Anna James Furniture Design embraces art, design and craftsmanship, London02/04/2012
Design is one of the most important aspects of modern living because the places we live and our general environments have a powerful impact on our emotional well-being. Simply put, being somewhere ugly makes you feel depressed – somewhere beautiful and we feel our spirits instantly soar, But taken a step further, imagine that intoxicating feeling of being in a space, be it a home or workplace, that reflects our own uniqueness?
Enter Anna James, a decorative artist in London; she works with furniture and on interior walls, restoring and creating anew making, quite literally, unique works of art for the spaces we dwell. Anna’s work embraces art, design and craftsmanship, requiring a span of disciplines and skills; from restoring antique furniture, to designing fabric prints and famously – customising cellos… and her creations manage to reach into every area of life.
Creative Mapping took time out with Anna recently to find out what makes her a creative force to be reckoned with:
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“I’D SAY FOR ME, THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF BEING CREATIVE IS THE EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT TO WHAT YOU’RE DOING. IT CAN BE ALL CONSUMING AND YOU NEED TO LEARN WHEN TO TAKE TIME AWAY FROM WORK, REST YOUR MIND AND RELAX.”
ABOUT ANNAAnna, tell us a bit about your background. So what inspired you to start working as a decorative artist?
How did you begin to work with period furniture?
Is there a philosophy behind what you do?
CREATIVE PROCESSWhat tools do you use in your work? Do you have favourite materials or paints you like to work with? What do you feel creates a good working environment? What’s your ideal place to work? How do you deal with creative blocks? When are you at your most creative? Tell us more about the team you work with. What are the most challenging aspects of creative work? What about the working process? You work a lot with antique pieces. How does researching fit into your work? How do you approach working with a client? Do you get a sense of completion when you finish a piece?
CREATIVE LIFESTYLEWhere do you live and work? Do you collaborate much in your work? How do you deal with the marketing and promoting side of your work? Which industry events do you like to attend? Do you read magazines and blogs? If so, which are you favourite?
Anna, tell us a bit about your background.
After growing up by the sea in Poole, Dorset and travelling around the world in my late teens I moved to London and started training as a specialist painter and decorative artist, serving a long apprenticeship with a team of painters across the capital.
So what inspired you to start working as a decorative artist?
Both my mother and father paint and my sisters and I were always encouraged to work creatively with our hands. We all share similar passions. My older sister had already forged a path in London while I was away travelling – and had started working with a team of decorative artists. I wanted to work in interiors and loved the idea of working physically on projects, so, I moved to London to join the team and start my apprenticeship.
How did you begin to work with period furniture?
I did a lot of work for classic English bespoke designers Smallbone of Devizes, which gave me a keen appreciation for the closest attention to detail and finest finishes. I ran my own business working for clients on site for seven years on many different projects in the city and overseas. The work involved colour consultancy (advising clients on colour schemes), painting and decorating to an exceptionally high standard, paint finishes, paint effects, gilding and murals – working on both walls and furniture. Most of the work I’d been doing over the years for clients was stylistically very classical, and I had a desire to transform period furniture in a totally different way. I wanted to re-work antique pieces with my own designs so I started work in my studio. With many years experience as a specialist painter I’m able to restore and repaint pieces myself to a high finish… and it was wonderful to be able to express myself fully with my own contemporary style.
Is there a philosophy behind what you do?
I think my work definitely crosses boundaries of art and design, and my physical work on the pieces involves craftsmanship. Each piece is unique and I consider them works of art. I love working in the way I do and my approach to my work is driven by the excitement and passion I feel creating and being surrounded by beautiful objects. My aim is to communicate this to others so that they can experience the same enjoyment from my work.
What tools do you use in your work?
Sandpaper for stripping back pieces, paintbrushes, primer, paint, pigments and varnishes. I also use screwdrivers, hammers, pins, nail punches, grips and pliers. For the technical side of things, my camera and computer.
Do you have favourite materials or paints you like to work with?
I don’t have any particular favourite materials or shapes, except, of course, that furniture is mostly of wood onto which I introduce painted designs, fabrics and film.I’d say my signature colours are black and white and I love vibrant colours. It’s important to me to refine the use of colour so that the lines and personality of the furniture can speak clearly through my work. l bring pieces up to date with luxury touches: I have leather and glass replaced, and new mirrors fitted. It’s very important to me that the furniture be functional as well as beautiful. To achieve this I work with a very skilled cabinet maker. He assists me in reinforcing pieces where necessary. In order to appeal to today’s market, we rebuild drawer boxes and fit them on high quality soft close runners. On some pieces, I line the inside of the drawers with padded fabrics.
What do you feel creates a good working environment?
I need a certain degree of quiet and solitude to develop my initial thoughts. I’m very tidy and organised when I work, otherwise I can’t think clearly. I’m constantly cleaning up after myself because I can’t have any dust settling in my paintwork! I like to listen to music – what I listen to changes depending on my mood, time of day and the stage I’m at with work. When I’m working with my team, its great to have a good balance of chatting and quiet time to focus. I think laughter and having fun together whilst working is a very important part of creating a good environment.
What’s your ideal place to work?
My favourite environment is mostly my own studio, but my sources of inspiration can be a visit to places overseas such as Verona, an exhibition or art gallery.
How do you deal with creative blocks?
So far I’ve not suffered many blocks. I’m always thinking and planning ahead for designs on items of furniture that capture my imagination. Occasionally I have to rethink my design concept on a piece where my initial thoughts aren’t complimenting the article.
When are you at your most creative?
I tend to have my best ideas in the bath, or when I’m in the state halfway between sleep and consciousness.
My best working hours in the studio are generally from 10 or 11am to 7pm. When I’m painting and in the zone, sometimes I really enjoy staying up till 2 or 3am, listening to music. I put in a lot of hours on all my pieces. Some of my designs are very laborious and you need to be really motivated and focused. I’m also a real perfectionist!
Tell us more about the team you work with.
I work with an assistant and a team who have various skills such as IT, web design and graphic design. Also,’on the restoration side, cabinet makers and upholsterers.
What are the most challenging aspects of creative work?
I really enjoy what I do, it’s not like doing a job where you work set hours and switch off on your way home, it’s a way of life. I’ll often find myself working on a Saturday night or Sunday morning. I would say for me the most challenging part of being a creative is the emotional attachment to what you’re doing – it can be all consuming
and you need to learn when to take time away from work, rest your mind and relax.
What about the working process?
l look for the appropriate piece of furniture to work with for the design I have in mind. Occasionally a piece of furniture will inspire my idea for the artwork. Then I sketch and work out how I need to execute my designs before I start physically working on the furniture. I really enjoy the creative process. I think of the furniture as a blank canvas. Before I start to restore a piece I always know how I want to transform it and how I imagine the final finish to be. I start by stripping off the old polish and varnish, filling and restoring the surface. The I prime and base coat the furniture to get it to the ‘blank canvas’ stage before I apply my final detailed artwork.
You work a lot with antique pieces. How does researching fit into your work?
My initial research invariably leads me to sourcing information from reference books and on the Internet. I create a working file for each piece that I am preparing and I use sketchbooks, mood boards and photographs,’where appropriate.
How do you approach working with a client?
If I’m working for a client on a specific commission, we discussed my proposed design, however for the most part, the design is left to me. I do have commissions for items previously featured on my website. In these cases I usually send ideas via email because my clients are often overseas. The cello was a commission from the international cellist Natalie Clein. I loved the idea of marrying a painting to a musical instrument. I listened
to Bach’s solo cello suites for my inspiration and let the music form the initial mapping of my painting. I had a strong vision for the colours I wanted to use when listening to the music, so I did a small painting/ sketch to clarify them, before I started working on the piece. Three gold bands on the cello represent three elements that come together, the cello itself, my painting and Natalie’s playing. They combine and fuse together tocreate a totally unique experience.
Do you get a sense of completion when you finish a piece?
I do feel my work is complete when I finish working on a piece. I know when to stop. However, I constantly have ideas for things and I’m always thinking about what I can make next. I’ve been working with fabric on my designs for ‘Starcrossed Lovers’ – an interesting process. I wanted to generate my own images in paint which would create a fabric design for the seat. I started by making two paintings, which I photographed. The images were then digitally printed onto fabric to cover the seat.
Where do you live and work?
I live and work in an old converted perfume factory in South East London. I love cycling around London, I’ll go and visit friends, go to the park and I often pop up to Borough Market at London Bridge for coffees and snacks. I love swimming, running and yoga. Showing foreign visitors around the city is great because you see it with fresh eyes and there are endless new things to do and discover. I really enjoy going to the cinema, I
find watching films great escapism. My favourite cinema in London is the Curzon in Mayfair. My best nights out in London are generally on weekdays. I love the adventure of going out in London. Nights are never the same and there are always so many interesting people to meet (but) I don’t like taking public transport,’standing in queues and sitting in traffic.
Do you collaborate much in your work?
I’ve worked in partnership with a diamond jewellery brand. I designed a range of jewellery for them which reflects some of the designs in my furniture. I loved designing jewellery and want continue doing it. It’s great to collaborate with other brands/ artists and I hope to have more opportunities to do so, it enables you to apply skills in different ways. I love fashion, and in the future I’d love to work on fabric designs and clothing.
How do you deal with the marketing and promoting side of your work?
I put my work out into to the world via my website. This generates international interest from press for articles in major magazines which in turn generates interest from buyers. I also exhibit my work.
Which industry events do you like to attend?
I always go to events at the Design museum – and lots of private views!
Do you read magazines and blogs? If so, which are you favourite?
I love magazines and spend way too much money on them! Some of the many I buy are Vogue, Another Magazine, Love, Modern Painters, Frame, World of Interiors, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor. I like Cool Hunter, The Sartorialist and Nowness. I also use Stumble Upon a lot, it’s a great way of discovering amazing stuff on the web.