Pooky x Ellen Merchant
Meet Ellen Merchant, the young designer behind Pooky's gorgeous new hand block-printed lampshade collection...
Ellen Merchant is a London-based decorative artist, designer and printmaker. She first came to Pooky's attention when she entered the 2022 'Shades of Brilliance' competition for design students.
Ellen's combination of traditional hand block technique, inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement, with a vibrant contemporary style blew the judges away - and the winning 'Poppies' design has become a firm favourite among Pooky's lampshade customers.
Now well established as one of the country’s most exciting textile designers, Pooky is delighted to collaborate with Ellen on a new range of organic-themed shades.
And we were just as delighted to sit down with her for a chat about her work, her inspirations and the secrets of designing for shades...
When did you first discover your talent for textile design - and how did you develop your distinctive style?
Growing up I was particularly interested in drawing and decorating things, and over time that naturally evolved into designing patterns. I suppose I have always had a recognisable style of sorts, which is a culmination of my various influences but also something that has naturally developed over time.
When I started designing textiles it felt like all my interests aligned! I learn best by trial and error, by experimenting with different processes within print. I fell in love with traditional print because of the charming irregularities. I love designing, but the fun part for me is always in the physical act of printing something by hand, mixing colours, getting messy and seeing the evolution of an idea into a repeating pattern.
You like to use a traditional hand block technique - can you explain how that works, and what do you like about the method?
I keep a busy sketchbook as all of my designs are initially hand drawn. I like to plan out the repeats traditionally using grids on paper and stick them on the walls rather than using a computer. I do enjoy this part of the process, although it can be technically challenging, I feel like the time it takes to do this allows you to really consider every element and decision carefully.
I then trace out my design onto a wooden block or piece of lino to be hand carved (you have to be really quite confident in your design to commit to spending hours carving it out!). Each colour must be printed individually and layered over each other, so each one requires a different block or tile. The skill is in registration of the layers and printing them all in the right place, although I try not to be too precious about this as it is the irregularities of the prints that make them look so charming and evidently hand-made!
What are your biggest inspirations?
I am inspired by both the style and sentiment of the Arts & Crafts movement, with designers like William Morris and Voysey having initially sparked my passion for pattern and printing. I have lots of ideas for prints jotted down that I pick up from all over the place- often from travelling, finding beautiful old objects in markets and also from vintage fashion or antique textiles. I like to clash influences from past and present, that’s what gives the most interesting results.
You blew away our judges in last year’s ‘Shades of Brilliance’ lampshade competition for young designers, with your Poppies pattern – still a real customer favourite. What did that success mean to you?
I was so thrilled to be selected by the judges and to have my Poppies design chosen to be made into Pooky shades. It happened to be one of the first linocut prints that I created during a lockdown in London, so it's gone on a real journey! I find it amazing to see the shades in people's homes and in the fabulous Pooky showroom.
You’ve created three gorgeous new designs for Pooky lampshades: Wiggly Stars, Squiggles and Ditzy Floral. Can you tell us a little about how those designs came about?
The Wiggly Stars print actually came from a design I had hand-painted onto a lampshade for the Pooky X Hands Up Foundation charity auction. We had a lovely meeting in my studio in West London and went through my drawings and various design ideas that I had on the go. It was great fun picking things out that would work on the lampshades and then curating them into a collection.
It was pretty easy to apply my designs to the Pooky products, as they also have a playful and colourful aesthetic. I then developed the ideas into exclusive patterns to be block printed by hand especially for Pooky shades. I am so pleased with the collection and the finished result; the ink on the card shades is really tactile and gives such a sense of craftsmanship involved in their making.
Are there any particular challenges in designing for a lampshade, as opposed to wallpapers, prints and so on?
I reworked some of the designs to be ‘all-over’ rather than stripes, because these lend themselves better to the tapered shapes. We also had to think carefully about scale, some of my designs for interior fabrics can be quite large, but with these we needed to make sure that the print works just as well on the smallest size shade as well the biggest. Designing for block printing you also need to think about the size and shapes of the blocks and the registration of each layer.
What are you working on next?
I am excited to be adding a few more designs to my textile collection this September, and I am currently working on developing some more for early next year. It's been a really busy year so far finishing my MA at the Royal College of Art, so now I am looking forward to spending some more time at my studio, working on new ideas and running a few workshops.