Charlene Mullen exudes calm. Internationally renowned for her homewares, textiles and fashion design, her quiet confidence comes well-founded. Unsurprisingly, it’s kind of pleasant to be around. Like a metaphorical cup of tea if you will…
We take a side-step away from the chaotic pace of the everyday to chat to her about art and inspiration and the London cityscape…
Charlene Mullen is a trained illustrator and a veteran of the fashion industry. Creating print and embroidery samples for haute couture, she’s no stranger to deadlines. But creativity is the kind of currency that she enjoys and waking up each day to give it free reign always feels like a blessing. She counts her recent collaboration with Royal Doulton as a career highpoint and another opportunity to weave a sense of narrative through her work.
Charlene cites mid-century artists such as Edward Bawden and Saul Steinberg as influences alongside exhibitions at the Tate (Malevich got a mention), books, vintage tattoos, folk art and quilts. She finds her muse in both the ordinary and everyday and in ethnic cultures past.
The London Collection for Royal Doulton was inspired by her bus journey into London. Coming over the Tower Bridge, the view of the river and the skyline with the city spreading out below it captured her attention.
“It wasn’t a particular landmark – it was the whole scene. I really like travelling by bus and I used to go over the Tower Bridge to work and from that view you get the Gherkin which, a bit like the Sydney Opera House, has that pattern on it. And I suddenly thought that looks like blackwork embroidery… all the buildings have their little patterns. And I just thought that would make a great image.”
The vista is a meeting of old and new; it tells a history of the city in an instant.
Fusing folk motifs with finely nuanced designs, Charlene’s ceramic collection with Royal Doulton creates the perfect talking point at dinner parties. Charlene’s designs begin as hand-drawn sketches and she feels that there is an appreciation for this – that this handmade element is a part of their appeal.
“I think that people are drawn to it being a drawing,” she says.“Especially all those buildings – they’re really modern and clean and sharp. I think people almost like that you really know it’s hand-drawn. Ultimately it will be mass-produced for it to reach the right price-point but it started life very similar to if it came from an artisan and it’s something that can be afforded and used every day.”
She counts the collaborative process and their progression into the digital realm as another form of inspiration. She works with her initial sketches to clean them up, focusing on creating their striking block shapes and lastly the patterns.
From there, the input of Royal Doulton adds another element in the creation of an art object for the everyday. Seeing her designs – initially realised through her textiles – translated into ceramics has been a great pleasure. And then, of course, there is the packaging and the overall concept. “They’ve been such a nice team to work with… so collaborative and open to hearing my ideas.”
For Charlene, her habitual cup of tea forms as an essential part of the ritual of creation – even back in her heady days of fashion when deadlines were imminent. “It creates breathing space. After I’ve finished my cup of tea, I usually know where I want to go to next with a design.”
With their monochromatic palette, these porcelain pieces have an understated elegance, reminiscent of the designer herself. The addition of a dash of vibrant red adds to their visual impact, lifting them outside the ordinary. Threaded through each is an element of narrative – the urban landscape of London woven with its implicit stories. Look for the little red bus, a cat, the St George’s flag, the helicopter and other hidden secrets.
“I think that must be the thing that defines you from being an artist to being an illustrator is that you like telling a story,” she says. “Even doing the scenes for Royal Doulton collection, I really like it if I can weave a story through it, something that makes it unique to that place.”
During her visit to Sydney, Charlene sketched the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. And there was talk of the New York cityscape piqued with the iconic yellow New York cab. “If I have a pencil and a bit of paper, I’m set.” That’s something for us all to be thankful for.