With Cressida Bell at her Open Studios last November
I was first lucky enough to meet the designer Cressida Bell (granddaughter of Vanessa Bell) last November, when I went along to her open studio day (you can read about the fun I had here). I’d become a huge admirer of her beautiful textile designs after buying one of her scarves on a visit to Charleston, and since then I’ve bought some other scarves as well as one of her beautiful lampshades, which has pride of place on my bedside table.
I find it completely fascinating to get a glimpse into an artist’s studio, and Cressida’s is a treasure trove of pattern and colour. I was absolutely thrilled, then, when she very kindly agreed to let me pop by the studio again last week to have an informal chat and question her a little as to her work and creative process. You may well imagine that sitting down for a talk with the great niece of Virginia Woolf would be rather intimidating, but Cressida is one of the most charming and down-to-earth people I’ve met and has the wonderful knack of putting anyone at ease. When I arrived at the studio, she and her assistant Minnie were busy at work, and I was lucky enough to be just in time to see two of the latest designs emerging from the steamer to be unrolled.
Aren’t they glorious? I’ve fallen head over heels for the Cityscape print – it seems the perfect pattern for any city girl (or indeed boy!).
But now for the interview! This was definitely one of the most fun ‘Miranda Chats’ interviews I’ve done so far, not least because I got to follow Cressida around as she worked in the studio, deftly trimming material for scarves and showing me some of the studio’s many hidden treasures, from her glorious collection of tiny baubles for her cake decorating classes to her beautiful sketch books. I recorded our conversation, and I have slightly paraphrased Cressida’s answers to my questions below. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
MN: How did you decide you wanted to become an artist?
CB: I decided I wanted to do what I do now when I was about 13 – I actually decided I wanted to go to the Royal College of Art. I’d had friends who’d been, and my dad taught art history so I knew quite a lot of people in that world.
MN: What are the greatest inspirations for your artwork?
CB: That’s difficult. This print here [pointing to her newly unrolled Cityscape print] was inspired by some tiles done by Peggy Angus. She was a friend of our father’s, and lived quite near to us in Sussex. Peggy used to get us [children] to paint Sussex beach stones with Celtic symbols, and she would sell them in Shetland as being done by local artists! Just after she died, I went to a show of her work, and saw she’d done an installation of painted tiles – and they looked like a city. I remember I drew these little tiles on the back of my business card – this was probably about 15 years ago, but that’s how I started working on this and the print came about.
MN: Have you always been drawn to patterns?
CB: Yes, very much. And so I often look at other patterns. I love ceramics – that influences me sometimes. But quite often it’s nothing in particular. I do always tend towards the slightly more formal, geometric designs.
MN: Is it always pattern that comes first, or is it sometimes colour?
CB: Sometimes it’s colour – I went to the opera once, and the production used a mauvey grey, which is still one of my favourite colours to use – but they used the mauvey gray with a lime green too, and I thought I had to use those colours together. You don’t always know the colours are going to work though, until the print comes out and is actually on fabric.
MN: Do you have a favourite colour?
CB: Red. You can tell from the outside of the studio [the door is painted a very cheery red!].
MN: Do you have a favourite design you’ve done?
CB: I really like Indian Stripe. I went to India, and didn’t much care for the textiles – everything I bought was stripy. When I came back, I wanted to do lots of stripes in different directions, because that’s what India did for me. It’s a design that looks good in almost any colour way too.
Cressida Bell’s Indian Stripe design, image via the Cressida Bell website
MN: What are your favourite things to create?
CB: I still love doing the scarves.
MN: Did you start with scarves?
CB: Yes. When I left the Royal College, I did a show of mainly scarves, because you want something to sell! I did some collections of clothing too – I studied fashion at St Martin’s, and then I specialised in textiles at the RCA.
MN: Who are your favourite artists, or favourite artworks?
MN: Do you have many memories of Charleston from your childhood?
CB: Oh yes definitely. We went there for our holidays (I was brought up in Leeds), and when I was about 8 we moved to Sussex quite close to Charleston. My dad [Quentin Bell] had his pottery there so he would go over to Charleston every weekend, and quite often I would go with him. We would have lunch with Duncan [Grant], and bring him back to our place for dinner. Duncan didn’t die until I was 19, and he was really more like a grandfather to me. He was very much part of my growing up. I remember my grandfather Clive [Bell] a little bit, and I remember my grandmother [Vanessa Bell] not at all – I was only 1 when she died. As children, we weren’t allowed to go into the studio [at Charleston] much – that was adult preserve. I remember we use to hang around the kitchen with the cook, because that was the most fun.
CB: Ah, well, that’s actually through my dad. He always did the Christmas cake, and he’d always be very extravagant with lots of cherries and stuff. You know the cover of Let it Bleed [by the Rolling Stones] – which was apparently done by Delia Smith – and it was meant to be a rather gross and over the top Christmas cake, but for me it was just normal. As my dad got older he passed the job onto me, so I’ve always done the Christmas cake for my sister’s family and for friends and so on.
The cake workshops are good fun. We tidy this table up [pointing to the work table that stretches almost the entire length of the studio] and cover it with white vinyl. Everyone gets a cake, and I demonstrate what people can do. They’re really not difficult to do though. You know the fashion for colouring in at the moment? It’s rather like that. You can sit and just fill in your designs. It isn’t actually very skillful – it’s really easy! It’s design led though, so it is a lot of fun. And people do such brilliant things – let me show you [gets out phone and shows me snaps of cakes created by former cake class attendees – they are all fabulous!].
MN: What is it like to be part of the Hackney Community of artists? Is there still a community left?
CB: I think where we are here [Clarence Mews] there is quite a community, and it’s really nice. When I was first [in Hackney] I was down by London Fields, and I was the only one [artist]. It was rather grim! I really like it round here though – it’s not like we live in each other’s pockets, but it’s a friendly crowd. We’re all going to have open studio together – I think there will probably be about 15 studios open [click here for dates and details]. There are people doing jewellery and leatherwork. And just up the road is an architect who turns out to be related to me! Her husband has a stall on Broadway Market too. Generally, there’s a lot of goodwill amongst us all.
MN: What is your creative process like? Do you have any particular routine to your work?
CB: I’m afraid I’m very boring – I work 10-6 every day, and I don’t work at weekends. It depends what we’re doing at the moment. We’re not always printing – we may be designing or painting. Any of my designs start in my sketchbook – I’m very precious and have them all going back to the Royal College of Art [flicks open her current sketchbook and lets me have a browse through its gorgeous pages].
MN: What advice would you give to up and coming artists or creatives these days?
CB: I would say do try to use paper and paint – rather than just doing everything on the computer, where it’s easy to over neaten your work. I think you can always tell a computer generated design. Don’t try to follow a trend – just do your thing. If you follow what’s fashionable, you will lose your way. It’s important not to look over your shoulder at what other people are doing. I would also say to anyone starting out – never undersell yourself.
MN: Finally, through my blog, I like to celebrate interesting, successful and creative women. Which women have inspired you the most?
CB: Some of my teachers really inspired me. One in particular said to me: ‘look at the way you draw. Try being more free.’ That really helped me. I had to become more free, before I could be more controlled in my designs again. My mother [also inspires me], but I suppose that’s a bit of an obvious answer isn’t it. Sonia Delaunay – I love the fact that she had a car in her own design. That’s why I love having my ipad covers and iphone cases in my designs [my iphone case is a Cressida Bell design, and it’s constantly admired]!
Thank you so much again to Cressida for providing such fabulous answers to my questions and for taking the time to show me around the studio. I absolutely recommend marking off a day in your diary (see below for dates) to make it to one of her open days this year – it’s an incredible chance to get a glimpse of a proper Hackney studio, as well as a terrific opportunity to stock up on Christmas gifts, as there’s a wide range of stock available, from cards to lampshades, wash-bags, ties and scarves (there’s generally also a selection of seconds available at a good discount too!). I’ll definitely be attending again this year, and I can’t wait to see some of the other neighbouring studios that will be open as well.
If you can’t make it to the open studio, but fancy spending the day with Cressida decorating your Christmas cake (and frankly, who wouldn’t want to do that?!), then do note that her cake decorating master classes are coming up in December (11th & 12th December – click here for details). I think the classes sound rather marvellous!