Tales of textile meaning & making

Shelley Steer

Shelley Steer

Shelley Steer is a freelance textile designer and illustrator currently based in Melbourne. During the past few years she has shared a studio with graphic designer, Louise Jones, and lived in London, where she completed a gorgeous tote bag design for Anthropologie. Featuring a beautiful bird, lush plants and even a few insects, the pattern is typical of Shelley's work – bold and beautiful nature paintings that cover the entire surface of the image, often laid on top of very dark backgrounds. These images start fine pencil drawings, which are then carefully overlaid with delicate watercolour.

Her designs burst with colour and technical skill, areas Shelley has enjoyed exploring since she completed a Bachelor of Textile Design at Melbourne's RMIT. Clients commission her for fashion, packaging, textiles and homewares.

Endlessly fascinated with colour, nature and the change of the seasons, Shelley explores these themes in her work. So when she lived in London, Kew Gardens became a major inspiration. The design Lithodora Zahnii, seen here in its original pencil form, came from time she spent at The Davies Alpine House in the Gardens. She took lots of photographs and these images continue to inform her designs.

And although she has now amassed a library of images she can draw from, Shelley credits A Side Project as one of her greatest influences. In early 2014, Shelley and her then studio mate Louise Jones, started the project as a way to develop original artwork around a monthly home. Free from a client brief, the concept become a place to play, and has often informed new work for both women. With themes like Woodland, Modern Wilderness and Minerals, the space is playful and inventive. You'll see some of the finished work here, along with a little from the designer herself.

Firstly, can you tell me about your process. How do you go about the creation of a design, from start to finish?

I usually start with a brief – either from a client or a self-initiated one. Next, I start researching the theme, getting out and about, taking photos and getting inspired. From there I’ll form a loose concept and decide what technique to use (drawing, painting, digital or photographic). Then it’s all about creating the finished motifs/illustrations, scanning and refining in Photoshop. Lastly, I’ll play around with the layout and scale, getting the repeat balanced and flowing nicely.

How long has it taken you to develop your process and what were some of the highs and lows along the way?

I think my process is always evolving, but the last 3 years have been particularly significant in refining my approach by doing self-initiated work. I remember reading a quote, that said something like… “make the work you wish you were making”. Doing personal projects makes this line of thinking a priority.

A lot of my self-initiated work has been through A Side Project, which is an evolving collaboration with graphic designer Louise Jones. We set a new theme each month and produce an original artwork that responds to it. A high has been seeing A Side Project flourish and continually challenge us to develop and stretch our skills. A bonus has been it leading to paid work through exposing us to new and different audiences.

Another highlight was working with Anthropologie in the UK earlier this year. They were a delight to collaborate with, giving me a brief that matched my creative process perfectly. Check out some behind the scenes footage here.

There are definitely lows when working freelance. During the creative process it’s easy to doubt yourself… I’m slowly learning that sometimes you just have to keep working regardless of how you feel. Each piece is important, whether in its own right or a necessary stepping stone to something else.

Unfortunately, I’ve also experienced the low of being unable to protect your work. While it's incredibly valuable to publish and show your work online, you continually run the risk of others using and profiting from your work without permission.   

What are your favourite parts of the process, and why? And the most challenging?

I love starting a new brief, the fresh page, the clean palette, the endless possibilities. The most challenging is usually when the design is about 70% complete… the perfectionist in me comes out, doubts appear and it’s a real fight to maintain the confidence that a beautiful result will surface without overworking it.

What are your favourite design influences that you always go back to? And tools?

Gardens, plants and flowers remain a lasting source of inspiration for me. I found an amazing resource in Kew Gardens when I was living in London. I returned home with thousands of images that continually offer up something new.

I love adding new tools to my collection. Some favourites include, sable paint brushes, a lovely pencil or pen, a beautiful hot press watercolour paper. The list could go on and on!

And finally, what drew you to textiles in the first place? What do you love about textiles, and where would like to seeing your work going in the future?

Growing up, I’d always been surrounded by textiles, making things and visiting fabric shops was normal. It wasn’t until much later, during my first year studying a Bachelor of Arts (Interior Design) that I had a very distinct moment wishing that I could print something on fabric. I took a year away from study and after completing a short course in screen printing and loving it, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts (Textile Design) and have never looked back.

I love the colour in textiles and the feel of a beautiful fabric, for example a Liberty cotton! It’s also amazing how versatile a pattern can be. A strong repeat can sit comfortably within so many worlds; fashion, homewares, packaging and technology.

Going forward, I’d love to continue collaborating with inspirational and thoughtful companies, where creativity, experimentation and the collective desire to produce a unique and beautiful outcome is the goal.

IMAGES courtesy of © Shelley Steer

Style Revolutionary

Style Revolutionary