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An interview with Helen Yardley

Helen Yardley is a Rug Designer and honorary member of Design-Nation, as our most recent brand ambassador. Helen hosted the very successful “Head, Hand and Heart” showcase in her workshop during London Craft Week this May. During London Craft Week Design-Nation caught up with Helen and asked her some questions about her practice, inspiration and other things.

Design-Nation asked: Can you tell us about your practice and how your business began?

Helen Yardley: When I left the RCA I was lucky enough to be offered a part time teaching post in the textiles department at Manchester. This experience was pivotal. Being challenged by the students was a very invigorating experience, as well as being quite frustrating, and finding myself in a position of relative “authority” forced me to look at my own intentions. I was conscious of not really practising what I preached and so teaching really helped me to focus on what my intentions were and made me resolve to try to make a living as a designer/maker.

When I first started making rugs there wasn’t a lot of competition so the idea of a rug as a drawing for the floor worked really well. Running a financially viable business that maintains its creative heart can be a real balancing act especially when you are responsible for employees but you learn to work with the ebbs and flows.

Nearly all of the work we produce is to commission and I really enjoy the challenge of working “with” architects on large scale projects and being open to other points of view. It’s always a learning process.

DN: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

HY: I’ve not really had a mentor.  I have learnt to trust my instincts and so I simply aim to behave in what I judge to be a ‘proper’ way. Whatever I make has my name on it and could come back and haunt me so I’m always conscious of that and so try to ensure every piece of work is as good as it can possibly be.

DN: What inspires you and your work?

HY: Making is addictive. I just love to make things and find the process deeply satisfying. As soon as you finish something you immediately think about how it could have been improved on so which impels me to start afresh. Nothing is ever perfect. Can you imagine making the one piece of work and then saying “Yep, that’s it. Nailed it.” It’s just not possible.

Most of my work is about colour and vitality. Colours speak in so many ways. Their effect is psychological, emotional and energetic. Matisse is the grand master of colour and the chapel he designed at Vence is a supreme work. Really affecting in a gloriously spiritual way.

DN: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?

HY: Lots of fiddling about in sketch books, making messes, followed by more controlled gouache paintings. Although the paintings are relatively small in my head they are big things, rug sized scale. I studied Chinese calligraphy many years ago because I loved the intensity of the style. It looks effortless but is fantastically precise and powerful.

DN: What is your workspace like?

HY: It’s on the first floor of a big warehouse building with windows on both sides, so I get loads of natural light. I am very lucky to have plenty of space too. The downside of that being I tend to hand on to all sorts of stuff that may be ‘useful’. Staging the Design-Nation LCW show here was a great reason to throw a lot of junk away!

DN: Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

HY: I have employed a few PR agents over the years. Some have been really effective and others less so. Social media has made a huge difference in how one presents oneself. It makes everything so much more democratic. I’m not great at planning ahead but I have a notion of what I’d like to do and even if it takes a while I do get there eventually.

DN: What are the main challenges in your practice?

HY: Balancing running a viable business that is creatively nourishing. Pushing myself into areas that are outside of my comfort zone is my current aim. If you get complacent you get stale and the work becomes dull. Not a good plan.

DN: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

HY: I’m hoping to spend more time working on the wall-hung felts and I am very excited about working in glass. Diversification is appealing and can be an expensive indulgence, so I have to be aware that the rugs will be funding these new activities. At least to start with!

DN: If you could collaborate with someone who would you like that to be?

HY: I have been working recently with an amazing glass maker, David Lily, developing dalles de verre. The quality of the colour in this form of glass is spectacular and I am looking forward to making some work with him on a grand architectural scale.

DN: If you weren’t a designer what would you be?

HY: I trained as a yoga teacher a few years back and taught evening classes for a few years. I often imagine putting all my energies into teaching yoga full time. It’s a very worthwhile occupation; helping people to feel good in their own bodies. What could be more important?

DN: Why did you join Design-Nation? What do you enjoy and find helpful from being a member?

HY: I was a very early Design-Nation member back when Peta Levi started it all up. She was a real force of nature and was brilliant at putting people together with the Eureka projects. I designed a range of rugs for Heals which was great fun. Design-Nation is a really important organisation which does an amazing job supporting makers in all sorts of areas of their practice. So many people really struggle to make a living from their work in the early years so having a network of like minded people is such a bonus.

DN: Have you got any exhibitions, commission or event coming up you are taking part in?

HY: We are still considering showing at Decorex in September or alternatively opening the studio up for London Design Festival in September as part of Bankside Design district. But as we have quite a few large scale commissions in the pipeline at the moment, I’ll need to decide soon what is actually achievable. Last year we showed at Clerkenwell Design Week and Decorex, so a quiet year may be a really sensible option… along with a proper summer holiday!

Interview by Laura Jacometti

Helen Yardley’s work will be on show as part of the ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ exhibition at Eunique in Karlsruhe, Germany

8-10 June

Helen Yardley’s work will be on show as part of the ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ exhibition at Eunique in Karlsruhe, Germany

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