When I was at university in the early 1990s, I shared a flat with four girls studying at Glasgow School Of Art. I recall that a lot of alcohol was drunk and a great deal of inventively flavoured home-made bread was eaten.
I also remember that the quiet, unassuming girl in the room next to mine was always quietly beavering away on something creative. Her name was Liz Foster, she wore a lot of brown and could knit for the Olympics. Although most of her belongings were covered in paint splatters (the mark of a proper artist I’m reliably informed) the big, bold work she produced was in a league of its own.
Over the past couple of decades Liz (long since returned to her York roots) has worked steadily in a range of art forms, most recently making waves in the highly competitive world of crafts with her bespoke cushions, interior designs and textile influenced artworks. Colourful and quirky, her work adorns cafés, private dwellings and sofas across the UK and beyond.
I’ve witnessed my friend and former flatmate put in long hours and work extremely hard to build a business based around her genuine love of being creative and the pride in what it can produce. I caught up with Liz to talk slogans, social history and buying British. But first we chatted about how it all began.
“I trained at Glasgow School of Art as a painter,” she says. “My work straddles postmodern and abstract styles so it’s very colourful and pattern led but with a strong identity of drawing and craft. In Glasgow in the 90s it was all about life drawing and classical training so I learned these basics before going off to do my own stuff. I worked as a painter for several years and also taught in schools and it was during this time that I became more interested in textiles and fabrics as a medium and found it was kind of feeding into my paintings.
“Then I had my son and quickly realised that painting and kids don’t really mix. I wasn’t able to keep my work going at the level that I wanted to but still wanted something creative I could do from home on a smaller scale and that was how the cushions came about. I was also interested in typography and lettering which were new things for me but it was very organic rather than a deliberate idea.
“More recently, I’ve moved the business on to a larger scale, more commercially viable projects such as redesigning furniture. I specialise in re-purposing mid-century pieces from the 1950s to the mid-70s because I like the simple designs from that period. It’s beautifully made stuff but the upholstery has deteriorated so I do appliqué designs using the same techniques that I use with my cushions.”
Interior design is such an intensely personal thing; one person’s creative concept can be another’s visual nightmare. I wondered how Liz manages to bridge that gap and still manage to keep her own artistry intact?
“It’s as collaborative as the customer or client wants it to be,” she explains. “Some just say ‘go and do your thing’ and that’s great because they obviously know my style of work. The couple I’m working with at the moment are very hands on and they’ve already had furniture built that they want my designs to fit in with so I took sample books of fabric to them and sketched out some thoughts. They have a very strong idea of what they want and it’s up to me to manifest that and make it real for them.
“Ultimately you want to do the best job possible because word of mouth is so important in any business. There’s no overnight success, you just have to keep plodding away working at it and believing in what you do. Anybody who works for themselves will know how difficult it is to make a living out of your own business because you have to do everything from accounts and marketing to coming up with new designs and outlets.”
One of the most unusual aspects of Liz’s cushion work is the lettering and slogans that adorn the colourful fabric. In a world of catchphrases how did she decide which words were suitable for her work?
“I’m interested in different areas of Britishness and identity. I don’t mean the Union Jack motif stuff which you see everywhere but the sort of quirky, idiosyncratic things about being British especially the funny names we give our dishes like bubble and squeak. It kind of reflects our culture but without it being nationalistic so something like fish and chips kind of sums up an ingrained aspect of British life without being jingoistic. I’m also interested in the social history of it so fish and chips for example is connected to immigration and people coming to the UK and craving that tradition. So the thinking behind it all is much broader than it might seem.
“I’m a Northern girl born and bred and I think, as a result, my work is straightforward and has an aesthetic grit to it. I don’t do floral or twee so I’ve sold a lot of work to men as well as women over the years. The black and white work and the typographic style is quite genderless. I’m also really particular about the quality and origin of the fabrics. The wool I have used is woven in Yorkshire mills and although there’s not many of them left there are still fantastic manufacturers of the raw materials in this country. It is reflected in the price of my cushions but this is because I source the right stuff and it’s really important to me to support other British industry.”
She adds: “The work I create is built to last and a ‘one off’ so I’m not just looking for the cheapest option available. For me it’s all about the quality of the product. It will last a lifetime and you can pass it on. In this disposable society it’s good to have one really good quality item rather than ten cheaper ones you end up throwing away. I’m keen to sell sewing as a skill as it’s very undervalued and often dismissed. We’d rather buy a new garment than waste time with cotton and thread and, as a result, we’ve lost a sense of how long things take to make.”
With such exacting standards and painstaking attention to detail, Liz is under no illusions about the amount of work and time required in a one-woman business to ensure the quality never suffers, but that productivity levels remain realistic and completed to deadline.
“It is hard to outsource the work. I have tried using other people but it’s tough because they are representing your work and as an artist you like to have complete control over your product. That’s why I’m enjoying doing the larger scale work again and looking at exhibiting these commissions and items. I’ve also been doing site specific work including designs for the furniture in a restaurant in Whitby. On top of that, I’m teaching workshops for community arts projects and am also keen to explore work that combines sewing and painting so I’m busier than ever but I love it.”
By Drew Tosh