DesignCurial in Conversation: Timorous Beasties’ Paul Simmons

We speak to Timorous Beasties co-founder Paul Simmons about wallpapers, what defines design, pushing the perimeters and their latest collaboration with Brintons – the Craigend collection.

Timorous Beasties was founded by Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons in 1990 after the pair met studying textile design at Glasgow School of Art. Since their humble beginnings, the design studio has grown to become a multi-award winning, internationally acclaimed brand – but, true to their roots, their main studios remain in Glasgow.

Until its unveiling at Clerkenwell Design Week 2018, Timorous Beasties’ third collaboration with Brintons carpets was a very closely guarded secret. To shine some light on this fascinating collection, we spoke to Paul to find out more about his and Alistair’s design styles, working with Brintons – and of course, the Craigend collection.

Paul (right) and Alistair (left)

Known for their imaginative designs, my first thought is to ask where Timorous Beasties get their – often subversive – ideas. Discussing their early work in the 1990s, Paul explains that the designs “were a reaction to things that were happening at the time. We wanted to create an alternative world. In the 90s wallpaper didn’t really exist like it does now”. Responding to the decline of the floral-patterned 80s and the minimalist upsurge in the 90s, Timorous Beasties found their niche in the flamboyant – and the slightly unsettling.

But there is more to their origin story than meets the eye. “We never meant to do wallpaper,” admits Paul, “We wanted to print on fabric – which, at the time, was too expensive”.  Paul happened to be working in a wallpaper factory at the time, which made for an easy transition. “We ended up being given the wallpaper cut-offs [from the factory] and began printing on them for free. Suddenly, we were printing all this wallpaper, and became known as the ‘wallpaper’ guys – so we ran with it”. Almost 30 years later, it seems Timorous Beasties has never looked back.

Ruskin design from Craigend Collection by Timorous Beasties for Brintons

But it’s not just vibrant, often macabre wallpaper that the design duo creates; Timorous Beasties’ products range from fabrics to furniture, and they now boast a range of clients and collaborators, including Fortnum & Masons, and Nike. They’ve created book covers for Penguin, and even designed Kate Bush’s programme for her ‘Before the Dawn’ tour. But with such a wide range of projects, how do Paul and Alistair stay on the same page?

“We actually have a very similar ethos about what we want [from a design],” Paul says with a shrug. “But we approach [the projects] from different angles. Ali is more hands on – he likes working with architects, talking about things like shadow spots… I’m much happier to roam around the studio”.

The duo has been designing through a time of major change - including three recessions and the birth of the internet - which has enabled them to explore different ways of designing. “When we started [Timorous Beasties] there was no world wide web,” says Paul – which meant hand drawing and printing each design in their Glasgow studio. “With digital [printing], we’re able to do a lot more. [But] we tend to mix things up; we still do hand printing, and sometimes we’ll create something digitally and bring it back to the studio to hand print it”.

Brintons and Timorous Beasties Installation at St John's Square, Clerkenwell Design Week

With their flexible design style, it’s no wonder Timorous Beasties is so often approached for collaborations. But I wonder what it’s like working with such a diverse range of clients. “The diverse collaborations are great”, Paul says. “They stop us from doing the same thing, and they bring new ideas and processes to the table. The best part of collaborating is learning and designing within the perimeters of the process – and trying to find out how far to push them”.

When I ask Paul to elaborate on what he means by ‘pushing the perimeters’, he pauses for a moment to think. “I think one of the biggest things that defines design from art is the restrictions; whether it’s something you can’t put on the labelling of alcohol, or making sure the image on a bank note works in the light – so the image of a butterfly doesn’t look like a moustache on the Queen [from the other side]”. Of course, the latter of these two projects Paul mentions was the Royal Bank of Scotland £10 bank note, which Timorous Beasties were asked to help design.

They might not be as extravagant as creating a bank note, but Timorous Beasties’ collaborations with Brintons are definitely worthy of praise. Craigend is the third project that expert carpet manufacturer Brintons and Timorous Beasties have worked on together; the two parties have known each other for ten years, with their first collaboration continuing to be a best seller. But how did this long history of creative carpet designs begin?

Coast & Shale design from Craigend Collection by Timorous Beasties for Brintons

Paul mentions that it was Brintons who first approached Timorous Beasties. “I think it was just an experiment [for Brintons, at first], but we had a lot of fun. [The collaboration] was a reaction to hotel brands wanting each of their hotels to look more boutique and individual”.  Asked about the process behind the collaboration, Paul continues, “We come up with the ideas, produce the artwork, and then see how the samples come out”.

“We’re getting to know the process, but there’s often a lot of back and forth,” says Paul. “What you design can often come out quite differently as a finished product. The biggest problem [in the design process] is when it takes so long to get samples back - you lose momentum”. But it seems that for this collaboration, no momentum was lost; the Craigend collection has made its grand debut at Clerkenwell Design Week 2018. It’s an interesting choice, I mention, when one would expect collections launched at this time of year to appear in Milan.

“Originally we thought about launching in Milan,” Paul admits. “It is the largest event of the year, but there are so many things going on there you can often get overshadowed; things tend to get swamped by the craziness of it all. Clerkenwell [is visited by] lots of specifiers and architects [who are] working on projects all around the world, which is great for us”.

The decision makes sense; instead of being lost in the flurry of Milan madness, Timorous Beasties and Brintons’ Craigend collection has its own pop-up exhibition in St Johns Square at Clerkenwell this year – becoming one of the Festival’s main attractions. So what was the inspiration for this much-anticipated carpet collection? “It first came from the idea of what is underfoot”, says Paul, “and grew from there to encompass the outdoors”.

The collection name, ‘Craigend’, was inspired by the Old Gaelic work ‘Craeg’ – meaning rock – and is also the road name of the collection’s birthplace: the Glasgow Timorous Beasties studio. With names like Coast & Shale, Highland and Stone Moss, one could think that the collection was inspired by Timorous Beasties’ native Scotland, but Paul emphatically says that it’s not. Instead, it is inspired by the natural environment as a whole. “But,” Paul adds, “When I go outside, I don’t go trekking in the Himalayas”.

Terrain design from Craigend Collection by Timorous Beasties for Brintons

Other designs have been named Moiré, after a silk that ripples when heated and pressurised; Terrain, inspired by maps, and an aerial view of land; and Magma, inspired by the layers of molten lava lying beneath the earth. It is the latter two that Paul reveals are his favourite: “I like Terrain because of the drama, and Magma because I didn’t think it was going to work – but I was presently surprised by the way it turned out”.

At the Clerkenwell Design Week pop-up, visitors can view the full scale patterns of Timorous Beasties’ designs as the carpets hang from the ceilings; they lie underfoot and beckon viewers in to touch Brintons’ signature thick, textured wool blend. Not all of the 9 designs are present, but a few of the pieces are recognisable – Magma, Stone Moss and the eye-catching Passiflora; a design inspired by the passion flower, showcased at the installation in monotone greys and whites with a splash of yellow.

Brintons and Timorous Beasties Installation at St John's Square, Clerkenwell Design Week

With almost 30 years’ experience creating odd, sometimes unsettling - but always extravagant – designs, Timorous Beasties know exactly what to do to get people interested in the often mundane, undersold design elements that are wallpapers and carpets. In comparison to what is usually showcased in the commercial carpet market, the Craigend collection is one of a kind. As our interview comes to a conclusion, I ask Paul what he thinks is the trick to Timorous Beasties’ success.

“We’ve learned not to be too bothered about what people think,” he says simply. “If you try and tell people what they want, you’re almost condescending them - we’ve learnt to stick with what we want to do”. With their passion at the forefront of their designs, Timorous Beasties is moving from strength to strength. It’s clear - from the collaborators and clients knocking on their door, to the visitors at the Craigend installation – that Paul and Ali are in exactly the right place; even more importantly, they are doing what they love.


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