Japanese soul from Scotland

The power of modesty

Gentle and modest. A very careful observer, calm intensity. She talks about her work briefly, without emotion or pathos, and you have to draw her out a bit because what is so unusual for me is natural for her. She is similarly modest about her latest projects of furoshiki for the V&A Dundee - a Scottish design museum that links her native Scotland with Japan. In her free time she goes to galleries and watches butterflies. For this year's holiday she has chosen Romania to be close to nature and learn about the local craft techniques. Meet Ellen Martin and her brand Ellen Martin Textiles, which brings Japan straight to Scotland.

You graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Textile Design. Not a typical path for a young person these days. Where did your love of arts and crafts come from? Did you bring it up from home or did it catch up with you somewhere in your adult life? In other words - why textiles?

My mum did drawing and painting. She went to an art college when she was younger, and my dad makes furniture. I was always encouraged to be creative, and it was kind of something that came naturally, I suppose. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it. My mom actually suggested I do an evening class of screen printing textiles to see if I liked it when I was maybe 19. And I did like it, but I didn't do anything with that for a few years, and then decided to go back to it and study textiles full time.

You say that your works are 'inspired by Japan'. How has Japan appeared in your life? Again, this is not a typical path for a textile designer, especially as you are Scottish, and as we all know Scotland is famous for textiles - it has a history of over 300 years of producing fabrics for the top-notch fashion brands such as Chanel, Hermés, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Ralph Lauren and many more.

Even before I went to Japan I have always been drawn to Japanese aesthetics. The motifs and patterns that they use in their design work, just the way they present everything, and how much work they put in crafts. I've always admired Japanese design and then had an opportunity to study there, and my interest grew so much more. Being there I learned a lot more about Japanese culture and design.

It always strikes me how small things can grow into a life-changing experience. So you had to encounter Japan at some point in your life. Was it when you were a child? Maybe you saw something on TV or in a book that happened to be Japanese?

I can't think of one moment or one thing. But when I was younger I always loved the East Asian section of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Not just Japanese, but also Chinese fabrics and ceramics. Actually, I went on a holiday to China before I went to Japan, about 6 or 7 years ago. The design of the East Asia has always interested me more than the design from the UK or Europe.

You've spent four months in Japan learning about textiles. Can you elaborate a bit more on this experience?

I arrived to Japan in April, so I got there at the perfect time to see the sakura blossoming. Actually, I initially applied to go to Tokyo but was accepted for Kyoto instead and I'm so glad that it happened. I had such a great experience there. I'm sure I would have still had a good experience in Tokyo, but I felt quite at ease in Kyoto, and guess Tokyo would be a bit too overwhelming for me.

Couldn't agree with you more. Kyoto is like a bubble in which an old, almost non-existent Japan is closed. And less international and loud than Tokyo. Were you living in a traditional Japanese house there?

Nah, it was a modern apartment. Very small but located in the old part of Kyoto, which was great.

I've noticed that it's actually little things that influence your design work. Is this right? Where in Japan did you find inspiration for your new projects?

Yes. I always take photos of things I simply find interesting, or whenever I see a pattern or something that has the potential to create a pattern from. When you look closely, there are lots of tiny, repetitive shapes around us. There's a lot of attention to detail in Japanese design in general, and I'm kind of attracted to that. I've always enjoyed spending time drawing details that a lot of people would lose patience over. I really enjoy it. Just taking my time, you know.

For me, creatives of all kinds are superhumans and I'm always curious to know what their everyday life is like. Hence the question: what does a typical day of Ellen Martin looks like?

It might be easier to tell you what my typical week looks like as my days are all quite different, especially at the moment. I work in a textile shop for three and a half days a week. It still relates to what I'm doing as a designer as I'm building valuable connections and also selling my own work in the shop. That's part of my week. Also sometimes I give textile classes to people interested in fabric dyeing techniques eager to learn a bit more about it and create their own pieces. So that's another part of what I do at the moment. And then, of course, there's my design work. I've got a new collection that I've been working on, ready to launch quite soon. I just need to get it photographed. I was also revisiting an old project I had done in university and then recently I've also been working on commissions, and have collaborated with the V&A Museum Dundee and that's actually a Japanese-inspired project as well. They were hoping to create furoshiki designs and I was commissioned to create two of them.

I’m curious to know how you start your project? Where does the creative process start for you?

Usually I take a look at all the photos I've gathered and pick ones that I want to work from and start drawing, just hand drawing with pen and pencil. I also paint paper in different colors and cut it up and make collages. Then I look at them to find which ones are most successful and which ones I could then turn into a textile. And then depending on the technique I'm planning to use later on I create a digital pattern. I scan the drawings but always make sure to keep them as close to the drawing as they were, but still turn it into a digital print. That's sort of the process.

It's a question a bit like from a teenage girl's diary, but since I've always been fascinated by colours and their combinations I have to ask: what is your favorite colour or combination of colours?

I really like the combination of pale blue with a vibrant red or either bright red or an orangey red. But my favorite colour overall is probably pale pink. I've just started painting my new flat, and my bedroom and living room are both pink, but they're both different shades of pink.

Which doesn't surprise me at all as they are very Japanese and the combination of pale pink and red is also my favorite. What else - apart from Japan - inspires you most? Maybe there are artists that you follow and admire?

Yeah, I do. I visit exhibitions and galleries quite often. I look at some designers as well, including fashion designers. Dries Van Noten is one of my favorites if it comes to fashion design. He does quite unusual color combinations, and he's brought out a new range of perfumes, and the bottles are just really beautiful.

I've mentioned him in one of my posts because his works draw from Japanese kimonos. And I'm also very much into Marni, which is very close to what Dries Van Noten does.

It's probably a bit obvious but I also admire Hokusai's works (one of which is hanging on the wall of Ellen's bedroom - MM). I'm also very much into Helen Frankenthaler's work. She was an abstract expressionist painter but was also experimenting with printmaking. It's always good to see how other people use colours together as well.

And does nature somehow inspires you? Do you source inspiration straight from nature?

For sure, but not in a direct way. Bird watching is one of my hobbies, and looking for butterflies. So I do spend time in nature and look at it. But I've actually not really done a project that's been directly inspired by nature yet.

You're such a calm soul, unlike me. I'm always curious how designers live, what their style is. So what's Ellen Martin's style? I know you're moving to your own apartment now, what will it be like?

Well, clothing wise I never go crazy, but you will always find a pattern on me. For example today I've got a patterned skirt on matched with a plain top. Also, I always wear a little scarf. I have a drawer filled with them as it's such an easy way to have a bit of colour and pattern added to your daily look. I don't really follow particular trends. I just sort of wear what I like. I make some of my own clothes as well. That's something I'd like to be able to do more of.

And in terms of interior design and home decoration. You've already mentioned the pink walls. How do you plan to decorate your flat?

Well, I've always wanted a navy velvet sofa. I've already ordered one! And then I'm going to make some home decor stuff like cushions. I've got a really nice vintage kimono fabric I'll use to sew them. And there are going to be little Japanese touches I've picked up while I was there. I've got a lot of Japanese bowls and fans and things like that.

It's like you were describing my flat, ha ha, including vintage kimono fabric that I bought on eBay. Amazing. Do you like vintage stuff? Like old furniture and decor?

Well, my dad makes furniture, so all of my furniture is made by my dad. Pretty much everything, actually, apart from the sofa and an antique chest of drawers that used to belong to my great aunt. And then, I've got a vintage chair as well. So all furniture will be either handmade by my dad or antique.

Wow, I can't wait to see the pictures of your apartment as it sounds so cool.

The other thing I'm going to do is to renovate my old chair that needs to be upholstered. So actually I'm planning to upholster it with my tatami print fabric. So there will be touches of patterns throughout my home as well. My mom will probably help me with this work.

Sounds really nice. You are very lucky to have so talented parents. The last question I have is about the impact of your work on the environment, as it's pretty important for me. I know everything you do is handmade and it's not a mass production so from the point of view of the approach and quantity it is environment friendly, but I'm curious about the dying process itself.

There's a lot of greenwashing, especially in the textile industry nowadays and I’m fully aware of that. I am doing my best to minimise my impact. I always use natural materials, avoid any plastic packaging when I send out things, and I keep all my production local within Scotland as the company that prints textiles for me is based in Glasgow. Sustainability is indeed very important for me. I do my best to reduce my environmental impact, but on the other hand I'm aware that with any textile production, there's still an impact ...

But the scale is different, right? What are you working on right now? You mentioned that you have just finished one project. When do you plan the launch?

My newest project will be out probably within the next month or two. I want to get proper photography done before. I've just been taking my own pictures and never worked with a professional photographer. So just once I've managed to move house and settle it definitely still September or October will be the month for launch.

And do you have any plans of cooperation with the Japanese designers?

Not at the moment, but indeed the project I just did for V&A was one of them. That was the main focus for a while and that has brought together Scotland and Japan. I don’t know if you know but the V&A Dundee Museum's building was actually designed by a Japanese architect and I think this was one of the reasons the museum wanted to do this project.

That's interesting. I've just checked that V&A Dundee was indeed designed by a renowned award-winning Japanese architects Kengo Kuma & Associates, following an international competition, and is Kuma’s first building in the UK. So great you could contribute to building bridges between Japan and Scotland through design. My last question is about your travel plans, as it's the holiday season. Do you plan any travels or maybe there's a dream place that you're not able to visit but still would love to?

I just came back from Romania. This trip was not design related, it was more for nature, but I was interested to see what sort of traditional crafts they have as well, because when I visit different countries, I like to see if I can find textiles or anything that's traditional from that area. Also, I'm hoping to go to Japan in spring next year. It will be four years since I've been there and I'm becoming a bit desperate to go back. If all goes well I'll be there next year!

I wish you that all your travel and design plans are successful. It was really a pleasure to talk to you and hopefully we keep in touch. I'd love to see your next projects and some coverage from your next trip to Japan.

Thank you Marta. It was great to meet you and be featured on nito nito.

Ellen Martin portrait
Ellen Martin, founder of Ellen Martin Textiles.