Celia Birtwell

The designer is launching a characteristically playful fabric collection and a book that celebrates her high-profile career

Witty, feminine and charismatic, Celia Birtwell’s fabrics are apt representations of the designer’s personality. Her prints are instantly recognisable, displaying a signature aesthetic evocative of her creative beginnings in the 1960s. Birtwell has just exhibited at Decorex for the first time since 2001 — launching a collection of interiors fabrics as well as her first book — which has put her back in the spotlight, something she admits she is apprehensive about. ‘I love to be private person and I like my life as it is,’ she says. ‘I don’t really want it tampered with by fame.’

Fame is a subject not unfamiliar to Birtwell, whose illustrious career has been peppered with high-profile friends and clients such as the Beatles and Mick and Bianca Jagger. The artist David Hockney, who remains a close friend to this day, famously depicted Birtwell and her then husband, the late fashion designer Ossie Clark, in his 1971 painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.

Birtwell’s book is a retrospective of her career and influences, from the fashion prints that made her name to the launch of her Notting Hill interiors store and her recent sell-out fashion collections for Topshop. ‘It’s been a rather haphazard career but I think everything has happened with fate. I seem to have bumped into all sorts of people and ideas. I’m a character collector!’ she laughs.

Her absorption in the creative process means Birtwell has designed most of the book’s layout in addition to helping collate the images and gather information.

She still designs every fabric herself, although she retired from managing the business in 2006, when she handed the reins to her son, George Clark, and daughter-in-law, Bella Clark, who is the managing director. Once Birtwell has drawn and painted the designs, they are edited by Bella and the team and with the printers, with whom she has worked for 40 years.

As she looks through the new collection, Birtwell offers a fascinating insight into her creative mindset. Frequently looking to others for input and feedback, she develops fresh ideas by reconsidering and analysing every meticulous detail. Obsessed by colour, Birtwell discusses each tone extensively, explaining the subtleties of each colour choice. ‘They are bright and fresh, like tea-room prints,’ she says of the latest designs, ‘and the grey is pretty and soft.’ The collection is fun and playful with an eclectic mix of classic and bold imagery and a focus on usability. She mentions 18th-century needlework (for Bric a Brac), pop art and medieval prints among her influences and often visits the Victoria & Albert Museum’s research rooms for inspiration. She admires Cole & Son, especially its work with Fornasetti, and holds a high regard for French companies such as Pierre Frey, Lelievre and her ‘all-time favourite’ Nobilis.

Birtwell became hugely successful in the fashion industry in the 1960s and 70s, when she applied her unique aesthetic to Ossie Clark’s clothing designs, and made the leap to interiors by opening her London store in 1984. The transition was tricky, she admits, but much more in tune with her changing lifestyle. ‘It’s very different and it took me a while to get the hang of; what I like in my home certainly wouldn’t be on my fashion prints,’ she says. ‘Fashion is much easier for me because I’ve always done it. Fabrics for the home have to be quieter and less cluttered — you have to take the whole room into consideration. It’s a different thought process. With clothes you just want something to make you feel cheerful but with home fabrics that’s not enough, you need something that won’t date.

‘When I started designing for the home I just felt my way along and, having young children, I found it much more conducive to my lifestyle. It is a softer, easier pace, with one big collection per year for Decorex. In fashion, however, you have three or four, the heat is on the whole time and companies are often looking over your shoulder, which I found stressful.

With the interiors fabrics its nice to have a free rein.’ Creative freedom has clearly paid Birtwell dividends. Her unique and quirky designs now adorn hotels, such as Claridge’s and Burj Al Arab, as well as Hockney’s home and other residential interiors that she worked on with interior designers such as John Stefanidis. According to Bella Clark, many clients hold an emotional attachment to Birtwell’s designs, having worn or inherited them, while others love their personality. Steeped in history and bursting with character, her prints remain as original and charming as they were 40 years ago.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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