The interior designer and the designer maker – a marriage made in heaven?
It’s strong stuff, this “opening-up” after a lengthy lockdown. Last month, I went to London Design Week at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour on a total high. Look, real people! Roaming not zooming! Stories to swap! Things to see, touch and even smell! Maybe, those three soaring domes were somewhat empty – no foreign visitors obviously – and some of the glass doors were sternly labelled ‘by appointment’. But the ambience was chic and floral, designer were the masks, the restaurant was in full swing, and hey, wasn’t that a hug?
Here Design-Nation had infiltrated with a very special stand. Statement vessels in turned wood, raku and resin stood on blonde timber shelving, the slender lines repeated in a bench. A super-glossy little table perched on an elegant rug, the two linked by their colourful candy stripes. On the wall, modernist monochrome for textiles, plus charming hand-painted tiles, offset by a quirky lamp of industrial parts. Swooping overhead, a stately sculpture pleated from heavy white Tyvek “paper”. It was a brilliant exercise: so much planning, so much work “on spec”.
Would it pay off? What’s the market for our makers in the interior design industry? Who better to say than our own DN champion, Simone du Bois, associate director of exhibitions at the Design Centre – and previously brand director for Decorex International? We shared a glass of bubbles, which seemed inordinately louche. “Interior designers are coming to appreciate the strong tactile quality of craft,” Simone mused, “and in particular its provenance and narrative. The connection with the maker is crucial.” All of which can be fostered by exhibiting in person at a quality show.
I quizzed some interior designers, to elicit their mood of the moment. The buzz words were indeed handmade, bespoke, craft, tactile and longevity. Karen Howes of Knightsbridge, who co-founded her multi-award winning practice Taylor Howes in 1993, sees a resurgence of the ideals of the historic Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s an attractive idea. Writing in her recent Kaleidoscope trends report, she says: “More than ever, we want to know that each item we invest in has a sense of longevity – not to be thrown away but to become part of our home’s life story. The modern-day arts and crafts movement distils this philosophy of introducing items that have a true sense of belonging and everlasting life into the home. 2021 will epitomise this move towards the handcrafted and personal; of investing in pieces that will grow with you and your home over a lifetime.”
Commissioning is the Key
Karen thinks lots of luxury materials and finishes will be mixed with hand-crafted objects that are “personal and have substance – with commissioning of artisans.” Adds designer Nicky Dobree: “Yes, we’re sourcing more locally and discovering craftspeople.” Even small items can have resonance. Interior designer Irene Gunter loves the “satisfaction and security of simply holding a handmade plate or mug.” Commissioning is the key. Collectors – or individual home-owners – in the main will fall in love with a particular piece just as it is. But interior designers are working to a brief, to a budget and to a timescale.
Be Flexible and Listen
Helen Kemp, Design-Nation’s exhibitions and events producer, oversaw the DN stand at the Harbour. Interior designers were very focused, she reports. “They had specific projects but wanted unique pieces. Exhibited work was a starting point – they were asking if they could have something new just for them in the future.”
It’s important, she says, to be flexible, and to listen closely to a potential client. You could have a full set of samples to hand, maybe with spares to give away. Plus images of alternatives and a contacts postcard. “Because commissioning is definitely on the up and up.” And a pleasant, professional yet personal, relationship will prove invaluable. You may have to be prepared to make in multiples, and obtain certificates (for example for sourcing/sustainability of materials), and possibly – if appropriate – get work tested (for durability, or to meet fire regs, for example.)
Fung + Bedford who made the ceiling sculpture have exhibited several times with Design-Nation. They work extensively to commission with architects, and are hoping to break into interior design. They have invested in an impressive brochure explaining past installations, which comes in a folder of Tyvek itself (it’s not actually paper but synthetic). Sometimes you can just get lucky through a search engine, says co-director Angela Fung. A client who’d just typed in “origami ceiling Tyvek”subsequently placed commissions for 40 meeting-rooms plus four atriums.
Caroline Egleston’s poetic handmade Piccolpasso tiles were also on the Harbour stand. Around half her clients are interior designers. She loved making seven tile-topped tables for Soho House, and is excited about a potential house on Palm Beach. She would like to supply boutique hotels. “Design-Nation makes our work visible”, she says. “It’s fun to be in a team, supporting each other at such a vibrant time for British craft.”
Bespoke colours are crucial for furniture makers Porter + Trundle, new DN kids on the block, who say, “Interior designers usually have very firm ideas.” A unique and striking piece will get picked up by stylists and the media, “and that in turn brings in the interior designers with ‘safer’ ideas.” Meeting people in person is infinitely preferable to a screen meeting. “Being able to touch a material and feel its unique qualities is integral to what we do as makers.”
Decorex: the Magic Magnet
But of the myriad shows at multiple venues choreographed by Design-Nation over the years, it must be Decorex that’s the strongest magnet for interior designers. And it’s overwhelmingly popular, with applicants to Design-Nation more often than not citing access to Decorex as a key reason for wanting to join. Design-Nation has shown at every Decorex from 2004 onwards, usually with a select band of between five to eight makers. Stands are impeccably styled, often with stunning paintwork and props, and winning multiple awards. Over 50 designers have been introduced to new markets, some showing more than once. “Yes, Decorex has been the pearl in our crown for some time,” reflects Liz Cooper, development manager for Design-Nation. “Interior designers appreciate that unique or limited edition pieces shed lustre and demonstrate good taste and individuality.”
“It’s such a treat to see what Design-Nation will bring to Decorex each year,” adds Sam Fisher, current event director. “Our visitors want unique, original, interesting product and DN never fails to deliver, with true craftsmanship at the core.”
Liz Cooper has some good Decorex success stories. “Organisers requested an extra Jacky Puzey London Parakeet cocktail chair for the champagne lounge in 2017 and there was a queue for selfies. In 2015, Heidi Harrington won a commission for an entire set of her unique blue-and-white floral printed dinnerware. A friend of the client loved it so much she promptly ordered another one.” In 2019 weaver Angie Parker and woodworker Jonathan Rose collaborated on a chair – and sold one at Decorex to the celebrated textile curator/author Mary Schoeser.
“Interior design is my primary market,” says DN textile designer Jacky Puzey, “and one thing soon leads to another.” For decorator Sarah Hind of Starboard Homes Interiors in Lymington, she morphed her trademark parakeets into swans on heavily-embroidered panels of black velvet for bespoke dining chairs looking out onto, yes, a swan lake… how dreamy is that?
Helen Yardley is a veteran Design-Nation member/exhibitor who goes right back to the days of the Eureka scheme, in which DN founder Peta Levi paired designers and producers – Helen created rugs for Heal’s. For her, the interior design market is core and her standard rug designs can be almost infinitely re-coloured and re-sized. “Trade shows are the simplest ways to make contact with interior designers and architects. They may send a junior so make sure you talk to anyone and everyone and get contact info!”
Since her launch in 2017, pattern artist Susannah Weiland has shown twice at Decorex (physical, then virtual) and at several other shows, with pictorial wallpapers, based on her detailed sketches and hand-stitching, where Kew Gardens is a particular theme. She brings her embroidery gear to her stand, which creates a compelling reason to stop and look – and there’s nothing like a demo to ram home the “handmade bespoke” message. She’s focusing now on one-off embroidered pieces, which interior designers love. Her tip for more “exposure” is to join local business networks.
Coming up soon, more ops for ambitious makers: Design-Nation is planning autumn outings to London Craft Week (virtually) and Decorex (in person if possible), as well as expanding markets for craft through relationships with networks like new chums Rue Pigalle and event organisers Tutton & Young’s MADE series (virtual and physical).
By Barbara Chandler, Design-Nation brand ambassador, independent writer and photographer.