Alan is a textile artist specialising in the production of primarily handwoven rugs and wall hangings. He joined Design-Nation earlier this year and we recently asked him some questions about his practice and inspiration.
Design-Nation asked: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began?
Alan Oliver answered: I used to be a furniture upholsterer, and while running that business I took a short introductory weaving class – I had long been inspired by textiles and had an idea that I might be able to weave cloth to use for upholstery purposes, and offer a bespoke service to my customers.
A few weeks after the class I found a second hand loom on theloomexchange.co.uk and went to pick it up. The woman who was selling it had used it to make all of the carpets in her home, and together with the loom gave me her copy of Peter Collingwood’s ‘The Techniques of Rug Weaving’. Once I got the loom home and set up it quickly became apparent that hand-weaving cloth for upholstery was going to be too time consuming and not really cost effective, so I started to teach myself how to weave rugs instead using the book she gave me, considered by many to be the definitive title on the subject.
Within a year I had closed down my upholstery practice and was weaving full time. As my practice continued to evolve I found I could not get the shades of yarn I wanted, and so I started to dye my own fibres, since then I have only used yarns that I dye myself, and my practice has grown to include regular teaching in addition to working on my commissioned weaving work.
D-N: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?
A.O: I am more or less a self-taught weaver, and don’t really have experience of being in further education (I left school at 15 and got a job in a jigsaw puzzle factory), and have always had to be pretty self-reliant, so I can’t say that I have had any influential teachers as such. However, I find that taking the time to connect with my peers is invaluable – as a group we can learn so much from each other, as well and support and inspire each other.
D-N: What inspires you?
A.O: Beauty; art; nature; my personal experience.
D-N: Please tell us a bit about your design process.
A.O: It varies. For some pieces I draw an idea and have a clear design before I sit down to weave, but for others, in particular my more abstract ‘Fade’ pieces, an idea really just exists in my head and the finer details are designed at the loom.
D-N: What is the best thing to have happened in your business to date?
A.O: I’m not sure I can pick out one thing in particular. I got some very good press early on in my weaving career, which was a real boon to a designer just starting out, and have been lucky enough to have pieces shown at some prestigious venues, including the Barbican . And recently I was asked to participate in an exhibition with some of the UK’s top designers, which was an honour.
D-N: What is your workspace like?
A.O: Tidy, organized, and light, but most importantly it’s a place I really want to spend time in. There’s also an armchair where I can have cheeky nap after lunch if I need to.
D-N: Do you work hard on your PR or do others help you to market your business?
A.O: It’s an area I could certainly work harder at. At times it can feel too easy to think that PR and Marketing are non-essential tasks, but they are just necessary – it’s non-negotiable. Like a lot of makers, it’s not something I particularly enjoy though, so my plan is to migrate a lot of that work over to a third party during the course of the next year.
D-N: What are the main challenges in your practice?
A.O: Finding the time to do everything. As with most creative people, I can find it a challenge making time for all the things seemingly periphery, but essential, such as PR and Marketing as mentioned above.
D-N: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?
A.O: 10 years seems so far away it’s hard to picture it, but I think it has to involve expansion in some way – and at least have a few people working with me so that I could spend more time designing and focusing on commissions, although I am a maker at heart and never want to be too far from the loom.
In the shorter term I am planning to expand my product range over the next year or so, to include throws and smaller, more affordable home wares – and these are the sorts of items that I could see possibly being outsourced or made by someone else ultimately. It’s not very romantic, but I think scalability is quite important when it comes to building a successful business, and ultimately I need to earn a living.
D-N: If you could collaborate with someone new who would that be?
A.O: I can’t think of one person in particular, but I would love to work with an architect on some large-scale pieces designed specifically for a public space.
D-N: If you weren’t a designer what would you like to do?
A.O: Have a small-holding and keep chickens and grow vegetables. Or maybe a shepherd? I have a bit of a yearning to get back to nature.
D-N: Why did you join Design-Nation? What is helpful about being a member?
A.O: I few of my peers are members of Design-Nation and recommended it to me as an organization. As previously mentioned, I think it’s important to connect with other designers and makers and so being part of a community was a big draw, they also have great opportunities to exhibit with them at large shows that I wouldn’t normally have the means to participate in.
D-N: Do you have you any exhibitions, commissions or events coming up that we should know about?
A.O: ‘Under Your Feet’, an exhibition of rugs made by designers and makers currently working in the UK, and which I have a few pieces in, is currently showing at the Ruthin Craft Centre and continues until the 15th July. And in September I will be exhibiting at the London Design Fair in the International Craft Pavilion.