For textile designer Catherine Rowe, nature is a source of endless inspiration, whether it’s in the pages of antique books or the Sussex hills and beaches to which she regularly escapes.
Words by Catherine Peel
“I like the idea of my work being difficult to place in time – it’s that marriage of the very classical style with the modern element,” says Catherine Rowe. “I like to think this means my designs can be timeless.” And it’s true that the 29-year-old’s work is full of familiar references, whether it’s medieval tapestry, a Staffordshire china dog or a William Morris-esque flower print – a kind of quintessential Englishness, but one shot through with wit and a twist of modernity.
For Rowe, whose studio is in Chichester, lockdown has brought some blessings in disguise – a welcome slowing-down to her life, the chance to enjoy the natural world more than usual and to experiment with new ideas. Nature has always been at the core of her work – she admits that even Chichester can feel a little too urban and she frequently escapes to the beach and the South Downs.
Having trained as an illustrator at Cambridge School of Art, Rowe moved into textile design and developed a love of pattern, starting to print her designs onto objects soon after graduating in 2013. Museums are her passion – she owns countless antique science books and is fascinated by old studies of wildlife, plants and trees. A fan of the works of naturalist/painter John James Audubon (his pelican stares at me from her studio wall during our Zoom call) and Edward Lear, her early work in particular is filled with pigs and pears, foxes and hares.
Rowe has always loved tapestries, especially the Unicorn Tapestries, among the most complex and beautiful works of art from the Late Middle Ages, and some of her latest designs were inspired initially by medieval illuminated manuscripts. She is also fascinated by traditional Balinese painting – her father has a house in Bali – which has resulted in a more vivid colour palette. “My inspiration is always from the past, but it can come from anywhere,” she says.
Rowe’s design method is an unusual one: she starts with a rough sketch that is translated and etched out in white onto a black scraperboard. This is then scanned and the colour added digitally. She stumbled upon the process when she came across some beautiful prints at a local market, which she thought were linocuts but turned out to be on scraperboard. It was a lightbulb moment: “It’s certainly a more primitive approach, but it completely fits with how I love to work.”
The turning point in Rowe’s career came in 2019 when she was one of four winners selected in the Open Call for a new Liberty fabric design. “It felt like winning the lottery,” she says. “The impact on my career was amazing and it was so inspiring to learn how a brand like that works – they’re still so meticulous and traditional. It gave me a worldwide platform – Japan is a huge new customer base for me, as is the UAE.”
Her work now appears on a vast range of products, from fabrics and wallpaper to ceramics, lampshades and accessories – including the now ubiquitous face masks.
Working sustainably is a particularly important focus. All Rowe’s packaging is biodegradable, and she chooses business partnerships with care. “I’m really fussy about who I work with. I have a new workshop in Italy, which is a tiny, family-run business who share my values and my London workshop is very upfront about how it generates energy and uses favourite fabric remnants, so nothing gets wasted.”
For a designer who cites the natural world as an intrinsic element of her work, it seems only fitting that everything she makes is designed to sustain it.
This article was taken from the Spring 2021 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.