When I first saw Hannah Waldron’s weavings, I immediately noticed how uniquely she echoed the pioneering work of Bauhaus weavers Anni Albers and Gunta Stolzl. They, too, ingeniously combined abstract, geometric grids with whimsical wisps of color and vague allusions to landscapes and the tall chimney stacks of a classic industrial city. Their stunning, textured pieces hung on the walls of iconic buildings designed by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe; their woven compositions added warmth and tactility to the sleek and austere architecture.
Contrast was vital to the Bauhaus approach to interior design, and not just the contrast between the warm colors that Stolzl wove into chequered shapes and set against cool, white-washed walls and steel pipe chairs, but also the contrast between the textures themselves and the way they arouse haptic perception. Stolzl and Albers found a way to update the quaint, craft-world associations of a wall hanging into something just as modern and emotive as a Kandinsky, while still retaining a sentimental sense of homecoming.
It’s clearly a source of inspiration for Waldron. “I was inspired to start to weaving after seeing the textile works at the Bauhaus Archive,” she tells me before I even had a chance to make the comparison. She lived in Berlin five years ago and spent time, like me, raptly gazing at Stolzl’s 1926 Slit Tapestry that’s on permanent display. The vertical and horizontal axis of a loom suited the lattice-like style Waldron had been experimenting with in her illustrations, and the Modernist period appealed to her because of its penchant for strict grids and linearity.
Seeing Stolzl and Albers’ work, she became fascinated by the idea of translating her designs into a textural medium as well as a visual one—considering not just how colors sit next to each other, but how silk thread feels when placed tightly next to thick wool or thin cotton.
“I also travel a lot, and as textiles have such a nomadic quality, I find them to be a perfect medium for me to tell stories with,” Waldron continues. She reminds me of the way I always take a tapestry that my grandmother made to each new country or apartment I move to. I don’t take much else, but when I roll it out and put it up somewhere new, it immediately makes wherever I am into a home, and in the uneven, wonky lines I often catch a glimpse of the dramatic, timeless Snowdonian mountains that snaked around my gran’s old house.
“Generally my surroundings influence my work the most,” says Waldron, who’s made works inspired by Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood, New York city blocks, and Venice’s bridges. Waldon’s weavings are subjective maps spun from her memories and experiences, exploring a place through color, form, texture, and pattern.
“There’s something in weaving that relates to mapping places and time. It’s in the grid of the loom, I think. I see the warp and weft almost like the axis of time and space.”
“I’m interested in mapping places from memory,” she continues. “When I’m on a journey I try to be observant, but without speculating on what to do with what I’m seeing.” In a time of instantaneous documentation, where photographs of places are taken and shared so frequently, tapestries become a way for Waldron to reassess the places that she’s been in a more languorous and intensely personal way. “It also gives me a chance to document through the senses and think about the world as something you read through touch as well as sight.”
Sometimes the places she depicts are “landscapes of the imagination,” like the “Islands” tapestry she created in the weeks before moving to Sweden, using weaving as a speculative interpretation of what she’d heard and read about the Stockholm archipelago. Similarly, “Cloud in Hand, ” her thesis project at Konstfack University in Sweden, is an attempt to materialize in woven form the rhythmic qualities of a voyage depicted in Patti Smith’s The Coral Sea.
“For each tapestry design, I spend a lot of time making sketches and paintings of the different scenes in the story,” explains Waldron when I ask her about her process. “I then try to distill the information down to the essentials, piecing parts together in a way that makes sense to me and that’ll work on the loom.” She then creates a life-size cartoon version of the tapestry on graph paper to follow behind the warp. “When I’m weaving my mind tends to drift, and I feel like I’m using body knowledge as opposed to engaging with the design.”
Waldron’s father is an architect, and his meticulous technical drawings were a vital influence. The grid-like evaluation of space that’s crucial in architectural sketches became an early key to her thinking. “I find the blank piece of paper quite daunting, but once a grid is drawn you can start to dissect an image bit by bit, gradually constructing something.”
As well as her singular artworks, Waldron regularly creates grid illustrations for the New York Times, restaurant wall decorations, maps for festivals, silks scarves, and tapestries for editorial imagery that she’s shown at design week in New York).
I find her editorial work particularly arresting. Day to day, we engage with information in a way that’s endlessly flat and largely uniform—whether we’re reading on a computer screen, a phone, or a glossy magazine, text and images usually don’t have any sense of contrasting texture. But when I see one of Waldron’s designs printed in a magazine—like her recent WIRED commission that broke from the page in a joyous eruption of string and knots—despite the fact it’s rendered on a flat glossy surface, I immediately feel an overwhelming sense of depth and structure, representing a lively, strategic mind. It’s the same feeling I get when I see Stolzl’s work juxtaposed with steel product design at the Bauhaus Archive.
Given the assumption that woven work is either overtly twee or at least tricky to reproduce, most magazines and newspapers don’t commission many tapestry illustrations. It’s also rare to find illustrative tapestries anywhere near as evocative, mature, and aesthetically stunning as Waldron’s. However, I do find that imagery that engages with our sense of touch stands out more than ever now, in an increasingly flat, touch-screen world. For further proof, see our recent interview with paper-cut illustrator Stephanie Wunderlich, whose 3D, multi-layered collages similarly engage both eyes and hands. A sense of touch makes all the difference, and lifts the spirits.
Having visited Berlin, Venice, New York, Patti Smith’s violet-colored imagination, and cool, watery Stockholm in my conversation with Waldron, I then ask her where she is at this moment in time, and somehow end up in the Wales of my own tapestry hung beside my computer. “I’ve set up my desk at my parents’ converted barn in the national park of Brecon Beacons in Wales. I’ll be looking out over a valley full of sheep.” Her hands and mind will be on the boulevards of Paris though, weaving one place with another using hands and thread as she expertly crafts a large-scale cityscape for a French interior.