By Hilary Light
Erica Wakerly’s design work combines Modernist design with traditional processes and craft to create wallpaper, fabric and tiles alongside bespoke projects. In 2006 she established her design label of the same name and her work is now distributed internationally, having won numerous British design awards. As part of London Craft Week, Erica will be taking part in a panel event at the Geffrye Museum to discuss the traditional craft of wallpaper, so we took the opportunity to ask a few questions about her love of the Modernist aesthetic.
3D FORM Concrete Wall and floor tiles. The range of seven individual tiles can be applied in continuous repeats or combined to create bespoke patterns.
Can you tell us about some of the inspirations behind your work?
In essence I am inspired by how pattern can enhance or alter a feeling of space within an interior. This may be through line and composition, or the use of metallics, which softly reflect ambient or natural light and colour within a room.
About 14 years ago, I was lucky enough to house sit a David Chipperfield house. That experience of living in a very pure composed concrete/glass interior made me think about the challenge of how a minimal space could work with decoration, without compromising the vision of the architecture. Many of my designs are about stripped back pattern, with one colour, one line. My wallpapers are intended to compose a space alongside the architecture, rather than act solely as an embellishment.
My approach to wallpaper design is Modernist, in that I challenge myself to design a traditionally decorative product in a non-decorative way, removing unnecessary ornamentation and looking to the pattern to enhance the interior. My Spiral and Fan designs, for example, can help to create a sense that a space is larger than it is, as the patterns flow rhythmically across the wall, while my metallic silver and white papers brighten a room by day and add atmosphere through reflecting ambient evening light.
Angles silver and white wallpaper
Could you tell us about the traditional processes used in creating your products?
All of my products use traditional methods of wallpaper printing dating back to about 1900. The pattern repeats are engraved onto cylindrical rollers, which turn in machines to apply pigments to a range of wallpaper substrates. All of the colours are mixed by eye in a bucket, so it remains a skilled human process.
Many of my designs are comprised of graphic lines or areas of flat colour, and printing in this way provides a physical layer of pigment, sometimes with a slight texture. This marriage of process, materials and graphic design is very important for my end product – something that ties in with Modernist principles – as it provides a depth and a physicality that cannot be achieved with digital printing. There are sometimes small imperfections in the surface of the pigment or one colour may very slightly bleed into another, and this contributes to the character of the finished wallpaper.
What inspired the abstract patterns in your work?
For my tiles, the shapes came from playing with paper forms –folding, cutting and curling – from which I drew and refined until I had the set of seven modular tiles for the FORM range. I often make small three-dimensional models from simple raw materials such as paper and wood to explore shape, line and perspective.
I am fascinated by the work of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia, the Brunswick Centre in London, and of course the use of concrete at the Southbank/Hayward Gallery. I now live and work in Margate, where Arlington house on the main seafront, is an unapologetic example of British Brutalism. All these examples have perhaps fed through in some way when I was designing the tiles, coupled with my interest in using concrete, which as a material has a rawness that I love.
My roots are primarily in illustration, and drawing remains the foundation of all my design research and the starting point for most of my designs. This comes through most literally with my ‘Homes’ and ‘Houses’ wallpapers, which came from researching through my collection of 1950s and 1960s House and Garden magazines and then collaging my drawings together.
Sometimes for my wallpapers I am inspired by taking one shape, and restricting a design to just that one element. For example, the wallpaper pattern ‘Block’ is comprised of a rectangle on its side. I restricted myself to using this simple shape when creating this pattern, and then explored colour and finish (the contrast of opaque pigment, translucent pigments and metallic finish). The rectangle is something that follows through some of my other designs, including the Form tiles, and Grid and Soda wallpaper.
Houses Wallpaper in black, grey and cream
What mid-century designers inspire you?
There are a number of illustrators and artists from the period who have inspired me, including Saul Steinberg, Alexander Calder, Anthony Caro, plus designers Lucienne and Robin Day. I was extremely privileged to visit their home as part of my research project when studying for my MA at the RCA back in 2004. The interior of their home encompassed their design philosophy – functional and accessible, efficiently made, yet comfortable and beautiful.
With my designs, I’m inspired by the spirit and philosophy of mid-century Modernism, in particular in terms of it being forward-looking and functional, working with space and light. While I think the aesthetic of my designs nod towards the mid-century, it is more important for me that I apply the philosophy of mid-century Modernism to create designs that are contemporary and relevant for today, rather than just appropriating nostalgic motifs.
Copper Burnish grey black ‘Block’ wallpaper
What’s next for Erica Wakerly?
I have recently launched ‘modernsurface‘ in partnership with my husband Ben. His background is in fashion photography, although he has always been directly involved with my design practice too. Under ‘modernsurface’, we are looking to launch further wallpapers, textiles and interior ranges in a more collaborative way, involving other designers and artists too. The illustrator Polly Dunbar will be our first ‘partner’. Her inaugural ‘Wallflowers’ collection is due to launch this autumn, combining her fluid characterful drawings with hand screen-printing methods – I’m very excited by this!
Discover more Erica Wakerly design
Take a look at the recently launched Modern Surface website
See more of Hilary Light’s writing at her blog Ecomodernstudios