Deirdre Dyson shares the 10 top lessons she’s learned in her career
1. If you can’t find what you want, design it yourself. I am an artist and I never thought I’d be designing carpets. It all came about in 1996 when I was looking for a carpet for my home and I couldn’t find anything contemporary. I went to Chelsea Handmade Carpets but couldn’t see anything there that I wanted so they said to send them a design. I faxed them a doodle and chose three colours and they made it for me. When the owner delivered it to my house and saw my paintings, he asked if I’d design some more for them. After his business partner left sometime later, I ended up going into partnership with him and eventually took over the company and renamed it. Painting is a pretty lonely, solitary occupation and I really liked the balance of combining that with carpet design.
2. Commissioning a carpet design should be a collaborative process. Clients should feel that they are part of a collaborative, personal experience when they buy one of my designs. When they go home with their carpet they should feel that they’ve contributed to the design and that it really feels like it is theirs.
3. I don’t want to design for the mass market. My carpets are expensive because they are bespoke designs that are hand-knotted by craftspeople in Nepal using Tibetan wool and a range of 5,000 colours. I like the idea that they are heirloom quality and will last a long time – people won’t be throwing them away after five years. We also make gun-tufted carpets (produced here in the UK), which are often chosen for commercial projects.
4. I approach carpet design in the same way as I approach my art. Even though carpets are completely different, the composition should work like a painting – I don’t do repeat patterns. I also love playing with colour to get some sort of three-dimensionality into my carpets so that they aren’t just flat patterns. I did a foundation course at Byam Shaw School of Art and a diploma in graphics and illustration at the Wimbledon College of Art. The skills I learnt there are totally applicable to designing carpets in terms of taking a concept and reducing it down to a symbol, and learning about colour gradation. Life drawing was also really important because of all the colours and tones that are found in flesh. We were also trained to look at the spaces between objects, and that was a really valuable lesson. If you can get that right, you should be able to do anything.
5. I get inspiration from anything and everything. I like to give myself a theme to explore for each collection, whether it be sea, sky, feathers, mosaic – it could be anything that I can abstract. My designs have definitely evolved. At first they had to be pretty simple and mostly geometric because they were made with just 60 knots per square inch, which created pixelations if you tried to do curves. Now that we use 100 knots per square inch I have far more design freedom, and the designs are much more complicated. My most popular design over the years, however, has been a very simple ribbon design, which people find very approachable.
6. Stay clear of trends. I aim to create designs that are contemporary yet classic. It makes me happy that none of them feel dated.
7. It’s a thrilling process. When you finish a painting it’s always a thrill, but you’ve been with it all the way through, so there is no surprise. Designing a carpet is much more terrifying because after you’ve finished the design and placed the order there’s a terror and excitement when it comes back as a carpet 12 weeks later. I’m always quite nervous when it’s unrolled. But when you see something turn out so well that you’ve conceived but someone else has painstakingly handmade, the relief is enormous. It’s a fantastic feeling.
8. A design is only successful if it’s just what the client wants. However, when I’m designing I have my own idea of what design will be successful in terms of balance, concept and colour.
9. You have to invest in your brand. I knew my showroom wasn’t right but I was trying not to spend any money until the business had really proved itself financially. Then I showed it to an architect, Tim Hatton, and he said it should be like a gallery with the carpets presented like art. Going ahead with his concept was a scary decision, but as soon as I was brave enough to do it, my work got more respect. Before, I found it difficult to get architects’ attention, but once I’d redone the showroom as a gallery they became much more interested in my work.
10. Business is creative. I didn’t realise that making a business was so creative despite having watched my husband [James Dyson] struggle through for years. But I found out quite quickly that I really enjoy thinking of ways of promoting and directing the business. You really have to shout loud to get noticed, whether through the gallery, my book (Walking on Art, Thames and Hudson, 2015), at trade fairs or on social media. I’ve learnt that networking is vital and I’ve had to become much braver about doing that. There’s a lot of competition out there so you have to make absolutely sure your product is as distinctive as you can make it in the first place.