Business Advice

The design democracy: AI, creativity and interior décor

by FESPA Staff | 13/03/2024
The design democracy: AI, creativity and interior décor

We spoke to Matt Fletcher of John Mark Ltd and Cheryl O’Meara from the Print Pattern Archive about combining age-old techniques with artificial intelligence (AI) to create exciting new motifs for luxury wall coverings.

Cheryl O’Meara is owner of the Print Pattern Archive at The Monastery, Manchester, and Matt Fletcher is Commercial Manager at John Mark Ltd, a manufacturer of digitally printed wallpapers. Clients work with Cheryl on pre-production and design in her print studio, often taking inspiration from the vast antique textile and wallpaper archive housed there, before John Mark takes over production.

This year there has been a lot of talk about AI and its potential – and its most promising application for printers appear to be in finessing graphic arts to create bold and innovative designs. At John Mark Ltd, Matt was excited by the potential of AI when new designs began arriving to be processed on the production line. “The design was so bold: we had never seen anything quite like it before,” he says. “From an industry point of view, AI is very exciting at the moment, but we need to refine that a bit more, because when I’ve shown the results to big brands in the US they say it can be overpowering.”

Cheryl says: “I create wallpaper and fabric ranges for clients from independents to big brands, and the enjoyable part of my job is working with and levelling up someone who might be creative but doesn’t really have the technical skills. What AI creates doesn’t seem to fit into any schema: it’s familiar, but so colourful and intense, so fantastical, that the viewer can’t quite place it. Their reactions to the art can be very powerful.

“AI generated imagery can be extreme. But recently I’ve been working with much more commercial projects, and also developing a wallpaper range, which have used AI in a more subtle way. Having had time now over the year to develop my practice around AI, I find it deeply creative. It’s totally new and offers a different way of working.

Botanical design facilitated by AI 

“In our studios, we use the Print Pattern Archive [vast antique textile and wallpaper collection in Manchester], hand drawing and AI. So everything we produce is a unique mix of past, present and future. Designs that are purely AI have a different look. But mixing in some heritage, adding a human touch, creates a resonance that people can relate to more and gives the work more depth and quality.”

So how does Cheryl create her designs in practice? “Midjourney is my first choice, but there are other platforms that perform different tasks in better ways. Most important is the text prompting. This is a process of permanently refining and improving, increasing creativity, or stopping and starting again. Prompts are also like a recipe, where you can easily swap and choose different prompts. Someone may have incredible design vocabulary in another field, such as photography, that I can use. I might have to do 30 or 40 iterations of one design until it reaches its optimum point.”

AI – your creative co-pilot

Cheryl is keen to stress that AI cannnot create everything on its own. Human guidance and curation is always essential – especially from experts who are experienced and aware of the factors that contribute to a perfect design. 

“I would describe AI as my co-pilot,” she says. “But to text-prompt the AI to its full potential you need to take into account two factors: firstly, I need to draw on my 30 years of experience, and use my knowledge of different countries, techniques and styles. You need that vocabulary and knowledge to generate the most interesting images. And secondly you need to have a commercial viewpoint and the ability to edit because you are curating and finessing throughout the process. 

Cheryl at work at the Print Pattern Archive in Manchester

“It’s similar to ChatGPT for writing: you can get the research and the structure from AI but you have to go back in and add style and personality into the writing.”

There are ethical problems producing art solely using AI and capitalising on it without any indication of the work’s origin. But Cheryl states that there also creative reasons for not relying solely on AI and machines.

“When I receive correspondence and I suspect the use of any kind of ChatGPT, I feel it’s a little bit distant and alienating. We now know that it’s so easy to produce something with AI, but I want to see something more from the producer: their curation or their direction – a design with a human touch. We work closely with our clients, who trust that what they’re commissioning from us has integrity and a clear provenance.

“We have always been totally honest in how integral AI is regarding what we produce, but also about how we’re using it, and ensuring that everything we output as artists and designers in the studio is totally new. We have a foundation of originality because even though we’re using AI, we are incorporating heritage and with hand painting. We know that process and product is totally unique to us. We don’t just type in a prompt and that’s it. AI is not generating the artwork; it’s assisting us on the journey to creating that artwork.”

AI is integrated with vintage designs from the Print Pattern Archive

Democratising design

Today it seems that everyone can be a designer. Is it a good thing to open up creativity to anyone who has an interest in it or could it lead to a chaotic marketplace where no one knows what is genuine any more?

“AI has definitely helped both writers and designers amplify their skills in the market,” says Cheryl. “In writing or in design, a whole new arena has become available to those who don’t necessarily have the skills to write or generate images themselves but who have amazing ideas and creativity in IP [intellectual property] rather than in the technical sense.

“So it’s democratised design. In the same way that making music became accessible to everyone, a whole new generation are doing the same with design. I find that really exciting. For me, it feels like we’re definitely entering an exciting new era, seeing huge levels of creativity in new players who wouldn’t have had the opportunity before. I love the juxtaposition of creativity and mass availability. As you can tell, I really appreciate the benefits of AI!”

Democratisation of design can cause problems at Matt’s end of the production line. Amateur designers may think they have a great design, but it often fails to meet expectations for print-readiness or intellectual property regulations.

AI generated design

“Because AI is being discussed everywhere,” he says, “people think they can create anything they like. People approach us saying ‘I’ve got this beautiful design – I want to create this Versace-style wallpaper.’ But of course, that’s a red flag because I assume they have probably just typed ‘Versace’ into AI. Our company is not the gatekeeper – we’re a commission printing company. But if someone supplied us with a direct copy of something, I’d probably refuse to print it. 

“But also designers provide work that is beautiful, but simply won’t print because it’s a flat PDF or JPEG file. They don’t realise they need to send the artwork to a design house like Cheryl’s to separate the layers and make sure it’s ready for print.

“If you’re working for a mass-market wallpaper retailer, and you’re willing to sell wallpaper at £15 a roll, maybe a fuzzy edge on a motif is not a concern. But at the luxury end of the market, we wouldn’t accept that print quality.”

Cheryl uses antique swatches for historical inspiration

Cheryl adds: “AI artwork plaforms have had to tighten up their practices in design integrity. In the early days, with a programme such as Magellan, you could prompt ‘Gucci style’ to produce designs. Not surprisingly, this caused an uproar among those who own licensing rights to classic brands. Therefore we’re always very careful about copyright. I use antique swatches for historical inspiration, but create something totally new and different. It’s the same process with AI. Let’s use what it creates as a starting point for something more commercial but totally unique.”

What does the future hold?

“Think back to when Photoshop was introduced,” says Cheryl. “It was rudimentary at first, just a time saver, and now it’s integral to design. I am curious to see what happens when quantum processing arrives, which will allow super-fast dataset processing, to see how that affects generative AI. I think it will take it to another level.

“More importantly, in the future, if beautiful design is everywhere, because with AI there won’t be the excuse for it any more, what do we want to engage with? For me, it’s the person or the place or the techniques. That connection is going to be crucial. 

“The narrative will be essential, and how that story is told on social media. In the future the market is going to be awash with creators and designers. What is going to make them stand out is the brand’s story. The surface may be beautiful, but what will sell it and what will engage the customer is human context. So actually seeing someone hand painting the product or showing where they got their inspiration from will be so important to standing out from the crowd.”

Matt says: “In the luxury industry, there will always be a place for handpainted, real, authentic new design. Cheryl and I have a great understanding of the marketplace and from a commercial perspective, we can provide guidance and understanding.”

Human touch: handpainting finishes off the design

“Yes, we will be intermediaries for the new creatives,” says Cheryl. “Innately everyone is creative, and a tool like AI will stretch what we perceive to be creativity. The future will reflect this: the big brands will still have power (like the old record labels do) but there will be a whole new layer of new creatives coming up the ranks and breaking that monopoly. At our studio, we like to be ahead of the curve in innovation and AI is another toolbox.”


by FESPA Staff Back to News

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