The Design Studio Led by Artists with Learning Disabilities

Written by Celestine Fraser, published on 01.02.2023

In March 2022, visual arts charity IntoArt founded Trifle Studio, the UK’s first multidisciplinary design studio whose work is created by artists and designers with learning disabilities. Trifle Studio’s designers work across a range of different mediums –from illustration to fashion and advertising– with clients as diverse as Lush and the V&A Museum. Their work has been exhibited internationally, from London to New York and Jakarta. Across all of Trifle Studio’s work is a clear social mission: to “make change” about “the lack of representation of people with learning disabilities” in design. 

Tilting the Lens recently commissioned Trifle Studio to create a greeting card which reflected our organizations’ shared values. The outcome of this collaboration was “Living Between the Lines,” a greeting card designed by artist Ntiense Eno-Amooquaye. The card is a vibrant green and yellow and it features Ntiense’s bold typography and an illustration of a female fashion model. The model is dressed in dark sunglasses, with a botanical print skirt and a jacket which features a reclining female form. The design was inspired by Ntiense’s research around the works of Elsa Schiaparelli, while also wanting to reflect the work that Tilting the Lens does to expand accessibility. 

“The lived experiences of the designers isn’t something that we see as a limitation but a great asset and opportunity for equity and leadership,” explains Tom, the Studio Manager. “We can bring exciting new voices and visual language into the public realm, including a good dose of humor and wit.” 

While each designer has their own unique style and personality, Trifle Studio designs are almost unanimously vibrant, bold and colorful – whether the designers choose to work in typography, ceramics, embroidery or any other medium. “We are always keen to support people to develop their work into directions that show their greatest strengths, whether that be incredible draftsmanship, creating dazzling patterns or making eye-catching typographic works,” says Tom. This variety is key to Trifle Studio’s successful client relationships, because clients can invariably be matched with a designer who can express what they need. Soon enough, “art directors and commissioners know they are in safe hands and the quality of the resulting work often exceeds expectation.”

Challenging expectations has indeed been the mission of IntoArt for at least twenty-two years. The charity’s vision is simple: for people with learning disabilities to be visible, equal and established artists. Although one might hope that the quality of work of designers like Ntiense would speak for itself, the reality is less straightforward: artists with learning disabilities have until recently, been mostly invisible and overlooked, particularly within commercial design. This is due to a lack of access and opportunities, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of what “disability” means. 

Model wearing a garment designed by Ntiense Eno-Amooquaye from IntoArt's knitwear capsule collection for John Smedley
Garment design by Ntiense Eno-Amooquaye from IntoArt’s knitwear capsule collection for John Smedley

“Some people hear ‘disability’ and think ‘they have got something wrong with them,’ or ‘they can’t do art,’” explains Clifton Wright, a Trifle Studio designer whose illustration work is suffused with his interest in science fiction and cinema. Artist Nancy Clayton, whose large scale drawings are informed by her experience and observation of the body in motion, agrees: “I want people to know that people with a disability can be artists.” 

As Trifle Studio’s designers testify, stigma and negative assumptions about disability are still widespread, and there is often a difference –sometimes referred to as the Disability Perception Gap– between public perceptions of disability and Disabled people’s actual experiences. This is frustrating, given that there are 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the UK – an estimated 2.16% of UK adults. People with learning disabilities form a significant proportion of the population, and yet their voices are still often missing from our culture and conversation. This is not just a loss for artists with learning disabilities; it is a loss for the consumer and society at large. 

As a consumer of art and culture, Tom explains that he “want[s] to be seeing exciting work by people whose reference points and cultural touchstones are completely different from my own.” Yet in reality, the “paucity of opportunities for people to have their work seen hamper this and drive viewers down tighter and tighter niches to find what is truly new to them. […] People with less traditional artistic experience only get the chance to creatively interface with institutions through the lens of educational or participatory departments. While this can be a great starting point for access this is often where this work remains instead of becoming the focus of public attention.” Clifton has experienced this glass ceiling first-hand: he refers to the systemic “neglect” of artists with learning disabilities and counters that “artists put a lot of hard work and dedication into their artwork”; it is only fair that “museums and galleries should respect artists and their artwork” and exhibit their work.

The solution, according to Clifton, lies in institutions increasing and better understanding accessibility: “Welcome artists no matter what. No matter what needs they’ve got.” Meanwhile, Tom hopes that a “shift would be to change our societal approach to accessibility [as] being proactive rather than reactive to the needs of your community.” He explains: “Very often we find that the people we work with are forced to make do or adapt to places and situations that don’t consider their needs with no recourse in how to make this better.” Ideally, accessibility would be embedded early on into the culture and practice of an institution, museum or art gallery. 

Mock up poster frame in spacious modern dining room with wooden chairs and table.  Minimalist dining room design. 3D illustration.
Illustration by Clifton Wright as part of Trifle Studio’s work with RoomFifty

So how is Trifle Studio doing things differently? Tom explains that in the studio, accessibility is not an afterthought but the very basis of their working practice: “We lead[s] with a person-centered approach, which means the needs, priorities and interests of our creative team are the foundation for any project.” Also important is an inclusive studio culture which involves “sharing space, working together consistently over a number of years, offering opportunities to new talents and fostering an ethic of making work that interests and inspires each other.” Ntiense cites this studio culture as essential to her creative process: “Trifle Studio is a way to work that is very important to me. It helps me share my work with the team, with friends and neighbors but then to show the world and invite new people along.”

When it comes to commercial commissions, Trifle Studio leads with transparency and a clear working process, encouraging its clients and partners to ask questions. This creative process has led to “a number of prestigious brands and collaborations [telling] us how much they learn from our team of designers.” But at the forefront of every project is “always the quality of outcome.”

Although Trifle Studio has a unique social mission and inclusive working methods, its designers are still artists, first and foremost. Before anything else, Ntiense is driven by her passion for art: her love of the research process (“looking at photographs and reading biographies”), the coloured inks which “make [her] work pop,” or her self-professed “idols”, fashion and textiles. Though Ntiense admits that visibility is important (“It is good for other people to see your work and see you”), the political significance of her work seems only secondary to her love of the craft: “I am a writer, performer and maker of artwork. I explore the relationships between words and images, the artist as someone who listens, recording to collect the writing as well as the drawings.” 

Christian and Dawn photographed for Intoart by Alun Callender waering garments from the collection created by Trifle Studio members
Designs from Trifle Studio’s Print Ready Garment Collection. A collection of garments created by Trifle Studio members

Until artists with learning disabilities are visible and valued on an equal footing to non-disabled artists, Trifle Studio intends to keep making outstanding work and leading by example. Currently, the studio is gearing up for “Trifle Commissions 2023,” a project which invites art directors, commissioners, clients and brands to get in touch and explore new ideas and outcomes with a studio that speaks with a different voice. 

Great design needs no explanation, and certainly the bold visual language of Ntiense, Clifton or Nancy speaks for itself. Trifle Studio’s designers have nothing to explain or prove: their work is exciting, distinctive and commercial. So how might the design sector improve opportunities for artists with learning disabilities? Clifton is clear: “The main thing is to talk about my artwork.”

To learn more about Trifle Studio and their members:

Website – Link to Trifle Studio’s website

Instagram – Link to Trifle Studio’s Instagram