Liberty London has been at the cutting-edge of design and decorative arts since 1875 – and this resolution is embedded in our legacy today: distinctive prints, unmatchable fabrics and forward-thinking collaborations. Our central London store acts as the iconic brand home – and at the heart of it is the Liberty Design Studio. Connected Liberty’s mock Tudor building by a wooden bridge, the unique in-house studio is occupied by 15 highly-skilled creatives, who conceptualise, re-work and hand-draw prints that translate into our seasonal fabrics and collections. Here, Archivist Anna Buruma and Head of Design Mary-Ann Dunkley reveal what makes its positioning special…
"The studio as we know it was started in 1952 and it has been in many places around Soho, at the Merton print works, and in Merton Road in Southfields. Since I have been here it has moved to three different locations in London - but between the Regent Street and Marlborough St buildings we have moved about 10 times.”
- Anna Buruma
Mary-Ann Dunkley: We’ve got two archivists who work in the studio with us and they are constantly updating the archive with our new artwork whilst working on a library system so we can access everything for new collections. We can search under all kinds of different subjects, such as ‘1920s florals’, ‘trees’, or ‘peacocks’. This way we can find things that were done in the early 1900s. We can then use little bits of them, or use them a similar way to how they were used originally. Things that were in the archive originally were hand-drawn and may not have a full repeat, or might have been damaged over the years so they always need to be re-drawn in order to make new screens. The process is still quite labour intensive, even if it is a classic design.
In terms of drawing, everyone in the studio has different handwriting. We actively select people that can bring something different to the archive and that has been true always. That’s why we’ve got so many different styles of work in our archive to go back to and reuse.
Some people are very skilled in using gouache paint which means you can create artwork which easily translates into screen print. The colours are really separate, so that can then work really well when you want to print by rotary print. We then have other people who are really good at watercolour and mixing that with ink and that would be something that we would then print as a digital print. Pen and ink is also something that we’re known for. Working as vector artwork which is a different skill again.
There are lots of different skill sets within the studio and then everyone is really knowledgeable about putting prints into repeat and it’s something that we spend ages to make the perfect repeat– to make the perfect repeat that doesn’t spot in terms of colour. Often there will be some kind of mark or stripe running through the repeat, so we’ll work into it again.
We work really hard to ensure that every design is invested in. We have design meetings at every stage within the process. We all look at the art and the print outs to make sure that nothing stands out to us. Sometimes someone will see something like a little face in the design, or a flower that looks a bit like a banana, so it’s good to have everyone there, each with their own skills and experience.
Each season, 60-70% of everything is new. We keep the Liberty handwriting by knowing what’s worked well before within our different markets, understanding what it is that people really want from us.
New technologies have transformed the way we work today. Digital printing facilities are getting better and better every season. Because we have our own factory in Italy, we work closely with them to make sure that when we are printing digitally, we’re doing it better than anyone else out there. We’re working hard to achieve similar qualities that you get with screen printing, one of them being the penetration of the ink on the fabric.
Working with computers has opened up possibilities. 25 years ago, we would have to paint every colourway - now we can make 20 colourways very quickly on the computer. The challenge is that the easier it gets, the harder it is to stay special because everyone can create something on the computer. It’s just about us making sure that we’re always pushing ourselves and pushing our printer to be the best it can be. That’s what people know they are going to get from us.
We’re inspired by all different kinds of things. Over the years you’re inspired by different artists, designs and trends. There are some artists that have been in the studio for over 20 years, so there is continuity there. We understand as textile designers what is so special about Liberty’s handwriting, so we work hard to respect and be true to that. Although we want to try new things and push the boundaries with each collection.
Being attached to the store is key. Whenever we start any projects, we always go into our store for inspiration. We’re really lucky to be able to walk across the bridge and see the incredible fabrics and clothes.