made the chairs for Anthropologie and a lovely man from Bristol who makes all these great wooden lampstands. He uses the offcuts from his wood from tree surgery so each one is different.
Do you have any words of wisdom for the artists and designers of today?
Yes, I suppose the way I went at it when I left college was I just threw myself into doing shows wholeheartedly. I was frightened that when I wasn’t at college with deadlines and someone there with a whip I wouldn’t be as motivated. This really worked for me… Also if you can’t afford a studio, then I would recommend joining a collective of fellow artists to keep you in touch with other people and sane. Unless you’re a monk-like person that is. Another tip would be to be realistic about the amount of money it’s going to cost you. Maybe think about having a part time job while you’re growing or running workshops to bring in regular money to support yourself. And lastly, stay positive because there’s no greater feeling than seeing a finished piece and thinking “yep, I did a good job with that”.
If you fancy seeing Penny and her work you can find her online at www.pennyseume.co.uk. Equally if you fancy meeting her in person she’s planning on being at the below fairs:
Made by Hand in Cardiff 30 Oct – 1st Nov
Hereford Contemporary Craft Fair 14 – 16 Nov
Sparkle – Landmark Trust, Teddington 21-23 Nov.