In a series of interviews, we speak to the five artists immersing themselves in industry to produce brand new work for the third instalment of The National Festival of Making’s Art In Manufacturing series, alongside the manufacturing firm they’ve been paired with.
Artist, Anna Ray works with cloth, fibre and thread to realise eye-popping gallery installations at the same time as working in fine detail on delicately sewn ‘drawings’. Straddling craft and conceptual art without being defined by either category, Ray has developed and shown work with organisations including the Turner Contemporary in Margate and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Ray is in residency at Forbo Flooring Systems, a manufacturer that produces commercial flooring in materials including linoleum, vinyl and carpet tiles for a wide-range of organisations worldwide as well as a range of advanced home flooring products.
Here Anna and Janet Lowe, Head of Marketing UK and Ireland for Forbo, give answers in an Art In Manufacturing Q&A.
Anna Ray: I submitted an expression of interest for the Art in Manufacturing open call and was fortunate to be selected for one of the commissions. I was excited by the link to Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway of Red or Dead, who co-founded the festival. I completely identify with a playful, open and optimistic attitude to creativity. Born in Leeds, trained in Edinburgh and now based just outside of London, I am proud of my northern roots and am delighted to be working on a project in the north of England. Some of my ancestors were Huguenot silk weavers and fancy trimmings manufacturers in London’s Spitalfields in the 1700s. Others became leather workers, cabinet makers and stationers. I draw inspiration from the history of man-made objects; I am fascinated by clothing and domestic items and the human stories they represent. The opportunity to work with a manufacturer, working with yarn, is a timely and natural step forward in the development of my current practice and research.
Janet Lowe: Forbo Flooring Systems is a global manufacturer of floor coverings for use mainly in commercial applications such as offices, schools, hospitals, banks and more. We have five production sites across the UK including two in Bamber Bridge, Preston where we make our commercial carpet tiles. A few years ago, we collaborated with HemingwayDesign, one of the delivery partners of the festival, to create the HemingwayDesign X Forbo collection. When Wayne Hemingway contacted us to see if we would like to be involved in the festival, it sounded like a fabulous opportunity to support the local community, to show off the skills of our local manufacturing teams and to be involved in producing a unique work of art.
JL: I was born in Blackburn and having visited the inaugural festival, it was fabulous to see so many people in the town centre coming together and having fun. There was a buzz about the place and it made me proud to be a Blackburnian. I saw several well-known companies ‘exhibiting’ there such as Silentnight, and I liked the creative way they were represented in unusual places such as the cathedral crypt. We’re used to promoting our products, but I really liked the idea of inviting our employees to share in the creation of something that they would be able to see in a local festival.
AR: I saw the films and photographs of previous AiM commissions online and was struck by the range of artists’ responses, from performance to large scale installations. Through making my work I explore my imagination – responding to research, found objects and personal experiences. The making of a new work often inspires another, and so there is sometimes a progression from one piece to the next, though this may not always be obvious visually. A different context can trigger new possibilities and ideas. A manufacturing environment incorporates so many different processes and materials, I’m certain that there will be a wealth of stimuli at Forbo for me to respond to.
I have been considering the mechanised fabrication of artwork elements for some time now, thinking about developing the scale and volume of what I produce. For certain pieces I have been supported by skilled assistants in the making process, I ask them to mimic my methods, thus enabling me to work though time consuming processes more quickly. I am curious to see what might happen in the space between making by hand in the studio and working with a manufacturer. My studio practice is predominantly a solitary, intuitive, experimental process, but I am interested in opening that up by developing work in different contexts. Having said that, the work that I produce at Forbo may still be hand-made by me, rather than fabricated, it all depends on the direction that I choose to take.
I am curious to see what might happen in the space between making by hand in the studio and working with a manufacturer.
AR: I have previously undertaken residencies, in a school in Romford, at Winterbourne Botanic Garden in Birmingham, The Chelsea Flower Show and more recently at the design studio of the hand weavers Dash & Miller and The Bristol Weaving Mill. This opportunity with Forbo is unique as the team will support me through the provision of materials and they may well give me access to the processes that they use directly. Being open to a situation and breathing it in is an important part of a residency for me – listening to people, watching them work, looking at the relationships within a place. How does everything fit together, what are the rhythms? I try to fit in and also participate socially, with the hope that I can reflect back a unique view of the place and the activities of the people at the close of a project. I am particularly interested in the haptic, the hands at work – cutting, folding, passing, threading, winding, arranging.
JL: We’ve worked with designers before to create product ranges, such as Philippe Starck and HemingwayDesign, but these are quite long-term projects with a known outcome, for example a new design of floor covering. We also participate in a design festival called Clerkenwell Design Week from our London showroom, but this is the first time we have worked directly with an artist to create a work of art.
JL: Our sites are busy and productive, and we want to keep our artist, Anna, safe so the first day will be a Health and Safety briefing and Anna will be asked to keep to the ‘yellow brick road’ i.e. the marked pedestrian walkway in our factories. It might not be the most exciting thing that Anna will do but it’s necessary. After that, the fun can start as Anna will be based in our design department. We have three product designers based at Bamber Bridge and they, along with our Head of Design – Textile, will explain the complex process of designing and manufacturing carpet tiles and hopefully help Anna find inspiration for her piece.
AR: Forbo should know that I have an open and experimental approach, that I will head in a number of different directions, seeking new points of departure during the initial stages of making. I will push the boundaries of materials rather than make safe choices. I prefer to take a risk on something new, rather than repeat myself.
AR: To observe the inner workings of a commercial, international manufacturer will give me a unique insight. In a sense, I am working in a kind of cottage industry, running everything myself from my studio at home, communications, project management and making. Seeing large scale production first hand will be a curious parallel. I am sure that there will be many differences between our worlds, but perhaps as many connections in our experiences of making and our modes of presenting work in the public domain.
I am sure that there will be many differences between our worlds, but perhaps as many connections in our experiences of making and our modes of presenting work in the public domain.
JL: I think it will allow our manufacturing team to see the materials they use every day in another light, this time as raw materials for a work of art. I hope it also reinforces their sense of pride in the work that they do so skillfully. Some flooring companies don’t manufacture their products, they source them from Asia and we’re hoping that this project will allow us to remind our customers that we both manufacture and supply our flooring, which is a key differentiator. It might also provide opportunities to work with Anna on other projects such as a piece for our London showroom.
JL: Design and aesthetics are key features in our flooring. Although the flooring needs to be fit for purpose, like safety flooring, perhaps have acoustic properties; be suitable for use in an entrance etc. If the product doesn’t look good, we won’t sell it, so the use of colour and design is crucial to the success of our business, so I don’t think the worlds are too far apart.
AR: I imagine that myself and the team at Forbo will have particular views on our output, standards that we strive to meet, a form of identity/brand identity to maintain. Perhaps we will share the desire to be seen as working at the cutting edge of our disciplines. There may well be distinct philosophies at play and specific attitudes to working with materials, form and colour that will be relatable.
AR: A needle and thread.
JL: We wouldn’t be able to work without any of our specialised tufting machines as they have all been set up in a unique way to allow us to produce such a diverse range of carpet tile designs.
1. Yarn is received
2. Yarn is creeled/set up on the tufting machines
3. Yarn is tufted onto a primary backing cloth that gives the carpet tiles dimensional stability and holds the tufts in place
4. The ‘top cloth’ i.e. the tufted material, is sent to another plant in Bamber Bridge for backing
5. The backed roll of ‘carpet’ is cut into tiles, boxed and shipped to our warehouse ready for sale in the UK or internationally.
1. Clearing the decks
7. Project management
AR: The Beatles song ‘A Day in the Life’ with a verse by John Lennon springs to mind: “4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire”. Blackburn is known for its textile manufacture and was once called ‘The weaving capital of the world’. The town was recognised for a blue and white woollen cloth called the ‘Blackburn Check’, woven in 1650 and beyond.
JL: Barbara Castle was the Blackburn MP from 1945 to 1979, making her the longest-serving female MP in the history of the House of Commons until that record was broken in 2007 by Gwyneth Dunwoody. She led the charge against turnstiles on public toilets for women, starting with House of Commons. There were no turnstiles on men’s’ toilets, yet they were not pregnant, towing children, or carrying shopping. To this day, the Ladies public toilets in Blackburn’s shopping centre are free to use and, according to my mother who visits the town centre daily, very well maintained!