Brian Gurtler, Tea-Towel Printer
In a hidden courtyard workshop close to Brick Lane, Brian Gurtler, Textile Designer & Printer, of Dot Productions has been busy these last few days producing the limited edition of one hundred of Adam Dant’s tea-towels bought by readers last week.
When we conceived these tea-towels “In Celebration of the Culture of the Labouring Classes,” we did not dare to hope that the Marquis of Lansdowne would be saved, and so we chose to print only one hundred and sell them as cheaply as possible – which meant they sold out in hours. Since Hackney Council refused permission to demolish the pub, leaving the Geffrye Museum with no choice but the restore it, these modest tea-towels have become prized trophies commemorating this joyous moment.
I could not resist paying a visit to the workshop to watch Brian conjure them into existence and take the opportunity of meeting this skilled craftsman who has applied himself to printing Adam’s witty design with such relaxed expertise. Brian prints forty at a time, turning the wheel that delivers each of the screens to the printing surface and applying the colours methodically with deceptive ease, until his drying rack is full.
Then it is necessary to seek refreshment at The Pride of Spitalfields before the next batch can be printed and, yesterday, Brian persuaded me to join him there. “I need half an hour to get my back working again,” he admitted with genial candour. Such is the working life of a master screen-printer in Spitalfields.
“I started off here in a workshop just opposite Shoreditch Church in 1988. After graduating from Farnham School of Art where I studied printing, I moved to London to work with a company that did limited edition prints for hotels and restaurants. A fellow student from Farnham also worked there, and he said ‘We’ve got to be able to do better than this.’ So we set up own company printing t-shirts with images from fine art and the British Museum was our first customer. We did them for National Gallery and the Tate too.
We were looking for a space where we could live and work because we couldn’t afford both. Our landlord was Ray Bard who bought everything inside the Shoreditch Triangle at that time. It was mostly derelict property then, blighted because everyone assumed the City would advance north and it would all be compulsorily purchased. Consequently, we got three thousand square feet for eighty pounds a week. We set up our machines and slept on the floor on futons. If you made a little money, you could live like a king. We ate breakfast at the beigel shop and you could go down Brick Lane and get a curry for under five pounds – I remember a place where you could get five vegetable dishes for three pounds sixty. We drank in the Bricklayers’ Arms in Rivington St, and there would be only three people in there and a lovely landlady called Lil. On Sunday mornings, she laid out prawns, cheese and roast potatoes to encourage customers, it was a proper East End Pub, spit and sawdust.
I came to Links Yard off Brick Lane after we downsized because of the financial climate. The bottom fell out of the market when people could order printed t-shirts from China over the internet at a tenth of the price. I went from employing people to a one-man-band, and Spitalfields Small Business Association gave me this workshop at an affordable rent. For the past ten years, almost all my work has been for the fashion industry – every label you care to mention – creating samples of pieces that involve printing on textiles. It’s very rare to find anyone in this country that does this now. Once I have created the prototypes which the designers use to get orders then the garments are manufactured in China.
I wouldn’t want to be a young Bengali, Jewish or East European kid coming to London today and trying to make it happen. The Huguenots wouldn’t come to Spitalfields now because they couldn’t afford it! That’s what I was when I came here, a poor itinerant, trying to start my own business. I’ve been going twenty-five years. I’m not trying just to make money, I’ve got a degree in printing and I’m good at what I do.”
Adam’s tea-towel design
Each of the silk screens on the wheel carries one of the different colours that overlay to make the design.
The completed tea-towels
Brian Gurtler, textile designer & printer.
Artist Adam Dant signs and numbers each tea-towel with a laundry marker.
Tea-towel orders will be despatched early next week.