An interview with Helen YardleyAn interview with Helen YardleyAn interview with Helen YardleyAn interview with Helen Yardley

An interview with Helen Yardley


Helen Yardley is a Rug Designer and honorary member of Design-Nation, as our most recent brand ambassador. Helen hosted the very successful "Head, Hand and Heart" showcase in her workshop during London Craft Week this May. During London Craft Week Design-Nation caught up with Helen and asked her some questions about her practice, inspiration and other things. 

Design-Nation asked: Can you tell us about your practice and how your business began?

Helen Yardley: When I left the RCA I was lucky enough to be offered a part time teaching post in the textiles department at Manchester. This experience was pivotal. Being challenged by the students was a very invigorating experience, as well as being quite frustrating, and finding myself in a position of relative “authority” forced me to look at my own intentions. I was conscious of not really practising what I preached and so teaching really helped me to focus on what my intentions were and made me resolve to try to make a living as a designer/maker.

When I first started making rugs there wasn’t a lot of competition so the idea of a rug as a drawing for the floor worked really well. Running a financially viable business that maintains its creative heart can be a real balancing act especially when you are responsible for employees but you learn to work with the ebbs and flows.

Nearly all of the work we produce is to commission and I really enjoy the challenge of working “with” architects on large scale projects and being open to other points of view. It’s always a learning process.

DN: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

HY: I’ve not really had a mentor.  I have learnt to trust my instincts and so I simply aim to behave in what I judge to be a 'proper' way. Whatever I make has my name on it and could come back and haunt me so I’m always conscious of that and so try to ensure every piece of work is as good as it can possibly be.

DN: What inspires you and your work?

HY: Making is addictive. I just love to make things and find the process deeply satisfying. As soon as you finish something you immediately think about how it could have been improved on so which impels me to start afresh. Nothing is ever perfect. Can you imagine making the one piece of work and then saying “Yep, that’s it. Nailed it.” It’s just not possible.

Most of my work is about colour and vitality. Colours speak in so many ways. Their effect is psychological, emotional and energetic. Matisse is the grand master of colour and the chapel he designed at Vence is a supreme work. Really affecting in a gloriously spiritual way.

DN: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?

HY: Lots of fiddling about in sketch books, making messes, followed by more controlled gouache paintings. Although the paintings are relatively small in my head they are big things, rug sized scale. I studied Chinese calligraphy many years ago because I loved the intensity of the style. It looks effortless but is fantastically precise and powerful.

DN: What is your workspace like?

HY: It's on the first floor of a big warehouse building with windows on both sides, so I get loads of natural light. I am very lucky to have plenty of space too. The downside of that being I tend to hand on to all sorts of stuff that may be 'useful'. Staging the Design-Nation LCW show here was a great reason to throw a lot of junk away!

DN: Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

HY: I have employed a few PR agents over the years. Some have been really effective and others less so. Social media has made a huge difference in how one presents oneself. It makes everything so much more democratic. I’m not great at planning ahead but I have a notion of what I’d like to do and even if it takes a while I do get there eventually.

DN: What are the main challenges in your practice?

HY: Balancing running a viable business that is creatively nourishing. Pushing myself into areas that are outside of my comfort zone is my current aim. If you get complacent you get stale and the work becomes dull. Not a good plan.

DN: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

HY: I’m hoping to spend more time working on the wall-hung felts and I am very excited about working in glass. Diversification is appealing and can be an expensive indulgence, so I have to be aware that the rugs will be funding these new activities. At least to start with!

DN: If you could collaborate with someone who would you like that to be?

HY: I have been working recently with an amazing glass maker, David Lily, developing dalles de verre. The quality of the colour in this form of glass is spectacular and I am looking forward to making some work with him on a grand architectural scale.

DN: If you weren't a designer what would you be?

HY: I trained as a yoga teacher a few years back and taught evening classes for a few years. I often imagine putting all my energies into teaching yoga full time. It’s a very worthwhile occupation; helping people to feel good in their own bodies. What could be more important?

DN: Why did you join Design-Nation? What do you enjoy and find helpful from being a member?

HY: I was a very early Design-Nation member back when Peta Levi started it all up. She was a real force of nature and was brilliant at putting people together with the Eureka projects. I designed a range of rugs for Heals which was great fun. Design-Nation is a really important organisation which does an amazing job supporting makers in all sorts of areas of their practice. So many people really struggle to make a living from their work in the early years so having a network of like minded people is such a bonus.

DN: Have you got any exhibitions, commission or event coming up you are taking part in?

HY: We are still considering showing at Decorex in September or alternatively opening the studio up for London Design Festival in September as part of Bankside Design district. But as we have quite a few large scale commissions in the pipeline at the moment, I’ll need to decide soon what is actually achievable. Last year we showed at Clerkenwell Design Week and Decorex, so a quiet year may be a really sensible option... along with a proper summer holiday!

Interview by Laura Jacometti

Helen Yardley's work will be on show as part of the 'Head, Hand and Heart' exhibition at Eunique in Karlsruhe, Germany

8-10 June


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An interview with designer maker Wolfram LohrAn interview with designer maker Wolfram LohrAn interview with designer maker Wolfram LohrAn interview with designer maker Wolfram LohrAn interview with designer maker Wolfram Lohr

An interview with designer maker Wolfram Lohr

Wolfram Lohr is German and has been hand making leather accessories in Brighton since 2003. It has grown into a family business making high-end leather goods. Wolfram loves seeking quality vegetable tanned leathers to create a range which is exciting and vintage looking. The colour matching is playful; Wolfram and his wife Sarah pride themselves on looking for leather that will stand the test of time and age beautifully.

Design-Nation asked Wolfram a few questions about his practice, inspiration and future.

Design-Nation asked: Can you tell us about your practice and how your business began?

Wolfram Lohr: My practice started in 1999. I came to England to learn shoe making from a friend that studied at The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers in London. After that I was hooked. I rented a space to work and put products in a shop in Brighton Kemptown. I began to make bespoke shoes and spats for customers; the shoes were quite specialist so I started to make bags, belts and wallets. I really wanted to offer more choice to men. As it turned out most of my products are unisex and have a classic and fresh look. In 2006 I partnered with my wife Sarah Gardner who added a female edge to the Wolfram Lohr look.

DN: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

WL: Ghita Schuy was a mentor for me, she kickstarted my shoemaking career. I was her apprentice for one and half years; during this time I assisted with making shoes and helped with the running of her shoe shop in Kemptown. The first pair of shoes I made with Ghita were a challenge as I chose a difficult design to make. Ghita asked if I was sure if I wanted to make a masterpiece on my first project… being excited on every level to make and to learn I of course said YES! Ghita was very patient and helped me through every stage, it took about 6 weeks to complete.

DN: What inspires you and your work?

WL: I love vintage bags that have a purpose or a particular job. I have collected old post bags from Germany and USA, rail bags from England and more. There is a wealth of inspiration in the stuff we used to use. My customers also inspire the way products are made and used. Often the practicality and the function control the way Sarah and I design our products. Does it work? Is it a clean and beautiful shape? Has it the right proportion and what type of leather should I use? There are many factors that contribute to making a successful product.

DN: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?

WL: Through tests we establish an idea of what we want to make, then I will try the shape out in the first sampling stage. Sarah and I make design decisions based on the first sample, deciding and finalising the shape hardware and what leather to use. It can take up to three or four samples till we are both happy with a product. The variations in the leather can change everything in the design if the stand is smooth, stiff, thick, floppy, textured, soft. These elements can make the bag stiff but smooth and/or textured and floppy. The colour combining comes along with that. We like to use playful combinations in our work. Mostly our bags are well-structured shapes with clean lines and classic styles. We have ventured into softer shaping but still use our characteristically thick leather. Designs are unfussy, emphasising the beauty of the hide. The vegetable tanned leather that we use will age well over time. We love the fact that our bags grow with character, gaining a patina that will be well loved.

DN: What is your workspace like?

WL: The workshop is a hive of collected vintage games, scooters. lampshades, old signs and of course leather, so it smells fantastic. I’m quite used to the smell now, but anybody that comes in will mention the earthy smell of our vegetable tanned leather. We have three large benches; two are used mainly for production for bench work, rolling out hides and preparing products before sewing. The other bench is for packing and pictures. All are used as workspaces for the workshops we run. It’s a colourful and productive place to be.

DN: Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

WL: We are constantly changing the way we work and take turns in doing the social media aspect of our business. We are mostly led by our interests, what we are producing at the time and what events we are doing. We will generally put most information in our email newsletters and focus on retail or trade customers, then we will follow up with tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. There are many ways to communicate these days. I have worked with PR companies and this has been helpful to organise the way we market our goods. It is always good to share ideas, see other viewpoints and generally to make it fun. I really enjoyed taking part in the March ‘Meet the Maker’ on Instagram, this was a really good daily exercise.

DN: What are the main challenges in your practice?

WL: Keeping the website up to date. We often have products with leather colours that have discontinued or we don't have the leather in stock. As we offer a made to measure service for some customers they have to pick from the range that we have. Our leather store is a sweet shop of choice for future projects. Some of the leathers would not be suitable for wholesale production so sometimes colours are an issue. Customers and clients are understanding, mostly this does not seem to bother them as we will always offer other options if needed. It is sometimes disheartening knowing how much work we have to do to keep everything up to date, but this is the same for every small business. I feel we are getting better with foresight how to manage it. Keeping focused on the target in hand is challenging when you have other jobs on the go; looking after the stock and keeping our range in check is a big job. It’s nice to see what we have and what we have achieved. It’s also hard to say goodbye to some products.

DN: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

WL: We would like to grow our online presence as a brand. At the moment we are in the process of developing a new website which should be live by the summer. We are aiming to be nationally known as a brand that produces high quality handmade goods that are made to last, and also for bespoke commissions. We would like to grow our workshops and courses to expand on teaching leather craft, to share the experience and give people a taster of what it’s like to make. At Wolfram Lohr products are made to last and we take sustainable product design seriously. We would love to have a shop again with the possibility of workshops / repair workshops.

DN: If you could collaborate with someone who would you like that to be?

WL: Henry Cuir is a bag and shoe designer, everything he makes is handmade and he uses predominantly hand sewing. I would like to collaborate with him to design and make a project together. The simplicity of his work is appealing and mixed with the earthiness of his production, this inspires me to want to find out more about him.

DN: If you weren't a designer what would you be?

WL: Wolfram - a long haired surfer dude or postman. Sarah – a gardener or artist.

DN: Why did you join Design Nation? What do you enjoy and find helpful from being a member?

WL: We joined Design-Nation to be supported in the wholesale market. We knew that they exhibited collectively at large trade shows in the UK and Europe. This was a great opportunity for support in sampling new fairs and markets we were not sure of. Being part of this community helps cut the costs and it is always great to exhibit with a group - we all look after each other. This helps a great deal.

DN: Have you got any exhibitions, commission or events coming up you are taking part in?

WL: We are currently finishing off trade orders that we have made from the beginning of the year. We are also preparing for the EUNIQUE trade and retail event in my home town of Karlsruhe, Germany in June (exhibiting with the Design-Nation group) and the Contemporary Craft Festival in Devon. I will do the German show and Sarah will do the Contemporary Craft Festival.

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