‘Take a letter, Deirdre’ could have been the soundtrack to Deirdre Dyson’s life if she hadn’t had the doggedness and perseverance to pursue her love of art and switch track from being a secretary to getting herself into art school.
Words by Emily Martin
After a recent transformation of the Deirdre Dyson showroom I took the opportunity to meet up with the carpet designer. The Deirdre Dyson gallery, as it's known, hosts Dyson's latest collection of luxury carpets after its refit by Timothy Hatton Architects. The light-filled and extended space features crisp lines and a suitably contemporary staircase, commissioned specially for the space. The gallery is a milestone in the carpet design business, which has grown both in the UK and abroad, and Dyson shows me around the airy new space while offering an insight to her unique career path.
Growing up in south-east London, Dyson saw her future as an artist. 'Drawing and painting as a child is something I loved doing, above anything else, and I always thought that perhaps I could go to art college,' she tells me. Despite her passion for art, it would have meant doing GCE exams, and her teacher convinced her otherwise. Instead, Dyson was persuaded to take the RSA exams and qualify as a secretary, like her mother, with skills in shorthand and typing.
It was a decision to regret, Dyson recalls. 'The headmistress said to me "You'll never make a career out of doing art; you'll never earn any money". It was that remark I hate and remember with real anger!' she says. After school Dyson worked as a secretary for an insurance company, before getting herself 'out of there' to work with Chamberlin Powell & Bon, then architecture practice designing the Barbican scheme.
She developed a keen interest in the scheme through attending site meetings with the architects. During her lunch breaks, Dyson was drawing, which didn't go unnoticed by her employer. 'My boss said: "You should be at art school",' she recalls, and it was at this moment that she decided to 'at least try'.
Devoting a year to build up a portfolio of work, Dyson applied to the fine arts Byam Shaw School of Art (later absorbed by Central St Martins), only to be turned down at interview. 'My heart sank and I thought, "Well, am I supposed to just get up, say thank you and leave?" I just didn't know what to do,' says Dyson. Byam Shaw's principal, Maurice de Sauamarez, waded in: help out with some letter writing during the foundation year and take her O-levels at evening class. 'It was just like a miracle! I did exactly that and I was awarded with a scholarship for my second year [first year of a fine-art diploma] as I did so well.'
Deirdre Dyson, pictured with her husband James, at the launch of her book Walking on Art: Explorations in Carpet Design, published last year
Flourishing under tutors including Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley, Dyson went on to complete a three-year diploma in graphics and illustration at Wimbledon Art College She talks of it being 'on the right track' after a regrettable career start but without an inkling of how things would turn out.
For starters, Dyson had fallen in love. 'We had met on the first year of the foundation course at the Byam Shaw and married while we were still students,' she recalls. 'We had no money at all, just two grants: one went on rent.' Young, in love, free but broke, Dyson worked as a freelance graphic designer before relocating to Bath with now husband James, who had landed a job not long after graduating from the RCA. 'The contacts and connections I had made with graphic design had to be put aside as I moved to Bath', she says. 'So I thought that it was a good time to squeeze children in.'
To supplement the family income, Dyson set up a life-drawing class at home, but also continued drawing and painting. 'Gradually the paintings got bigger and bigger and I got some really decent shows: one in New York and three in London [including at the Grosvenor and Albemarle galleries].
With James Dyson's business also getting off the ground, Deidre took measures to protect her own success as an established artist by disassociating her brand from that of her husband. 'I don't think people for years and years realised [the connection]. Some did but it was really important for me to be independent,' she says. 'Although I did graphics for Dyson [the company] in the very early stages of the business and I'm on the charity board - and obviously I'm involved per se to an extent - but I don't have a role and I don't want one. I've always wanted to do my own thing.'
She was initially invited by a store in the King's Road to design a contemporary range carpets after sourcing a new carpet for the family's new London home. Accepting the offer as 'something to do' alongside her paintings she designed two collections, but when the store owner's financial backer announced he was pulling out she opted for a new approach: focusing on contemporary design and cornering a section of the market with completely bespoke service. It was up and running for a short time before the owner's interest went elsewhere.
The new Deirdre Dyson gallery in King's Road, Chelsea, transformed by Timothy Hatton Architects and showing the 2016 collection
At this point Dyson decided to set up on her own. 'I thought, how depressing: after all this energy and everything I had put into it, perhaps I could do this on my own?' she says. For some 15 years her carpet design business remained a small, while hugely successful, enterprise largely for domestic interiors. In the past two years, the company has doubled in size while also opening an office in France, promoting the Deirdre Dyson brand and establishing contacts with interior and contract designers. 'Things are really taking off. It's been mainly steady residential work, but now it's mostly contract interior design. At last, we have interest from architects,' says Dyson.
'I've built up this reputation for top-quality and unique designs; I don't want to end up doing something that everyone will love, because that's boring for me,' Dyson continues. But these days, she is more relaxed about her connections and association with her husband's business.
'It was only last year I thought how silly it was [not wanting the connection to be known].' She pauses, and bursts out laughing. 'I changed my logo to my signature as well, because people know in the interior design world who I am and what I do. I've done it, I've got here and I've built this business by myself and [they] haven't realised who I am. Now, I can lift the lid on that one and it's fine. It might even be helpful, I don't know. People do respect the Dyson brand, although it's totally different.'