V&A Dundee

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A uniform approach

We commissioned textile designer Laura Spring to design a family of surface patterns for our staff uniforms. Used across aprons, bags and scarves, the pieces were produced in collaboration with Halley Stevensons, the Centre for Advanced Textiles and Kalopsia Collective. Laura tells us more about herself and her process.

I studied Visual Communication at The Glasgow School of Art from 1999-2002, specialising in Graphic Design. But I was always much happier making things by hand and working with fabric rather than with a computer. After graduating, I ended up working in costume departments across various TV, theatre and film companies for six years.

I had fallen in love with screen printing during my degree, though, and kept it up when possible between costume work. In 2011, I was awarded the Scottish Craft Residency at Cove Park, a pivotal moment in my career. Six weeks of uninterrupted time to focus, experiment, print and play was incredible. In the autumn of that year I established ‘Laura Spring’ and attended my first trade show in London. It all snowballed from there…

Back before V&A Dundee opened, they put out an open call for a surface pattern designer to work on a family of print designs for their staff uniforms. As a design student, I was encouraged to go on field trips to London and visit museums there. I remember my trips to V&A South Kensington vividly. Growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, there was nothing like the V&A, both in terms of a resource and the architecture and design of the building and volume of objects under one roof!

It was quite overwhelming at first. The V&A in London is such an iconic museum and has produced many incredible exhibitions over the years. I was very excited when I heard one was opening in Dundee. I saw their open call and it felt like a dream commission, so I had to apply. I’m so pleased my idea was selected!

Two women laughing dressed mostly in black wearing scarves and bags in bright yellow and blue designs.
A woman mostly dressed in black posing against a plain background wearing a scarf in bright yellow and blue designs.
A woman mostly dressed in black posing against a plain background wearing an apron in bright green and blue designs.
  • Two of our Visitor Assistants wearing uniform elements designed by Laura spring. (Photos taken in February 2020)

  • One of our Visitor Assistants wearing uniform elements designed by Laura spring. (Photos taken in February 2020)

  • One of our Visitor Assistants wearing uniform elements designed by Laura spring. (Photos taken in February 2020)

Research is absolutely key to any work I make. I love nothing more than getting into an archive or meeting people to ask questions on a particular topic. I try to get out of my studio as much as possible to gather information. I bring that back to my studio and begin to process.

For this project, due to time restraints (which can happen on commission-based work), site visits weren’t possible in time for the first meeting of initial ideas. When I came on to the project, most of the external build was done, so I had to rely on sourcing photography of the building process online and through magazine articles. Luckily, these were in abundant supply as there was so much interest in the project!

I usually start scribbling down thoughts and then digging into those a bit more before putting together a visual board or wall of images and notes I’ve collected or made. Then I’ll start to sketch. I’m not fussy about what I use to do this. Sometimes it’s in a notebook, other times it’s on a big piece of paper. Sometimes it’s on the print table cutting out shapes, playing with ideas and scale as I go.

Inevitably, design work ends up on the computer as it’s a necessary tool to either make repeating patterns for screen or digital prints. But I always like to mix my colours by hand the traditional way, so I get a real feel for what I’m after. Plus, it allows for those ‘happy’ accidents to happen!

The inspiration for my design came from the architect Kengo Kuma talking about his inspirations and ideas for the building. Primarily how “V&A Dundee is reconnecting the city with its beautiful and historic riverside”. I was drawn to this idea of ‘land + water’ and the relationship between the two: the strong and dynamic curving concrete walls of the building juxtaposed against the soft ripples of the water. I wanted to bring these two elements together in the design through a graphic reinterpretation using only lines and curves.

A spread of research and papers with photos of the museum and different colour ways and ideas.
A spread of research and papers with pattern samples and different colour ways and ideas.
A spread of research and papers with pattern samples and different colour ways and ideas.
  • Laura's inspiration, research and ideas for her designs.

  • Some of Laura's sketches.

  • Laura's sketches and prototypes.

On my visits to Dundee, I was able to do some documentation of the waterfront myself for reference. This was beneficial in terms of getting a feel of the scale of the building and obtaining some first-hand source material of the water. I married this up with feedback from the team at V&A Dundee who selected previous work and images of mine that they liked. But I was very much allowed to lead the process. They put their faith in me which was really rewarding.

With the designs confirmed, they had to be produced. The main technique used during the making of the uniforms was printing. During the early design stages, some screen-printing was used to test out ideas and thoughts on colour. Once we went into full production, we had to print the designs digitally.

I’m a firm believer in supporting local manufacturing where possible, and especially when it makes sense to the product. With a commission like this, it had to be a 100% ‘made in Scotland’. Scotland’s first dedicated design museum needed, I feel, to have uniforms that showcased the best of what’s happening in our design and manufacturing community.

A large sheet of fabric being spooled onto a huge roller in the warehouse.
A group of people in high visibility jackets being shown a large section of vibrant fabric being sprayed with water to test its water resistance.
Close-up of bright yellow and blue fabric with a vibrant pattern of shapes on it. There are neat, round water droplets sat on the fabric.
A large sheet of fabric being spooled onto a huge roller in the warehouse.
  • The fabric with Laura's beautiful designs being treated at Halley Stevensons.

  • Some of the team from V&A Dundee visiting Halley Stevensons and getting a demo of the water resistance of the fabric. (Photos taken in August 2019)

  • Close-up of the treated fabric. Notice the water droplets sit on top of the water-resistant coating.

  • The fabric being processed by Halley Stevensons.

I wanted the uniforms to be a celebration of this. There is so much happening in our design community right now that I feel makes Scotland an exciting place to live and work as a designer. Making the uniforms here on our doorstep was the perfect opportunity to showcase what we can do. The design, printing, coating and manufacture all happened using local manufacturers and their expertise.

I worked closely with the Centre for Advanced Textiles (CAT) at The Glasgow School of Art to realise all the printed fabric. The apron and bags were made using a Halley Stevensons heavy-duty cotton and a silk crepe de chine was used for the scarves.

CAT and I spent time meticulously sampling colours and making sure they worked at scale and were reading the same across the silk and cotton. Different fabrics react differently to the inks, so this took some time and patience from the team there. Luckily, they’re used to my fussy eyes when it comes to colour!

I initially had five colours in the palette. On consultation with the team at the museum, we whittled it down to three in order to make a bold and concise colour statement that would work across all three products for all staff. This would pull the team together as a cohesive unit but give them some freedom to express themselves through the inclusion of two sizes of silk scarf. It’s been really rewarding seeing all the different ways the staff choose to wear the scarves!

A woman mostly dressed in black posing against a plain background wearing a scarf in bright yellow and blue designs. The woman's face is just out of shot.
A woman mostly dressed in black posing against a plain background wearing a scarf in bright yellow and blue designs. The woman's face is just out of shot.
  • One of our Visitor Assistants shows off how she wears the scarf designed by Laura spring. (Photos taken in February 2020)

  • One of our Visitor Assistants shows off how she wears the scarf designed by Laura spring. (Photos taken in February 2020)

With the colours selected, the cotton fabric was sent back up to Halley Stevensons to get treated at their factory. A water-resistant coating was applied to the material to add to its longevity, since these pieces will be in use every day at the museum.

Once the final fabric was ready, it was then passed onto Kalopsia in Edinburgh who made up the final items after a series of samples had been made, tweaked and then approved for production.

Conversation is always key in any new product line, as there is always a to and fro of thoughts and tweaks during sampling, which was all made so much easier by everyone being so nearby.

A group of people dressed mostly in black wearing scarves, aprons and bags in bright yellow and blue designs.
A group of people dressed mostly in black wearing scarves, aprons and bags in bright yellow and blue designs. They're stood in front of V&A Dundee, its grey stone panels all around them.
  • Some of our Visitor Assistants wearing uniform elements designed by Laura spring. (Photos taken in February 2020)

  • Some of our Visitor Assistants wearing uniform elements designed by Laura spring. (Photos taken in February 2020)

This project has been an absolute favourite for me to work on over the past couple of years and I'm so happy I can now share it with you all.

Laura Spring, a graduate of The Glasgow School of Art, is a textile designer/maker living and working in Glasgow creating bold graphic print designs. Find out more on Laura's website.