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Insights: an interview with Rachel Fitzpatrick

The latest in our series of insights into the life, business and practice of Design-Nation members features Rachel Fitzpatrick. Rachel is one of our growing number of members based in Northern Ireland and we asked her to tell us more about her work, story so far and plans for the future. We also wanted to learn about the craft and design sector in her beautiful and fascinating part of the world. In this time of quarantine and lockdown we are all dreaming of the day when we can travel again… and after hearing from Rachel, Northern Ireland is now on our list of must-visit destinations!

Please tell us about you, what you do and where you are based.

I am a designer and textile artist based in Banbridge in Northern Ireland. I trained in textile art at the Ulster University in Belfast. During my degree I fell in love with the edge of the material, and with one material in particular, Velcro. There seemed to be endless potential with this material, the various types, the colours it could be dyed, finishes it could be embellished with, and objects it could be combined with. Nearly 15 years later, I am still excited about this material, it has formed the backbone of my practice. My work has enabled me to travel and exhibit in New York, Paris and Los Angeles. I have produced pieces for Peugeot, Bergdorf Goodman and the Hollywood Reporter. I also work closely with interior designers and corporate clients producing bespoke commissions for private homes or corporate spaces.

What inspires you about your location? Tell us about why we should visit!

As an artist I feel so fortunate to live in Northern Ireland surrounded by the sea and dramatic landscapes. I grew up on a little seaside town on the shore of Belfast Lough so have always been inspired by the sea and its movement, there is definitely a fluid organic feel to my work. My studio, in Banbridge, is an old terrace in the centre of the town. It was formerly rented to one of the linen mill workers and his family when Banbridge was a top linen producing town. According to the 1901 census, every family member was involved in the linen industry in some way at this time. Although industrial volumes of linen are no longer produced in Northern Ireland, there are still textile companies in Banbridge producing linen fabric for global brands or designing unique clothing for our thriving film sector.

One of my favourite things to do to clear my head and find inspiration is to drive to the beautiful North Coast of Northern Ireland. Its dramatic landscapes have now been made infamous by movie and TV productions such as Game of Thrones. The North Coast also boasts to be the home of our very own giant, Fionn McCoole, at the Giant’s Causeway. The Causeway is a UNESCO World heritage site due to its spectacular solidified lava cliffs which look like gigantic hexagonal pillars.

I also love Belfast, a small capital city with great little restaurants, shops and of course pubs – for a bit of Northern Irish ‘craic’. There has been recent regeneration in the shipyard area of the city, now renamed the Titanic Quarter. The Maritime Mile walkway has been created where the Titanic was once designed, built and launched and allows people to experience the quarter’s maritime and history through various sculptures and viewing points along the docks.

One of my favourite galleries in Northern Ireland is the FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio in Banbridge. It has a beautiful exhibition space and sculpture garden, with a fabulous cafe serving the most amazing cuisine – which is prepared to look like a plate of art – very Instagram-able!

Could you tell us about the creative community in NI – what support is available for artists, designers and makers? How are you involved in this?

Did you know that Belfast was once known as “Linenopolis”?. Linen has always played a pivotal role in our industrial and cultural heritage. One of the ways we celebrate the rich history of the former flax linen industry, is through our Linen Biennale. This event attracts artists, makers, designers, scientists, researchers and academics from around the world. It provides an opportunity for like-minded people to get together to showcase their work, share ideas and be inspired by the material to contemplate its future use. The last bi-annual showcase, in 2018, hosted a series of exhibitions, talks, workshops, open studios and even a Linen Opera!

Another key event in the Northern Irish calendar is August Craft Month. This is an annual event funded and supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and delivered by Craft Northern Ireland. During this month long event, designers, makers, artists, and craftspeople open up their studios, hold talks, curate special workshops and develop exhibitions to showcase and celebrate our vibrant craft sector. I have been on the board of Craft Northern Ireland for four years and I am particularly interested in developing the ways the organisation can support and strengthen craft businesses.

Belfast Design Week is another inspiring annual festival – the 2019 festival was recently featured in Dezeen’s Guide to the best architecture, design and technology event. Belfast Design Week is held every November and features talks, workshops, tours, exhibitions and pop-ups curated by local designers and design enthusiasts. The areas of design covered are diverse, ranging from digital and UX to graphic, product, architecture and craft- there is something for everyone!

What do you think are the main challenges for the design and craft sector in NI?

In Northern Ireland, many makers struggle to articulate the difference in high craft and design with hobby craft (maybe a shared problem). Many Northern Irish makers believe the mainland UK audience has more knowledge and understanding of high craft, and have more success selling and developing business leads through UK fairs and trade shows. However, not all makers have been exposed to these opportunities or know which event is relevant for them and maybe need help to know where to start looking.

Northern Ireland has a rich heritage, but we haven’t been able to invest in our cultural and artistic infrastructure to the same extent as other parts of the United Kingdom over the years. In 2020, I believe our biggest challenge is harnessing and embracing advances in the use of digital technologies within our practice and businesses.

Why did you apply to join Design-Nation? What most excites you about being a member?

I am delighted to be a member of Design-Nation – there are so many things which excite me about the organisation. I think for me, my number one reason for applying was to develop a wider network with creative people. I also hope to learn more about what events in the UK might be relevant to my practice and design business.

Design-Nation members and staff have been so supportive and friendly, particularly through the recent uncertainty and challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic. I really love the Members’ Facebook group and I am excited about getting to know my new DN Buddy – shout out to Caroline Brodgen!

Anything exciting coming up for you?

I have fully appreciated the opportunity to do the online training with The Design Trust with Patricia – it’s has been amazing. It came at a perfect time for me, as many of my workshops were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the galleries I work with, FE McWilliam Gallery & Studio has asked me to work with them to developing a series of online workshops for children to creative little “craft hacks” using only materials found in the house. We released a few teasers of these around the Easter weekend and hope to develop more over the coming months – with videos on a YouTube channel.

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Laura Jacometti


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