Bold, modern colours meet ancient techniques, and hand-woven art pieces exists alongside digitally printed patterns in Ptolemy Mann’s vibrant portfolio. Dominic Lutyens talks to the textile designer about her colourful career, inspiration, and future plans.
by Dominic Lutyens
As I talk to Ptolemy Mann on a bleak January day, I feel she’s the perfect tonic to beat the winter blues. After all, to those familiar with her work, she is synonymous with her signature hand-dyed and woven textiles, rugs and homeware in unapologetically zingy hues. Yet her palette is sophisticated, drawn to unexpected secondary rather than primary colours — think green, pink, violet, turquoise… .Mann, who designs in her studio at her East Sussex home, is also known for reinterpreting ikat (an ancient, labour-intensive dyeing technique from Indonesia) in a modern way. Her ikat patterns are both hand-woven or digitally printed.
Mann did a BA in textile design at Central St Martins and an MA in constructed textiles at the Royal College of Art. “I was the only person there who didn’t want to go into industry,” she recalls. “I wanted to make art. I’m unusual as a textile designer, as I’m more interested in art and architecture than textiles. I love the New York abstract expressionist painters — Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman… I think it’s connected to my New York roots. I also have German ancestry, which partly explains my other inspiration — the Bauhaus. I like the work of artist Josef Albers and his textile designer wife Anni Albers.”
Mann also admires Vivienne Westwood for her ‘originality and craftsmanship’ — and, I suspect, feels an affinity with the fashion maven’s flamboyant individualism — as well as contemporary artists Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell, whose work is as colour-saturated as hers.
New York-born Mann’s background is as colourful as her work and partly explains her individualistic streak. “My late mother, a film-maker, was English,” she says. “My father AT Mann, an author and astrologer who had hair down to his waist, is American. I was named after Ptolemy, the philosopher, even though it’s a man’s name. When my parents separated in the early 1970s, he and I moved to London. I was six months old and didn’t see my mum again until I was 17, but we got on like a house on fire.”
Mann acknowledges that her career has had peaks and troughs. After founding her studio in 1997, she successfully sold her “woven art pieces” and rugs to domestic and corporate clients, including accountancy firm KPMG. But demand for her high-end, bespoke pieces dried up with the financial crisis of 2008, and economic circumstances led her to produce commercial homeware for John Lewis and Heal’s — a mixed blessing.
On the plus side, by this time, digital printing had improved. “Reproducing my hand-woven work this way looked good,” she recalls. In 2011, she won the Homes & Gardens Best Fabric Designer of the Year award. “It triggered lots of projects: John Lewis rang me the next day, asking me to design some cushions.” But the downsides outweighed any benefits. “I thought this would lead to my being the next Orla Kiely,” she says. “But John Lewis wanted to tone down my colours. My products didn’t sell in the volume they required.” She adds wryly: “In the end I was glad they found me too exciting.”
Now, Mann says, she has found her niche, creating high-end pieces – such as lampshades for Copper & Silk and wallcoverings for Newmor – and, to a lesser degree, more affordable homeware for online retailer made.com. In tandem with this, she designs rugs with business partner Julian Blair, owner of St Albans-based firm Rug Maker. ‘It’s very fruitful. It allows me to focus on what I’m good at — designing — while he deals with the manufacturing side. I’ll give him a sketch of my design, which is based on my technical knowledge of weaving. He helped me to find the weavers who make my rugs in Uttar Pradesh in India.’
Mann also has a colour consultancy service, used by hospitals and schools, which devises colour schemes and wayfinding that link the buildings’ façades with their interiors. Another client, Johnson Tiles, asked her to “overhaul the colours of their 100-year-old Prismatics tiles range”.
What, in her view, are the worst aspects of the design world? Not surprisingly, this champion of colour decries its “conformity”. “Colour is frowned upon as folksy, not highbrow,” Mann says. “I call it chromophobia. Lack of colour is about sales, making money. There’s a sea of beige out there catering to wealthy oligarchs.”
Yet Mann seems content with having returned full circle to her craft-based origins. Textiles fire her imagination the most. “The heart of everything I do springs from weaving. I’ve explored digital print, jacquard-weaving and screenprinting on cotton, linen, glass, furniture, lampshades, tiles, and rugs – but I never stopped weaving. It serves as a springboard for everything else.”