The Liberty Fabrics department prides itself on the incredible talent of its collaborative designers and celebrates the opportunity to work with up-and-coming artists. One such relationship gave birth to the instantly iconic Queue for the Zoo design, inspired by Liberty’s Childrenswear department and recently inducted into our collection of Classics. Behind this bustle of exotic beasts is illustrator and children’s author, OK David; we caught up with him to discuss the popular pattern and delve a little deeper into the workings of his creative imagination.
Your wonderful host of illustrative animals designed for Liberty’s new season Queue for the Zoo has been a real hit, becoming the bestselling fabric for wholesale sales in 2014. Can you describe the concept behind the print and how it came to be?
Hello! Queue for the Zoo started really simply. Emma [Mawston] asked me to draw some animals but she left it up to me what and how to draw; I appreciated the freedom she gave me very much. Obviously it’s great to work with Liberty because it’s such a prestigious name, but the real pleasure was collaborating with Emma and the design team. Anyway, because I like birds quite a lot, that was where I began – with a flamingo and bluebird. The bluebird didn’t make it into the final design but the flamingo (in its knee-length socks!) did. I didn’t set out to draw animals from the African savannah or anything like that, they just galloped into my head and appeared in my drawing, like a story takes flight when you have the right characters. Soon I had a whole herd. After the fourth or fifth animal, it was clear what this design was: a parade of colourful, patterned animals. Adding the little touches like the suitcase, the paper airplane and the giraffe’s Liberty trainers felt natural and obvious to me, they were drawing themselves by then. By the way, if you look closely, the elephant is wearing a wristwatch on its tusk. I drew a wolf too, with a jelly baby on its tongue. Something appeals to me about details so tiny you miss them. It’s how people are too: I discover new things about people quite often.
Apart from designing for our SS14 collection, you were also on the panel of judges for the annual St. Martins/Liberty collaboration. What was the most exciting aspect of this process? Did you discover any new favourite artists?
Yes I did! I had so much fun with the other judges looking at the St. Martins artwork, which was of a really high standard. It was a privilege to get to see all their stuff and I have lots of admiration for how talented they all are at that school. Seeing how designs are spotted quite quickly among an artist’s work was interesting; when something is right it leaps out at you immediately, you just know when it will work. The judges were allowed to pick one fabric, which was a bit heartbreaking because I wanted to pick two.
Your design for the Queue for the Zoo print represents Liberty’s childrenswear department, and the other prints within the collection are inspired by other areas of the store. What is your favourite floor or department within the building?
This is a bit of a sneaky answer because it’s not part of the store, and the public don’t get to see it, but for me the heart and soul of Liberty is the design department behind the store floors, across the bridge over Kingly Street, it’s like a toyshop for me. You walk in the studio and see designs at every stage of completion on the walls around you, and all these very friendly, skilful people at work on fabrics. It’s a buzz to see all the stuff being made. As for special memories, the day you mentioned above when I came to judge the St Martin’s competition was so much fun and a great honour. I won’t forget it anytime soon.
As well as creating illustrations and designs, you write wonderful poems and stories. These often have a dark, folk-like style. What draws you to this way of writing and what other authors inspire your work?
I have always written stories and you’re right, they’re often dark in the way folktales are. Thank you for saying they’re wonderful. I write and draw in completely different ways, it’s strange. My stories are unsettling and dark, and my drawings are buoyant and joyful. I don’t mean for them to be that way but somehow they just are. I’m going to write and illustrate a picture book this year of Sierra Leonean folktales, so let’s see how that turns out. There’s a bit of dying in there but also some coming back from the dead, so hakuna matata…As for writers, there are many I admire, but a few who have influenced me the most are: RK Narayan, William Steig, Ray Bradbury, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Harper Lee.
How does London and city life inspire your stories?
I am a watcher really, and London is great for spying and plotting: two of my favourite things. The city is a moody, thoughtful place and I find stories come easily when there is so much life to spy on. I’d like to try other cities, to be surrounded by all kinds of people I can watch but don’t have to talk to if I don’t want. I like talking to strangers, it’s great fun and leads to all kinds of invitations and opportunities. Then I meet up with friends to drink and chat about the things we’ve been up to, and scheme about what we’ll do next. Treat your home as if you’re on an adventure, that’s what I think. Much as I like London, what I love more is exploring new places. I would like to keep travelling throughout my lifetime, maybe seasonally. Instead of winter, perhaps I’ll have a voyage season, when I seek ideas for stories and illustrations. I will take a recorder and travel the world collecting people’s stories, just like Alan Lomax. Another name I’d like to mention is Joseph Mitchell, a writer who wandered the streets of New York chronicling the characters and their haunts, and that sounds ideal to me.
Do you tend to work on a drawing first and the accompanying story afterwards, or do the words come before the drawing?
Every project is different. All I know is that I use both words and images, and I would find it a bit strange just to write without drawing, or just to draw without writing. Both are imaginative instruments, and when I do either I find I have to imagine quite keenly to get the ink flowing. Once you start imagining and thinking playfully, you do whatever it takes: write, draw, pace up and down…
What is your favourite children’s story or illustration?
A book called Dominic, about a little hound who has a different hat for every situation, and who decides one day to lock his house and go out into the world. It’s written by a Jewish immigrant to the States called William Steig, who coincidently invented Shrek. Please everyone, read this book! It is very wise, just like all William Steig’s stories. His illustrations are probably my favourite too, and have influenced my own very much. I like Quentin Blake’s of course, but somehow William Steig’s speak to me more.
Your art and writing often involves animals, what do you think it is about this theme that attracts people’s imagination and fascination?
Watching fireflies looping among long reeds, making glowing sword marks like shooting stars in space; or seeing how a hummingbird drinks from a flower; or understanding how little spiders climb up to the tip of grass stems and use their silk to fly themselves like a kite in the wind and then let go, before being carried into the upper stratosphere and across the world, frozen in a little bit of ice, and then defrost and go back to whatever they like to do… If you really think about it, how can you not wonder at that? Animals are proxies for ourselves I suppose, just like people use sport as a proxy for the little wars and triumphs of life. That doesn’t seem to stop us from treating animals terribly though, and it’s a great shame. I love to collect stories about animals behaving in surprising ways: it makes you realise how much of a mystery another living creature is, and how wrong it is to disregard and mistreat them. Anyone with a complicated family knows your own blood is pretty mysterious too sometimes! In my stories and pictures I anthropomorphise animals all the time but in fact I am quite against presuming what animals are capable of feeling. One day we’ll look back and see what a crime we’ve committed over the years, and hang our heads for a while and then we’ll move to another planet and do it all over again. I am fascinated by the natural world, but being from the city, I am a wimp and don’t like being swarmed by rats or crawled over by bugs or flapped at by massive moths. I went to Sierra Leone recently and there was a light bulb outside my door that attracted these mothy pteradactyls and weird noodle-shaped beasts that were almost big enough to ride on… I unscrewed the light bulb in the end.
What is your favourite animal depicted in the design for the Queue for the Zoo print; which was the most fun to draw?
Try drawing a flamingo’s neck and its hooked beak and you’ll see how fun they are to draw. I had a good time sketching out the elephants too, although I wished they were patterned like the okapi, with its stripy bum. I enjoy drawing patterned animals but more than one patterned animal would have been horrible to look at and would have given everyone eye-ache. People notice the giraffe first, probably because it’s patterned, is quite central and obviously has nice little trainers on its hooves.
Have you created anything from the fabric to wear or have in your home?
Yes! I have a shirt, which I wear to smart occasions, and my bodyguard Mary has a jumpsuit in the same blue colourway. We went to my friend’s wedding this summer and wore them matching. To remind myself of Queue for the Zoo when I’m an old man and in case my great great great grandchildren don’t believe me, I’m going to have a few bits of the different colourways framed.