Artist, maker, designer Susy Pilgrim Waters has traveled a marvelous creative path since the time she "could hold a pencil." One wonders if she ever puts it down! From surface pattern designing to product making to teaching, she always seems to have her hands in something inspirational and cool. This prolific artist has worked for an impressive array of clients over the years including Crate & Barrel, Chronicle Books, Fast Company, Random House, The New York Times, Wynn Las Vegas, and American Airlines. Lucky for us, she had a bit of time to share some thoughts about her awesome career and how she got to be where she is today. Thanks so much, Susy!
What is your background as an artist?
I have drawn since I could hold a pencil. I ALWAYS had a vivid imagination. My mother said I used to talk to flowers and stroke them. I was the classroom "horse drawer." I am British, and my family history of botanists, architects, ministers, and doctors genetically may have had some influence. Even Luke Howard who named the clouds is a relative. I am also related to the creators of Tanquery Gin.
What led you to surface pattern design?
At art school I had a false start in furniture design but was directed to a printed textiles design course which fit the bill. It was strictly painting and drawing. We were not allowed to use photography or computers…Matisse free form. No technology (I date myself now). I kept wanting to put colours on wood and was totally in love with Knoll textiles, not consciously, though. I simply loved textiles. I wasn't even aware of Marimekko until my husband and I came to the US.
Early on in my career I was also very impressed by a house called Kettles Yard. I had hoped to create my own version of that one day—a home to share and offer my own contemporaries art for viewing.
When I left art school (in London) I worked with architects and made some textile designs that were sold in New York. I was totally bowled over by a show at the V&A Museum of silk squares by Zika Ascher. I established a print studio in North London with a friend and we had a show of silk squares made by some of my friends. Zika Ascher who was very frail at that time came to the show. I sold some of my own scarves to the famous English retailer Paul Smith.
I am very practical person. I think useful things should and can look good. I prefer to have one good quality t-shirt than 10 badly made ones. For me it came about organically. I was told by a tutor that I was "compulsively decorative". The printed textile degree BA degree that I did was practical, messy, exacting, multi disciplinary—a skill I could use on many surfaces. It wasn't particularly conscious. I am adaptable and do what I am asked.
Describe your style and how you developed it.
Expressionistic, graphic, layered, hand drawn, painterly, shape, composition, all scales. My style has developed over time partly because I stretch myself to keep growing and experimenting. As we (my husband Keith and our then 6 week old daughter Rosey left London for the US) I said to myself I think I will be an illustrator. Children books is what I had in mind—though I did not know how to go about becoming one.
I kept on making things and had a wee home-based company called Boston Beanies making funky hats and scarves. I made lamps with my hubby which helped me pay for some classes with Lilla Rogers. Funnily enough I have JUST illustrated my first full length book a Bengali folk tale, Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale written by Chitra Banjerjee Divakaruni.
I have had a wonderful, incredible career as an editorial illustrator. I LOVE telling stories and reading. It is such a rich and varied source of work. The recession has had a big effect on editorial work, however, for many of us.
Who are some of your favorite artists and designers
(past and present)?
Saul Steinberg, Paul Klee, Sarajo Frieden Rebecca Doughty Barbara Hepworth, the St Ives artists, Franz Kline, Ward Schumaker, Rothko Patrick Heron......too many to say.
Please tell us a little bit about working with Lilla Rogers Studio. How did you get started with her agency?
Lilla as is is an incredible teacher, sharer, mentor, and friend. I was one of the very first of her agency's 8 artists. I got a piece into American Illustration, so Lilla took me on.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a surface pattern designer?
Do other things as well. Feed all your senses, work in varied media, draw, paint, collage, get messy, be tight, dance on paper, look at things you love. The computer is a tool, but use your hands too. Be practical. Be realistic—but dream too.
Be curious. Ask people of all ages about their lives and interests. Keep it real.
We love the products you've been making with your husband on pilgrimwaters.co! What inspired you to get into producing functional objects?
I live and breathe functional practical objects. Keith and I made lamps together. We could not find or afford lamps we liked when we moved to Boston. I get to paint a print on wood. He loves to build things. Creating our trays, growing our scarf lines, and making other products is something we own and can build.
Also, my passion for the unique, the ONE OFF, the different, lead me to print on clothes, create printed blankets, leather bags, wallets, and trays, and go back to making scarves. It has been a long journey, always complicated. Each scarf/blanket is hand woven, hand dyed, and then hand printed. Each tray was hand milled, hand printed, hand varnished etc—those are functional pieces of art, on both sides. However they are used—as a table, and pop up cocktail bar, for breakfast in bed, supper on an ottoman or stool!! Unfortunately, we cannot charge what those are worth, but we have a few left and they are what they are: FABULOUS. It's a cliche. Our scarves are wearable art. I am obsessed with more products. The enormous outlay is the hard part, ideas and designing are easy!!
Please give us a description of your studio. What do you love about it the most?
My "studio" is a movable feast. We are in transition, as we have moved to a very cool but small live/work space. You can see photos of my old space which was featured on design*sponge here (and an image at left). My computer is part of the live/work living room. I can also paint on the deck. I adapt to different spaces.
Do you have a favorite book in your design library? Why is it so special?
The Passport by Saul Steinberg. My granny gave it to me when I was 6 after a 2 days visit. It is the book i still go to, to get me going. I hear Granny, see her apple cheeks and smell this book from the 1950s (which is falling apart). I remember to be free when I see
If you could go anywhere for an artist’s retreat, where would you go?
The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Also to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Cape Town, Dublin.
Please describe what your dream surface pattern design project would be.
I have recently designed a line of glassware and porcelain pieces, so seeing PW porcelain/glass come in to production.
AND customizing fabrics for a designer I love.