Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Hello and welcome to the Artisan Homeware blog. It's been a difficult year for sure for many of us, but it's also been incredible to see the support out there for independent businesses in the face of these turbulent times, and a genuine interest in the stories behind some of our very special new products and their hugely talented producers - which has inspired us to start up this blog. We're kicking off with a fascinating interview with Anna-Lisa Smith, owner and designer behind the eponymous label whose 'Alex' collection of luxury merino wool blankets and cushions has just launched on our site. We talked to Anna-Lisa about design inspiration, the trials and the triumphs of running your own design label and homes in pandemic times. Read below:
Where do you usually look for inspiration, and what was the inspiration behind the Alex collection specifically?
ALS: There are certain designers and artists that I know I can always return to, Bauhaus design, Ben Nicholson’s paintings, Sonia Delauney’s textiles, Gees Bends’ quilts - but a lot of ideas come to me from architecture and the built environment. Weaving is lines and blocks - so weaving and architecture are symbiotic, and the lines of architectural designs naturally translate into weave.
The Alex collection was based on some tiles I saw in Portugal. Not traditional Portuguese tiles - this was in Cascais, a little town on the coast close to Lisbon that is quite extraordinary - very ornamental and decorative, and amongst all the traditional, elaborate decoration were these very simple, modern tiles whose design was very different from everything else around them, and really stood out to me. It was the lines and the colours of these tiles that were the starting point of the Alex collection.
What is your working process as a designer, from initial inspiration to having a design ready to produce?
ALS: It begins with photographs, and a lot of work in sketchbooks, on graph paper - working on the pattern, the proportions, the scale. I nearly always start with the idea that this time, I’ll do something more elaborate - and then at the end of the process, it has become something much more simple. This design process for me is about finding the essence of a particular design, the balance, the purity - stripping back the excess and allowing what it is that is simple and beautiful about that design to emerge.
The next stage is to print the design out on multiple sheets of A4, and to build it together on the floor to get a sense of how the pattern works at scale. Once I am satisfied with the design, then I will create mock ups digitally to see how it looks over a bed, within interiors schemes etc but I don’t use the computer as much as you would think in the design process.
I use wool from Knoll Yarns, a company who are based here in West Yorkshire and who supply non-mulesed merino wool yarns of a very high quality. I find they have the best colour selection for my collections - the colours are very pure and clear as opposed to earthier, blended tones. Using the yarn colours I have selected, I create a colour wrap, combining the yarns in their different proportions to get a real sense of the effect of those colours in combination.
The final stage is to send the design and the yarns to the mill, who create a weave design for the Jacquard loom and create samples. From the samples I pick the best colour selections for the collections, and then everything is ready for the manufacturing process to begin.
The quality of your blankets is immediately evident in the feel. They have a weight and a softness to them which is quite unique. What is it about the processes you use that creates this remarkable quality of cloth?
ALS: It starts with the yarn. I use Merino Lambswool yarn which is a very special material. The second part of the process that is absolutely key to the softness and suppleness, the feel of the blanket, is the finishing. People think that once the cloth leaves the mill everything is done but this is not at all the case - how the fabric is finished is as important a part of the manufacturing process as any. When the cloth comes off the loom it is stiff and dusty, it has no life to it. The cloth is then sent to the finishers - again I use a local West Yorkshire company, W.T. Johnsons in Huddersfield, where it is ‘finished’ by carefully washing and drying in what is a delicate and highly skilled procedure. I have worked closely with the finishers to refine the exact process that is used on my blankets to achieve a really beautiful, soft handle.
Can you tell us a little bit about the history of your business? When did it start, what have been the milestones and the challenges?
ALS: After initially studying textile design, I lived in London and Milan before settling in Paris, where I lived for four years. People’s homes there were different: the approach to design was much more pared back. I found something in this simplicity that really appealed to me, and had a long-lasting effect on my own design aesthetic. On returning from Europe in 2012, I went back to my textile studies. By this time I was a mature student, and came to the course with a strong identity for my work already established. I wanted to design for myself, not somebody else, plus I wanted to live and work in the North, and I wanted my textiles to be manufactured here too: starting my own textiles label was the only practical option.
It wasn’t easy, I didn’t have experience of the UK textile industry, so I was really in at the deep end. Even just finding a mill with the right kind of loom took a long time. My designs are based around the fact that they are fully reversible - and it is on a jacquard loom that this effect can be best achieved. There aren’t many of them left in the country, and they weren’t always easy to find. I had to do a lot of legwork searching out mills that were operating in the North West, had the equipment I needed, and who were willing to work with a new designer. However, at my first ever trade show, I had a lot of interest, including from some of the leading interiors retailers in the UK. This showed me that, despite the difficulties, I knew I was on the right track.
A couple of years into the business and it was all starting to feel like too much. I was considering giving up my own label and going to work in-house somewhere, when I was chosen to participate in the Liberty’s open call. [One of the most renowned open calls in the design world, The Liberty’s of London design open call involves the Liberty’s buying team selecting 500 designers from Italian applications numbering over 5000 to pitch to them in person with a view to having their work stocked by the iconic London store.] The pitch day was in January, and after five hours queueing - the line stretched all around the outside of the building - I got in to do my pitch to the buyers, and was one of a handful of designers eventually selected. It was the confidence booster that I needed, a timely reminder that I had something worth pursuing.
Since then her business has gone from strength to strength, selling to boutiques all over the world, with her designs particularly popular in Scandinavia, Japan and the USA. In 2019 she was selected as one of the artists for the prestigious Tate ‘Edit’ series, and in addition to the 2020 re-release of the sold-out Alex collection exclusive to Artisan Homeware, has just launched the ‘Deco’ collection, inspired by Victorian tiling in the V&A.
Do you have any advice for shoppers as we head into our first lockdown winter?
ALS: The home is going to be really important in the coming months and and we don’t know for how long after that - our environment can have a big impact upon how we feel, so making sure we are bringing beautiful things into that environment is important. Beautiful well-made products make me feel happy every time I use them, they provide a constant top-up of feel-good.
Also, I think we can forget sometimes, that as consumers, there is power in our choices. We create the world around us. If we want a world with beautiful handmade items in it, its up to us to support the people making those things now, while we still have them, because if we don’t, they will disappear, and the world around us will look very different.
With an independent craftsperson, you are getting something more than just the product. My customers have a relationship with me, the maker - both designer and consumer are essential parts of a process we are in together. As a designer, you have an idea, work on it, make it into a real object and when that real object goes into someone’s house it becomes a part of their environment, an environment that in turn affects their mindset, their thought processes: when you buy from independent craftspeople, that connection is very direct, people feel that and enjoy it, and that’s part of the value of the experience.