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Interview with Charlene Mullen

Charlene Mullen is a homewares designer specialising in textiles and embroidery. After a career in the fashion industry, she set up her own studio designing luxury homewares in 2008. Since then she has won international acclaim having work shown in London, Paris, Milan and New York, as well as being featured in leading interior design publications worldwide.

What is your artistic background?

I originally trained in textiles and then did an MA in illustration. My early career was working for fashion companies doing print and embroidery swatches. In 2007 I started my own interior textile business. I now also do licensing projects with companies and work with hotels and interior designers on specific projects.

Having trained in illustration and print, how did you get involved in embroidery and design?

When I was doing the print swatches for fashion companies, there was a real vogue for embroidery. I really wanted to learn how to do it so I taught myself. I liked the quality you got from the translation between your drawn line to it being embroidered.

Describe how you made the leap from working in the fashion industry to starting out on your own?

My neighbour, the furniture designer Matthew Hilton, was launching his business at the 100% Design Show in 2007. I asked whether I could do some samples for him for his show and he said yes. I realised that I had this whole bank of ideas that I’d been waiting to use.

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?

It’s from a lifetime of just looking at things. I love pattern and colour and going to see exhibitions. We are so lucky in London to have amazing exhibitions on our doorstep, for example a recent exhibition at the V&A on medieval embroidery and the Joseph Frank exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bermondsey. I’m influenced by artists like Edward Bawden, Stig Lindberg and Saul Steinberg.

Drawing is very important in strands of your work. Have you always drawn?

I didn’t do very much drawing when I was at school. When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to meet a couple who had been to Hornsey Art School. They inspired me to want to do the same, so I learnt to draw. I really believe anyone can learn if they apply themselves.

Is pattern something you have always been attracted to?

I am very influenced by blackwork, a form of embroidery from the Elizabethan period, a technique that came over to England with Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII’s court. You can see examples in Holbein paintings of people wearing blackwork-embroidered clothes. There are also samples in the V&A.They always put patterns within shapes. Often the patterns are not that special in themselves but it’s the way they work next to each other.

How did you feed your interest in blackwork into your work?

I love looking at patterns on buildings. These days when architects design new buildings they will often incorporate patterns into them. The idea for my very first cushions came from going over Tower Bridge and looking at the Gherkin and the surrounding buildings and seeing all the patterns within them. That was the starting point. The buildings gave me a lead on what patterns they should be. I wanted to find a modern take on that. I did this by joining up the cityscape idea and putting all those little patterns in.

There are many different facets to your work. How do you see all the different elements of your work fitting together?

I wouldn’t have found it just interesting enough to have just concentrated on doing scenic cityscapes. I’m interested in very simple geometric patterns, things which has been beautifully embroidered, drawing that is telling a little story. It’s just the way my brain works.

You are also continually developing the kind of surfaces that your work appears on from cushions, chair covers, ceramics, rugs, blinds and stationery…

It’s interesting for me to go in different directions. I recently went to the Surface Design Show and was really inspired by the way that patterns or images can be translated onto so many different surfaces. It gives you different ideas of what designs could go where. You also take your lead from the manufacturers as you develop ways of working with them.

You have been working with Royal Doulton for a few years now. How did that relationship come about?

Royal Doulton approached me four years ago. They were initially interested in the patterns. The cityscapes came later on. They also realised that people want what we call a gift-offering and they thought that my things would work very well for that. So that’s been an ongoing relationship with them. We did the ‘Foulard Star’, which is all the patterns and then the scenic things and now we have the geometric range. That really helped people see how my things can be translated onto other surfaces. We work closely with their design team to make something that works for them. It’s a real collaboration, even down to the packaging.

What other partnerships have you been involved with?

Last year we did a stationery range with Clairefontaine, a poster for the and the kettle and toaster with Dualit. They are all different processes. I really like the way that the design process is dictated by the product.

You have recently done some work with Selfridges?

Selfridges is my latest project, called ‘Makers for Selfridges’. It’s the first project that they’ve done where they’ve commissioned makers and designers to work with them. It’s curated by Friends & Co. The thing that unifies the range is the signature yellow of Selfridges. Originally I was going to do a drawing of the building but in the end they liked the people, buses and taxis I put in front of the store. Harry Selfridge had sold pug dogs so I thought I’ll have all these people with their dogs and the dogs look like their owners or the owners look like their dogs. They’ve all been shopping or they’re looking in the window. Everyone knows it’s Selfridges because they have their yellow shopping bags. It’s made from English bone china and made in Stock-on-Trent. It’s been a really nice project to work on.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been working on some design ideas for new cushions, block prints and some big sampler panels. They are my homage to my favourite things, a collection of my drawings, found drawings of things like a Paul Klee poem, a lace sampler, a diagram, a font, or a botanical drawing. I’m mixing them all like a big doodle.

We are also working on a jacquard accessory for Case Furniture which is coming out in May.

How often do you visit the manufacturers and the people who make your products?

Any opportunity to go to the factories where people make things is a good way to give people the due respect for being incredibly skilled at what they do. And you also learn a lot about what you can get made because you can see first hand.

You have a shop and studio in Shoreditch. How did this come about and how do you use it?

Before I had the shop I worked from home by myself. The business eventually got too big and the whole house was taken over with work. I decided that I needed a studio and I needed to go out everyday. I thought that if I did a shop and a showroom/office together, it’s a way of showing everything that I have under one roof. And I’ve got my house back. Being able to have everything out together helps me feel what we should be doing.

You have started running workshops. Tell me about why you like doing these?

We decorate our own ceramics on bone china and customers coming to the store are always very interested in this. So we thought we would offer that out so people can come and decorate their own china. We’ve got lots of blank china, such as teapots, plates, cups and saucers, mugs. We’ve just done a series of workshops when people come in and cut everything out themselves and decorate. We get them fired and they come and collect them. I love how when people have free reign they do everything in a completely different way to me. With the same palette there are so many variations that people come up with. It’s still my imagery but I love giving that freedom to see what someone else does.

Why do you like being involved in the Dulwich Festival Artists’ Open House?

It’s so great to meet local people and open your house up. You put it all out there and you have such a range of people come. I get lots of things out that I might not have in the shop as you never know what people are going to be interested in.

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