Sunday, 1 September 2019

Designing to fit - Inspiration from Brasília

Last year we went on a long anticipated holiday to Brasília. I described a few of the wonderful places we saw in a previous blog entry.

We came back inspired.  The Itarmarty Palace by Oscar Neimeyer in 1960 was a stunning place to visit. It is the Brazilian Foreign Ministry but, like all their main government buildings, is very accessible to locals and tourists.

Itarmarty palace 1960 Oscar Neimeyer
 Inside the building there was a screen that separated two open plan areas as you can see.

Looking through the screen
The wooden uprights had a series of painted wooden inserts in four colours but they appeared to be placed randomly. I thought that the pattern could inspire me to design a piece of weaving, but it also caught my husband's imagination.

The screen was very dramatic but also allowed views of the adjoining room.
The vestibule in our terraced house was rather dark with floor-to-ceiling wooden panels and double doors leading to the the stairs. Although the house is relatively modern it gives a rather Victorian feel to the entrance.

View from open front door.

We had just commissioned two Steltman chairs - a left and right versions - from a local craftsperson, Jamie Sowden, of Forest Edge Woodcrafts.  They are made of Accoya™ timber and painted white.

We love the work of Gerrit Reitveld and these 1962 chairs were his last furniture design, originally for a jewellery shop in Amsterdam. Here is the chair in the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague.  I took these photographs last December when we were thinking about these chairs for our house. I love the way the design seems to float in space. 

Although the furniture of Gerrit Reitveld is under copyright, you are allowed to have one copy made for personal use only. This wonderful book gives all the measurements and instructions for many of his iconic pieces. A word of warning to any one wanting to make a copy of a design. The measurements in the book are not completely accurate.

If you are visiting the Netherlands this year there are a series of exhibitions of Reitvelds work around the country.

Jamie had previously made us a copy of the Reitveld Buffet of 1919. Our buffet also features on the website for Arbor Timber, a specialist timber firm who did the precision cutting of the pieces.  147 separate pieces had to be cut accurately which was the work of another specialist craftsman.

The Accoya™ wood was chosen because the example of the buffet in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has some warped panels.  The central heating in modern houses can affect timber.   

Jamie explained '"The timber used for the recreation was Accoya™.  This could be argued to be the most environmentally friendly and sustainable timber currently available. In total 147 individual pieces of flat, planed and perfectly squared timber. The main reason for choosing Accoya™ was its ability to retain dimensional stability regardless of fluctuations of heat and humidity. Although in its original state it is a softwood it also holds crisp sharp edges very well when machined" 
Choice of appropriate wood was vital. 

The buffet in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

On this picture taken of the Reitfeld buffet in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam you can see that the thin sheets on the  top of the drawers have warped slightly. This would stop the drawers opening smoothly.

We worked with Jamie to redesign our vestibule to provide an fitting setting for these two lovely chairs and to give us a more appropriate entrance to a relatively modern terraced house.

The screen is attached to the wall and is a collaborative design effort. It took a lot of thought and design work. 

Jamie's design work is meticulous and I found it fascinating to listen to a master craftsman talking about the details of his work.  He analysed the design in the Itarmarty Palace to see if there were any underlying principles to the placement of the colours. The buildings in Brasília are designed with a symbolic as well as a practical purpose.  It is highly likely that the design is not merely random.

He worked with us to find an approach that would both reflect the original but also fit the space available in the vestibule. Scale drawings and colour samples were brought and discussed. Colours were tried out until a final design was approved.

The one aspect that was random were the colour ends of the coat pegs. The painted pegs were put into a bag and he drew them out when he was ready to fix them to the coat rack.

The colour panels, like the screen in the Itarmarty Palace, are attached to the upright maple struts so that they are clear of the wall. This means that the sunlight and lighting will change the shadows and emphasise the three-dimensional aspect of the pattern. Here are some views of the new vestibule.

View from the front door when entering the house.
Look at the skirting board between the two chairs. This had to be replaced when the wall was re-plastered and Jamie felt that it should be shaped to echo the tapering of the wall panel. A small touch but one that is so fitting. 

view of the stairs with the rack of coat pegs on the right

Side view of the two Steltman chairs

Cushions are needed for the chairs. The originals were upholstered for comfort of the customers buying expensive jewellery!  I wanted to make two cushions inspired by the painter Kazimir Malevich.  I had previously made a colourful cushion which we use in the lounge. Here is the blog entry about the cushion cover.

Martin felt that the colours would detract from the wall panel, so we compromised on Malevich's Black Square design from 1915.    This would be a very quick and easy project.

The size of the cushion shows the white surround of the chair surface which echoes Malevich's painting.

Making the cushion covers. 

I used 12/2 black cotton in plain weave sett at 24 ends per inch.  There were 396 warp ends and the width of the cushion is approx. 15 inches.  I wove a long length.  The covers are very simple to make.

material on loom

Making up the cushion covers. 

  • Take one rectangle of cloth so that it fits around the cushion and overlaps. This gives the length of material required. 
  • Remove the material, cut to size and hem the ends. Fold it around the cushion again  but this time inside out. Pin the top and bottom edges together. This is to check that the cover fits exactly. 
  • Take out the cushion. Now sew the top and bottom edges together. The cushion can be removed easily from the flap.  It has the advantage that there are no zips or buttons.

The left and right hand version of the Steltman chairs with the new cushions.

Fortunately, I did not have to weave new curtains as the existing curtains I wove some years ago look fine.

Looking back towards the two windows at the entrance of the house
View of the top of the curtain

close up of the pattern

I like the way the square pattern of huck lace gives the impression of a flower at the centre.

 Curtains for vestibule windows

Warp and weft 20/2 cotton       epi 36

Allowance of 5 ends on each side for plain weave selvage.

Pattern : Huck lace in squares

Length  - 78 inches        Width 17 inches.

I wove 12 repeats of the patterned area and then continued to weave leaving just the vertical stripe of huck lace.
Of course this meant that I had to readjust the tension of those threads.  The huck lace stripe became looser than the rest of the warp.  At the back of the loom I inserted a stick wider than the warp which held just the huck lace stripe. This stick was weighted so that it took up the extra length of the warp ends and evened out the tension for the rest of the warp.

Here is the drawdown for the pattern on eight shafts.  There are six blocks of huck lace. The first part of the pattern is the top of the curtain and is shown in blue.  The second part of the pattern is in green and shows the vertical huck lace stripes on one block which go down the length of the curtains.

Huck lace pattern for curtain
Designing to fit means adapting to the surroundings to find the most apt response.

Sometimes simple designs are best.

Reflecting on Craft Work.

The process of working with a craftsman in a radically different craft has shown me how similar different crafts are in their approach to design and the learning. One architect, Juhani Pallasmaa writes of his collaborations with painters,sculptors and craftsmen through which he has learned 'immensely from their capacity to think through their eyes, hands, skin and body' and that they 'think through the knowledge accumulated in the silent wisdom of the body and the traditions of the art form/craft itself.'

In Edinburgh in the National Museum of Scotland I watched a short video  of Bernard Leach talking about craft. He said that the 'machine leaves out the heart of labour, feeling, imagination and directness of control. I found that the craftsman is almost the only kind of worker left employing heart, hand and head in balance.'  The Potter's World.  This is not a perfect video but it is the one I saw in Edinburgh.
In Vav Magasinet this year there was an article called In Praise of Patience by Kerstin Wickman.  Slow craft work like weaving is important as a quick fix cheats 'people of all the experiences, skills, lived events and discoveries offered by the slow approach.'

Textile work is embedded in touch and the knowledge found through experience. It is fascinating to watch beginners in workshops starting to weave narrow bands for the first time. The silent ( usually!) concentration and the focused gaze - the internal ( and sometimes external) verbalisation of the stages of weaving at the beginning leading to the hands and body beginning to remember what to do. I am not sure that you can ever stop learning in the craft of weaving.  I always find that I learn something from my workshop participants. 

Weaving is the craft that chose me. I could knit, sew, crochet etc but after I had had my first experience of sitting down at a loom, I realised that I should have been weaving all my life. It is a vast, complex, multifaceted, endlessly fascinating craft.

Reflecting on the task of setting up the loom, known as dressing the loom, made me realise how pleasure comes through different channels.  From winding the warp onto the warping frame - such a simple task but one which comes about through thinking about the design, materials, and sett - seeing the colours, and feeling the texture of the threads as they run through my hands and fingers. Turning the separate cones of yarn into the warp and transferring this warp to the warp beam is often time-consuming but so satisfying. 

On the back beam the warp ends hang down and often start to twist and curl around each other. With the cross sticks in place and divided through the reed some order is restored. My trusty weavers assistant  (Martin) winds the warp onto the back beam whilst I hold the warp taut and check for any snags and twists. This is both visual and tactile. The warp slides through my hands and fingers. I can feel any unusual tension. Martins task is no less difficult as sliding the cross sticks through the singles cross can be tricky.  Then he has to add sticks or paper to separate the layers of warp ends on the warp beam which is another skill to be learned through experience. 

When wound on, there is such pleasure in seeing the warp ends so straight and neat and ready for threading through the heddles. I think that this moving from disorder to order which happens several times during the process of preparing the loom is deeply satisfying. 

The warp ends are, of course, uneven and still linked together at the weaving end.  A bout of warp ends representing a half inch are trimmed and loosely knotted together with a slip knot for the next step. The pattern dictates the number and order of threading through the heddles. I have my own logical system for threading to minimise mistakes at this stage.  

Once threaded through the heddles, each half inch bout is carefully stretched and tied to the front or cloth beam.  All the warp ends should be as near as possible at the same tension. To check tension, I run my fingers over the stretched warp ends to detect any that are loose.This can take some time depending upon the material used. Rug weaving with a thick linen warp used to take me one to two hours to tie on as it is difficult to adjust the tension. The strong linen warp used to cut my hands until I started to wear leather gloves. 

The whole process is tactile and visual.  Knowledge is embodied.   Preparing many warps in different yarns to put on a loom is the only way to gain an understanding of the properties of the yarn itself.

My friend Nancy, reminded me of two articles in Vav Magasinet earlier in the year. Gunilla Lundahl says that 'Textile making and work are some of the most important means of granting us the freedom to conquer time, to join hands over the millenia.' The skills weavers use have been in operation since weaving was invented. 

I have a motto on the wall in my weaving room. It is taken from the Aeneid, by Virgil

'As each has set up the loom, so shall follow the labour and the fortune of it.' 

If any of these preparatory stages is undertaken carelessly then the weaving will not be satisfactory. 
Weaving itself almost seems an anticlimax after the preparation. However, the weaving process has its own field of satisfaction. This is where the weaver gets into the flow - the rhythmical aspect of weaving involving eyes, hand and sound, in fact, the whole body.

I am designing two pieces for the National  Exhibition next year. Reflecting on the ongoing process of preparing samples then returning to my design ideas and adapting them has made me realise how complex it is and yet how similar to the way that Jamie approaches his craft and design. This had led me to read more about craftsmanship and the practice of craft.  I am reading two books at the moment:

The Craftsman by Richard Sennett and On Craftsmanship by Christopher Frayling.

The quote by Juhani Pallasmaa comes from his book: The Embodied Image: imagination and imagery in Architecture.

Happy weaving.

Susan J Foulkes  September 2019