Textile designer and colour artist Ptolemy Mann joined forces with Johnson Tiles to create the rainbow of tiles that welcomed visitors to the Farmiloe Buidling during Clerkenwell Design Week last week. I caught up with her to find out more about her love of colour…
What’s the most important thing to know about you?
Colour. I’ve been running a studio for 18 years, but it seems that no matter what I do, it’s always about colour. When I graduated from Central St Martins in the mid 90s we were in a bit of a colour slump and everyone was very interested in John Pawson and minimalism, but we seem to be on a different cycle at the moment. It’s an exciting time. Colour is hot right now.
The other thing is that I trained as a craftsperson, a hand weaver. I think that’s given me a different approach – the first 10 years of my career were about handcrafting one-off pieces and large-scale architectural installations.
Where does your love of colour come from?
I’m a big fan of the Bauhaus philosophy. When I was at St Martins studying textiles, we did one day a week of colour theory. I did a lot of exercises based on the Bauhaus practitioners: Josef Albers, who wrote the book the Interaction of Color, and Johannes Itten, Paul Klee, Kandinksy… The Bauhaus really acknowledged that any designer, whether they were going to make furniture or textiles or graphics, had to understand colour, and I really agree with that.
What inspires you?
I don’t just look at other textile designers or other weavers, I look at architects, interior design, furniture, graphics, film, so it’s pretty broad, but my key inspirations are the Bauhaus and abstract expressionism.
I look a lot at fine art and painting: Donald Judd, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly… Kelly was very interested in colour and chromatic minimalism – using big expanses of very strong, saturated colour but they’re actually quite minimal. Mexican architect Luis Barragán, also used strong colour in a minimal way. He used to paint massive stretches of concrete in incredible, saturated colours. Recently, I’ve been looking at rugs from northern Iran and again they have this very minimal colour, saturated feeling about them.
Colour is everywhere, so it’s a good subject because you can find inspiration in so many places.
How do you get from initial inspiration to final product? What’s your process?
I use the computer a lot and I’m surprised to hear myself say that but it’s the truth. When you’ve spent many years handcrafting objects and making things by hand it’s quite weird to suddenly find that the computer is a really useful tool, but when you’re working at scale it’s absolutely crucial. You start off with the colour of the real tiles, or the thread or whatever it might be that you’re using, and then it goes into the computer. You do the design work on the computer and then it comes back to the material itself.
What’s your favourite part of the process?
The designing part is definitely the fun part, but I also really enjoy the making part. I still really enjoy that hands-on feeling. And I think if you’re going to do this kind of work it takes time, it takes a lot of patience, so you sort of have to enjoy all of it in some respects.
Describe a really good day and a really bad day in the life of Ptolemy Mann?
A really good day is just me in my studio working on a great project. I’m so lucky to be able to work in this way. I’m based in East Sussex in quite a rural location and I’ve got this fantastic studio in the middle of nowhere and it’s just a brilliant space. And really it’s colour, when I’m working with colour then I’m really very happy.
A bad day… sometimes all the technical stuff can really get in the way and be quite disheartening. Collaboration can be a joy, but it can also be quite stressful having to rely on other people and not having total control of the outcome. Touch wood, there aren’t too many bad days!
Tell me about your installation for Clerkenwell Design Week.
I think what’s really exciting about the Prismatic Landscape is the crossover between craft, colour and industry and I think it’s a really nice mix of ideas.
Johnson Tiles could have asked a whole number of people to do it, but it’s really nice that they looked beyond ceramics. I’m not saying I did a better job than a ceramic designer could have done, but I do think I gave it a different spin and because I approach these things from a textiles perspective, bringing a texture and a sort of energy to the look of it that might not have happened if they’d asked an architect or a different kind of designer. When they approached me, it was my dream commission, so it’s been very exciting.
What are you most proud of?
In around 2006 I was approached by an architect and an art consultant to specify the external façade of King’s Mill Hospital in Nottinghamshire. I’d never really done anything like it before and it triggered a whole new way of working for me. There is something rewarding about working on something that you know millions of people will see. My brief for the outside of this building was to make it somewhere that people want to go instead of somewhere that fills them with terror, especially children. They talked a lot about ‘threshold anxiety’ – if you’re treating a child for cancer for example, they might have to go there every week, so I wanted to make the environment somewhere where they feel a little bit more excited when they go there. That was a great project. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but the feedback that I’ve had from people who go there on a regular basis is phenomenal – people love colour and they respond really well to it.
What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?
It’s hard work and you’ve got to really want it. If you don’t have the ambition and desire to make something happen then it probably won’t. But if you do, these are exciting times – there’s a lot of crossing over between disciplines. There’s a lot of cross-referencing and overlapping. It’s a really exciting time for design and art and craft, there are a lot of options. My advice would be just work hard and go for it.
What does it mean to you to make the world more colourful?
A lot of people are scared of colour but things are changing, more and more people are feeling bolder about colour. Colour does make people feel better, it sounds kind of obvious but it’s true. Colour is pretty universal. I think it’s a very powerful way of communicating with people. Painting a wall colourfully or painting it white costs the same – colour can be a good solution in economically stretched times, so that’s important to recognise too.
And finally, tough question for you I expect, but what’s your favourite colour?!
My least favourite question! Colour is an emotional thing. David Batchelor, author of Chromophobia, says the human eye perceives something like 400 million colours. I’m interested in those in-between colours that don’t have a name and you can’t describe.
Further reading for the especially geeky:
New designer Molly Hutchinson has only just graduated Buck’s New University’s Textiles and Surface Design BA (Hons) course, and with her first collection under her belt, she’s already set to appear as part of Red …
Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.
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