Archive for the Art Category

Because the Knight (Aston Martin magazine)

Posted in Art, Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2010 by markcoflaherty

It’s a Sunday morning, and Nick Knight is in his uncharacteristically quiet Mayfair studio trying to get on top of post and emails. There’s a busy week ahead: a shoot for American Vogue, two days working with Kate Moss and a trip to Buckingham Palace to pick up an OBE. He allows himself a wry smile while pondering his meeting with the Queen: ‘It certainly isn’t something that was on my radar,’ he says. ‘But I’m very flattered.’

Nick Knight for British Vogue, 2008


Nick Knight is the most celebrated fashion photographer in the world today. While best known for his unique brand of contemporary, fantastical gloss – including Manga-inspired Dior advertising campaigns – his early work was markedly different. He rose to prominence in the 1980s with a book of raw, black and white documentary shots of London skinheads. He went on to work with i-D magazine during its most influential era, injecting fashion editorial with a fresh kind of clubland-sourced verisimilitude, far removed from the runway lipgloss of Condé Nast. Always changing, always pushing boundaries, Knight worked with a tight-knit band of stylists and art directors and forged a bold, stark sophistication.  His peers – including Dior’s John Galliano – would go on to become the new establishment. His work since, collaborating with the world’s most iconoclastic fashion designers and musicians (and Lady Gaga) has been nothing short of revolutionary, exhibited in some of the world’s most important galleries as fine art.

Knight has an absolute mastery of light and a choreographer’s eye for silhouette and attitude. He’s also constantly ahead of the technological curve, creating seemingly impossible images and flights of fantasy with sorcerous digital post-production. In 2000, in collaboration with art director Peter Saville, he launched, a virtual gallery and interactive workspace for a whole host of his contemporaries. Knight’s own shoots are frequently streamed live via the site, as well as being reworked into arresting standalone short films in their own right. ‘It represents 100% of what I do now,’ he says. For Knight, fashion and film is the way forward – a natural progression for a visual artist, and an industry, informed by romanticised notions of men and women in motion.

‘The strongest element of fashion photography has always been movement,’ says Knight. ‘If you look at someone like Richard Avedon, there’s a feeling of energy and life in the work, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. I want it to feel like it’s bursting off the page. Film was an obvious thing to happen after photography, because if you have a medium that can distribute moving fashion, that’s what people will want. My films are seen by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, while a set of stills for a low circulation magazine may be seen by a couple of thousand. The figures just don’t compare.’

Fashion media in the 21st century is undeniably a world away from the Polaroid culture of i-D’s heyday. Starting in the late 1980s, Knight shot twelve catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto with the art director Marc Ascoli. The imagery from them has become truly iconic. A shot of model Susie Bick, smoking, artfully slumped sideways on a chair like a dancer from one of Yamamoto’s beloved Pina Bausch productions, may be one of the most famous fashion images of the last century. A sequence of silhouetted shots of Naomi Campbell, twirling around in a voluminous red coat, predated and outshone the strikingly similar global iPod campaign by two decades. All of the images had the urgency of motion that now informs Knight’s films, and at the time belonged to a world of print. Now we live in a digital world, where SHOWstudio streams catwalk shows live across the globe, and where in some cases film has taken the place of the runway: designer Gareth Pugh produces a film with the website each season to present his new collection, and last autumn showed a film without any formal catwalk presentation.

Although Knight’s world is driven by technology, he has little formal interest in it himself. ‘I’m not fascinated by technology,’ he says. ‘I’m interested in life. I’m not looking for the next invention or charting where the curve is. Technology is never quite as good as it could be, whether it’s a car you’re driving or a camera, but then that’s good because it makes us push things forward.’

Many photographers paint themselves into a commercially successful corner. Think of Paolo Roversi’s amber, painterly images shot with long exposures and an antique patina, or Bruce Weber’s all-American muscle boys with floppy fringes and waxed chests, cavorting in monochrome. The most consistent aspect of Knight’s work is that it dazzles. His work with the late Alexander McQueen had a brooding darkness and violence to it, frequently morphing models with wild animals, while his Vogue covers – including putting Kylie Minogue into a giant, burlesque Champagne glass – are effervescent and bright. Each shoot is different because of who he’s working with, and his desire to avoid repetition. ‘I don’t want to use the same lighting twice, whether that’s using the headlights of my car to light the subject, or taking a picture with my phone,’ he says. ‘I’m not interested in finding out the answers to questions I’ve already answered. If there’s any similarity in my work, it’s that I start at zero. It’s the same point that I started at 30 years ago standing in front of a group of skinheads.’ The only standard element of his working day is his perennial uniform of white tailored shirt, black Tricker’s brogues and Levi’s 505s.

The collaborative nature of Knight’s work is, in an industry of ego-driven auteurs, remarkable, particularly his collaborations with McQueen, John Galliano, and Peter Saville, each a notoriously determined visual artist in their own right. ‘The most difficult person I work with is myself,’ says Knight. ‘Everyone else pales into niceness. People are just people and whoever I’m working with, I want to understand the world how they see it. In each instance, it starts and works in a different way. With Galliano he explains the desires behind his collection, I see the live show, make proposals to him about how I might interpret those desires, then there’s a five to seven day shoot. There’s a “Dior lens” that we use that gives a signature element to the images and in the same way that some American R&B music is heavily produced, there are six to eight weeks of post production on each of the images.’

Musicians relish working with Knight, who can bring seemingly impossible, intangible elements to enhance the promotional aspects of their work far beyond the prosaic portrait. He depicted Björk being pierced and sewn in the controversial video for ‘Pagan Poetry’, while his cover artwork for Pulp and Suede defined their style for years. In each case, the imagery stemmed from the sounds. ‘When I worked with Suede on Coming Up, the starting point was Brett Anderson’s lyrics,’ says Knight. ‘Then there was the embrace of certain other references. Peter Saville and I were enamoured with a German painter called Paul Wunderlich.’ If the figurative aspects of the imagery (elegantly wasted youths on a mattress) came from Anderson, the tone from Wunderlich and the digital-psychedelic texture from Saville’s obsession with digital filters, then it was Knight who brought it all together, choreographed it and facilitated the final image – the conductor of a visual symphony, as always.

‘A shoot is always a performance,’ says Knight. ‘The more you get people involved, the better the performance is. I want to work with people who can show me things that I can’t see.’ Which is something Knight continues to do, in the most astounding of ways, for the rest of us.




Ballard of the motorway (Quintessentially)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design, Art with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2010 by markcoflaherty

There’s an elephant in the room, hiding behind a sacred cow: JG Ballard wasn’t a particularly great writer. There were landmark novels but then there were airport thrillers let down by clunky prose and clumsy deus ex machina endings. What made him such a genius was a bold, glacial, prophetic style that had little to do with turns of phrase. Ballard was the urban soothsayer, armed with ideas that continue to manifest themselves in, and shape, the worlds of art and design. He is gone, but all around us.

Like ‘Kafkaesque’, ‘Warholian’ and ‘Jarmanesque’, ‘Ballardian’ has quickly passed into the lexicon of popular culture, describing a particularly modern dystopia of industrial landscapes and the effects on their inhabitants of technological, social or environmental depredations. Like Warhol, Ballard had a heightened awareness of the effects on British post-war society of developing technologies and media. He was also very conscious of Brand Ballard.  Like Jarman, he mapped out his physical territory with precision. Instead of Dungeness and burning Union Flags, he had Shepperton and car wrecks.  His imagery was potent, pernicious and miraculously ahead of the curve. He was punk before punk existed. Think of the Seditionaries period at McLaren and Westwood’s World’s End, with its intimidating frosted glass frontage, bombed out ceiling and civil unrest propoganda. ‘Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’ are chapter titles from The Atrocity Exhibition from 1970, but could just as easily have been World’s End T-shirt slogans six years later.

When Kingdom Come was published in 2006, it was easy to raise an eyebrow at the central conceit: society enslaved by consumerism and the shopping mall as fascist cathedral. It felt over-familiar, something revisited ad nauseum ever since George Romero set his slow-walking zombies loose in Dawn of the Dead in 1978. Two years later, in 2008, Westfield opened in London to a curiously hysterical press and public, in defiance of the implosion of global finance. The culture vacuum of Westfield is classic Ballard, from the LVMH and Gucci luxury stores at the Village, never troubled by more than a couple of bemused visitors a day, to its identikit All Saints and its multiplex cinema. Shoppers sleepwalk towards it, reassured by its shiny surfaces, distracted from shootings in the local Nandos. Across the Atlantic, the insular 1111 Lincoln Road development in Miami, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, is gloriously Ballardian – effectively one big multi storey car park that also happens to be an apartment and retail complex. 1111 Lincoln Road is a place for cars rather than people.

Architecture is key to Ballardian philosophy, and he was one of the most high-profile members – along with Ian Sinclair and Will Self – of a loose collective of British literary psychogeographers. His perspective on urban planning and the motorways of the hinterland was contrary and radical. ‘He touched the imaginations of architects as diverse as Nigel Coates and Rem Koolhaas,’ says the Design Museum’s Deyan Sudjic. ‘They shared his interest in dystopia.’ Dystopia for Ballard wasn’t the traditional ghetto, defined by socioeconomic conditioning, it was the Costa del Gated Community and the ‘new town’ and how it altered the state of mind. He would have been enthralled by the Olympic developments, destined to become immense white elephants. Likewise the sleek overground trains which now run through a reinvented Dalston full of new build apartments with floor to ceiling glass and balconies, sterile and halfway to ethnic cleansing – Ballardian, all of it. It is the architecture of wealth, disenfranchising to the last brick.

The flipside of all of this can be found in the brutalism of Trellick Tower in W11 – once reviled, but now adored without much sense of irony by lovers of modernist design, its walkways reduced to a Margo Selby textile print used on luggage, ties and furniture. Meanwhile, Paramount, on the top floor of Richard Seifert’s rehabilitated 1960s Centre Point, has become one of the most desirable destination dining rooms – and sumptuous Ballardian experiences – in London.

Ballard was in love with roads and runways – transient zones. He believed the Westway should have extended right through NW1 and Hampstead. He embraced an unsettling future, and hungered for change. His favourite building in London was the Heathrow Hilton, designed by Michael Manser, which, he said, ‘resembles a cross between a brain surgery hospital and a space station. Sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one feels no emotions and could never fall in love, or need to.’ He wanted all of London to look like this, as if ‘everybody was getting ready to leave for Mars’.

Ballard’s attitude towards architectural design was wilfully anarchic and nihilistic: windows broken, swimming pools drained. We are so used to the cosy and preordained nature of interiors and architecture that dereliction and the ability to explore a space unintended for lingering has a dangerous frisson to it. It’s popular subject matter for contemporary art photographers. Dan Holdsworth – whose work will be appearing in this year’s Out of Focus: Photography Now show at the Saatchi Gallery in London –  creates gloriously light-saturated imagery of abandoned motorways, shot at slow speeds so that they take on a hyperreal quality. The light-sensitive materials in the camera work in a way that the eye cannot, creating a visual opera of yellow-striped concrete and starbursting streetlights. Troy Paiva, who documents crumbling, vacant American landscapes, shoots in a similar style, and has been profiled by the website as a particularly Ballardian photographer. ‘There is that sense of desolation and isolation,’ Paiva says, ‘the fetishism of decay.’

The artist Roger Hiorns created what must surely be the most Ballardian piece of art in recent years. His Seizure installation, filling an abandoned council flat in Elephant & Castle with dazzling blue, alien-like crystals, was the very essence of The Crystal World (1966). There were layers and layers of Ballardian ideas present in a space that was as unsettling as it was beautiful. Hiorns has spoken of ‘the desire to capture the building, to impregnate it – introducing strangeness into a functional utilitarian space’, as well as a ‘pscyho-sexual element’ in the installation. ‘… introducing a liquid in the building so that the host environment is seeded, and then the crystal grows out… an aggressive process.’ The project strikes an amplified chord with the cinema of perennially Ballardian director David Cronenberg, the perfect choice of filmmaker for the 1996 big screen adaptation of Crash. His mid-70s film Rabid dealt with residents of a suburban high rise who turn into sex-crazed fiends when exposed to a fast-spreading virus, with obvious parallels to Ballard’s High Rise (1975). Cronenberg’s 1983 Videodrome created a world where pornography carries a deadly virus which causes its users to hallucinate and mutate. The latter film, along with much of Ballard’s more sexually aggressive work, predicts today’s world in which the internet has sexualised the media, and a whole generation, to a degree that would have been seen as science fiction in the 1970s: a world of Grindr casual-encounter iPhone applications and DIY suburban-pornstars getting their 15 minutes of fame on

The Ballardian style was celebrated in the Crash show at the Kings Cross Gagosian gallery earlier this year, an exhibition which captured his aesthetic perfectly. Adam McEwen’s Honda Teen Facial – the undercarriage of a 747 –echoed Ballard’s self-staged Crash exhibition of car wrecks at the New Art Laboratory in 1970, while Chris Burden’s L.A.P.D. Uniform, an 88 inch high policeman’s boilersuit, loomed with menace and implicit violence. Plans are now afoot for a more underground – and literally subterranean – show in London, planned by Ballard’s partner Clare Walsh and artist Gee Vaucher, while Ballard continues to be namechecked by cultural commentators and artists dealing with subjects as diverse as postmodern architecture and reality TV.

Ballard’s vast body of work is a national treasure (his archive, which takes up 12 metres of shelf space, made its way into the British Library in June), but the Ballardian style was most succinctly nailed down by his poem What I Believe. ‘I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.’ From whorish media celebrity and legal highs to 9/11 TV footage, BP oil slicks, Cumbrian massacres and imploding, brutalist council estates, Warm Leatherette to Madonna’s Drowned World, road rage and beyond, his influence will continue to be seen and heard for decades to come.

Michael Nyman’s Mexico City (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design, Art, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 6, 2010 by markcoflaherty

“From the window of my house in the Roma district I can hear the continual sound of an ice cream van with a particular kind of repetitious chime. I’ve tried to transcribe it several times in my mind to work it into a piece of music but it hasn’t happened quite yet. At my other home, in Islington, the street is so quiet that a car horn would be dramatic, but in Mexico City it’s all noise, noise, noise – as London would have been in the 16th and 17th century. These are the cries of the city.

La Colonia Roma is full of local industry, artisanry and loud, drinking people. It’s a reality of existence that goes back decades and generations, and I really like that. The pavements look like they haven’t been repaired since the earthquake in 1985, just after I first came to Mexico City at the invitation of my artist friend Felipe Ehrenberg. The city blew my mind. I remember my first meal here with Felipe was at a Pre-Colombian restaurant where I ate fried grasshopper.

I have three terraces in the house looking out towards the downtown area. I hear the children playing in the primary school opposite my house, people selling corn on market stalls, and people singing out to the owners of empty gas bottles to come and have them refilled. I like to make secretive films of the old men and women walking around the streets with my little Leica, visually and conceptually self-contained pieces that I score myself while editing. When I’m making these films, music is the last thing I think of, but I’m the best filmmaker I’ve ever worked with – sometimes I sit at my piano for weeks trying to get the music right with a director and sometimes the negotiations break down and they find another composer.  When I work with myself here, I always make the right decision.

After my first visit to Mexico City I revisited every two or three years to play concerts and then three years ago came to play a solo date in Puebla and stayed on with Marc Silver and Max Pugh, who I work with on my personal film projects, to edit something. We stayed in the Hotel Condesa DF for a week having a really good time, and the experience introduced me to the experience of Mexico City as a resident rather than as a tourist.  The hotel is very elegant – it’s rather ‘boutiquey’, the rooms are nicely turned out and it and has a fantastic roof terrace. You can sit and have breakfast and bump into interesting people, like Rhys Ifans with Sienna Miller, or an American digital philosopher. I love the Condesa district, which is familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. There are elements of Hoxton in the way it’s been remodelled but it’s still Mexican rather than something that feels transplanted. It’s very vibrant, with dozens of restaurants and lots of nightlife. It has a strange combination of elegance, freedom and control.

The same people who own Condesa DF own the similarly contemporary Habita, which was the venue for a great party I went to and which, like the Condesa, has a fantastic roof terrace with a pool. The hotel restaurants in Mexico City are surprisingly good, the Mexicans tend to really enjoy them; I particularly like the Hip Kitchen and Bar at the Hotel Hippodrome.

In 2008 I came here to edit another film with Max and Marc and we set up in a large suite at the Red Tree House, which is a sort of post-hippie kind of hotel that reminds of being in Istanbul in 1966. I stayed on to look for a house, initially in Condesa and then in La Roma, where I found the perfect 1930s art deco place.

My whole life here is the reverse of what it is in London, where I protect my work and don’t socialise in the day. Here, I live outside and have lunch with friends and speak to people. There’s a brilliant old cantina quite near me that I like to go to called Covadonga. It used to be a typical hangout of old dominoes players but seems to have been taken over, not unacceptably, by a younger arty crowd.

There are a lot of extravagant individuals in Mexico City. There’s a fantastic French guy called Emamanuel Picault who has a design store called Chic by Accident. His furniture is brilliant but staggeringly expensive, but it doesn’t stop me buying it. I tell him how expensive I think it is and he just shrugs in that French way and says ‘yes… it is.’ He’s something of a design guru and created the interior for the very chi-chi French tea shop, Maison Francaise of Thé Caravanserai, which has excellent cakes.

I often take breakfast at a beautiful place called Casa Lamm. It’s very elegant and has an excellent art bookshop inside, Libreria Pegaso. It’s a cultural centre, in a classic 19th century building, with a glassed-in restaurant very stylishly added on. There’s also Atrio, a short walk away, which is a café with a lot of tables on the street and three-piece suites inside with books on shelves, all for sale. They also have regular live jazz there.

My favourite fish restaurant in La Roma is Contramar, which is only open until 6.30pm, and which might well be the best quality restaurant in the whole city. I also love Pesces, partly because it’s so close to my house. Outside the restaurant there’s a sign that reads ‘the only restaurant in Mexico City not owned by Carlos Slim.’ Pesces is a tiny space with tables outside and live music. It’s run by a wonderful middle-aged woman called Teresa who sings every Friday night. After just a few days of living here I felt like a family friend. There are some artists who frequent the restaurant that I’m acquainted with, and the film director Carlos Reygadas, who made the best film I have seen in the last 20 years, Silent Light, is a regular.

The best thing I have discovered in La Roma is Mercado Medelin, the most immense fruit and veg market. It’s utterly fantastic and has eight or so restaurants inside. It’s great to wander around in and find ten different varieties of mango.

There’s a café and bookshop close by called El Péndulo which has a fantastic collection of Spanish language books that make me realise how relatively uncultivated Britain is in terms of the number of foreign language books that are translated into English. I have a hankering to learn Spanish, which I still don’t know, in order to read books translated from German and Croatian that aren’t available in English. A strange reason to learn, I suppose, as the most usual reason would be to be able to explain to the cleaner what needs doing. They have a bookcase with English language title books and I think if I lived there permanently, its turnover would be enough to satisfy me. The second time I went in I was amazed that they had three copies of my book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, sitting next to Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche. I had my photograph taken in front of them. I doubt it was ever restocked.

I sometimes force myself to be a tourist for an afternoon, and leave La Roma. There are fantastic museums and churches that I still haven’t been to. Obviously every time you come to Mexico City you should visit the Frida Kahlo museum and Trotsky’s House – where he was assassinated by a Russian agent with an ice pick in 1940 – and I think the best way to understand the Mexican people is to go to Alameda park, where everyone hangs out.

I have a great desire to play in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, facing Alameda Central. It’s a most beautiful art deco theatre and it also has a great art bookshop inside. On the other hand, you could lose yourself in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (the National Museum of Anthropology) for days. Every region in Mexico has its own room, and it makes you realise that the British Museum’s Montezuma exhibition was very Eurocentric.

I prefer to stay within La Roma – I feel totally self sufficient there. I could live in Polanco, with the Armani and Gucci shops, but I’d forget I was living in Mexico City – it could be Milan. Santa Fe is interesting for it its high-rise tower blocks if you have an interest in contemporary architecture, but I’d never live there. I like to photograph and shoot films in the streets where I am.

One of the best things about the city is that it invites you into a social scene much more quickly, directly and effortlessly than somewhere like London, where everyone welcomes you and pushes you away at the same time. I have met the most wonderful people here, and had the most extraordinary experiences. I went to a party held by an art book publisher and the next day my hosts invited me to Plaza Mexico, the largest bullring in the world, to see a bullfight. They are season ticket holders. I hate bull fighting but I went along and took my Leica and shot an anti-bullfighting film by removing the bull from every shot. I made a study of the men in the red jackets and trousers who repaint the white lines in the ring and respread the sand after each fight.

I recently made a short film of a guy pushing a cart through the streets of La Roma, and it highlighted my preconceptions and cultural misinterpretations of the city. I’d assumed he was dispossessed and carrying all of his possessions with him. Three of his bags fell off and a dustman picked then up and threw them into his dustcart. I thought he was throwing the man’s belongings away, mistaking them for rubbish. I showed it to a friend who explained to me that I’d got it wrong – the man with the cart was collecting rubbish for the dustbin men, and being paid to do it. I can’t imagine how he knew where the dustmen would be, but this is what happens. There’s a whole dustcart culture here that’s really worthy of study. Like so many things in Mexico City, it’s entirely unique.”


Prices are for a double room per night with breakfast.

Habita, Avenida Presidente Masaryk 201 (+52-55 5282 3100;, from $175 (about £109).

Hotel Condesa DF, Avenida Veracruz 102 (+52-55 5241 2600;, from $175 (about £109).

The Red Tree House, Culiacan 6 (+52-55 5584 3829; from $50 (about £32).


Prices are for a three-course meal with half a bottle of wine, unless stated

Atrio, Orizabo 127 (+52-55 1054 7250).

Casa Lamm, Alvaro Obregon 99 (+52-55 5514 8501), about £20.

Contramar, Avenida Durango 200 (+52-55 5514 9217), about £30.

Covadonga, Puebla 121 (+52-55 5533 2922).

Hip Kitchen and Bar, Hotel Hippodrome, Avenida Mexico 188 (+52-55 1454 4599), about £25.

Maison Francaise of thé Caravanserai, Calle Orizaba 101-A (+52-55 5511 2877).

Pesces, Jalapa 237 (+52-55 8596 9004), about £20.


Chic by Accident, Alvaro Obregon 49 (+52-55 5511 1312).

El Pendulo, Nuevo León 115 (+52-55 5286 9493)


Museo Frida Kahlo, Londres 247 (+52-55 5554 5999); Tue-Sun 10am-5.45pm.

The Leon Trotsky Museum, Viena 45 (+52-55 5554 0687); Tue-Sun 10am-5pm.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Paseo de la Reforma y Gandhi (+52-55 5533 6381); Tue-Sun 9am-7pm.

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Avenida Juárez y Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas (+52-55 5130 0900); Tue-Sun 10am-6pm.

Plaza Mexico, Augusto Rodin 241 (+52 55 5563 3961)


Xochimilco is 17 miles south of the city centre and is all that remains of a time when Mexico City was originally built on water by the Aztecs. The area looks  like, and functions like, Venice – visitors explore the artificial islands and canals in brightly decorated boats. It’s quite surreal.


The weather is warm but changeable year-round. July-September are the wettest months and best avoided. The high altitude keeps mornings and evenings consistently cool.


Air France (0871 66 33 7777; flies twice daily to Mexico City from Heathrow via Paris to Mexico City, from £546 return.

Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; flies daily from Heathrow to Mexico City via Frankfurt, from £633 return.

Cool as folk (House)

Posted in Art, Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2010 by markcoflaherty

One of the more unusual sights at one of London’s most well attended fashion parties last year was that of Rei Kawakubo, the notoriously glacial Comme des Garçons designer, being instructed on the finer points of Morris Dancing. The Folklore Fete, a fundraiser for the Museum of British Folklore was, as the fashion world says without any sense of its own ridiculousness, ‘a moment’. It was also affirmation that folk culture – both in the UK and abroad – is enjoying a very 21st century kind of renaissance in popularity and credibility. For a whole bandwagon-load of hipsters (essentially the bearded Urban Outfitter-clad redux of Beat-loving folkie troubadours of old), the Jack in the Green is the new black and it’s all wicker, man. And yet, there’s a lot more substance to it all than a bunch of pissed-up bank holidays on the Kent coast and gentle guitar refrains from Portland Oregon.

The Folklore Fete’s host, Simon Costin, is one of fashion’s most influential figures. More than that, he’s a fine artist in his own right: Costin’s formative career saw him working on film projects with Derek Jarman and later creating shamanistic jewellery from bones and semen. Since then he has designed theatrical, seemingly impossible sets for Nick Knight and Steven Klein, made rain fall on Alexander McQueen’s catwalk and recently helped recreate the centre of Paris at one-third scale inside the Grand Palais in the French capital for Sonia Rykiel and H&M. Last year’s Fete marked the launch of his Museum of British Folklore, scheduled to open in the south east of England in three years’ time. He subsequently went on a nationwide tour with a capsule collection of folk artefacts, including a corn dolly, a dessicated cat from the 15th century and a phallic wand from a coven in Sussex – all housed in a converted 70s Carry On-style caravan painted in Laduree macaroon colours and faded fairground swirls. This year the caravan appears again at a variety of fairs, while Simon curates a show at the Queens Gallery Hexham, as well as a string of summer-long exhibitions at a variety of venues, including the Gatehouse in Port Eliot.

Close friends Gareth Pugh and Stephen Jones contributed costume pieces for Costin to wear on tour – making Simon an integral part of the Museum experience. For milliner Jones the project struck an immediate chord: ‘I’d always thought I knew Britain and that it wasn’t exciting,’ he says. ‘Then I went to a village fair with my parents and we had our photograph taken with some prize turnips… when I looked at the picture afterwards it just looked so typically, eccentrically, English that it inspired me to put together a collection which I called Handmade in England. Then I bumped into Simon at JFK and he told me about his Museum.’

Folklore has been reworked in fashion more times than the shoulder pad. Vivienne Westwood showed several collections at the end of the 80s under the banner ‘Britain must go Pagan!’, and she’s never lost interest in Brit-folk imagery; last season she showed men’s rag rug knits in May Pole colours. Carmen Haid, of the online vintage fashion boutique Atelier Mayer, says a lot of the most sought-after pieces she handles have heavy folk influences: ‘Particularly the YSL 70s Ballets Russes collections; Ossie Clark’s Celia Birtwell prints and almost every collection by John Galliano.’ Galliano’s last collection riffed on the look again, with heavy folk-embroidery, lucky charms, and male models catwalking as platinum-blond horned satyrs.

As well as helping create fantasy worlds for the world’s most directional designers and documenting and curating the vernacular arts, Simon Costin has a passionate and personal relationship with folk culture. This spring he’ll appear, as in previous years, painted emerald and moving with the procession of other ‘bogeys’, black-faced Hunters Moon Morris men and ivy-headdressed locals through the old town of Hastings for the Jack in the Green festival. It’s but one of hundreds of events in the annual folk calendar; a schedule that’s growing apace. Certainly it’s no coincidence that there’s been a resurgence of all things folk at the same time as a global economic meltdown and the disappearance of (jobs aside) so much of what was really rubbish to begin with. ‘There’s been an estimated 25% increase in attendance at folk events around the country,’ says Simon Costin. ‘This might well be to do with a need to feel a part of something in a time of crisis, a part of a real community.’  Costin’s Museum will be made up of the past, present and future, acting as a catalyst for new craft as much as a space for document. ‘Britain is a tiny collection of islands and we have a wonderfully rich folkloric history, but we don’t celebrate it,’ he says. ‘This is a living tradition. Each generation reinvents things and makes it relevant to the modern day.’ Alongside his Museum projects, Costin is working on a book, to be published next year, of portraits of British folk festival participants, photographed by Henry Bourne.

Folk style, while very ‘of the moment’ is timeless. Roddy Woomble, the frontman of Scottish guitar band Idlewild, released his solo folk album My Secret is My Silence in 2006 and then went on to form a folk supergroup with Kris Drever and John McCusker. The band spent last year touring their album Before the Ruin, to slavish audience adoration. Both records are achingly beautiful and a paradigm of a whole backwards-to-go-forwards movement in music. While many cultural commentators are waiting for an equivalent of punk to come and wash away the creative void of light entertainment synonymous with Saturday night talent shows and Lady Ga Ga, the revolution might already be here, wearing a beard and waxing lyrical about Celtic legend. For Woomble, folk is perpetually modern because, he says, ‘it can’t get any older. People have always had stories and sung them into songs. Folk songs are elemental, like the wind. They can never go out of fashion because they pre-date it.’

Folk is very much the soundtrack to now: from Grizzly Bear and Shearwater in the States to the UK’s Blue Roses, Malcolm Middleton and Mumford & Sons, the accent is on all things candid, acoustic and which invite you to gather round and listen. For all the pretence that Britney’s recent stadium renaissance is ironic kitsch gold rather than the ghoulish showbiz equivalent of a dog eating its own sick, one can scarcely imagine the genuine excitement that would be generated by a live tour by Joni Mitchell or perhaps Kate Bush.

Folkie north London club night The Local started out life as a monthly event at a pub in Crouch End and has now expanded into tours, a festival and a record label – it’s a total phenomenon. The ceilidhs at Cecil Sharp House, where Costin’s Fete took place, are amongst the best-loved club nights in London with kilted queues snaking around the block. Rather like the Mighty Boosh truism that it’s impossible to be unhappy in a poncho, you can’t have a bad time at a ceilidh, if only because you’re compelled to dance with strangers. The ceilidh is the diametric opposite of all those dour, louche, bottle-service clubs in Mayfair and Midtown that now feel so mid-noughties. Like all things folk, it’s about getting back in touch with human nature and stripping things back to what’s important, as well as genuinely beguiling. It’s a human touch and it’s getting your hands dirty. You can see it in the handicraft that sells by the truckload on the DIY craft site and in the flamboyant toys, handbags and even wedding dresses that are coming out of the year-old Harris Tweed Cooperative in the Outer Hebrides. It’s even in the salted artisanal dark chocolate made in small exquisitely packaged batches in Williamsburg by the Mast Brothers, Rick and Michael, two chaps who look like an Amish duo on a shopping spree at Dover Street Market and who epitomise the slow food movement and integrity of craft in produce.

There is, of course, a potential disconnect between ‘fashion’ and ‘folk’, and some irony in the former embracing the latter (and yes, Dean & Deluca are selling that Mast Brothers chocolate for $10 a bar). Fashion is, by its very nature, ephemeral and disposable. It’s also, potentially, a shallow and fragile crafting of identity. Folk, on the other hand, comes with centuries worth of roots. It connects us all to something fundamental that makes a mockery of, and could potentially disassemble, a culture of idiocy and rubbish that can’t just be excused as post-modern frivolity any more. It’s the search for something a bit more real and a bit more rewarding; a pursuit which must be timeless.

Photo finish (Blueprint)

Posted in Art, Fashion with tags , , , , on February 26, 2010 by markcoflaherty

This years Spring/Summer collections point directly at something of a nouvelle vague turning point for fashion. The digital photo prints that were catwalked at the prêt a porter last autumn were more numerous and infinitely more accomplished than anything seen before – from the stark and restrained pictures of the late Pina Bausch on the ankle length drifts of silk gazar at Chado Ralph Rucci in New York City to the Rorschach-like abstract techno fantasia of Alexander McQueen’s Atlantis Reborn collection in Paris.

While the aesthetics of audio visual media are constantly changing, from the hand held cameras and faster film speeds that liberated 60s French art cinema to the renaissance of 3D in the multiplex, things don’t tend to change so quickly in fashion beyond the cyclical (hems up… hems down… Jackie O…. Out of Africa…). They certainly don’t change as radically. Odd perhaps, given that it’s the only industry that reinvents its product twice yearly.

The technological advances in digital textile printing over the last couple of years invite parallels with the rise of the pixel in film and photography. Originally developed for flat panel exhibits in museums and galleries, a growing interest in its potential for garment adornment has fuelled development. The Japanese Mimaki-built machinery has become more sophisticated as well as cheaper, and the designers using the technology have brought their expertise to the table and helped expand the range of what fabrics can be printed on.

Maria Cornejo has been celebrated for her strong use of prints since she was one half of the feted Richmond Cornejo label in the 80s, working with then partner John Richmond. Now based in New York, the last two collections of her decade-old Zero label have relied heavily on photo print. For spring 2010 the artfully skewed volumes of her dresses come printed with shots of the Bosphorus that Cornejo shot on her iPhone during a ferry journey. ‘This collection began by looking at architecture, and how nature always finds a way to emerge in any environment,’ says Cornejo. This is fashion as intensely personal art project, made possible by leaps in technology: ‘To do this used to cost us around $100 a yard,’ says Cornejo. ‘Now it’s much cheaper.’ Cornejo’s operation is high end but, as an independent, relatively small in scale. Accessibility has made digital print possible for limited production runs, and even students. Previously, labour-intensive screen-printing would require the commitment of something like a 1000 metre minimum order at a factory.

‘Essentially it’s a bigger version of the kind of laser printer you might have at home,’ explains Andrew Groves, the head of the University of Westminster’s BA fashion course. ‘The fabric is coated, then it goes through the rollers back and forth at the speed of about a metre every 10 minutes and then it’s steamed to fix it. Then it can be washed like any other garment.’

Students at Westminster are being taught digital print as a potential alternative to silkscreen. ‘To do four or six colour printing with screens would take forever,’ explains Groves. ‘With this process you can print half a metre and put 40 different samples on it.’

The digital aesthetic is still very much in its infancy. James Bosley has worked on prints for Diana von Furstenberg and Louis Vuitton and teaches students on the Westminster course. ‘Many designers are using the process to achieve a screen-print aesthetic, effectively ignoring the traits of the new process. It’s a common early use of digital technology – assuming the look of a previous, highly skilled process, with less craft skill, time and money. But there are designers who are exploiting the new possibilities: Dries van Noten has produced numerous multi coloured highly detailed prints within the same garment. Marc Jacobs has printed on both sides of the same dress fabric in a way that could not be done by hand and Prada have produced impossibly airbrushed looking prints.’

London based design duo Basso & Brooke are the masters of digital textiles. Bruno Basso focuses on print, and Christopher Brooke on cut. Groves describes their influence on print in fashion as being similar to Gilbert & George in the art world: ‘When they started working five years ago it was a really hard thing to do, like Gilbert & George creating their really large scale pieces. Now the technology is accessible and everyone can do it, but Basso & Brooke are still more sophisticated – they aren’t just using the printer as a photocopier.’ Bruno Basso’s imagery, in terms of colour and graphic impact, is modern and suitably maximalist, but determinedly focused. With less skill it could teeter into kitsch, but it never does, and as a fashion house they are taking things to the next level. ‘We can alter any element of a garment and make it special,’ says Basso. ‘When we created our flower dress for our Japanese collection last year, we printed the same flower four times in different parts of the dress, angled in different directions, so that when the parts were sewn together, it became a three dimensional flower. And we printed different flowers everywhere, we didn’t just repeat it.’

As well as exploring the possibilities by manipulating cut and dimensions alongside their prints, Basso & Brooke are pushing the boundaries of print. ‘We still can’t print on textured surfaces, but when we work in Lycra, we work with our printers so that we expand it to its full extent, glue it down and then print, taking into account the expansion. Then when it relaxes, and is worn, and stretched again, there are no white gaps visible, as there would be with a high street version of the same piece. It’s a very precious way to work, but this is high fashion.’

For Bruno Basso, the key appeal of digital print is in that high fashion preciousness, something that sure to fuel appetite for the aesthetic: ‘Digital print is about the necessity of exclusivity. The era where you want to wear the same clothes as me, of everyone wearing D&G, and mass production, is over. This technology allows for a totally new kind of exclusivity.’ Digital print might well be the 21st century answer to haute couture. The pixel marches on.

Capital of cool: Portland, Oregon (Elle)

Posted in Art, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2010 by markcoflaherty

‘You know we have a vegan strip club here!? There’s a sign on the wall that reads “no fur, no cellphones, no leather”, and all the bar snacks are vegan!’ Paige Powell, erstwhile right hand to Andy Warhol, girlfriend of Jean Michel Basquiat and now the most photogenic animal rights activist-cum-art curator in the world, is back home in Portland and talking about a few of the things that make this remote Pacific North West town the hands-down coolest city in the States. It’s her birthday, and the small group around her table at Le’Happy, a boho candle-lit dive bar and creperie, is a cross section of Portland’s hipster monde. There’s the artist Philip Iosca, who helped design the Ace Hotel; filmmaker Gus van Sant; and Thomas Lauderdale, co-owner of Le’Happy, founder of the band Pink Martini, political activist and all-round Oregonian good egg.

Thomas has a theory about why Portland generates such an inordinate proportion of musical talent (local bands include the Gossip, the Dandy Warhols and the Decemberists): ‘Well… It rains a lot so you have to stay indoors and practice!’ Everyone I speak to references rugged frontier spirit and liberal attitudes – oh, and affordability. As Paige says, ‘You can work at a coffee shop, ride your bike to work and do your artwork on the side. People really enjoy what they do here, whether it’s making cookies or growing herbs for essential oils. When I left New York, Wall Street had become such an influence and Tribeca was full of double strollers.’ Gus van Sant, who speaks with the detached, not-quite-here air of Paige’s old friend Warhol, has his own theory as to why Portland is the way it is: ‘It’s a place that’s on its own, so you’re… abandoned together.’

Portland bonds through creative endeavours. Paige has recently curated the art for new five star hotel The Nines, installing work by hot local artist Storm Tharp as well as by her friends van Sant and Iosca. Iosca, in turn, was one of the creative directors on the refurbished Ace Hotel, which featured in van Sant’s early movie Drugstore Cowboy when it was still a flophouse. ‘Visually I still love that area in the Pearl District,’ says Gus.  ‘There are still a bunch of buildings there that are a throwback to the transient hotels.’

The lo-fi chic Ace Hotel is at the very epicentre of the city’s scene, and might just be the funkiest hotel in the world. It’s a paradigm of Portland cool, with in-room turntables and a box-o’-vinyl, and a lobby scene that incorporates a 60s b&w photobooth, the best coffee shop in town (Stumptown Roasters), and the coolest bar in the Pearl (Clyde Common, where the coasters are letter-pressed somewhat macabrely with a sketch of a meat cleaver). Last year the Japanese designer Takahiro Miyashita riffed on the Ace with his autumn/winter Number (N)ine runway show in Paris entitled My Own Private Portland: red grunge Elmer Fudd plaids strode the catwalk while the front row snuggled beneath Ace blankets.

The Ace is one block from the behemoth Powell’s City of Books, the largest used and new bookstore in the world. Open right through to 11pm every night, it’s ground zero for local ‘zine hounds, rare book collectors and really just about every Portlandian who can read.  If anything feels like the spiritual centre of the city, it’s the main branch of Powell’s.

While the Pearl district – which sits adjacent to downtown, Broadway and the city’s celebrated bronze 1917 Benson Bubbler water fountains – feels like Portland’s heart, it’s by no means the whole story. Yes, the Pearl has Andina, the Peruvian restaurant that has everyone going nuts for its mouth-tinglingly spicy Sacsayhuaman (pronounced ‘sexy-woman’) martini and its Alfajore cookies, but just across the river, on the east side, there’s the bare brick-walled Le Pigeon, where you can sit at the bar and watch chef Gabriel Rucker at close quarters as he cooks up a rustic storm. The eponymous bird reappears in tattoo form across Gabriel’s forearm, as well as in one of the restaurant’s most lush supper dishes.

‘This is the best part of Portland!’ insists Tres Shannon, co-owner (with the fantastically named Cat Daddy) of deeply alternative 24/7 patisserie Voodoo Doughnut. With his striped jumper, boot-cut jeans, specs, shoulder length hair and brightly coloured knitted hat, Tres looks like he’s just wandered, dazed, from an overturned Mystery Machine. The man who invented Froot Loop and bacon maple doughnuts, not to mention the Voodoo Doughnut wedding, drives me through the East Side en route to his new store, Voodoo Doughnut Too. We pass Le Pigeon and, next door, the Doug Fir Lounge, a kitschy-mod music venue and bar. ‘People talk about the Pearl,’ says Tres. ‘But this is where it’s happening! When we opened the new store we had a huge parade down here, with everyone on bikes, a marching band and Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandy Warhols.’

Much further east, there’s the slightly beatnik strip of Hawthorne and Belmont, reminiscent of a cooler Haight Ashbury, but with skateboards and the architectural folly of the Bagdad movie theatre. To the north is the up-and-coming Mississippi Avenue area, a haven for architectural salvage stalls, artisanal salts and nice hats.

The prettiest area in town is Nob Hill in the North West, where the tram finishes its loop amidst dense green tree lined avenues and elegant wood beam façade houses with decorous porches. Small boutiques run along NW23rd; the most notable is Seaplane, which has stocked local designers since it first opened in 2000. Two streets away, in an old Victorian house, there’s Paley’s Place, the hautest of cuisine destinations in the city, but still typically Portland – there are no tablecloths, and Vitaly Paley’s muscular use of local organic meats has found a fan in St John’s Fergus Henderson, who has been known to guest in the kitchen while visiting Vitaly and his wife. Paley’s Frisee aux Lardons & Bacon-Crusted Soft Scotch Egg isn’t so much good comfort food, as it is a big warm hug.

For all its star chefs, authors and filmmakers, the arts scene in Portland is far from male-dominated. Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Beth Ditto have both been guest teachers at Rock Camp for Girls, an alternative (in both senses) to summer camp. It’s become such a phenomenon that weekend-long camps are now being run for grown up women, raising funds for the girls’ weeks. Despite its success, its organisers repeatedly turn down reality TV offers and are careful to keep the celebrity aspects low-key; as one of the camp’s founding sisters, Lady Connie, explains, ‘The camp is about helping girls realise they can be whatever they want. The camp attracts girls who don’t fit in: they’re outgoing about music and fashion, but aren’t necessarily the popular girls or cheerleaders. It’s self esteem that we’re pushing.’

A similar spirit of indie can-do spirit inspired Laurie Lewis of Hip Chicks Do Wine to start her own winery with her partner in 1999. ‘We both enjoyed drinking wine, so we used our credit cards, got a second mortgage and made 500 cases of wine,’ says Laurie. Now they run a tasting room and make 5,000 cases a year, including a Bad Girl Blanc and an exceptional Muscat with tasting notes they liken to ‘a June’s bridesmaid caught in a rainshower.’ It’s a typical make-it-up-as-you-go-along Portland success story.

The author Chuck Palahniuk, who still lives here, commented in his irreverent travel guide to the city, Fugitives and Refugees, that Portland is populated by ‘misfits among misfits’. That might be, but fitting in has always been a much overrated pursuit.


The Ace Hotel, Doubles from $95 (1022 SW Stark St, enq 503 228 2277)

Andina (1214 NW Glisan, enq 503 228 9535)

Doug Fir Lounge (830 E Burnside, enq 503 231 9663)

Le’Happy (1011 NW 16th Ave, enq 503 226 258)

Hip Chicks do Wine (4510 SE 23rd Ave, enq 503 234 3790)

The Nines Hotel (525 SW Morrison, enq 877 229 9995), Doubles from $159

Paley’s Place (1204 NW 21st St, enq 503 243 2403)

Le Pigeon (738 E Burnside St, enq 503 546 8796)

Powell’s City of Books (1005 W Burnside, enq 503 228 4651)

Rock Camp for Girls (8900 ‘A’ NE Vancouver Way, enq 503 445 4991)

Seaplane (827, NW 23rd St, enq 503 234 2409)

Voodoo Doughnut Too (1501 NE Davis, enq 503 235 2666)


KLM  (enq 0871 222 7474, fly up to three times daily from 15 UK regional airports to Portland via Amsterdam. Fares from £481 return.

Hot off the press (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design, Art with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by markcoflaherty

No shopping safari in New York’s SoHo is ever complete without a visit to Kate’s Paperie. The Spring Street flagship’s is lined with meticulous displays of journals, cards and an infinite rainbow of fine papers and envelopes that make you want to abandon your Macbook and email software in favour of handwritten missives using only the most luxurious of stationery. Amongst the most seductive product at Kate’s are the bespoke letterpress items that they produce to order. From monogrammed writing sets to wildly ornate Christmas cards, letterpress – where inked plates press into paper and leave a distinctive textural mark along with the imprint – is the vellum-white-hot trend in stationery right now. Partly it’s a reaction against the trite and corporate lack of creativity that spelt doom for the unlovely Clinton Cards empire and partly its because we’re embracing nostalgia for early 20th century modernism, but mostly it’s because the paper products made this way are utterly lovely.

‘I think the charm of holding something in your hands and having a connection with the person who made it is very basic and universal,’ says Krista Stout, the designer behind the boutique letterpress studio Papered Together. ‘People want something authentic and personal, something with a story behind it.  When I send a box of 500 wedding invitations to a client, I’ve personally held every piece of paper in my hands at least twice, and often four or five times.  I’ve spent hours mixing the ink to perfectly match a paint chip or a fabric swatch, or the October leaves, and many, many more hours printing and reprinting until each one is just right.’ Stout sells a range of cards through the homecraft website and but the focus of her business is bespoke, combining vintage elements and nature-inspired imagery with seasonal colours and, of course, the clients needs. Her style is chic and pared down, taking something from letterpress’ past and mixing it with contemporary design. Her thistle and cross-stitch adorned cards (£2.50) are typical and enchanting. Greenwich Letterpress, a studio with a store in New York which also stocks through Etsy, has a similar aesthetic. Many of their cards feature classic animal prints, while their ‘a holiday toast’ Christmas cards ($18 for six) are a charming nod to Victoriana, with two hands clinking goblets, one with a ruffed sleeve end.

A lot of modern letterpress work is a direct descendant of the medium’s core beginnings in publishing, so by inspiration and homage is largely text-oriented. The commercial artist Alan Kitching is widely regarded as a genius for creating bold imagery purely with letters and a variety of colour – his work has been shown at the Pompidou and the Barbican. Echoes of his work can be found in some of the greeting cards produced by small UK based letterpress companies: Typoretum sell three-fold greeting cards that spell out, prosaically in bold type, ‘WITH LOVE’ and ‘THANK YOU’ in four different colours (£3).  Similarly, Turnbull & Grey is another small London company who produce quirky greeting cards (£6 for three) with the word ‘Humbug’ next to a graphic of the boiled sweet – a neat twist on the festive seasonal salutation – as well as ‘Kiss xx’ and ‘LOVE’ Valentine’s cards, all distinguished by the rough hand-set, imperfectly flecked block type that’s reminiscent of playbills and vintage rock concert posters. The designers at Elum riff on a similar style: their range of customised Christmas cards, which come with the sender’s name incorporated into the text, and personalised envelopes (starting at $327 for 50), include the Holiday Woodblock design, which resembles the advertising for a circus or carnival, with artfully gnarled type. Rather like John Cage’s silences between notes, it’s not so much the ink, as the gaps within the inked areas that make the works so special, that and the obvious passion that its creators have for the process.

Chris Turnbull of Turnbull & Grey discovered a love for printmaking in the letterpress studio at Camberwell College of Art. ‘I loved all the presses, machines and blocks of wood and ink,’ he says. ‘It reminded me of being in my grandfather’s shed as a child. There is a magical moment in printmaking when you pull the paper up from the press and see the printed image for the first time. It’s crafted and it’s handmade.’

There is such romance around a return to those simplistic production techniques – not least because so much of the iron letterpress machinery is so ornate that it could serve as an interiors feature – that London letterpress company Harrington & Squares offer the kind of one-day workshop gift vouchers (£125) more commonly associated with wine tastings. For those interested solely in acquiring their product, they offer a wide range of bespoke services, from Z-fold Christmas cards to wedding stationary, as well very lovely editions of the Brothers’ Grimm’s The Golden Key (£65), gold foil blocked, hand sewn and hand perforated.

In the States the taste for letterpress stationary has been growing for some time. Kimberly Yurkiewicz who manages the print studio at Kate’s Paperie says that she used to see around three or four letterpress designers at the National Stationery Show in New York every year, ‘and then it jumped to about 20, and then it seemed there were hundreds, as if a legion of art school students were simultaneously taught that a great way to make a living was to create a letterpress studio line. But it grew out of being a cool in-the-know secret.’ The designers that work on the ranges at Kate’s Paperie are at the very top of their game, including Julie Holcomb who is a veteran of the art. The possibilities with bespoke at Kate’s are endless, from the simple to the avant garde. ‘Bespoke stationery has become a personal signature for some customers,’ she says. ‘I like it to accessorizing rather than a business product.’ Such a bespoke approach is, of course, time and craft intensive, and large sets of elaborate invitation stationery from a high-end letterpress studio can carry a price tag of up to $5,000.

Much smaller in scale are boutique US letterpress operations like Sesame Letterpress and Lucky Paperie. Like many of the more progressive designers, Sesame Letterpress work with photopolymer – designing often complex plates on the computer and then, by exposing light sensitive polymer through the design, creating a raised pattern. The process is similar to printing a photographic negative. Then they ink and print with the plate in the traditional letterpress way. Sesame Letterpress’ designs are a blend of ornate scriptwork and Victorian natural history imagery. As well as short runs of cards that they sell to stores worldwide, they offer their own bespoke service. The bulk of Lucky Paperie’s business is creating wedding invitations, with prices from £300 for 50 cards, in four different categories of style: ‘elegantly traditional’, ‘beach chic’, ‘vintage-style’ and ‘modern minimalist’, and 15 different designs.

The Luxepaperie website stocks letterpress work by Egg Press – their sasquatch and their ‘What’s growing on’ cards (£2.80), emblazoned with a selection of moustaches, are particularly eye-catching – and Carrot & Stick, who make their green apple and leopard-patterned pieces on five letterpress machines in California. Also at Luxepaperie, and perhaps the biggest success story in modern letterpress, is Hello! Lucky, run by Eunice and Sabrina Moyle, two sisters based in San Francisco. Compared to most of their competitors, their off-the-peg range is huge, from gift wrap to Dorothy Parker-style ‘It’s a marvellous party’ RSVP cards. Their Christmas cards, from their Woodland Friends to their Folk Angels (£9.65 for six), are refreshingly unique and Santa-free. The Moyle sisters began making cards after buying an old Vandercook printing press on eBay, and now make 2,000 cards a day. ‘Our style is happy, vintage, graphic and bohemian,’ says Sabrina. ‘Our L’Oiseau wedding invitation suite cards (£432 for 25) is most representative of our style – it’s graphic and chic but light hearted.’ Sabrina cites the rise of as evidence that the zeitgeist is handstitched, handsewn and letterpressed. ‘Letterpress is part of a broader, and growing, swell of interest in the handcrafted and the “slow”; just like hand-fed beef, artisan-crafted cheese and the slow food movement. When something heartfelt has to be conveyed, an email can’t compete with the human hand. The stationery of the future will be increasingly unique and handcrafted. If it feels mass-produced, why bother?’

The style moves easily from greeting cards to other gift ideas. UK company Hand & Eye create their own children’s books (£15) as well as ‘Thank you’ cards (£3.75) and posters  (£50) in tribute to the typographer Eric Gill that read, in one of Gill’s classic 20s fonts: ‘If you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself.’  Gill may have been talking about design, but it’s a truism that reads well when framed on a hallway wall.

Ironically, some of the most sophisticated Adobe imaging software around today is being used by designers to ape letterpress style, and the web is full of tutorials for designers who want to ‘get the look’. But, just like the quality of leather on a piece of Hermes luggage, or the softness of Loro Piana knitwear, you can’t fake it, you have to feel it. And as Kimberly Yurkiewicz at Kate’s says, ‘a letter is a gift, receiving it is one of life’s great joys, and regardless of how hyper-tech reliant we become, that won’t change. It’s a universal feeling that will keep letter-writing alive.’


Elum; 001 858 453 4500


Greenwich Letterpress, 39 Christopher Street, New York, NY 10014; 001 212 989 7464


Hand & Eye; 020 7488 9800


Harrington & Squires; 020 7267 1500


Hello! Lucky; 020 7378 9740


Kate’s Paperie, 72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012; 001 212 941 9816


Lucky Paperie; (US) 866 531 6609


Osborne Samuel, 23a Bruton Street, London W1; 020 7493 8939


Papered Together


Sesame Letterpress