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Theatre hands

Weaver Ismini Samanidou talks to Teleri Lloyd-Jones about her recent National Theatre commission

TLJ: This year you’ve been busy with a commission for the National Theatre. How did it come about?

IS: It’s been a fantastic project. Haworth Tompkins, the architects developing some of the spaces within the National Theatre, were looking for two textile pieces for the restaurant. They approached the Royal College of Art who then put forward a few of its students and graduates.

I talked to the architects and the client, and straightaway we were discussing the building and how my work could fit – that was in the first meeting. I got a really good sense that they were excited. It’s about finding the story that you want to tell, and articulating it in a way that the client and architect want to support. And then, when I was shortlisted I proposed to do a whole scheme of 14 panels rather than the two panels they were looking for!

TLJ: You persuaded them from 2 to 14 panels?

IS: Yes! It became a big job and, for them, it solved the problem of finding other pieces to fit the space. They got a whole story of pieces instead.

TLJ: Talk me through the different sections.

IS: I wanted it to be site-specific but to have more than one theme. I could have just looked at the architecture or maps of the area. There’s so much! I could’ve done a whole series on the concrete walls because they’re so beautiful. But I realised that it’s important to talk about the National Theatre in terms of its place, its space and the people who make the theatre what it is. So there are three visual themes: mapping and the Thames; the building itself; and then the people inside the theatre. It was important to me to celebrate all those elements.

TLJ: There’s a wonderful image in one of your panels of the theatre’s architect Denys Lasdun’s office filled with maquettes...

IS: Yes. I went through the conservation documents there were so many photographs of the building being built, that’s where I found that image of Lasdun’s office. You get a real sense of the process, without having computers he would make these maquettes to work his ideas. Lasdun was so keen on craftsmanship. He wanted the building to be perfect and the materials he used were so particular.

Images courtesy of the artist

TLJ: How have you represented the people within the theatre?

IS: I had a great tour of backstage – the wig department, the dye department, that sort of thing – and everyone was so proud of what they were making. Someone said, ‘This is the biggest factory in London’. Everything they do is bespoke. I wanted to link that craftsmanship of the hand with the board-marked concrete. I took rubbings of the concrete and realised they looked like fingerprints so I collected fingerprints from everyone I met. That was a real perk for me, I got a sense of understanding of what goes on there. It was all about the makers and they were happy that someone was celebrating them rather than the actors. I scanned hundreds of pages of fingerprints, and super imposed them, cropped them so every single person who gave their prints is on the panels somewhere.

TLJ: Being a maker you often spend time alone in your studio, it can be a solitary existence. This sounds very different.

IS: I got really jealous! They’re having a great time and you get that momentum from them. It’s not just a job, it’s a community.

TLJ: Once you defined the imagery you want to use, how do you create the piece?

IS: Once I’ve collected all the data I start playing around with the images on design software called ScotWeave. When you’re weaving using a digital jacquard loom there are two elements – you want to create the visual files, the pattern and then you have to decide what materials and constructions you’re going to use. You need to think about the quality the fabric will have, how many threads, a loose or tight construction – that’s what happens in the design stage.

TLJ: Do you know exactly what the textile will be like or are there unknowns in the process?

IS: You have a sense of what’s going to happen. I respond to the fabric as its being made, I’m operating the loom myself and can stop it and make adjustments. But you can’t go to the loom without a plan.

I used a lot of linen, silk, cotton and metallic threads. Sometimes the threads don’t agree with the loom so you have to be ready to change it. The cotton warp I used for this commission was quite temperamental – if it rained it was fine, but if it was a dry spell it would break every 5 minutes. When you’re working to deadline it can be quite difficult!

TLJ: And when you got the pieces in situ?

IS: The architect said they felt the work has been there forever – which was fantastic. That’s the best thing, everyone feels like it fits. Hopefully we can make a book that tells the story of the pieces. And we’re talking about developing products for the shop.