'The weekend starts here' is a bit unusual this week. For a change I'm not interviewing a designer, but a curator and seller of patterns. Chelsea Cefai is the owner of the Sheila Bownas Archive and she's working hard to bring Sheila's work to the world.
patternbooth: Chelsea, tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in design.
chelsea: After leaving school many moons ago, I studied art for several years and later completed a (old school, darkrooms, hand printing, before the days of digital) photography degree at Nottingham University and went to work in London and Nottingham for several commercial photographers. A chance meeting with my now husband (a landscape gardener) brought me back to the town where we had both grown up. It was here that I fell very happily into a career working for our local art gallery and combined this with renovating three Victorian properties over a ten-year period. Our last project is where we live and work today with our two daughters Nancy and Edith.
patternbooth: You've revived this beautiful archive. Tell us how you came to have it?
chelsea: Back in 2008 we were renovating the kitchen/dining area of our home, I already had some lovely paintings by a local artist called Helen Bone and I was looking for some abstract pieces to break up the immense white space. I came across Sheila's vivid designs at an auction and instantly knew they were perfect. However, I also discovered the collection consisted of a lot of originals works and the whole lot was about to go under the hammer. Two things immediately went through my mind... firstly (and as an employee for an art gallery and museum) I was aware of the importance of keeping such a significant body of work together as it was part of our heritage and secondly because I loved the patterns so much I had a sudden urge to save it in the hope that one day I would bring the designs it back to life. So we took the plunge and bought the lot! That's when the hard work really began.
patternbooth: How big is it?
chelsea: The archive consists of approximately 210 original hand painted/drawn surface pattern designs dating from the early 1950s and spanning 30 years. Soon after purchasing the archive I was contacted by Sheila’s goddaughter who shared many original letters and documents detailing Sheila’s life and career. These documents will be part of a major exhibition together with my collection in early 2015.
patternbooth: Tell us about Sheila Bownas.
chelsea: Sheila was a very private person; she never married and managed a successful career as a freelance designer for 30 years.
Educated in Skipton, Sheila showed artistic promise from an early age, securing a junior art scholarship to attend Skipton Art School from 1941 to 1946. She later gained a county art scholarship to attend the Slade School of Art in London, where she won several prizes including the 1948 summer competition for ‘Figures Beneath Trees’. Sheila had five paintings accepted and exhibited at The Royal Academy of Arts and in 1949 her postgraduate studies took her to Florence in Italy where she read the history of art...
Her interest was drawn to surface pattern design for textiles and wallpapers as a more comfortable alternative to selling her art. Living in London during the late 1950s and 1960s, Sheila worked on numerous commissions for Liberty of London, Crown Wallpapers, Marks and Spencer and the German firm PW Bruck-Messel. Sheila was also commissioned to work on pictures for the National History Museum, mainly in the botanical section, and she enjoyed a brief time working on Tresco Island in the Scilly Isles. Sheila returned to Yorkshire in later life where for many years she continued with her passion for landscape and portrait painting.
For me, her work captures the mood of each decade perfectly. The early patterns from the 1950s are neatly abstract and thoroughly modern, mirroring the futuristic styles of other more, well known designers such as Lucienne Day and Robert Stewart. The later designs of the 60s and 70s are both vivid and bold showing off her skill to form a clever pattern repeat. Amongst all this there are some very unique patterns, which reveal her artistic talent for detailed drawing using nature and flowers as her subjects.
patternbooth: How did you decide what product lines to go with, and how did you go about finding manufacturers you could trust with the archive?
chelsea: It took almost a year considering product lines and researching manufacturers to work with. We wanted to produce on a small scale and create a high quality product, which can prove very costly. We have formed a very good relationship with a local company for our limited edition prints and the fabric is produced at the Glasgow School of Art where they specialise in archival designs.
Another avenue for considering products is by way of collaboration. In 2011 we met with an enthusiastic Charlie Gladstone from Pedlars, and he chose the ‘Pip’ design to create an exclusive range of accessories for their summer 2012 catalogue. The products, all made in Britain, included a double deckchair, stool and a china mug.
patternbooth: What are your plans for the future?
chelsea: 2013 will see two new collaborations come to the fore, the first of which will be revealed in February! This is a great way for the archive to expand and explore new ranges to show off Sheila’s wonderful patterns. Planning is well under way for the very first Sheila Bownas exhibition in 2015. Also I receive requests from surface pattern design students wanting to view the archive and ideally I would like to visit more colleges and universities to talk about Sheila’s work.
patternbooth: What advice would you give someone who wants to get their own collection of work out into the world?
chelsea: My advice to anyone who wants to get his or her own collection out into to the world... Firstly, be prepared for lots of unpaid hard work! A really good website or a blog is the best way for people to initially view your designs. Take time to identify a small range of products that work well with your patterns and discuss these ideas with different manufacturers starting locally, so you can visit them in person. Research your pricing structure thoroughly. Don’t be frightened to approach the big companies with your work and product ideas, what have you got to loose!