Monday, 2 January 2012

Lou Lou Chats with Richard Weston

For me, one of the standout stories on BBC2's 'Britain's Next Big Thing', was that of Professor Richard Weston. Just in case you didn't catch the programme, it gave budding product designers and craftspeople the opportunity to pitch for well-known companies such as Liberty and Boots. Richard Weston pitched his designs to the Buying Team from Liberty, one of the country's most prestigious department stores. I was immediately struck by his absolutely stunning over-sized scarves, and I remember my Twitter timeline being full of equally impressed people. And there was also a bit of real-life interest, as it turns out that Professor Weston works for Cardiff University like me, and also lives in the same village. As I find Richard's combination of careers really intriguing, I asked him if he would be willing to answer some question for my blog. I was delighted when he agreed. Almost, if not more than when I finally got to purchase one of his scarves a few weeks ago!


The ‘Independent on Sunday’ described you as a “hot new British designer”, how would you describe yourself in four words?

In love with nature.

Please tell us more about yourself.

I'm a Professor of Architecture at Cardiff University, and have been teaching and writing about architecture for almost thirty years. I've also had a lifelong fascination with form and pattern in nature, and as a first-year student was introduced to books by Gyorgy Kepes that explored a 'language of vision' common to nature, art and design. They left a lasting mark.

What sparked your passion for mineral and rocks?

The visual fascination of their structure, patterns and colours, and their inexhaustible variety. The crystalline forms are rather obviously ‘architectural’, while to anyone sensitive to colour, the ‘molecular’ gradations and dramatic contrasts of colour are a delight.

What inspired you to turn your interest in minerals and rocks into a business?

A friend mentioned that the high-resolution files I got using digital scanners could be printed on fashion and interior fabrics.  The potential was immediately obvious to me – if not to people ‘in the trade' – and the break came over six years after I started collecting these images, with Liberty’s ‘Open Call’ for new products. I attended an event in February 2010 that was filmed as part of what became the BBC2 series ‘Britain’s Next Big Thing'. It was as good a launch as you could wish for.  

How would you describe your pieces for anyone who hasn’t seen them?

In a sense there isn’t a ‘typical’ example because the geological sources are so various, but equally they are instantly recognisable as ‘natural’ rather than conventionally ‘designed’. Most are characterised by extremely subtle gradations, as well as striking contrasts of colour, making them perfect for digital printing. Many have unexpected shifts in pattern and seemingly random ‘events’; and in some the system of order – such as banding – is obvious, while in others it’s elusive to pin down, but always present and somehow ‘sensed’. In a deep way I believe these things are ‘made like us’ and we feel at ease with them in the same way as we feel at ease on a beach with the sound of the waves.


What is the process involved in creating your scarves?

The minerals are scanned using either reflected or transmitted light and I then look to frame a ‘design’. Depending on the material it may then take a few minutes or sometimes hours to digitally ‘clean’ the selected area – many come with microscopic traces of polishing powder and it’s impossible to eliminate dust etc. The digital files are then sent to our printers in Como where they are printed, steamed, washed in a succession of chemical baths and dried; they then send them to a finishing factory who ‘stenter’ them in a machine longer than a cricket pitch – this straightens out the weave, restoring the satin sheen and ensures they are square. The finished fabric then goes to a quality control factory who check for blemishes, and finally they are cut and the edges sewn. Quite a lot of operations to produce a square of silk!

      You have taken thousands of images of minerals and rocks, but do you have a particular favourite?

      Yes, it’s one I call ‘wild quartz’ that comes from an unusual form of this ubiquitous mineral called ‘elestial’ quartz. It grows in cracks in rocks rather than as the familiar crystals and was leant to me by Debbie Campbell, who owns the Debris jewellery shop in Pontcanna, Cardiff, with the words "it looks rather dirty but there’s obviously something going on and you might get something out of it" – and how! It’s tiny, but absolutely teems with ‘events’, random splashes of colour from ‘inclusions’ of other minerals, and everywhere there are traces of the underlying crystal structure.

Do you consider Weston Earth Images as a natural progression, related to your career in architecture, or as a totally separate thing?

To me ‘architecture’ in its widest sense is about a love of order – hence we speak about the ‘architecture’ of the universe, matter or whatever. And so for me there is a deep connection between what to other people may appear totally different fields. I’m not interested in fashion per se, but in beautiful, well-made things – be they scarves or buildings.

       What has been the highlight of the last year?

     It has to be the broadcast of ‘Britain’s Next Big Thing’ – and the amazing range of responses it brought from people who share my passion for these glimpses into the deep order of nature.

       I love the image of you in the pink scarf that ‘The Independent on Sunday’ and ‘’ used. Do you wear your pieces in real life?

      I have always been a ‘tie man’ and the source of that image, bloodstone (slightly naughtily, the colours have been ‘inverted’ to complementaries in Photoshop), was used to make one of my favourite ties. I have a suit jacket lined with the same image and will certainly be wearing the men’s cashmere scarves we’ll be launching in 2012.


     Looking back at the development of Weston Earth Images, is there anything that you would have done differently?

     I don’t think there is. I suspect most people would have been more pushy in trying to find commercial outlets for what, in retrospect, seems such a ‘no brainer’ of a product – but it didn’t start out with any commercial end  in mind, so I wasn’t that bothered. And without the delay there wouldn’t have been Liberty, BBC2, Net-a-Porter and publicity money couldn’t buy – if not yet, sadly, profits to live on let alone die for!

     What advice would you give to people who are looking to start their own fashion business?

      Be prepared for a long hard haul – even when you have ‘broken through’ it seems fiendishly hard to make a living. Some people get a break early by being ‘spotted’ at their degree show, but mostly it looks to me like a crazy world in which very few make it.

      What motivates you?

 A relentless search for doing something new and a desire to make things in tune with the timeless order of nature. I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious, but it’s the abiding passion of my life, even if most of what I’ve done day to day to make a living, to meet the demands of the Research Excellent Framework etc feels peripheral to it.

      If you could see your work anywhere, where would it be?   

       I have been repeatedly told by the guardians of galleries that these images are not ‘art’ – and, even worse, dangerous because people ‘might mistake them for art’ (I quote!). But if photography can be an art form, I don’t see why the digital scanner can’t be. In the nineteenth century photography was christened ‘the pencil of nature’ and these images seem to me to stand squarely in that tradition. So a decent art gallery would do nicely!

     What’s in the pipeline for Weston Earth Images in 2012?

      We’ll be launching silk tops in another very well known London store, men’s scarves, and a host of non-fashion products as part of the expansion of a major fashion website – beach towels, cushions, iPad covers… And four of our images, 2-storeys high in glass, will be greeting athletes in their apartments at the London Olympics. Personally, I hope to find more uses for them in architecture, along the lines of the silk-in-glass louvers for the new house in Camden by the architects Patel Taylor.

Top Tip?

        Trust your eye.


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