The celebrated homeware designer on pushing creative boundaries and fusing culture with craftsmanship.
It’s fair to say Welsh designer Bethan Gray stole the show during last September’s London Design Festival. Having founded her own brand in 2008 after a decade designing furniture for Habitat, last year was her moment to truly shine with her contemporary style rich in form, femininity and fine craftsmanship.
Drawing influences from global art and culture, Bethan not only unveiled new designs for her own furniture and lighting collections, but she also launched a range of furniture and home accessories with Anthropologie, a new tableware collection in collaboration with ceramics aficionado 1882Ltd, designed a bar (and limited-edition collector’s case) for The Glenlivet and a watch with Rado. Here, she shares her design inspirations…
When did the design bug first bite?
Growing up in Penylan, east of Cardiff, I was always into making things at school, such as candlesticks as gifts for friends. My Scottish forester grandfather was a huge inspiration, carving me little objects out of fallen wood and making me pieces of furniture. It also turns out my great-great-grandmother had been a trained cabinetmaker.
What was your big break?
Working at Habitat for 10 years taught me a lot. I travelled all over the world, visiting everything from small artisan workshops to large automated factories, but I soon realised I wanted to come up with my own style that was more feminine, using natural materials. Then I met my now husband, Massimo, who encouraged me to go out on my own.
What inspired your earliest pieces?
I was at a party where a friend was wearing pristine white Church’s brogues and I thought, ‘I want to put that detail and craftsmanship into a piece of furniture.’ Inspired by three-legged Welsh cricket tables, we launched the Brogue side table, topped in leather with perforated edging, like a brogue shoe.
Describe your style?
Contemporary but warm; feminine but not girlie. I’m drawn to the graphic patterns in nature, a harmony of colours, craftsmanship with integrity, and tactile materials such as solid oak and walnut, leather and stone, copper and brass.
Why is craftsmanship so important?
Working with artisan experts in their fields pushes the boundaries of my designs and, in return, I can push them to go the extra mile and try something new. I want to design pieces which are not only beautiful, but that connect with the stories of who is making them and where they come from.
What is your home like?
Comfort is absolutely essential, so we have lots of cosy areas with sheepskin-covered modular sofas big enough to fit lots of people because we entertain often.
Does it influence the way you design?
Absolutely! With the Feather chair I designed for Anthropologie, I wanted to create something so comfy that you’d want to stay at the dinner table. I don’t want to have to move to finish my coffee; I want to stay at the table, play cards and chat.
Tell us about your colour palette
From the first collection, soothing, sophisticated hues such as jade, teal, pink, white and charcoal have always been inspired by matching the colours of the leathers and veneers to the shades of marble and stones we use. They’re calming and harmonious.
How do you get them to work at home?
I make them richer by adding darker tones, such as a deeper green velvet sofa with brass and copper accents, to make it feel more luxurious. Or you can make it feel bright by playing with lighter hues of pink, green or blue mixed with whites and greys.
How does practicality feature in your designs?
I like designing multifunctional pieces. For example, all of our cabinets have a removable section at the back, so you can thread cables through it. You might want to put your stereo system in it or maybe you’d like to buy it for another purpose and in 10 years you may decide to use it for something else. Flexibility is very important.
So, it’s all about the detail?
Yes. I’ve designed a discreet rotating shelf in our bedside cabinets so you have somewhere to put your phone at night. Drawers are fully extendable because it drives me crazy when a drawer only comes out halfway. There are lovely handmade brass hinges, not massive ugly plastic things; the backs of cupboards are as beautiful as the front in case you want to use them in the middle of the room. They’re just little touches to make life easier.
Who or what inspires you?
I’ve always loved the work of Charlotte Perriand, especially her Maison du Mexique bookcase – so avant-garde, working in a man’s world with the likes of Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé. I draw on everything around me, whether it’s working out the pattern of lights at a Gruff Rhys gig in the Barbican, collecting shells and feathers, or being inspired by architecture. And I really love circles!
What’s up next?
I’m working on a new nature-inspired furniture collection, launching at Salone del Mobile in April. I’m also designing more pieces with 1882Ltd. I want to create something around the silhouettes of Stoke-on-Trent’s iconic factory chimney stacks.
Find out more at bethangray.com