Interview:John Allen

Features Issue 48 Aug, 2010
Text by Anita Lama / Photo: ECS Media

John Allen is an artist  and teacher from  London, UK. He has had much success as a carpet designer and recently held an exhibition of his artwork in Kathmandu. He also has vast experience in diverse aspects of textiles for over thirty-five years. A dental technician turned into a carpet designer, he is also an author and a curator. His first book broke sales records at the time for craft books, selling over 1,11,000 copies. He has lectured and conducted seminars in Japan, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. In 1993, he was appointed consultant to the Victoria and Albert Museum. John is a regular visitor to Nepal for two reasons: The carpets he designs are produced in Nepal and secondly, Nepal feeds him with visual stimulation essential for innovative designs.

Tell us about your professional background.
I left school at 15 and trained myself as a dental technician for five years. Then followed the compulsory training in the army for two years and for another three years, I worked for my father who had a coal business. Thereafter, I went back to college and earned my masters from the Royal College of Art, and then I worked as a fashion designer.


Could you shed more light on your work as a fashion designer and your professional liaison with the Royal College of Art?
We sold fabrics to world famous leading fashion companies in London, Paris, Milan and New York. Around that time, I also set up a studio with my student friend Jon Crane. We used to create ideas and sell them to the world market. Then the Japanese heard about the collection and they commissioned me to do collections for them. While that was happening, I was still working full time for a company. Then the Royal College of Art offered me a research fellowship of eight years, so I went back to the Royal College as a research fellow and worked there while running my own studio as well. When the research fellowship got over, they asked me if I would like to set up a knitting department at the Royal College. That is like being given the best job in the world, if you are in England. I mean, I would have never thought of teaching in the Royal College, and so I set up a knitting department at the Royal College. I ran it and organized it for twelve years until 1989, when I left to concentrate on my own work. So in 1989, I changed my whole life around and concentrated on taking private classes thrice a week at the university and the rest of the time doing my own work.

How did you get into exhibiting your works?

I was approached by a gallery for a retrospective exhibition, but I’d never saved any of my work. However, I realized then that I could have an exhibition if I produced new work. I wanted to produce artwork and not just work so people can wear the designs. Three years ago, I set out in this direction and in 2003, the exhibition opened and to be very honest, that was for me, because all my life I had worked for others. In four days time, every piece of work had been sold and I just didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was flying and of course it made me quite a lot of money!

From textiles to carpets, why do you focus on carpet designing now?

After completing my studies, I did carpet designing and sold it in craft galleries, but I needed to make a living, so I stopped doing that and started to do proper commercial work. When I first came to Nepal, I saw people weaving carpets near the Boudha Stupa, which revived my urge to weave. I went back home to prepare for an upcoming exhibition and it was then that I realized I was never going to get enough work ready in time. But, suddenly I had this thought, that if I could design carpets, the Nepali weavers could weave it for me and I would have enough work for the exhibition. In this way I started with some designs, got in touch with three carpet companies in Nepal and sent the same designs to all three of them. These carpets arrived in London and I could not even recognize two of them as mine, but one was almost perfect. And so I started corresponding through e-mail, built up a working relationship with the company called Dega and I have been working with them now for three years. We have built up a real good rapport, so they know how I think and how I work. Because I have a lot of technical knowledge, what’s been really interesting, is that I’ve been able to beat some knowledge into them while they have been working for me. So it’s been a really beautiful two-way thing.

Tell us about your first book? How old were you then?
When I was asked to write a book, I refused, as I had never written a book before. This was in 1984 and I must have been 50. My first book was also the first textile book in England printed in full color. I insisted that every page should be in color, and it just sold and I think it’s still the highest selling craft book in the U.K. So after that, people asked me to write more books.

How did the offer for the first book come about?
It was a woman who had seen me teaching at the Royal College of Art. She suggested I should write a book about the way I teach and about the way I design, so that people who could not study in the Royal College could learn from my book. Two weeks later, she called and asked if I had thought about the book and I was still not sure whether I was capable of doing it, but I was interested. She informed me that there were four publishers interested in publishing a book by John Allen, because I had a reputation by then. She sold me to them and that’s how the book came about. I did nothing, except write it. She did the task of connecting the publisher with me, which is the hardest job with your first book. Once you are successful, it’s easy because then the publishers want to publish your work. So I wrote three more books in English and then a Japanese publisher approached me and asked me if I would do a design book for them. I did it and it was the best thing I did, because they not only published the book, but also paid for my six-week trip to Japan.

What has been the source of inspiration for your exhibition in Kathmandu?
The work exhibited in the gallery of Susan’s Collection was inspired by aboriginal art in Australia, because I have been there eight times. But in the gallery, there are also the first four pieces inspired by the Nepali landscape.

What other aspects of Nepali culture would you like to depict in your designs?

Being a designer, obviously I am really interested in the decorative qualities. I love the decorative details of the architecture and while I was in the mountains at Jomsom, I also went to a monastery and saw the wall paintings. They were wonderful, so it’s really the kind of wall paintings and the architectural details that I am going to put together in a kind of Kaleidoscope of patterns and colors.

How many exhibitions have you had so far?

I have exhibited before, but they were just art pieces, so this was my first one-man exhibition and it has actually been to twelve galleries in twelve different venues. This exhibition has been traveling for 18 months to different locations in Britain with the one in Kathmandu being the last stop. I would have never thought of a show in Kathmandu. I often come to Kathmandu as I get my designs on carpets produced here and I often stay at Kathmandu Guesthouse. So I got to know them quite well, and when one day I was in the garden with all my work out on the lawn, I was told that my work was wonderful and interesting. It was very flattering and then Susan from Susan’s Collection suggested I have an exhibition here. It was a surprise, and since my work is produced in Kathmandu, it was a really good idea.

What has been the feedback on your 18-month exhibition?
Incredible! I have sold the exhibition 3 or 4 times over.

Was carpet designing something that you always wanted to do or did it just come your way?
I came to Nepal for a holiday. I always wanted to come to see the architecture but that was all. I know I was totally ignorant, but when I got here I found  Nepal is just staggering and mind blowing for an artist, but that isn’t what Nepal is about. There is a rich culture of course, but what I like about Nepal more than anything else are the people. They are very open and friendly to you, and that makes you feel so welcome and it’s kind of so different and I just love that. I come for the people, then the scenery and the culture.

Future projects?
I have started work on a new exhibition for 2007, which will be based on Nepali art, culture and landscape. I like the country, the mountains are fabulous and I said to myself, “I can design from all of these and at same time have an excuse to keep coming back to Kathmandu.” So that’s what I am working on now. What is really good is that the exhibition has been already booked by a very famous company in London, and they are going to actually mount it in London, at a big fair.