Inspired by the vibrant patterns of Sonia Delaunay, Tate visited the studio of pattern powerhouse Liberty. Here, Emma Mawston, head of the interior design team, shares her work, life and Delaunay debrief.

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Emma Mawston, head of design interiors at Liberty, in the London studio, June 2015

You’ve worked at Liberty for over twenty years. What are your highlights?

When I first started at Liberty I was a colourist, we weren’t allowed to design in-house. I painted and drew after work for freelance projects and exhibitions. When I took over as Head of the Fashion Fabrics I brought designing back in-house which was great. In 2005, I hand drew ‘Susanna’ - Liberty’s best-selling print in history, up until that point. Currently, I head up the interiors design team. The interior collections are smaller and the repeat scales are larger, so I can explore so many more artistic avenues and create some very large art works that often take around three weeks or more to paint. 

Can you describe your design style?

My designs generally involve a lot of hand drawing and although the first design I ever  created for Liberty was computer generated - a small scale print called ‘Snug’ - my current designs are predominantly hand painted, mainly in repeat and often very large in scale. Paisleys are another style of design I created a new look for, with print designs like ‘Mark’. Generally, my designs are a mix of drawing, painting and other techniques.

Designing and painting have become even more of a passion than when I first started. I am having a studio built at the bottom of my garden. I can work with different mediums than before so we’ll finally be able to use our dining room table at home again.

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

Describe your working process from brief to shop floor. 

Within Liberty Interiors the collection development process starts with my mind constantly collecting things. I then write a brief, once this is approved we start researching design and colour. We distribute design work amongst ourselves, use Liberty archive documents that we re-invent and work with collaborators from many different walks of life to create with and inspire us.

We collate original colour moods to work from inspired by the brief and hand paint or draw all of our designs before they hit the computer screen, for further repeat alterations and colouration. Designs and colour ways are then selected and sent to relevant fabric and wallpaper printers and weavers. 

We work from strike offs (fabric versions of our original cads) to create our final pieces for the collection. We work very closely with our printers, they are a very important part of the whole process. Next, presentations to the press and trade customers and then once the collection has been finalised and photographed, the trade shows happen.

Although Liberty Interiors is a wholesale operation, we are part of a retail empire and so often for us our first launch to the public is an exclusive one on the fourth floor of the iconic Liberty shop.

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015
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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

What’s for lunch? 

For lunch I had Goats Cheese salad, Gluten free cake, popcorn, peanuts, one shot flat white and freshly squeezed orange juice.

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

The decor of the studio feels classic and antiquated. Do you think the space has an impact on the designs you produce there? 

I have worked within seven different studios during my time at Liberty. Though my design work is created either at home or on research trips. I need space and tranquility to create and I love being surrounded by nature. I also work best with good natural light. The final creation is influenced by the original brief, what is going on in my head and the art materials I have around me.

What are your favourite sources of inspiration?

My favourite sources of inspiration are my family, friends, books, exhibitions, artists, nature, music and almost anything and anyone that surrounds me. Sources of inspiration are infinite and often come from the places you least expect - I am often surprised how my brain comes up with things. 

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

Do you ever design in response to trends? 

Liberty Interiors creates its own briefs and style, we don’t follow trends. Liberty prides itself on its originality. Of course if we believe a particular style is popular with our customers we will create that for them because we are a commercial business. Liberty heritage plays a very important part in the identity of our design collections, which sits alongside more innovative creations designed to inspire and shape the heritage of the future. 

I think intuition is probably the most important part of a designer’s mind and is what creates the synchronicity of styles throughout the world. Liberty Fashion Fabrics don’t really have competitors but now I work on the interiors side we have hundreds!

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

How does your day typically start? 

My design day starts as soon as I wake up. I check my emails and if necessary draw or paint. Once my children are dressed and at school I run for my train and sit down and write, read, email or draw. If I miss that train and have to stand all the way on three trains I am gutted and often sit on the floor on my bag and read up on collections we are working on. As soon as I arrive my many bags hit the floor and I get straight into a myriad of things. I could be writing up comments for collections, selecting colourways, looking at design proofs, having meetings, sending emails…it is rarely the same. Sometimes we are invited to morning viewings of exhibitions which is a wonderful way to start the day.

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

What’s on your desk? 

My desk is a medley of past, current and future collections mainly in book form. Also things my children have given me, students and designers have sent me and pots full of a lot of things. It reminds me of one of my favourite books ‘All kinds of Families’ by Mary Ann Hoberman. It’s not very tidy but when I get time it gets sorted back to how it should be and I find all sorts of interesting things I thought I had lost which is always uplifting. I love the scientific research which identifies that messy desks are owned by creative people as creativity is spurred on when things not generally in the same category come together. 

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

Like Liberty, Delaunay made and sold furniture and homeware. How do you think our perception of art alters when it features on a functional object?

I don’t distinguish between art being on a functional object or hung on the wall. I see a multitude of uses in every form of art I love and identify with. I might see fabric on a chair and instantly think of how it would look on a wall in a frame or a painting on a wall and imagine it on a cupboard. I don’t generally like to speak for other people as their perceptions are their own and everyone sees things differently. 

What did you think of the Delaunay show?

I loved that the work spanned so many art movements and referenced so many artists yet was still totally individual and unique. I was obviously drawn to the Kaleidoscope of colour and the way that, in some areas, it was used so intensely and in others, so sparingly.

The use of different mediums, in individual art works and in combination, was wonderful and is a way I love working myself. I am more of a fan of the original works of art than the textile designs, although the colourway strips took me back to my early years at Liberty when we hand painted our own colourways and kept similar strips in our design books. 

There is great rhythm within the exhibition and Delaunay has a fantastic signature, something I am always a fan of.

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Liberty design studio, London, June 2015

Were there any pieces you were particularly drawn to?

My favourite pieces in the exhibition were the study of colour sheets, as they reminded me of the palettes we paint on cardboard when creating our own designs. They look like artworks in themselves. 

Also, I am a great lover of tapestries and it is an area I would love to move into so I was drawn to the ‘Foliage embroidery’. Mosaics are another current fascination so I was very interested to see ‘Mosaic’. The paintings that I was most drawn to were the ‘Prismes electriques’ series and Magic City (although I love nearly everything she has created). I also loved the stripy parasol from ‘Beach set’. 

How does your day typically end? 

My day ends at midnight. Once my children are soundly asleep I design, research and create briefs looking out onto my garden.