Photography by Mark Cocksedge and Alejandro Ramirez Orozco
Written by Mariela Summerhays
MULTIDISCIPLINARY DESIGNER BETHAN LAURA WOOD SHARES HER SINGULAR PERSPECTIVE ON THE POWER OF COLOUR AND PATTERN, AND THE INSPIRATION BEHIND HER UPCOMING COMMISSION FOR THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA.
Bethan Laura Wood—designer of furniture and lighting, rugs and jewellery, and more—has an inimitable language of materiality. Drawing inspiration from regional architecture and colour palettes, and her earliest encounters with precious objects, Wood’s instantly engaging works are rooted in a deep curiosity for the way that textures, patterns and colour create an emotional connection.
Watch the exclusive interview below.
The results are nothing short of wondrous. Particle, for example, is a tessellated laminate furniture system fashioned after the historical use of crates in the warehouse where she found herself at the moment of inspiration. Wisteria, a hand-dyed PVC chandelier inspired by art nouveau glass work, grows in vibrancy as bright daylight turns to softer evening glow. Wood’s passion is infectious and all-encompassing, the designer not only using adjectives typically associated with visuals to describe her work, but those for smell and touch and taste too. Works are digestible, and colour pairings have rhythms or tastes.
She describes her practice in the context of an encounter with a cellar master “[whose] life and joy comes from exploring the combinations and the subtleties of taste and smell, and then creating those and sharing those with other people.” She reflects: I suppose I kind of like to do that with colour.” In the afterglow of this year’s Salone del Mobile, and in anticipation of her MECCA x NGV Women in Design Commission installation being revealed in coming months, we speak to Wood about the projects that have come before and those yet to debut, how she developed her visual language, and the importance of structure amidst inspiration.
MS You’re just back from Milan Design Week where you showcased your latest works with CC-Tapis, the Guadalupe Collection. How did your trip to Mexico express itself in this collection?
BLW The Guadalupe rugs come from an ongoing obsession I’ve had with the New Basilica of the Lady of Guadalupe, which is a church on the edge of Mexico City. I first came across it in 2013, on my very first trip to Mexico. It had such a lasting impression on me that I’ve continually gone back to the drawings and the sketches I made around the church—specifically of its windows —and made works based on them. There are basically two palette zones within the Guadalupe Collection. One is a warm heat that’s the ‘late afternoon’ kind of tone. It’s not like when colours are super vibrant because they’re in strong sunshine; they’re the kind of colours that are warmed by the sun. I wanted to work with these tones for the more colourful version of the carpets. These colours are also a reference to when I was learning how to mix colours for industrial jacquard. I was really understanding, through making, how using certain key colours and then secondary colours allowed you to push certain palettes. The second palette is the monotone, based predominantly on greens. With these we wanted to reference artwork, or work on knotting techniques for the background that would have a very rough aesthetical texture that nods to the concrete and brutalist structures around the [modern basilica’s window] glass. You see it a lot on things like the New Basilica [and] the Barbican in London, a very iconic brutalist building; this kind of beautiful texture that’s rough but also delicate. I really wanted to work with CC-Tapis to get that feeling.
MS You’ve said your practice is informed by “an emotional and intellectual investigation of materiality”. Can you recall your earliest memory of feeling captivated or moved by a specific object, first emotionally, and then conceptually or intellectually?
BLW Like many kids, I had a blankie that my mum sewed for me —I actually was asking my mum where it was the other day, because I know that it’s vacuum-packed in a drawer to keep it safe. This is one object that is still now burnt into my retina, exactly what it looks like, what every edge is like, the fact that my mum made it. It’s like, patchwork Laura Ashley fabric scraps in this kind of 70s, ‘80s, mustardy colour of flowers. I’m sure it’s quite worn out, if I actually saw it in real life. I have memories of the change between the physicality of it and myself because I have small memories, tastes of memories, of being able to be covered by the whole thing, and then not being covered by it. It combines lots of things that I still hanker after or I’m drawn to, in terms of period of time, aesthetics of pattern, and composition of multiple things being sewn together to make a new whole. In terms of intellectual responses, I think one of the reasons a lot of my earlier works have a strong reference to the Memphis [design collective of the 1980s is because] I went with my mum to an exhibition on plastics; she has an obsession with plastics, which I’ve inherited from her. I remember seeing a piece of Memphis and not really liking it, finding it quite uncomfortable and challenging, and not really understanding—there were too many different proportions going on. It was really big, it was complex. I couldn’t understand, but I wanted to understand, even if at the time I found it challenging.
MS Can you tell me about your fascination with colour theory?
BLW I’m fascinated to understand the nuance of colour related specifically to spaces. I started to understand that when I would go somewhere, and start to understand a particular colour in the context of that place; how much colour groupings mean to different people depending on where they grew up or the interactions they’ve had, or even the connections they may have to a colour that might have nothing to do with where they’re from. [Maybe] this particular colour was on the jumper of someone they hated when they were five, and so they no longer can handle that colour. I think people have a very emotional reaction to colour, even if we dismiss it quite often. Partly, that’s why there’s this fear around colour sometimes. There’s the safety of having a beige space because you are not having to interact with it almost at all. I think when somebody does [interact with colour], and suddenly there’s a colour that works for them, there’s a richness that you get, that you can’t really explain, from being surrounded by certain colours. People can think they’re quite vanilla, and then you mention an avocado bathroom suite and that’s dangerous territory. The emotions run high when you start to suggest that might be something they want to engage with or relax inside.
MS Your practice encompasses such a wide range of things— jewellery, furniture, lighting, homewares, and so on. Does it feel like it all comes from the same well of creativity, or are you taking from a different toolkit every time?
BLW It’s somewhere in the middle. There are definitely certain periods of time, certain aesthetical nuances, certain things that I am drawn to and that I will be engaged with, so there will be certain rhythms, certain forms that you can see follow through in multiple projects. For example, the Guadalupe carpets: this is a pattern that I’ve reinterpreted or worked with over several projects. There are certain rhythms or forms that I will pick up and want to explore, but I quite often will purposely reset the hierarchy of what’s important based on the function or what I want to explore next. I enjoy reassessing why I’ve made certain decisions at a certain point, and then purposely making a different decision and seeing what comes out of it for the next project, rather than repeating the same set of rules. I think some of that also comes down to the fact that actually, everything can be with everything; you can add so many layers on top of each other and you can add so many colours. At some point, if there’s no order to it, for me, it becomes very muddy when you put all the colours together. I find it very noisy if I don’t give myself certain systems. [It allows me to] move on, otherwise I kind of get stuck over pondering “but why this choice?”. I have to set certain rules—even if I’m gonna break them later.
MS Choosing clothing and makeup do not appear to be purely functional pursuits for you. How does the artistry of your personal style tie in with your creative practice?
BLW I always enjoyed expressing myself through dressing up or playing around with clothing. I’ve always been fascinated by the textile and pattern you get in clothing. I think it’s also one of the things that’s most accessible when you are a young adult or a teenager. I wasn’t allowed to paint my bedroom, I wasn’t allowed to put posters on the wall, but dressing my body or going to charity shops and finding weird, beautiful, Dusty Springfield-style costumes was something I really enjoyed doing. I found it a very rewarding way to express myself. I found it more difficult to understand how to align my personal interest in pattern and colour against my work, because it’s understanding the separation between me as a person and me as a designer. I think there was a while where I was more actively disconnecting the two. When I was studying at the Royal College of Art, I had amazing tutors who were like “your tolerance for pattern and colour is much more than most people—use it, it’s a power that you have”. After that, I started to make work expressly exploring pattern and colour. When I was travelling in Mexico, for example, I would pick up bits of textile, bits of colour and start wearing them, and I could feel that I was starting to digest other palettes to then feed into my works later. But not all my works are completely head-to-toe in colour. Sometimes people assume my work is going to be much more extravagant than it is because they know the way I look. Maybe I do use a lot of colour and pattern, but there’s a lot more restraint in it than some. I’ve become more comfortable that these things can be connected, but they are two separate things. My choice to dress up isn’t my work.
MS Your installation for MECCA x NGV Women in Design will open this December and has been described as “inviting audiences to contemplate how knowledge has been learned, and shared throughout time, and the roles played by gender”. Was there something specific happening in your life at the time that led you to this idea? What should audiences expect?
BLW I was invited to make a work in response to a particular space; the British Regency space that houses the NGV’s 18th—19th century collections. I was interested in the challenge of responding to this placement in the gallery alongside the focus of the commission to celebrate the work of women. During my research of the Regency period I came across the Blue Stocking Society, which was a women’s social and educational movement. I liked the idea of making furniture for a gathering of the Blue Stockings. Obviously in British society, we have a huge hierarchical class system, so they were very privileged women—but one of the books I came across was by a female botanist, Jane Wells Web Loudon. I love the way she did books specifically for women to feel like they could engage with the garden [without being] hyper-focused on the traditional [Latinate descriptions of flowers]. Any way you can engage with learning and empowering yourself is a good way.
The Guadalupe collection by Bethan Laura Wood for CC-Tapis is available exclusively at Mobilia.