BELLA FREUD X KING & MCGAW
I have sketchbooks going back years, filled with drawings of words. Until now my canvas has been jumpers and t-shirts, now the words are returning to paper of the most beautiful quality, printed by artisans and masters at King and McGaw. I am honoured to be part of their repertoire.
Below is a conversation between myself and Gyr King, King & McGaw's CEO. The prints are available now from King & McGaw's website.
Q: Hi Bella, it’s lovely to meet you. You started your design label in the 1990s, can you tell us more about what the early days were like?
A: I started my label in the 90s and in those days you didn’t really have such a big plan like people seem to have these days. I think a lot of people have watched things on reality TV and they know how to ‘plan’ things.
But I had this idea of how I wanted somebody to look, and it was based on a character – a young girl – called Claudine in a Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette novel. She was incredibly naughty and sort of like a mixture of demure and kind of passionate.
Her story fascinated me and I had this idea about how I wanted her to look. She was from 1910 but mixed with Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds and a bit of punk rock thrown in. That aesthetic has stuck ever since. That kind of punk rocker who appreciates classy things.
‘Language is the most important, influential, and most beautiful thing that exists. It is the messenger. That means everything to me.’
Q: You have a really strong relationship with words and typography too. How do you know when a word is just ‘right’?
A: With words, I’m always on the lookout. I’m always listening too. I take my sketchbook with me everywhere. Especially if I go to a gig: sometimes I’ll hear something and I’ll quickly draw it in my book.
Sometimes it works immediately. Other times, when I’m stuck, I’ll go back through my notebooks and find things from before and it’s just perfect, you know? Like they’re there, just waiting to be used.
If I’m in a hurry, I draw things really fast. Because if I just write it out, it vanishes. It doesn’t imprint. Whereas, with drawing, there’s something about having an idea and how it travels down my arm and onto the page. It has to have that particular journey to register.
Sometimes I draw a little shape of a design on a t-shirt, and usually, it doesn’t fit. But then break the word up and suddenly it has extra meanings. I also like the idea that you can interpret a word however you like. It’s not about telling people what to do. The words I use aren’t slogans.
Language is the most important, influential, and most beautiful thing that exists. It is the messenger. That means everything to me.
Q: Do you ever stumble across words that have an immediate impact on you? Your iconic ‘1970’ design came about whilst you were playing around with a photocopier, right?
A: I was flicking through a book and in the corner I saw the date and the font was kind of good, but it was tiny. I had an old photocopier and so I blew it up really big. I thought the white stripe looked quite good as well. It looks kind of punky. The black and white reminded me of vinyl too.
It also reminded me of a thing I’d read when I first became interested in fashion. I was obsessed with Coco Chanel and I remember reading about how she thought a string of pearls could throw light on a woman’s face. I thought the stripe on my jumper was a bit like a punk version of that. It’s very flattering.
For some reason 1970 seems to resonate with people. They feel attached to it, whether they’re young or old, or people who grew up in the 70s.
Q: Was it a particularly formative decade for you personally?
A: I was a teenager in the 70s and so it was when I became interested in style. I was always interested in the power of clothes and how you could use it to seem confident.
I was really shy back then – I am still quite shy – but I knew if I had a good outfit that was like a kind of uniform, that I would feel unselfconscious, and I could get on with things.
Q: Yeah, clothes can be such a good way to boost morale, to lift the spirits. Do you feel the same about the artwork that you have on your walls?
A: It’s a different type of love. For me, clothes are like an armour. They’re a softness capable of sending different signals, you know? Because you want someone to notice you, but how much, or where exactly is really interesting.
You know, some people say, ‘Fashion is so superficial, but your clothes are literally on top of you. They’re so vital and bring so much to you.
Whereas the things I hang on my walls are more of a thought feed. Art sheds light on a different area of life and I think that’s an extremely big comfort. It’s stimulating. It keeps your brain active and that’s a good thing!
‘I wanted to be like Joan of Arc but with my words. Sometimes language is all you have to change the world.’
Q: Do you think you have absorbed the vocabulary from your designs into your daily life, have they become part of you?
A: They’re very much part of me. When I was doing the transfer from being a tomboy obsessed with the World Wildlife Fund and the environment and cleaning out streams and all my drive was there. And then I started reading all these different types of books. And I was really conscious of how I didn’t have physical strength.
People were always getting in fights and stuff back in those days. And I thought all I have is my words. I knew I wanted to use them as deftly as I could. I had a lot of rage as a 12-year-old turning 13. I wanted to be like Joan of Arc but with my words. Sometimes language is all you have to change the world.
It’s easy to be just savage and damning and condemning. My father always had brilliant language, and he was particularly good at saying things about people that you’d think, well, they’re over!
But I suppose now I’m more interested in listening and how the power of language can be honest. Language has the power to create an opening and some sort of bond between us.
Q: Your logo came about through an experience with your father, Lucian Freud. Can you tell us more about it?
A: When I had just started my label, I was sitting for a painting for him and we were on a break. I asked him to write my name because he had such distinctive writing. He started sketching which was really unusual because he didn’t usually draw.
We usually used to just have tea and chat. And then he handed me this picture. And he’d drawn his dog at the time who he called ‘Pluto’.
It was a little drawing of her and he’d written ‘Bella’ and ‘Freud’ underneath, and drawn a little box that was a bit wonky. And it was just perfect. He made the perfect logo, which is not what you would expect him to do.
It's like the strength of his spirit carries on. It’s very nice to have a part of him as part of my work.
Q: You’re producing a collection of silkscreens and special edition prints with King & McGaw What has the experience been like?
A: It’s been wonderful starting out with a drawing of my own and having it end up as a print. I’ve been quite obsessed with screen printing for a long time. I learned how to do it a little bit after I saw a film of Andy Warhol. It made me realise that so much happens in that moment. It’s so imperfect and the outcome is just so hard-hitting.
It dawned on me that it was how I could do art. I was very conscious early on that, my father was an artist and I thought I definitely don’t want to do that. I can’t do that.
But I found my way of doing it, which is to draw words. And now, to make something that ends up on the wall like that, and from my own hand is wonderful.
And so, it was really interesting to go around the King & McGaw print workshop listening to Gyr, the CEO, talking about how it all happens. Having done a few printmaking classes, I knew a tiny bit about what he was talking about. It’s a really difficult skill. It’s not easy and it requires an awful lot of practice.
It was also nice to hear Gyr explaining how King & McGaw have transitioned from a certain amount of everything being made by hand to some things now being done with innovative machines, but never to the detriment of people because they are freed up to do other things.
It’s all in the magic of the making. While you’re making something, all these things can happen. Rather than this kind of instant gratification that I think young people sometimes don’t get. All the quickness of everything means they miss out on all the discoveries. The beauty of it is in the making of something. Finding out what you're capable of.
You find something out about yourself that you didn’t know. And so, making the prints with King & McGaw is just wonderful, it feels like a whole thing has opened up and gives me a different way of thinking about things. It’s good to never get too comfortable.