Friday, October 24, 2008

Interview - Stewart Russell of Spacecraft

Spacecraft Studio in North Melbourne - apologies for the very rough photo-stitching!

Stewart Russell rinses a screen in his North Melbourne studio

work in progress at the studio

Linkscreenprinted versatile plywood cubes in Spacecraft's Gertrude st Store

Spacecraft's talented studio staff hard at work printing the latest range of bedlinen.

Stewart Russell wears many hats. In addition to being an extremely talented textile designer with an unrivalled international reputation, and having a CV as long as your arm, Stewart Russel is also a curator, artist, mentor, and importantly, an incredibly nice guy. When talking to him, you get the distinct feeling that you're chatting with an old friend. Despite the success and notoriety of his Melbourne-based textiles company Spacecraft, Stewart is overwhelmingly warm, friendly, and down-to-earth, and more than happy to chat about his work to anyone who shows an interest. (And that would be me!) He's thoughtful and modest in his discussions about art, design and the prolific output of his own studio... and he also has a wonderful, gentle Scottish accent which would probably have me hanging onto every word even if he was talking about greyhound racing.

I met Stewart recently at an exhibition of his very popular printed artworks on canvas. The pieces, as Melbourne readers probably know, are created using the backing cloth from Spacecraft's screenprinting studio as a starting point. Over the course of a few weeks, this backing cloth becomes saturated with print ideas and colour tests. The build up of printed ideas and patterns then form the basis for artworks on stretched canvas, which are now in great demand! I love the idea of owning an artwork that also acts as a snapshot of the studio's output in any given 8 week period! It really captures a sense of the energy and variety in the work of this unique print studio.

In addition to producing these popular artworks, Spacecraft studio is responsible for an incredibly varied output of soft furnishings, fashion, accessories and furniture. They also regularly collaborate with both local and international artists. I love the sense of fluidity that the studio maintains between its varied commitments... below Stewart mentions that it is this variety of creative projects, and collaborations with fine artists in particular, that are instrumental to the studio's ongoing success - encouraging the studio to be ever-evolving and adaptable to any new challenge.

I feel very lucky to have been invited to see the Spacecraft studio in action - it was so lovely to get a real sense of the workings of this wonderful company. It seems like such a happy, vibrant creative hub, and there's a real sense of family amongst the Spacecraft staff. A big thankyou to Stewart for his time, and to his staff for letting me run around their studio snapping at them rudely with my camera!

* must apologise for the quality of the images in this article... they look a little fuzzy to me. I've had a lot of trouble uploading images with Blogger today! Can't seem to solve this issue currently.

Tell me a little about your background – what path led you to where you are today?

Well, the three constants have been the art practice, printing onto textiles and curating contemporary art shows. But there have been other diversions and so that all adds up to a fairly winding path. Let me think, perhaps if I describe a couple of early influences rather than a lengthy chronology. Well, I think it starts with my art college, which was set up in a very radical way. We had all the traditional art college disciplines with a theory department at the core. We had access to whichever department, practical equipment and expertise we wanted to work with as long as we could convince the theory department that our approach to the brief or project was valid.

So when the parameters of the printmaking department precluded me from printing onto surfaces other than paper I simply went to the textiles department and printed there. I think that was the start of it.

Later that rudimentary understanding of textile printing, aligned with the boldness of youth and the foresight of Barbara Sansoni, saw me set up my first print studio in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka I worked amongst a fascinating group of artists, architects, film makers, photographers, designers, part a very close knit community. I was influenced by their dialogue, their ability to converse across subjects and their lack of an imposed hierarchy on art and design disciplines.

I think I can trace back most of the subsequent decisions, the important ones, to principals established during these two these two early experiences.

Spacecraft floor cushions in store (not current sorry - again these shots were taken for the Gertrude st Shopping Guide)

You have a long history in textiles, having worked for many years (and with some incredible people) both in the UK and overseas. Why did you decide to move to Melbourne, and what challenges did you face in setting up your business here?

Six years in south London is the glib answer. I’m sure there’s some psychological reason for keeping moving but I’ve no interest in analysing that or finding out what drives it.

That most important decision has been to collaborate technically on the production of other artist’s ideas. You find that working in the studio environment every day means subconsciously you operate within the boundaries set by the studio as it exists and the abilities and services provided by your suppliers.

So when artists come to the studio they ask for things outside the established range. For example Brook Andrew brought in some images, we were talking through how we might approach the printing and the he drops in that he wants to print them 3m x 2.5m. Well that’s a very large screen print indeed and well outside the sizes of films and screens we had suppliers for. So in solving that particular problem, we found new suppliers and gained valuable experience printing that work.

So I think the studio has been built around facing challenges.

Stewart and co. hard at work in the studio! (That's Stewart looking thoughtful with his hand on his head!)

Stewart chats...

In addition to creating your unique textiles, soft furnishings, fine art and fashion collection, your studio also often works with Australian artists, and curates exhibitions within Australia and internationally. How important is this side of your work, and how do these side projects fit in with the daily tasks of running a commercially successful print studio?

Art projects are as much a part of the daily tasks of running this studio as the design projects. However I’m at pains to keep the design work and the art projects distinctly separate. It’s a very different mind set for me, I think most of the time I’m asked to design for other people there would be an expectation that based on my experience the outcomes will be a commercial success. I think for the art projects you might be happy if the work sells, but selling certainly isn’t a yardstick by which I would judge the results.

Often in design you have to hit a very small window, and it’s really satisfying when you get it right. Unlike art there are fewer brownie points available for making something people will come around to in a couple of years.

Actually I consciously look to expand the breadth of creative projects I could work on. I think this attitude makes me hard to classify, you know, are you an artist, a curator, a designer, a printer… and I really love that, makes me feel that I must be doing something right. So perhaps that classification issue will eventually end up being the defining characteristic of my work.

finished pieces at the studio

Spacecraft quilt detail

Spacecraft seems so prolific – especially given your work is handmade and each piece is unique. How is your workshop/studio structured to keep up with demand – do you have a large team creating the products? Do you personally still play a hands-on role in the design and creation of the pieces?

Prior to Spacecraft I was director of London Printworks which was essentially a contemporary art organisation, it was heavily dependent on statutory funding, there were a lot of people to report to and the funding gathered had to be spent the way you said it would be, sometimes up to three years previously. I knew I needed to get a way from that model for Spacecraft, I knew I needed to find a more responsive structure.

I think the idea, the vision, I had in the beginning is just about what we see today, the mixture of contemporary art and design projects, and the quality of the collaborations and partners. But obviously the past eight years have seen me go down some dead ends & twists and turns to get to this point.

I suppose above all I want Spacecraft studio to continue to be adaptable, light on our feet, constantly challenging ourselves to invent new ways of doing things. So the design and printing processes aren’t fixed, anything can happen, be changed or modified, and the numbers of people working at the studio can change depending on what we’re working on.

The other critical factor is of course having the right people around you, I think we’re pretty close to perfect at the moment, I feel particularly blessed to have Bonnie Ashley co-ordinating the studio production - she is able to move seamlessly from a contemporary art mindset to a fashion or interior situation. Her flexibility is a major factor in running a studio set up in this kind of unique way. Also having Clare Hart and Geralyn Patrick organising our retail projects gives me the confidence and motivation to develop new design ideas.

Spacecraft's studio coordinator Bonnie Ashley and staff creating magic in the studio!

What's the best thing about your job?

I think the best thing about what I do is the fact that I’ve created a situation, with this studio, where I’m virtually fully hands on, my role is developing projects, creating and producing artwork pretty much everyday.

Which designers, artists or creative people are you inspired by? and Where else do you find inspiration (travel, film, books, architecture, etc)?

I think primarily daily life inspires me! I’ve always drawn inspiration from trends in popular culture, everyday culture, stuff you might easily overlook. One day, pretty early on, I remember I decided I didn’t just want to discuss this subject as an artist, I thought I’d like to get my hands dirty and get involved in, you know, producing ‘design’ for want of a better term.

I’ve always thought there was something important to be learnt from watching fashion trends emerge and fall away, analysing the factors that drive that creative process. It’s like playing football rather than watching or writing about it, being intrinsically involved in that process allows me to be part of the moment. Also there are times when I want to work in a team, making sure your own contribution supports the other elements, that feels very natural to me. So I’m more likely to be inspired by people I’m currently in direct working relationships with, Bonnie Ashley at the studio and artists I’ve been working with regularly, Kate Daw, Brook Andrew, Jon Campbell.

From fashion to conceptual art, I’ve never felt the need or the desire for a hierarchy when it comes to my own artistic output nor my creative influences. At this moment I think I’m much more likely to be influenced by lyrics from a song or the badges on a football strip than from reading cultural theory, but that changes too.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Based at the studio, we have almost everything on site, so not too many meetings around town. Perhaps a meeting at the store, pick up lunch for everyone at the studio from the organic bakery on Gertrude Street. Or if I’m lucky I might meet up with someone for lunch, always to work on a plan for an upcoming project.

The Spacecraft store in Gertrude st (this shot first published on my Gertrude st Shopping Guide)

Spacecraft's store counter

And the worst?

The worst thing, maybe having more project ideas than I can possibly realise. Last year I had a show called Something For Nothing where I gave away lots of these ideas that I’d been hanging on to for years.

What are you looking forward to?

New bedlinen, two weeks away, an exhibition in Osaka in April, new work with Kate Daw, opening a new spacecraft store in March, working on some large scale prints for Marco Fusinato, a hotel project in Tokyo, Scotland qualifying for the world cup...

Melbourne Questions –

What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Breakfast this morning, Victoria Market, lamb borek and a strong coffee, on the street, the perfect setting.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for home accessories / furnishings?

Architectural salvage places or Industria on Gertrude Street. Soft furnishings from trips to Japan.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Out of town, outdoors, perhaps planting trees in a field at the back of our house in Merricks, or hanging out with my kids on Shoreham beach.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Nothing comes to mind at this moment, perhaps my Scottish Presbyterian upbringing means I’m just good at keeping secrets.

Oh, the contemporary art spaces on the top floor of the NGV international, some amazing shows and I’m usually the only one there at lunch time.


  1. I absolutely adore the prints that come out of Spacecraft, particularly their iconic flat-pack series...and I really enjoyed reading this interview. Prolific artists are very inspirational.

  2. Yes yes so lovely aren't they? Spacecraft are a very inspiring bunch. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. I am a big fan of Spacecraft so it was great to read the interview and to see inside the studio space.

    Thanks for showing us around...