United Kingdom, Ruthin Craft Centre, Wales, Helen Yardley: Drawings for floors, until 8 January 2023
On now until 8 January 2023
Helen Yardley has been designing rugs for a good while. In 2023, she’ll celebrate 40 years of owning her rug business. In the notoriously fickle world of design, such longevity suggests she is very good at what she does, and that is something worth celebrating. To kickstart the celebrations, Yardley has takenover Ruthin Craft Centre, in Wales, for a three-room exhibition. Drawings for Floors will showcase her tufted, flatweave, and hand-knotted rugs, as well as her lesser-seen acoustic felt pieces. There will be a new film about Yardley’s work, shown alongside drawings, prints, and ephemera.
Yardley studied Printed and Woven Textiles at Manchester Polytechnic, but curiously enough didn't make any rugs during that time. Instead, she was to be found making 3D fibre art, inspired by Magdalena Abakanowicz and Eva Hesse. She went on to study textiles at the Royal College of Art, and then spent five years teaching textiles at Manchester, at Winchester, and in other places. It wasn’t until 1983, when Yardley was 29, that, having read about tufting guns, she mentioned them to a friend. That friend happened to know someone who had one. Yardley went to visit. “I remember holding the gun,” she said. “It went t-chuk, t-chuk, t-chuk, and I thought: I like this. It was quick. It was immediate. So, I sold my etching press and raised a loan from the bank. I bought myself a tufting gun and taught myself not only how to use it, but how to mend it.”
By 1985, Yardley was exhibiting at The Contemporary Textile Gallery in Soho’s Golden Square, and also selling her rugs and working on commissions. One such, for Creek Vean in Cornwall, designed by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, brought her to the attention of the architectural community. They remain her biggest client base. She went on to design a collection for The Conran Shop, and worked for the French rug company, Toulemonde Bochart. A pair of her rugs even featured on the cover of The Conran House Book, a sure sign of ‘having arrived’. These days, Yardley runs her business from Bermondsey, in a space where she has worked since the 1980s— before Borough Market and White Cube made their impact on the area.
Right from the beginning, Yardley’s works have always started as detailed drawings. These become the designs that will be drafted on to the backing, and then tufted in wool, using the gun. Her first rug design was, she remembers, very painterly with graded washes like watercolours. It was after she’d spent weeks reproducing it in tufted yarn that she realised she would need to drastically simplify her designs if she was going to make viable products. She recalls: “At that time design was in its ascendency. Designing rugs represented the perfect mix of art and industry. They weren’t just drawings, they were a functional product. And I thought that was really important. After all, I needed to make a living.”
Yardley is nothing if not a colourist. Although the palette of those very first rugs might have been somewhat subdued, she now works with a sophisticated palette and is not afraid of colours with “punch.” Orange, and a pink bright enough to make Elsa Schiaparelli smile, are her particular favourites. Yardley is also a hoarder, which is useful when it comes to exhibitions. Decades worth of drawings, and other paper ephemera, are kept in plan chests in Bermondsey, where her tufting frame also sits, ready for action. There is a lovely wool room, too, with her colours all lined up, waiting to be used. The title of the exhibition reflects Yardley’s very personal process: “Drawings for floors are what I make, drawings with colour, in wool, that sit on the floor,” she said. “I choose to say ‘drawings’ rather than paintings, although I obviously use paint. But paint is not the essential element. The paint just happens to be what holds the colour. I make images with shapes; shapes that are hard edged, abstract, elemental, and resonant of other things. The shapes rest against each other, relate to each other, and are very firmly defined so, to me, they are drawn.”
Yardley’s design practice is interwoven with her yoga practice. “Yoga, to me, is not simply a physical exercise practice,” she said. It is a complex and life-enriching philosophy that questions many fundamentals of existence. My work, too, very much seeks to celebrate being vibrant and alive.” Influences come from far and wide: the magic and alchemy of Antoni Tapies; the purity and Eastern philosophical underpinnings of the work of Robert Motherwell; the exuberance and sensuality of Matisse; the energy and frenetic brilliance of Roger Hilton; and the colour, and exquisite forms, of Indian Moghul miniatures. All these emerge, in different ways, in her work. “With my images, I aim to create a sense of the dynamic, as well as the unexpected, but within an overall framework of balance,” she says. “No straight lines, and no obvious symmetry. There is space, there is quiet, and there is an energetic focus.”
Now, most of Yardley’s work is for commission. This is, she says, her happy place. She likes the challenge of being taken out of her comfort zone. A commission is very much a collaborative process, and she much prefers a decisive client. Always a sign of strong design, Yardley’s rugs work well in different colours and her functional—even practical— approach to rug design is perhaps her greatest asset. It has seen her weather many trends and fashions in rugs and interiors, enabling her to look back on 40 years in business, with not just a smile but an enthusiasm for the next challenge.
Helen Yardley: Drawings for Floors is not the complacent retrospective of a quiet designer-maker. This is a triumphant exhibition, trumpeting colour, texture, and pattern. A visit should refresh all your textile senses.
••• Jane Audas