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IN CONVERSATION: Jo Lawson-Tancred, Shahbaz Afridi and Sandy Jones

Arts journalist and critic Jo Lawson-Tancred and gallery director Shahbaz Afridi sit down with textile and carpet designer Sandy Jones, to discuss carpet design, tribal influence and dyeing techniques. Sandy produces carpets by commission.  Her designs are first painted or applied onto sheets of A4 handmade paper, and over her career she has produced a series of highly unique works with specific settings in mind. The first retrospective of her work and archive will be exhibited at the Afridi Gallery in May 2019. 

SA: You are one of the few designers who still produces cartoons and paintings by hand so that they have a much richer tonal variation than is found in digital designs. It is this that we try to replicate in our carpets.   

JL-T: Is your approach to colour instinctive and are there certain schemes you return to? 

SJ: It either happens or it doesn't. I don’t struggle. Sometimes you just have to tear it up and start putting it together in a different way. But most of it is done the first time. A recent wall hanging was made from a baby kite I found at a kite festival in Gujarat, and its been sitting in my studio on the wall for ages. Since we are moving house I took everything down and I pulled it to pieces and applied it to black paper. It was just an accident, it might not have worked. The bamboo frames give it movement and structure but there are also white spots because it was my birthday last week and my little granddaughter wrapped up a present in spotted paper which I tore up and added. 

JL-T: How do you approach commissions? What is the thought process before you put something on paper?  


SJ: One of my great advantages is that I didn’t go to art school in the sixties, which means I didn’t have anything drummed into me. Those that did all design in a completely standard way, but I’m allowed more freedom. For Peloponnese, my most successful carpet ever, I used handmade paper, applied torn up paper and then painted it. And for a recent commission, I made the carpet in a funny shape so it wouldn’t have corners that people might trip over. 

JL-T: Do you like that aspect of working to a specific space or arrangement of furniture? 

SJ: One of the problems was that it hadn’t yet been built when I had to design the carpet, so I was working from a model. I knew you would look down onto it. It’s a very tough, slightly inhumane building with lots of marble and harsh shapes. It’s more like a hospital than a village building. So I’ve decided to create a nurturing space where people sit to wait, have coffee, a nice space in a big, noisy building. It was based on a cushion design that I played with for ages, trying different colours, putting it in reverse, but it seemed to lend itself to the space. I said if they didn’t like it they better find someone else to do it, because I couldn’t think of anything else that would work.

SA: It’s an important space and the carpet will be there for a long time.

SJ: Well using good Turkish wool means that they age beautifully. In the Fitzwilliam Museum they have had carpets for 150 years and they are even more beautiful than when they were first laid. 

JL-T: What is it about the Turkish wool that makes it special to work with? 


SJ: There’s something about the tufts, the way they wear and glow, the abrash* is wonderful. Most wool for carpets is scoured before its dyed hot. For our carpets they wash it, tie it up and dip dye it so that the colour doesn’t go all the way through each time. This gives the light and shade that you see in the wool that really makes it sparkle. 

SA: We are still using traditional dyeing methods which produces this beautiful result. Sandy has been approached by so many international manufacturers offering to do all the work but we do not want to lose control over the quality. The first time we met I came to Sandy with an antique carpet, she only saw the back of it and asked if the colours were something I could reproduce in modern carpets with this beautiful abrash. That was the beginning of our relationship. 

JL-T: How did you start designing carpets? Have you always employed the same techniques? 


SJ: As a child I was passionate about science, which helps with dyeing, but I started off in films and television commercials. Then I bought fashion for the first boutique on Madison Avenue in New York, where I lived. Most of my experience was in looking at things, such as colour in fashion, so when I married an interior designer I began looking at furniture. When I had children I took up embroidery and did a Textiles and Embroidery B.Tech at the London College of Fashion, which was unbelievable fun. One of my designs was sitting in Chester’s office and a client thought it would make a nice carpet and so I made six for his mother and it grew from there. 

SA: Often there is an interior scheme that Chester [Sandy’s husband] has been working on and there is a constant interaction. I’ve seen that Sandy will create designs that are just filed away and then Chester will rummage through her archives until he’s found something exactly right for the project. Sometimes there are cartoons that on their own don’t look like a carpet design, but work beautifully within a scheme. 

JL-T: Does your understanding of how the carpet will be experienced in three dimensions and in transit affect your approach to design? 

SJ: Yes, a painting sits on a wall and receives an even light but a carpet sitting on the floor is seen in different kinds of light depending on which way you are looking at the carpet. It’s actually shafts of light that make a carpet more interesting. Some people try and put paintings on the floor and there are lots of designers who think that the only way to create a carpet is to make it so dramatic that it could hang on the wall but I don’t believe that’s right. I believe you’ve got to make people feel comfortable in it. If its going in a dining room make sure the chairs don’t go over the edge, leave plenty of space for people to push their chair out. 

SA: Many of your clients have become friends. Their children are now talking about the carpets they grew up with and about the fun they had walking around the swirling patterns.  The beauty is that there is a playful quality in your carpet designs.

SJ: Yes, the design you are talking about [Bouclé] was used for the nursery and the children would walk around it. It actually originally came from a wonderful screen in a church that I saw in a magazine and I just played around with it. 


JL-T: What about your influences?  


SJ: I look at everything but never other carpets. Swedish ones occasionally because Shahbaz has some beautiful ones. Some paintings, 20th century British artists like Ben Nicholson. I have a passion for Japanese art and African art, like that wonderful Clive Sithole pot I saw in the gallery window. 


Most 20th century painters are terribly influenced by tribal patterns and I love the irregularity of their patterns, it’s very free and unconcerned with exploring new ideas. They just do it. I like to just do it without too much overthinking. I’m a spontaneous designer. 

JL-T: Yes, and originally those artists looked to the ‘primitive’ aspect of tribal art to free them from what they saw as the weight of the Western canon.

SJ: Chester and I collected a lot of African art when we were in Africa. Much of it is very tactile. We liked the painted barkcloth because it looks like paper. I made lots of handmade paper when I first started. 

JL-T: We are coming towards the end of Gardens of Delight, the gallery’s exhibition of nineteenth century Central Asian suzani. How do you respond to the works? 

SJ: I think suzani are beautiful, I was so influenced by them at college that I made one in felt and silk using a tumble chain. If designing a carpet, I would treat the suzani as an artwork and do the interior based on the architecture and furniture and colours chosen by the interior designer, letting the art live by itself. I can’t bear things that match so I wouldn’t want to repeat any of the colours of the suzani. 

JL-T: Actually one of your carpets worked very well alongside the Suzani in the gallery. 

SA: Your designs have a lovely whimsical quality which complement serious art objects. Your carpets are the important vintage pieces of the future. 

* Abrash  - The natural variations in colour tone that occur when wool is hand dyed. 

A selling exhibition of Sandy's carpets and textiles are now on view at the gallery. 

15th May - 14th June 2019 

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