Thriving: Reflections for the future maker


Jemima Burrill in conversation with spatial designer and artist Simone Brewster and textile designer Sarah Campbell

For Design District’s latest lunchtime event, we meet two makers of different generations who’ve both made their mark by breaking the rules. Host Jemima Burrill (curator at Greenwich Peninsula’s NOW Gallery) talks to them about creativity, collectivity and constant engagement.

Sarah Campbell

Sarah Campbell’s celebrated, colour-filled career began in the 1960s when she and her sister, the late Susan Collier, formed their textile design company, Collier Campbell. In the ensuing decades, the sisters’ joyful and exuberant patterns became popular with fashion designers such as Jean Muir, John Bates, Bill Gibb and Yves Saint Laurent. Campbell has continued to produce on her own — branching out and experimenting with everything from potato prints to iPads.

Something every day

In a pencil sketch done 72 years ago, a three-year-old Campbell is depicted in the act of painting, a look of deep concentration on her face. ‘I don’t seem to have changed that much,’ the designer says. ‘I still paint, draw or make something almost every day.’ For Campbell it’s more about the doing than getting it right: ‘Perfectionism is a deadly idea.’ 

Telling stories

Being unable to travel to sunnier climes has been a disappointment for many this year, but when it happened to Campbell in the early 1980s, she channeled her frustration into what would become one of Collier Campbell’s best-known designs: Cote d'Azure. She believes the design’s success is probably down to the story it tells, inviting the viewer to engage and explore. ‘If I’ve contributed anything to textiles,’ she says, referring to her pioneering way of creating pattern, ‘it's probably the idea of the growing and wandering repeat.’

Working together, working alone

Campbell and her sister worked together for 50 years, forming an artistic bond and personal language few creative partnerships ever achieve. Campbell is now prone to holding one-sided conversations as part of her process. Nonetheless, she has achieved a profoundly positive perspective: ‘When you’re very close to somebody in a relationship it’s like two trees together — some branches never grow. But when one of them dies or something changes, those branches get a chance to emerge.’

Simone Brewster

The influence of Simone Brewster’s architecture education (she holds a degree from the Bartlett School) is apparent across her prolific output, which includes jewellery, sculptural objects, conceptual furniture and painting. She’s a committed champion too, ever-ready to extoll the work and ideas of her creative peers.

Making your own rules

It all started with a visit to a factory in Norfolk, where Brewster chanced upon some discarded pieces of ebony: ‘I was fascinated by the materiality of this wood,’ she says. ‘I picked it up and knew I was going to do something with it.’ Despite having no previous jewellery-making experience, Brewster set about producing her first collection: Ebony Revolution. ‘Because I wasn't taught that you’re meant to do things in a particular way,’ she says, ‘I avoided a lot of the things you have to unlearn when you become your own creative. I didn’t feel caught up by the rules; I made my rules.’

Genius or ‘scenius’?

Brewster is not one to subscribe to the idea of the individual genius. Instead, she believes in collective inspiration, the way those in a scene can inform each other — hence her preference for musician Brian Eno’s neologism ‘scenius.’ Much of Brewster’s popular Instagram feed is given over to promoting peers, such as glass artist Juli Bolaños-Durman.

Hidden histories and the role of women

Prior to lockdown, Brewster considered painting as something she might take up in retirement. But with limited access to many of the facilities her work usually requires, she decided: ‘Why don’t I try and learn how to do this?’ The result is Women in Parts, an ongoing series of minimal ink paintings the artist describes as ‘an extension of a dialogue within my work on the role of women. As a woman you’re never really taken as your whole… you’re always being broken up into elements.’ This idea is similarly explored in three dimensions in Brewster’s pair of furniture objects Negress & Mammy, where a chaise longue and table — whose supporting elements constitute deconstructions of the black female body — become a means ‘to talk about a hidden history.’

At a time when many creatives are facing challenges to the way they work, the conversation between Burrill, Campbell and Brewster offers some much-needed wisdom on persevering and facing the future. Brewster speaks of a commitment to being ‘productive, adaptive and engaged,’ while for Campbell it’s about keeping herself entertained: ‘That’s how I can come to work every day and pick up a brush and keep going. It’s because I amuse myself, I’m still interested.’

 See more of Sarah Campbell’s work here and Simone Brewster’s here.