This month we talk lead lines, flashbacks and catching the light with stained glass designer-maker, Flora Jamieson
A couple of weeks into an adult education evening course in stained glass design, Flora Jamieson had a flashback... ‘I suddenly had this clear memory of a school trip I’d been on many years before to Salisbury Cathedral. I’d snuck off mid-tour of the church, and found myself in the cloisters, where they were running a huge stained glass restoration project. I was totally captivated by these delicate, stunning pieces of glass and remember thinking how amazing you could have a job working with such beautiful materials.’
Back at school, the trip was soon forgotten, ‘but a seed must have been planted deep in my brain,’ Flora recalls, ‘because, in the middle of the evening class, the memory of that trip, and my excitement at seeing the stained glass work came flooding back. It was something of a turning point for me, a long dormant idea came back to life, and I thought maybe this is something I can do – maybe I can learn to do a traditional skill and never have to do a boring office job again.’
She wasn’t a huge fan of office life then? ‘Not really,’ she laughs, ‘I knew I had to do something with my hands, to create something or I was going to go a bit crazy. But until that point, I hadn’t been sure what that ‘thing’ would be.’
The evening class gave way to a more advanced course at Kensington and Chelsea College, which she balanced alongside her work as a studio administrator – first at Madame Tussaud’s and then in a photography studio. ‘They were both great environments to work in,’ she says, ‘I was surrounded by brilliant, creative people, but had been feeling frustrated that I wasn’t creating anything for myself. I’d studied art at school, but didn’t feel I was good enough so didn’t pursue it once I’d left school. Instead, I opted to do a degree in Media Studies, but it soon became clear that although it was a good course, it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in.’
The Kensington course completed, Flora approached thirty stained glass workshops looking for a work placement. One, in Wandsworth, replied, ‘they came back to me and said they’d take me on as their ‘Saturday person’ – and that’s how it started. Over time I increased my days in the workshop, and dropped down days in the office until I was working in the stained glass workshop full time. I stayed there for three years, and learnt so much during that time from a group of really talented craftspeople.’
Pregnant with her first child, Flora and her husband left London for Bridport, in Dorset. The move influenced her work on both a creative and practical level. ‘Living in Dorset has cemented my love of the natural world. I love trying to capture the beauty of nature in my work. More practically, I had to change how I worked. The sheer volume of domestic stained glass in London meant that there was always work to be found. There just isn’t that level of domestic glass in Dorset,’ she explains, ‘so I had to start creating my own work.’
Flora began focusing on making smaller pieces and building up an online presence. ‘I was pregnant with my second child just as things like Instagram and Etsy were really starting to gain ground. I realised there was a market for smaller, more contemporary pieces and so I started an IG account, blog and Etsy shop. Apart from keeping my skills going, it was also a great way to learn about the social media side of things – and how to market my work.’
Flora’s own contemporary designs use bold, jewel colours and have an almost graphic feel. Where does she get her inspiration from? ‘I think smaller pieces of stained glass work, lend themselves well to the sort of strong, 60s and 70s aesthetic. I’m influenced by the work of Marimekko, Paul Rand, Dick Bruna – I love the confidence and simplicity of their designs. I’m also influenced by the medium itself. The nature of working with glass is there are limitations to what you can do, and I enjoy trying to find a way of creating my vision within those limitations – the problem solving is quite an inspiration!’
With both daughters in school, and more time to work, Flora has found her business growing quickly over the last couple of years. ‘I hesitate to call it a business, as I never set out to be a business person, but I’m definitely getting busier, and I’m really enjoying how the business is growing organically, and around my children, really. It’s gently expanding to fill my time – which is good.'
Flora works during school hours, from her home workshop. ‘I’m very lucky – I have two outbuildings. One I use as a designing and making room, then a second smaller space is my painting and firing room. It’s useful to keep them separate, so I can keep the paint as dust free as possible.’
The final part of the process – cementing – gets done in the bike shed. ‘It’s really messy, so I’m afraid the bikes suffer at times!’
Flora’s workload is a pretty even split of her own design work and client commissions, and she takes a collaborative approach to the commissioning process. ‘After an initial discussion about the sort of design the client is looking for, I’ll create a Pinterest board which we can both add to and edit – a sort of online mood board, and I’ll use that to work up a design concept. Once the client is happy with the design, I create a full size plan and send it, along with glass samples, to the client. Stained glass can dominate a room, so it’s really important that the client can see the design and glass in situ, so we can be sure it will work in the space and won’t clash or overwhelm other features in the room.’
The approved design is initially created in pencil and then overlaid with a cut line – a 1.5m thick black ink line, this indicates where the central line of the lead will lie. Next, Flora will cut the glass and then add any decorative painting required for the design, firing each piece in the kiln to fuse the paint to the glass. It can take several firings to get the right levels of shading and detail.
The pattern is then created by alternating glass and lead until all the pieces are laid. ‘Basically it’s like creating a giant, complex jigsaw puzzle,’ Flora says, ‘once the pieces are all laid, I’ll solder the lead and then the final part of the process is cementing, using a runny putty which is brushed into all the gaps to strengthen and waterproof the piece.’
As you might expect from a traditional craft, Flora is also kept busy with restoration work, mainly of Victorian and Edwardian domestic and church stained glass. Is there an interplay between her restoration work and design work, between new and old? ‘I really enjoy the balance between restoration and contemporary work.’ Flora says, ‘Seeing the craftsmanship of Victorian stained glass makers close up, is wonderful. It really inspires me to apply the same discipline to my own, modern work.
‘I’ll often be working on contemporary and restoration pieces at the same time and I love the look of my kiln shelf when it’s a mix of my work, and work which was created over a hundred years ago. Last week I had a shelf full of my contemporary bird designs, and a set of Victorian birds – an aviary from across the ages, it was wonderful.’
Commissions aside, Flora is currently working on some pieces for sale as part of the Makers 4 Refugees project and is hoping to create some more pieces as part of a collaboration with artist and designer Vicki Turner. ‘We created some pieces together last year, and I loved working with Vicki, so I’m keen to do more when we both have time.’
With multiple pieces and projects on the go at one time, does Flora find it difficult to focus on one thing? ‘I have been known to procrastinate at the design stage, definitely,’ Flora laughs, ‘but once I’m in the workshop I’m totally in the flow. Getting my hands on the work in the studio is what it’s all about for me. I just can’t wait to hold the finished piece, and see how it catches the light. It’s always a magical moment.’
Describe your work in three words:
Playful, narrative, idiosyncratic
What are your making rituals?
After I've got my daughters off to school, I'll often go for a run (and sometimes a swim in the sea if I have time). Then I'll get in to the workshop, tidy up a bit, find a good podcast to listen to and then get down to it. But if I'm really busy as it has been lately, then it's just: music on loud and get to work.
Tea or coffee?
I just got an Aeropress for Christmas and it makes the nicest coffee.
Mountains or sea?
I think probably sea, but if the mountain in question had a waterfall tumbling into a crystal clear pool then it'd be a hard call.
Night owl or early bird?
Definitely night owl. I'm terrible at putting myself to bed.
I wish someone had told me...
To take up running sooner. I started when I was 39 and it seems such a waste when I think of all those years I could have been enjoying it.