I’ve been thinking about gingham on and off for quite a few years now, but it’s finally inspired me to return to my blog via a particularly subtle and wonderful dress I encountered just a few days ago, which set my mind spinning, crystallising some vague ideas about fashion, time and change.Bali

Gingham is (usually) a medium-weight cotton-based fabric dyed with stripes in both directions to create a checker pattern. Apparently the name is a distortion of an old Malay or Indonesian word meaning ‘striped’ – there are other theories, but to me this seems quite convincing, having seen it so abundantly displayed all over Bali in both religious and secular settings.

I love what happens when you do a Google image search: a playful riot of colour that quickly demonstrates the basic range of gingham fabrics:Google

Gingham dates back at least as far as the 17th century, and is evidently quite simple to produce using traditional weaving methods. In fact I would say it’s just about the simplest fabric design that is deserving of being given it’s own name. As a concept it’s only marginally more complex than simply ‘striped’ or ‘spotted’. And as a visual phenomenon it has elements of both of those, which I think is what attracts me. It has a kind of spottiness that emerges when the eye focuses on the array of intersection points, and yet also a linear rigour.Multicoloured

It draws me into a kind of gentle visual grazing that I’ve done a lot of all my life. I find my focus wandering softly over the texture, my mind unconsciously sifting the pattern, feeling my way into it as it repeats across different depths of dye – intense at the cross points, milder between, and then the white – and noticing how it inflects with light and shade, the curves of the body, and movement. It’s a visual rhythm basic enough to pull me into a state of trance-like fascination sometimes (e.g. in business meetings), and I suspect that this potential for a strong aesthetic response, despite being so simple to make, is why it’s been popular for so long.

So Gingham represents a long line of tradition. As well as in Bali, where what I think of as Holy Gingham – usually in a bold black and white – is one of the distinctive sights of the island, adorning almost every statue, pillar and lingam in every temple, it’s found widely across Asia in various forms of traditional dress. An example is the gamucha, a thin towel / scarf worn by men in India. I believe in Bali the pattern has some kind of yin / yang resonance, which makes complete sense to me.Statues

It’s also been used for centuries in the western world, typically for blouses and dresses, but also for curtains, tablecloths, aprons, etc. and even furniture and crockery. It’s one of the staples of design. But what meaning does it carry; what is its stylistic significance?

A whole book could be written in answer to that – and of course it changes with time – but what I sense is a combination of childlike, whimsical, and relaxed, with suggestions of country, prairie, and a sizeable dollop of kitchen. To which must be added that it now references historical periods when it has been most popular – particularly the 50s (Dorothy), but also to a lesser extent Victorian times, plus mods and skinheads. It can be found in the V&A collection as an example of 1970s skinhead clothing.Dorothy

In this sense, with its modest range of colours and variations, gingham is always with us, morphing very slowly, picking up meanings over decades.

But what has caught my attention more recently is the way, over the past decade, it seems to have perfectly exemplified what I think of as the process of fashion.

The way a simple design meme becomes a heightened subject of creative attention, is subjected to waves of development and elaboration, changing, expanding, and distorting, until it eventually subsides and declines. Over a period of years, season by season, designers copy and inspire each other, competing to develop the basic form in what seems to me a process of squeezing every last drop of meaning from it.

Firstly, the basic traditional form of gingham simply becomes more fashionable – I can’t recall exactly when this happened – then, in the space of a few years, something like this takes place:

– Giant gingham

– Micro ginghamBen Sherman

– Diagonal gingham

– Double gingham

– Multi-coloured gingham

– Gingham on black

– Rectangular gingham

– Curved gingham

– Patchwork gingham

– Collage gingham

– Gingham with skulls

– Gingham / plaid hybrid

– Deconstructed gingham

This proliferation that takes place during the fashion cycle has other dimensions too. The range of fabrics is gradually expanded, as is the range of garments and other artefacts decorated with it: pants, bras, notebooks, umbrellas, laptop covers, corsets, shoes … in all sorts of fabrics, natural and synthetic, printed as well as woven. Latex gingham? Of course: the specialist is William Wilde.DM boot

Which leads us to the point at which the fabric ceases to be gingham at all and simply becomes a historical reference in the designer’s palette. It then subsides into the background ready to be reborn at some future point, presumably when a new generation of shoppers has arisen who are largely unaware of it. The basic forms continue to be available in conventional ways, but as a fashion phenomenon it is dormant.Cath Kidston ipad

To me it’s the perfect symbol of the creative process as applied in contemporary culture. It also exemplifies the pace of contemporary design. My (very limited) understanding of Roman culture suggests that fashions from haircuts to togas, while important, played out over many decades, presumably due to much slower transmission of ideas. The gingham fashion cycles centred on the 50s and in Victorian times seem to have been slower, less frantic, variants on what I’ve seen in the 21st century.

So gingham has a background meaning, which is itself quite complex and slowly shifting, touching on Balinese gods, prairie life and the fifties, but also a foreground meaning, which spins out in an exaggerated creativity with the waves of fashion. And whenever those waves return they will be different, because they speak specifically of the patterns of their own times.Dita Von Teese

These layered processes at multiple paces of change apply everywhere across our culture – music, painting, interior decoration, food and drink, technology, typeface etc. – though with variations depending on the economic context. The application of developmental processes to a basic phenomenon both exemplify and symbolise change, growth and decay. Which in a way takes us back to those Hindu gods wrapped in cotton.

Gingham makes me smile because it seems such a transparent revelation of the way almost everything happens in the great game of social and economic creativity. And I can enjoy reflecting on that while looking at frocks, which is always one of the happiest ways to practice philosophy. I could bring Wittgenstein, Husserl and Barthes into the conversation but I’d rather explore their vintage wardrobes.TJ shirt

To finish on a personal note, my own inventory consists of one single gingham garment: a linen shirt acquired in Top Shop, Birmingham on a business trip circa 2009. It’s completely classic, but for me it’s the absolutely perfect example. The only trouble is, it now sends me spinning off into philosophical daydreams.

Dance, pray, carve

February 12, 2012

My first awareness of Bali as anything more than an exotic faraway place came from reading the liner notes in a recording of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie that I’d borrowed from the local library, as mentioned in my last blogpost. As well as the extraordinary ondes martenot, Turangalîla includes an elaborate percussion section that evokes the clattering metallic sound world of the gamelan emsemble central to Balinese and Javanese traditional music.

A couple of years afterwards my Dad visited Bali en route to see family in Australia. I remember the stories and pictures of mountains, temples, monkeys, dancers, and especially the carvings he brought back: Garuda, king of birds and ruler of the sky, and one of those appealingly scary Hindu goddesses with flailing arms and perfectly hemispherical breasts.Bali satellite

Then I spent a year studying music in York, and that was when I really got interested in Bali and the gamelan. Asian music expert Neil Sorrell had set up one of the UK’s first gamelans in the York music department, and I was able not only to hear performances but even to have a go at playing.

I won’t try to explain Balinese music in any detail here as it’s a huge subject and it’s been done hundreds of times before. Suffice it to say that the gamelan is an ensemble dominated by percussion – particularly gongs, chimes and a variety of instruments with tuned bars similar to the glockenspiel and xylophone. Other instruments and also voices are used, but the overall effect is of a hypnotic, repetitive metallic sound built up of subtly shifting interlocking patterns. The sound is utterly unique because of Bali’s distinctive position as an isolated Hindu culture, preserving and independently developing cultural threads for centuries that have long been lost elsewhere.Gamelan (Lila Cita)

I remember reading a quote from John Adams to the effect that great music needs to fully engage the listener’s emotional and intellectual faculties, and mentioning the Balinese gamelan as an example of music that fails that test. Well, possibly … its impact is certainly more on the sensual, psychedlic side of things than intellectual, and I’m sure that partly explains its appeal. It’s often highly reminiscent of seventies minimal music. In my life there has always been room for the sensual, emotional and intellectual in music, and they don’t all need to be present at once. And of course Balinese music only really comes to life in its religious and theatrical context.

The York gamelan is actually Javanese, which is a little different to Balinese, more in performance style than instrumentation. Balinese music is louder and faster and has a reckless intensity quite unlike the beguiling ritual sound of the Javanese gamelan. The other major difference is the social context: the sheer abundance of music all over Bali. Virtually every village has a gamelan, and it accompanies religious rituals from birth to death, plus dance and wayang performances telling the vivid stories of gods and heroes, and has now become a major tourist phenomenon.

So when I set off travelling in 1995 Bali was inevitably going to be a top destination for me. But I didn’t really know what to expect.

Bali from Lombok

First sight of Bali from Lombok

I’ve turned to my travel diary to see how I reacted, and it’s clear that there was a double process going on. Firstly, a gradual realisation, including frustration and then acceptance, of how busy, densely populated and simply teeming full of stuff Bali is, with mile after mile of choked streets lined with shops and every kind of trade – immediate abandonment of any fantasy of a conventional tropical paradise being essential. But secondly, a growing awe at the abundance and concentration of art, music, religious observance, myth – and really every form of creative human activity, all apparently bound up with everyday life. A few quotes from my diary:

“first day in Bali and I walked along a black-sand beach lined with fishing boats bearing monster heads with bulging eyes and gaping jaws”

“a disappointing 16-mile walk to visit various crumbling thousand-year old temples surrounded by traffic and wearisome commercial bustle”

“Barong dance far more wonderful, fascinating and entertaining than anything I had expected … a large benevolent monster operated like a grotesque pantomime horse; highly operatic hollering and squealing as the gamelan clanged”Barong

(I also saw the kecak, an extraordinary spectacle in which instruments are replaced by a whole villageful of people crammed into a small space who sort of imitate a gamelan – trancey rhythmic chak-e-chak-e-chak patterns mixed with howls and screeches in old Balinese, while serene dancers face down snarling monsters with angular grace.)Kecak score

“eerily calm walking past a kilometre of souvenir stalls as I approached the temple in the early morning … only those wishing to pray could enter, but pray and pay seemed to be interchangeable words”

“the aesthetic of Bali: a dancer so heavily laden with costume as to be almost a cube, muscles constantly tense, limbs bent, standing at a wonky angle and always aghast in a fierce bulging snarl”

“an 11km walk to see some white herons … passed football games, outdoor table tennis, a lengthy street entirely consisting of Garuda carving workshops, a tug of war about to be won by a large group of women, and a colourful shop advertising PARASITE – ANGLE – DUCK”

Well I left Bali absolutely loving it.

I distinctly recall meeting an American gentleman who told me his story of having felt a sense of homecoming on first visiting the island, and so had decided to stay, and had become a Balinese Hindu priest. At the time I imagine I was quite challenged not to find that ridiculous. Now, having known so many people who have taken extraordinary paths through life, it makes complete sense to me that an individual could make that kind of choice.

Back home I bought the CDs (see below) and spread the word, and when I started dancing myself later on I drew that spiky monstrous (and anti-monstrous) aesthetic into my own repertoire of movement.

It’s hard to find good quality videos of Balinese performance that give any kind of fair impression – the one below and these here and here are among the better ones. There are also some great images of musicians and dancers here.

I’ve found that many European composers have been drawn to the gamelan and influenced more or less explicitly by it. Here are a few good examples (all links open in Spotify):

Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

Debussy – Pagodes

Poulenc – Concerto for two pianos

Britten – The Prince of the Pagodas

Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

Cage – A Room (for prepared piano)

Britten’s late work is particularly steeped in Balinese sounds, following his trip there with Peter Pears in 1957. In The Prince of the Pagodas he uses rather intricate forms of counterpoint and polytonality to simulate an oral tradition – the texture and tuning of gamelan instruments.

Finally here’s a ‘Balinese’ étude by Ligeti. Apparently ‘Galamb Borong’ is a made up cod-Indonesian phrase that has no meaning!

Fifteen years later I returned to Bali, with Vanessa and our good friends Matthew and Maureen. I wrote a short guest post on their blog soon after we arrived, describing the unique Balinese urban jungle that seemed largely unchanged, though I’m sure the amount of road traffic must have increased.Statue 1

I noted that over the intervening years I’d gained much more appreciation of two things that would enrich my experience in Bali – eastern religion and plant life. I still loved the music and dance – we saw the legong, barong, kecak, and also wayang kulit – but this time I was much more drawn to nature, and even more to the profusion of religious art and architecture visible all around.Statue 3

On our second day we visited a watery palace to the east of Ubud in which I fell in love with the statues in various stages of mossy decay. Everywhere you look in Bali are reminders of impermanance; destruction and renewal. The island is so wet, and so green, that the soft stone crumbles and rots giving a sense of antiquity that isn’t always real. Statues therefore seem more alive, part of the community, than works of art to be admired and preserved. And they are so extraordinarily and publicly abundant.Carving bricks

Looking out from a café we noticed two piles of bricks stacked high, one on either side of an approach to a building. A few days later we were sitting in exactly the same spot when two sculptors arrived with tools and buckets of water and started turning these bricks into art. We watched in fascination. There’s something very palpably Hindu about these ongoing processes of creation and destruction being apparent the whole time in the streets of Ubud. Statue 2

My fascination with Balinese carvings led to a huge number of photos, and back home I decided to make something as a souvenir. Perhaps encouraged by the startling, luminous, repetitive feel of Balinese music I decided to take a single representative statue and make a bold, simple pop image by manipulating colours in various ways and fixing together a big rectangular array of prints. The image here is just an approximation in Photoshop to give the idea – the real thing is made of many more prints glued together and framed.24 statues

A few final words about the gamelan. There are now far more ensembles in the UK than back in 1990 – as listed here – though most are Javanese. Lila Cita is a London-based Balinese ensemble, and the Southbank Gamelan Players perform Javanese traditional and new music on a gamelan that is also available for workhops and courses. This is the second Gamelan I’ve had a chance to try – highly recommended!

The York University emsemble is still active and is in the forefront of composition of new music for gamelan instruments.

For composers and producers who want an easier option, there’s the sample library from Soniccouture.Soniccouture

Recommended recordings of Balinese music:

Gamelan of the Love God


Gamelan & Kecak


Kecak Ganda Sari


The idea for this came to me on a trip to see my parents in Dunstable, wandering around a big branch of Wilkinson, taking delight in the vibrant colours and varied textures of all the cheap household goods.

I quite often have moments when I look at some simple mundane thing and think – how cool would it be to have a thousand of those and create something bonkers? It’s one of my standard cod-artistic responses to the world around me. But for some reason, wandering around the shop that day in 2002, I decided to make it happen.Wilkinson

I have a taste both in sound and vision for things made of small repeating units, where subtle changes can occur within a predictable frame and new rhythms and textures emerge with scale. I like the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, for example, and I’m often fascinated by the messy and disrupted repetition seen in weathered brick walls and tiled roofs.

It so happened that my flat in Bermondsey had a long low space above the dining table, and I‘d been looking around for some time for a suitably shaped picture.

So one Sunday soon afterwards I looked up the closest branches of Wilkinson and set off for Stratford to buy the goods. I don’t think I’d ever been to Stratford before so it felt quite an adventure.StoreFinder

I was particularly drawn to the metal mesh type scourers that come in both silvery stainless steel and a more expensive copper coated version. Unfortunately the shop only had about 5 packets of each type, so I had to buy the whole lot. There were also plastic equivalents in multi-coloured packs that were less exciting but I thought might add variety to whatever I was going to make, so I bought a few of those too. I’m afraid there must have been a few disappointed people in Stratford who couldn’t do their washing up properly that week!MetalScourers

Next I spent a few days laying them out on the table at home, trying various arrangements to find something satisfying, experimenting with various types of alternation, repetition and disruption, in random and predictable patterns, using the small stock I already had and imagining what I could achieve with further purchases.PlasticScourers

Eventually I chose a very simple symmetrical arrangement that matched the size I needed for the wall, using long lines of each colour. Rather like a layer cake or some kind of sandwich biscuit, with the outside rows in red and blue enclosing three inside rows laid out in the metallic colours. I realised that there’s so much texture and visual interest in the individual scouring pads that the design needed to be kept very simple. I also rejected the paler plastic colours entirely as I wanted quite a bold overall feel that would be in keeping with other features of the flat, and they seemed to detract.

The pads tessellate quite nicely and squeeze into something like hexagons (like a honeycomb) with a little pressure, so I had 5 rows with 28 and 27 alternating – a total of 138 pads. This only required two more trips to Stratford, allowing sufficient time for them to restock between each visit!ScourerPattern

Meanwhile I asked my local picture framer on Tower Bridge Road to make a box frame of the necessary size, approximately 50 x 200cm. One thing I can distinctly recall is being too embarrased to tell him what I was planning to use it for, which seems very odd now. It was such a creative time in my life; I was really just beginning to think of the possibility of making things for myself. My life was full of extraordinary new people, new colour, new energy – liberation really – and yet I was obviously still easily embarrassed about being playful around people. I do wonder what Helen, my flatmate, thought – perhaps I can persuade her to contribute below!BijanArt

I painted the interior of the frame black, and then simply used pressure and lots and lots of glue to persuade the pads to take up their arrangement. I really like the squeezed-squishedness of it; that became part of the appeal as I got used to the feel and texture of the scourers.

A day later came the exceedingly anxious moment of raising it up onto the wall. To my delight it stayed in one piece. I was very nervous going to look at it the next morning too, but it was still there … and it’s still in one piece nearly ten years later, surviving numerous parties, a house move and now hanging appropriately in the kitchen. I’m confident that someday it will explode into 139 pieces – and when it does the materials can belatedly begin to take turns on washing up duty, though I’ll probably make some kind of photomontage to continue their traces and memories.Completed

Over the years I’ve always looked out for scouring pad siblings and cousins, hoping to encounter kindred spirits around the world. I’ve had just one success: at Burning Man 2006 I met a man wearing a spectacular spacesuit covered with about 100 pads fixed all over his front, back, legs and arms. I really wish I had a picture.

In preparing this post I’ve looked on the web in some depth to see what’s out there, but scouring pad art / craft / design / music / fashion does seem to be an exceptionally little-travelled road. Even less than you might expect.

Glass artist Ercole Barovier apparently used streaks of steel wool in his Crepuscolo series. There is evidence of a few projects on Etsy such as this and this, and a few other small-scale household projects such as this and (my favourite) this (apologies if any of the links have died). I’m surprised to find that many obvious search terms have zero results in Google. I’m not going to be starting a club.

I’ve really no idea why I made this, but I’m extremely happy that I did. It has a calm simplicity combined with jazzy extroversion that reminds me every day of the possibilities of play and imagination – and also of following through with an idea to completion.Raymond Baxter

I realise now that I had seen work by a few artists in those years that had probably been percolating in my head – Damien Hirst’s pharmaceuticals, Sarah Lucas’s cigarettes. And above all the bricks: I’ve always admired Carl André and his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2000 had a big impact on me. “I think it is impossible not to like his work” – Raymond Baxter (possibly a slight exaggeration, but he was Carl’s uncle after all).

Desert island sideboard

January 11, 2012

What’s the difference between contemporary art and craft? To me this feels a big question only because of the very different economic and critical worlds in which they have been produced, discussed and consumed over the past generation. But I’m not convinced that it’s a helpful distinction to make any more, and it certainly isn’t a clear cut one.

I’ve been set thinking about this by seeing remarkable work by both Grayson Perry and Dale Chihuly recently in London. Perry has an ambiguous rather teasing relationship with the art world and uses a range of traditional craft techniques, but with a very personal expressive intent and almost confessional communication. Chihuly is a master glassblower with an astonishing visual imagination who trained in Venice and works with a team to create work on an almost industrial scale. The Halcyon Gallery makes the rather uncomfortable claim that he “is credited with elevating the medium from the realm of craft to groundbreaking fine art”. They both make a mess of the distinction between art and craft.Grayson Perry

What could it be? Uniqueness? Originality? Non-functionality? Conceptual content? Or simply an attitude, an intent? Expression and communication as opposed to technique and tradition? I can see that these were very important distinctions to make for much of the twentieth century, to allow art to be reborn and free itself. But now, in a world saturated with concept and individuality I suggest it’s no longer particularly helpful to raise these up as the dominant qualities conferring value. Dale Chihuly

Last year I attended the spectacular Collect exhibition organised by the Crafts Council, and I found it the most exciting range of work I’ve seen at the Saatchi Gallery at least since it moved from Boundary Road.

I was struck by the fact that, almost all the work being unaffordable to me (so I was not too distracted by acquisitive hunger), I was looking at in exactly the same way I would be looking at an art display. I couldn’t find a difference in what the work was doing to me: exciting me, moving me, horrifying me, astounding me – even though it mostly had some notional practical function.

The very fact of it being shown at that venue probably signals the breakdown of the art / craft distinction, or at least that a meeting point has been found. Actually I suspect it’s a relationship that comes and goes in long cycles over time.

But all this reflection is by way of preamble to a rather indulgent post I want to make about some of my favourite creators.

Living in London it’s become apparent to me how rich and thriving the crafts, in the sense of people individually making things out of a range of materials that at least nod at some kind of practical function, now are. I’m thinking of ceramics, glass, objects in wood and metal, jewellery, and also a variety of other work in less obvious materials such as paper, plastics, and textiles. Even in the realm of objects that are more affordable I see around me an extraordinary range of imaginative creativity. For so many of the things that we buy in the course of life, from knives and forks to engagement rings, there is a deeply considered, locally handmade alternative to the standard mass produced options.

I’ve been thinking about a kind of personal Desert Island Discs of contemporary craft … or perhaps a Desert Island Sideboard.

There are hundreds of people I could name, but here’s a selection of eight that include some of the most personally significant to me plus some that are simply favourites:

1. Peter Beardceramics

Peter’s work has long been a favourite of mine, and Vanessa and I acquired a piece as a wedding present to ourselves. He creates robust timeless forms decorated with complex rhythmic patterns reminiscent of rock, fire and water.Peter Beard

2. Jo Hayes Wardjewellery

Jo brings a radically modernist aesthetic to the creation of jewellery intricately surfaced with repetitions of tiny building blocks such as shimmering cubes and interlocking hexagons.Jo Hayes Ward

3. Janice Tchalenkoceramics

I still love Janice’s work but she’s mainly included here because my very first purchase of an object that I consciously considered craft rather than simply shopping was a humble coffee cup in her Dartington Poppy range. I bought it at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery sometime in the earlyish 90s and it was probably the only piece I could afford. Lots of her work can be seen at the V&A.Janice Tchalenko

4. Roger Tyeglass

Roger’s hallucinatory organic forms and startlingly vivid colours are sometimes reminiscent of Chihuly.Roger Tye

As an aside I’d like to briefly turn to Japan, a culture with a wonderfully charged relationship between deference to tradition and radical modernity. Travelling there in 2007 I was delighted to learn about the concept of Living National Treasures (Ningen Kokuhō). This is a status conferred by the Japanese government to help preserve important cultural traditions, and comes with a grant of 2 million yen a year!.

It covers performing arts like Gagaku and Noh as well as crafts. There’s a big list of potters here. The focus on preservation is interesting, although to be fair the recipients are by no means all traditionalists. A couple of my favourites are Matsui Kosei, master of Neriage, and Ito Sekisui.

Similar awards have been introduced in other countries, and I’ve started to notice the term being used informally here – in recent years I’ve heard David Attenborough, Paul McCartney and Sean Connery all described as Living National Treasures. I would pay at least one of them 2 million yen a year to retire.Sasha Wardell

Back to the second group of celebrities on my sideboard:

5. Sasha Wardellceramics

Sasha creates extremely delicate translucent porcelain vessels. One of my bigger disappointments of recent years was breaking one of them at the Royal Opera House cloakroom!

6. Malcolm Morrisjewellery


I was originally drawn to a piece from Malcolm’s Apple Blossom series, and in time that led to commissioning an engagement ring and two wedding rings. Visits to his home-studio-workshop complex in Walthamstow to discuss designs and select stones made for a charming and very personalised experience.Malcolm Morris

7. Merete Rasmussenceramics

Gorgeously sensual intensely coloured sculptural forms, further from any practical function than anything else on my list. I love staring intensely at them in Contemporary Ceramics where they can often be seen. Mood-changing objects that  evoke anything from dried leaves to ships’ propellers. Definitely high on my long-term wishlist (but, I fear, risky to own). And as a bonus, Merete at work looks rather like a Vermeer.Merete Rasmussen

8. Amanda Simmonsglass

Amanda is my favourite glass artist and despite working far way in Scotland I’ve amassed a slightly excessive collection of 10 pieces. It’s lovely to meet her once or twice a year at events such as Collect. According to her website she is motivated by themes such as love, baking and hills. I can empathise.Amanda Simmons

A box of buttons

January 3, 2012

A few months ago a delightful blogpost by Julia Parsons inspired me to embark upon possibly my silliest ever craft project. With the exception, arguably, of my 2002 scouring pad project, which will have to wait for another day.

Julia wrote with sparkling nostalgia about her love for her grandmother’s secret stash of buttons, beautifully evoking a child’s delight at the mysterious unfathomable magic always just beneath the surface of everyday life.

I don’t really have a button-memory like Julia’s, but I certainly found her tale powerfully evocative. There’s something about a whimsical collection of disparate and slightly absurd things that can’t fail to tug the imagination and draw up real or fanciful stories.

My own memory took me back nearly forty years to my grandfather’s wooden toolshed, in the middle of a seemingly immense garden teeming with exotic plants (such as runner beans and rhubarb), behind my grandparents’ council house in Garden Road, Dunstable.

The shed was potently perfumed with a mixture of wood, metal, rust, oil, and probably tobacco too. It was filled to the brim with incomprehensible apparatus utterly otherworldly in the context of my tidy home life. I remember trays of screws and nails of every size and all sorts of miscellaneous workmanlike detritus. Perhaps there were things for his famous scooter. Or football memorabilia. I’m not sure if anything was ever used, or it was just some kind of den … and of course, most of this is probably the product of my imagination.Household button stash

But as an adult, as things have turned out, I’m much more a buttons person than a screws and nails person … so I decided to take Julia’s memory as a starting point and, knowing that in my household we have assiduously kept spare buttons, often years beyond their use-by date, see if I could come up with a project.

My idea was that an interesting texture could be created by combining real buttons with cut-out photos of buttons and oil-painted buttons. Combining these in relatively equal proportions against a black background on canvas should make a fun and colourful new object.Photographing the buttons

I got a 40x40cm canvas and, counting out a sample from the button box, I determined it would need about 600 to fill the space (i.e. 200 buttons, 200 photos, 200 painted). One of those moments when it hits you how much work is going to be involved with a  project! Fortunately one of my strengths is carrying ideas through to completion … especially when utterly silly.

The household  saved button stash was inadequate, so I bought some bagfuls from Blooming Felt and topped up with a few expensive specials from John Lewis and Liberty. Laying them all out, sorting and counting was of course the best part. I took the photos at that stage and applied various distortions to the colour and lighting, so that the cut-outs would have a range of visual interest to balance the textures of the real buttons. The hardest part for me was the painting, as I have no particular skill with oils. Once it was all put together I waited a fortnight before painting on the dots, and then another fortnight before placing it on the wall.Finished buttons texture

Looking at the finished object now, the texture has worked out just about as I hoped, and so far the glues I used are holding up. I enjoy the contrast between real textures and faux-textures, and the correspondences between the real buttons and the distorted versions seen in the photos. I’ve since made a second smaller version as a gift (30×30 cm – which means half the surface area and half the effort).Buttons on the wall

Even though there wasn’t much of personal significance in the materials used, I’m sure someone will occasionally spot a button and remember clothes, places and people. Scouring the surface I realise there are at least three brands visible: Ted Baker, PS (Paul Smith) and Nico Didonna. Everyone knows the first two, but Nico has had much more personal significance for me over the past decade. A superb designer-tailor and irresistible salesman, he’s responsible for many of my favourite things, including my three-piece purple velvet wedding suit. Nico undoubtedly deserves a blogpost of his own. And I’m very happy to have recylced a chunky metal Nico-branded stud-button that fell off my favourite dance trousers one night in 2009.