Cultural Referencing Is At The Heart Of British Designer Bethan Gray’s Philosophy

With her love of travel and gypsy roots, London-based Scottish-Welsh designer Bethan Gray has always been inspired by different cultures. Her designs combine luxurious natural materials such as wood, marble and leather with refined craftsmanship from around the world and attention to detail. Take for example her Siena series influenced by the black-and-white motifs of Medieval Italian cathedrals or the Shamsian collection based on Omani architecture and crafts in collaboration with celebrated Iranian artist, Mohamed Reza Shamsian, which is made by the same artisans who have been creating for the Sultan of Oman for 40 years. The handmade furniture reveals patterns on stained wood produced using marquetry and inlay techniques that have existed in Islamic craft for centuries. For the detailing on the Dhow table, Gray was drawn to the shapes produced by the large triangular sails of Oman’s traditional dhow boats as they catch the wind, a pattern adapted for the hand-stained, birds-eye maple veneer case of The Glenlivet Winchester Collection Vintage 1967 with its curved solid copper overlays that echo the whisky distillery’s copper stills, the River Spey and the layers of mist that gather in the surrounding valleys. She worked with Scottish master glassblower, Brodie Nairn, to create the bottle showcasing hand-cut lines that result in an ombré color effect with the whisky that goes from light to dark to mimic the 50-year ageing process.

With a mother who was an art teacher and a great-great-grandmother who was a cabinetmaker, Gray was encouraged to follow her creative instincts. Born in Cardiff in 1977, she graduated in three-dimensional design and was discovered by Tom Dixon in 1998 when he bestowed on her the New Designers Innovation Award for a piece of furniture she showcased. This prize led to her appointment at Habitat, where she rapidly became design director before opening her own design studio in 2008. This allowed her to enlarge her client base and work with the more costly materials that she couldn’t at Habitat, designing best-selling collections for high-profile global retailers and brands such as Liberty, John Lewis, Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, 1882 Ltd and Rado. She is recognized today by four Elle Decoration British Design Awards including Best British Designer and Best British Tableware Designer. We sit down with Gray to discuss how she’s inspired by the art and culture of the places she visits, working with hundreds of craftsmen and her business strategy.

You’ve been working in the design industry for 20 years. What motivates you?   

I love getting to know people from all over the world and understanding what inspires them – whether it be cultural narratives or elements from nature, as well as their own personal experiences and journeys. This motivates me to use local craft techniques and materials to tell stories that would be relevant to them, but also work for a global audience.

How does your multicultural family background influence your work?

I’m inspired by my ancestors’ journeys – they were a Rajasthani clan that traveled from Northern India through Arabia and Persia and then to Europe, before eventually settling in the Celtic heartland of Wales. I’ve recreated those journeys and been inspired by cultural narratives and nature that I have experienced on the way. I’ve been brought up to be proud of my Romany-Gypsy heritage, so I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures. I don’t know if it’s also about being Welsh. I speak Welsh and only 20 % of the population does, so I’m more aware of different cultures because I speak a minority language. I’ve traveled a lot and like to use cultural references as inspiration; I like to have a link when I’m designing a product. We’ve also formed very close partnerships based on trust and mutual respect with local master craftspeople in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In fact, we support over 400 master craftspeople who make our luxury craft collections.

Describe your creative process.

I start with research and then I like to look at lots of options in the concept phase. So I start and I choose one thing and I know it’s not going to be the end of it, but that leads to another thing and to another. If it doesn’t work, I know quite quickly and move on. Then detailing is very important to me. Getting really simple is the hardest thing. These three elements are equally important, so it’s a balance.

How involved are you in production?

It’s really important understanding what’s possible, how things are made. I love working with craftsmen all over the world. I’m not a craftsperson and don’t have the patience to be one, but I have the utmost respect for them. All my projects are based on craft. I love understanding a new material that I haven’t worked with before. It’s all about pushing the boundaries to show off the craftsmanship so much better. You work around problems and make them work, and the craftsmen are so proud of what they can achieve.

What is your work philosophy?

Every project I do is all about relationships. You have to have an open dialogue with what you’ve created, especially the relationships with craftspeople. Even if you don’t speak the same language, there’s so much that you can communicate. Some of my work comes because I’ve connected with people. Everyone that I have worked with, we have a connection. For instance, I met Emily Johnson of 1882 ceramics, which is based in Stoke-on-Trent, and we got on really well before we decided to do a project together, and we’re continuing to do more. The Shamsian collection is made in Oman; we started there a few years ago and now we’re launching new collections every year with them.

Tell me about your collaboration with The Glenlivet on the Winchester Collection Vintage 1967.

The collaboration started with some simple sketches of the decanter and canister that would eventually house Vintage 1967. We intended to tell a story about the craftsmanship behind such a rare and coveted collector’s item, and we wanted to incorporate features from nature that were important to both Master Distiller Alan Winchester and I. Ideas for the designs stemmed from the Cairngorms landscape, and going back to nature helped to create a truly distinctive theme. For the canister, I have customized my Dhow pattern and included mother-of-pearl inlays to reflect local freshwater pearl mussel shells, while the beautiful and captivating decanter itself was created in conjunction with master glassblower, Brodie Nairn, who used innovative glassmaking techniques and bespoke cutting tools to create a capsule as pioneering and special as the whisky it houses.

What has been your best business decision?

It’s probably having more confidence in my own choices and just going and showing what I want to show, the level of craftsmanship and my style, which is always evolving. Also getting my husband Massimo to join me. He’s a consultant to culture and other creative businesses. He’s got this great way of bridging the creative and business worlds. That’s what he did for me before he joined and that’s ongoing. Sometimes it’s difficult but he pushes me, in the same way that I push the craftsmen. Although I don’t always appreciate it at the time, I do appreciate it afterwards. I’m a perfectionist and I push myself, but he pushes me out of my comfort zone.

What has been the greatest difficulty you have encountered in your career?

Probably letting go of certain details. Sometimes you have to compromise. It’s sometimes difficult to know which things to be strict about and which things to be flexible about. Like in detailing, if something is going to add £2,000 for a very small detail, is it really worth it for the end consumer? Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not, so it’s hard to get that balance.

What is your vision of the future of design?

It’s interesting because we launched a new project at Rossana Orlandiin Milan during Salone that’s all about natural materials that are wasted. For instance, pearl shells from pearl factories only interested in pearls and not the shells. We’re also using goose feathers, scallop shells, abalone shells and pen shells. It’s a new collaboration with Nature Squared, a Philippine company making sustainable products, normally surfaces for yachts. This is the first furniture line that it has created; it’s a new way for it to work. There are about 10 pieces plus some accessories. Obviously sustainability has been there for a long time although people don’t talk about what they do do because I think they’re scared of being criticized for what they’re not doing, but everyone has to start somewhere. We need to celebrate what people are doing, even if they only have one piece in their range that’s sustainable. It’s a step forward.

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