The future’s bright (Guardian Magazine)
Photography by Suki Dhanda
All copy as provided to the publication. Copy for Yinka Ilori and Laura Spring written by Emma Love.
Bethan Laura Wood
From the laminated marquetry of her Moon Rock tables to the rainbow of chaos that characterises her daily outfits, colour is the driving force behind the work of Bethan Laura Wood, one of a new wave of designers bringing the postmodern Memphis style of the 1980s back into fashion.
“I like colour,” says London-based Bethan Laura Wood, 33 – a glorious understatement, considering that she’s sporting blue and pink blusher, pink and yellow eyebrows and blue hair. But there is more than a love of colour to this new designer and recent recipient of British Land’s Swarovksi Emerging Talent Medal.
Born in Shropshire, she has been making things, ranging from papier-mâché hats to balsawood vans, for as long as she can remember. Diagnosed with dyslexia at sixth form college, she found she could understand the world around her through colour more easily than through words. “Of course I read, but I engage with things through colour,” she says.
Watching a BBC documentary about London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) at the age of 16, she immediately knew she wanted to study there and every decision from then on was geared towards realising that ambition. At school she was drawn to the art room and craft, design and technology (CDT) workshops, but her dedication marked her out as different. She took art A-Level a year early and spent her lunchtimes painting Degas-inspired nudes. “I had a great CDT teacher who gave me free rein of the workshops, but I certainly wasn’t in the cool gang,” says Wood. “In fact I wasn’t even accepted by the outcast group.” She went on to a foundation course at Kingston University, followedby a BA in three-dimensional design at Brighton University, knowing that the RCA prefer students who study away from home. She took a year out to work on self-initiated projects – something else the RCA favour – funded by work in cafés and bars, and eventually in 2007, landed a place at the venerated art school she’d first seen on television all those years ago.
“Of course, I completely freaked out. I would cry in every tutorial because I was completely overwhelmed.” It’s not an uncommon experience, and her tutors, Dutch designer Jurgen Bey and the Italian Martino Gamper, guided her through it, ultimately giving her the confidence to find her own path. “The way they create is very different, but they celebrate each other, so that helped me to understand that I didn’t need to be a mini-Martino, or a mini-Jurgen,” she says. “They encouraged me to push myself and find my own voice.” Since graduating in 2009, she has stayed in touch with both, recently taking part in No Ordinary Love, an exhibition at London’s SEEDS Gallery with Gamper.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s only relatively recently that her now-signature use of explosive colour has found its way into her designs. “My marquetry work was the first timeI unashamedly allowed my love of colour and pattern to have a voice in my design work. I wasn’t always comfortable with the way I look being associated with what I do.” A residency in Mexico City in 2014, part of the Designer of the Future Award, resulted in her Guadalupe Daybed and Guadalupe Vases for Bitesso Ceramiche, and cemented the role of colour and pattern in her work, finally allowing her love of postmodern and Memphis design to really shine through.
Since then, Wood has created windows for Hermès, currently lectures at top Swiss art school ECAL, and next year will be the artist in residence at ‘Room On The Roof,’ for de Bijenkorf and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. But what she’s most proud of is simply surviving: “All of those things make me proud. But what I’m most proud of is that I’m still here. I’m able to do what I love, engage creatively with other people and build my life around that. I don’t think I’d be happy if I was doing anything else.”
Bethan Laura Wood’s Guadalupe Vases for Bitossi Ceramiche are available from the Design Museum Shop from £390.
From dip-dyed wooden furniture and gravity-defying stacks of drawers to dizzyingly vibrant floors for Stella McCartney, London design studio Raw Edges leaves a trail of colour and pattern wherever it goes.
Walk into Raw Edges’ North London studio and the first thing you notice is a neat row of containers, suspended at 45 degrees, filled with brightly coloured dye. Look up and you’ll see dye-soaked wood, piled high and arranged by hue into a vertical rainbow. These are the building blocks of the Herringbones and Endgrain collections – two of the projects that have established the Israeli-born co-founders of Raw Edges, Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay, both 39, as rising stars of design. Their Herringbones furniture is made from planks of pine and jelutong dipped into those angled vats to create overlapping areas of colour, whereas Endgrain comprises blocks of wood that have been fully saturated in hot dye and arranged with their ‘end grain’ visible, like a traditional butcher’s block. The pair has applied this concept to everything from simple shelving to their three-dimensional floor with furniture ‘growing’ out of it at Chatsworth House. Their work forms part of an industry-wide move towards brighter colours after a long dalliance with the typically understated hues of Scandi style. The large studio it all happens in gives them space to think. “It means we don’t have to be polite – we can experiment,” says Mer.
It’s all a very long way from Jerusalem, where the two aspiring designers met on their first day at art school in 1998. Both had shown creative promise from a young age. “I was cutting things up with scissors before I could walk,” laughs Mer. “And I remember making houses from Lego,” adds Alkalay, “but I would use the Lego to make moulds and cast plaster into them.” So it was perhaps inevitable that they would both end up studying industrial design at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. But it was far from a foregone conclusion that they would end up living and working together. “Shay sat next to me on the first day – it was a fascinating lecture with a real feminist agenda,” says Mer, “and he just wasn’t into it. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be there, and yet how unlucky I was to have this really annoying person next to me – and then my heart sank when I realised he was in my class too.” Now married with a child, they claim to have been irritating each other ever since.
It’s a relationship dynamic that clearly works, because on graduating from Bezalel in 2001, they both applied to London’s Royal College of Art (RCA). Without having decided what they would do if only one of them was accepted, they opened each other’s letters and to their relief, discovered that they had both been offered a place. They studied under fellow Israeli Ron Arad and give him a lot of credit for their success. “Ron really encouraged us to explore,” says Alkalay. “He pushed us to find our own voice, to keep discovering and to make things happen for ourselves.”
They’ve clearly taken his advice. Like many of the emerging design generation, Alkalay and Mer are entrepreneurial self-starters, carving out a distinct and inventive niche. Their career-defining projects include the self-initiated Endgrain and Herringbones, and commissions ranging from multi-coloured floors for fashion designer Stella McCartney’s retail empire, to Stack – towering piles of mismatched lacquered wooden drawers – for high-end British furniture brand Established & Sons.
Their approach remains hands-on, experimental and above all, colourful. “Colour makes me happy,” says Alkalay. “Yellow makes me smile just like certain songs can.” And Arad’s advice continues to ring in their ears. “We are always changing things – we even try to force mistakes, just to see what happens. It means we’re on a constant learning curve,” says Alkalay. “People tend to take the things around them for granted, but we like the idea that you can still be surprised,” adds Mer. “All our projects try to bring back a childlike sense of wonder – even if just for a moment.”
Stack by Raw Edges is available from chaplins.co.uk, £3,000.50.