Deborah Bowness grew up near York, attended Leeds College of Art before embarking on a Constructed Textiles MA at The Royal College of Art. She now resides and works in St Leonards, designing iconic wallpapers that are shipped all over the world. I sat with Deborah and had a very ‘Northern’ chat about processes, inspirations and claims to fame.
So first of all can you tell us a bit about the process from design to production?
It normally starts with a photograph or a montage of photographs. Somehow I’ve developed this knack of taking pictures of things in such a way that it can be made life-sized. So I take my collection of photographs, montage them together and sometimes I’ll have left a bit out by mistake so I’ll kind of find another bit that fits. So it’s not always perfect and the shadow is what creates the mis-shapen look sometimes. Then I print out the photos and they get enlarged on a scanner, then printed black and white onto wallpaper. Then this is screen printed on top of.
Who does the screen printing?
It’s done in-house. I set up 3 print beds, some have screens already made but often we’ll use paper stencils.
Where do you source the images that you use?
I don’t usually go around with a camera, basically it’s when I’m in the mood. It’s like hoarding with the eyes!
Do you go out with a set design in your head that you have to take photographs for? Or is it the other way round?
I don’t tend to go out with an intention… but then when it comes to putting together a new collection, it turns out that I’ve photographed along a certain line or theme and I can pull lots of images together that somehow make a collection. It’s like I’m subconsciously connecting things when I’m out.
Do any of the objects, e.g. the frocks or the glassware actually belong to you?
I’ll start off with a few and then I’ll go off an collect more. It’s like I hoard a bit of everything. Sometimes I use friend’s things. Sometimes the subject is really personal, sometimes it’s not.
Do you ever wear any of the frocks?
Yeah. I have done. I wore the original two frocks. One was rented for the end of year ball and it got so muddy that they wouldn’t take it back… so I ended up with it. And the other one, I have worn it, but it’s all ripped now, I can’t wear it anymore.
So the ‘Painted Wall in Moscow’ is really colourful in comparison to your other work, was this a slightly scary departure for you?
Well it wasn’t my colour! It was just something I saw and it’s very different and it kind of doesn’t sit even with what I do. I just wanted everyone to see it. It was a huge motorway bridge and what is on the wallpaper is to scale, so it literally looks like someone’s just gone and painted the whole bridge inside and outside. It’s bonkers.
What would you consider your biggest commissioned project to date?
Well I spent a year with Polydor records, that’s the longest I’ve ever worked with someone. I worked in their head office and created site-specific pieces. Selfridges windows: I did 12 windows in 6 weeks, that was scary. I recently just installed my biggest piece in Chatsworth House consisting of 16 pieces, it’s a mish-mash of their rooms and their chairs montaged together. It’s for an exhibition called Make Yourself Comfortable At Chatsworth
Do you have any local clients?
Yes, Lionel from The Old Rectory, they’ve used a lot of stuff. I’ve had a lot of sample sales so I know lots of local people have stuff at home.
How long have you been in St Leonards and what brought you to this area?
I’ve been here six years, and it was an empty shop, literally. Walked down the street and saw the empty shop. I was looking for somewhere to land out of London. I didn’t like it. I kept telling myself “don’t move there you don’t like it” but something just kept bringing me back and here I am.
Your twitter feed is very professional, do you take care of that yourself, how do you find it?
I hate it. The twitter is the most staged, Tony who works for me is more savvy than I am so I just send her pictures and she puts “do you like it?” *laughs*
What is your biggest claim to fame?
Ozzy Osbourne! Apparently Sharon bought a lamp so I can just imagine him going “I can’t put the lamp on Sharon!”
Where do you like to hang out locally?
The St Leonard, The Crown and the Taj Mahal on Western Road, it great.
Do you spend a lot of time on the beach and in the sea?
Yes when I can, I’ve been for a swim already today. I went in and decided to swim to the buoy but I just swam around in a circle and thought “it’s freezing!” Warming up is the hardest bit, I just go blue.
Which other artists and designers do you admire?
Surrealists are where my head’s at. I know it’s really cheesy but Duchamp’s Urinal, the ready-mades that make you re-look at everyday objects. So if you take “this is not a pipe”, mine is like “this is not a chair” when it’s a picture of a chair. It’s not just wallpaper, it’s something else and it goes further into your mental space.
Do you describe yourself as an artist or designer?
A bit of both but I’m not actually very good at designing. I can’t make things tidy, I just kind of make what I do, fit, rather than design something to measure. So, more of an artist.
I’ve noticed a lot of Deborah Bowness copycats at the moment, does this make you angry?
I don’t think I was original. I’ve just taken trompe l’oeil and made it how I see things, so I can’t really get annoyed. And the whole of digital printing and technology is just built to do this now. It’s harder to be original, that’s what’s stressful. But mine is a body of work, it tends to have more integrity. Leave ‘em to it. Just keep going.
You can find out more about Deborah as well as discover her latest lines, here.