The Wylde Interview: Bethan Laura Wood
Portrait by David Newton
Product designer Bethan Laura Wood is as unforgettable in person as her eye-catching designs. But beneath the peacock finery and magpie outlook, lies a thoughtful creative who cares about the world she is designing for. She chats to Pippa Brooks about furniture, fashion and... stained teacups!
Bethan Laura Wood's physical appearance is a riot of colour, texture, experimentation and unconventional beauty. Like her work, which explores the fascinating links between modernity, tradition and the beauty to be found in the everyday, the way she presents herself to the world is in itself a fantastic lifestyle choice. Wood has spent the years since graduating from the RCA's MA course in Product Design gaining a global reputation for the objects she creates; from lighting to set design, furniture to jewellery. Whether collaborating with other designers or working with artisans in traditional processes, Wood's work is a response to her environment, especially the theme of the modern city.
I have encountered the artist many times in London and during Design Week in Milan. The first time we met, she bought a rice picker hat from me, which she plopped onto her head amid much clanking of bangles, finishing her look to perfection. More recently, in Milan, she was showing her exquisite Guadalupe daybed (see below), made in collaboration with mighty stitcher Laura Lees, for Kvadrat'sDivina exhibition.
I have never seen her look anything less than spectacular; knotted headscarves, pom-pommed toes, plastic accessories, frilly bloomers, kimonos… all layered in such a way as to evoke a look that is utterly unique.
Pippa: You always look amazing! At what age did you begin to experiment with your appearance?
Bethan: I suppose I started to properly dress up in year Eight. So I was like, 13 or 14. At some point I just thought: "If you're going to take the piss out of me I'll give you something proper to do it with!" I definitely started to make my own hair clips and, you know that really bad Nineties hairdo when you twist your hair back with a little clip? I'd make myself a little pencil sharpener halo or something. I was very adept with a glue gun and silly make-up!
I can't leave the house without putting on red lipstick! Is there anything you feel like that about?
I have different things. For years I had a particular blue eyeliner that would go from turquoise to white with a diamanté here [pointing to a very specific point on her eye], and that was the make-up I wore until some point I realised that that was ridiculous, and that having white dots on my face was totally what I should be doing! So now it's more pink dots and eyebrows. Also headscarves. I was into hats for a long time but now it's headscarves. I'll get stuck on a particular thing and think that it's needed at all times and then suddenly I'll discover something equally ridiculous that has to be adhered to.
And when did you start working with your hands to create objects?
My Mum said my sister and I both used to like making things, but I had to do it! I used to go to a Saturday morning kids' club which I started at 5. By 7 you were allowed to go in the pottery class, which I was itching to do. By 14 I was assisting and by 16 I was running my own class. But we always made stuff in my home. I had a great book which was called One Piece of Paper, there's a really gorgeous edition of it from the Sixties. The illustrations were lovely and you would cut out these birds or make papier-maché pigs, and I always remember that.
Do you collect anything?
Everything! If I can find a reason to collect it, I'll collect it. It's quite a large part of my being. There's certain core things that I collect, like, I used to to collect sunglasses for a long, long time and it got to the point that I had 80 or so pairs and I had to stop! I used to put them all on the wall, like butterflies. When I was a student in Brighton, our house was a fun place to be. There were always pretty boys who played in bands, asleep in my kitchen! One night we had a house party. My room was always the quiet room and at the end of the night I went in to my room and literally everybody was wearing a pair of my sunglasses! I was sort of twitching… how do I make sure all these go back on my wall and not out the door [laughing]? My rule now is: if I collect it I have to show it.
I reckon you'd make great sunglasses...
I’d love to do sunglasses. The old-school plastics are wonderful. I've got a great pair of driving sunglasses I'd love to do a version of. I'll put it out there: I'm up for doing sunglasses, official!
So you've curbed the collecting a little bit?
I collect stuff to do with my work. If I'm working on pattern-based things, I'll start to collect pattern; like little bits of fabric. I like plastic a lot and I've always collected that. Recently I've become quite obsessed with clip-on earrings because they're a great source for crazy plastics. If I can collect it, I will.
What I love about your work is the fantasy element you bring to the everyday. Is that important to you?
I enjoy making pieces that have connections with the everyday. The spoon you use to eat your soup with should be an object you desire and love, just as much as a diamond ring that you wear on special occasions. I find it odd that the objects we have the most interaction with are the ones that sometimes we care least about. I enjoy making work that plays with the concept of art, but that are also designed to be used, and that you might gain from using them, rather than have them behind a piece of glass.
And is function as important as decoration?
Yes. If I make a cabinet I want it to fit the standard book size or the standard magazine size and for it to take the weight of a reasonable amount of objects that somebody might want to put in a cupboard. If I'm making a cupboard, that's important. But also I would want to make a piece of work where its function is also to examine our relationship with a particular material. For me, those conceptual thoughts are also functions. But yes, at the end of the day I enjoy trying to connect that with elements that allow you to use them within everyday life.
I love how your furniture, for example, the stackingSpaghetti Junction tables (see above), or interlockingParticle units (below) builds together almost like scaffolding. Also, that they would work in a large or small living space.
I like to make systems and I like to make work that could give you a smaller element and then you could use the same rhythms and theories. I had to almost train myself to make bigger pieces because, to start with, my work looked big to me, compared to my flat. But then when you put it in a big apartment it looked very small. I've had to learn to make things on a larger scale but to still keep the delicacies you can get in smaller works.
Some of the more patterned pieces are quite a statement, which would evoke a love or hate response. Do you get that?
It's funny, I make these Stain teacups (see below) and they're quite polarising, like Marmite! (to explain: white teacups are treated on the inside, in predetermined places, forming a pattern, which is revealed as the cups stain more and more, depending on the drinker's tea-drinking habits) You get such mixed views from people who don't mind staining, to those who think its the most disgusting thing in the world! I love these kinds of conversations! Something as small as a teacup can give such deep conversations and reminiscences. Every once in a while I'll make some more, but they're quite time-consuming.
Can you tell me something about the work you made using Memphis laminates? [the Memphis Group were a highly influential and ground-breaking design group working mainly in Italy from 1981-87, their laminates were very distinctive and colourful, epitomising Postmodern design]
For the original Moon Rock Super Fake collection (see below) I used a lot of laminates that were from Memphis. I worked with Abet Laminati; a really interesting company who have product that crosses over from Memphis to the laminates KFC use! So I really enjoyed working with materials where I could cross over between highbrow and lowbrow, and make those two have a conversation.
Speaking of the Memphis Group, do you feel part of a movement?
I think it's difficult when you're looking round and you can say: the Seventies had a style and the Eighties had a style. You look around like I did in the Nineties thinking there wasn't a style, but from where we are now the Nineties totally had a style. I've always loved Memphis from when I was very young and saw it for the first time. We've had the world of DIY and making from found things, touching on recycling. Now I feel we're having a movement where people are using pattern again. Parts of my work fit in with those last two categories, but I think sometimes it's not that helpful to be too obsessed with movements. I mean, it's good to have a manifesto in terms of what you want to do, like Memphis or whatever. To discuss what's important to talk about in design etc. You have to be able to find a way that is interesting to you or true for you, instead of going "Oh, that's on trend", or whatever...
What about your personal manifesto? Is it private for you, or something you can share with us?
I hope it's evolving. It needs to, because as soon as something becomes popular you have to move on. My work definitely sticks to my mantra from when I was at the RCA, of working with what's around you, working with artisans and just observations of the city, which has been a strong part of what I've done in the years since graduating as well.
I remember you showing me the beautiful bangles you made [see below]... didn't they come about as a way to use up furniture offcuts?
[Laughing] The surplus from these objects, which ended up taking me so long to do! It felt like, if there was any scrap, I should work out something to do with it. That led into making the bracelets. It became really complicated though, and in the end I made a "swiss roll" and sliced it into bracelets!
Do you hate waste?
I’m just really bad at throwing things away! Every once in a while I can get rid, but in general I'm interested in reducing waste. It's not my main focus all of the time but it's so important. You should push for minimum waste when you can; it should be a given.
A lot of times your work feeds from one piece into another...
Yes, the Particle cabinets led to the surplus jewellery, which led to starting with the legs of my next cabinet project. A lot of my work goes back and forth like that.
But then another important aspect of your work is that you work with artisans who specialise in traditional, age old ways of working, isn't it?
I think it came again from being aware of what is around you. What happens when local is global and global is local? I'm interested in that kind of mix. I love that I've found ways to go off and do residencies where I've been able to meet artisans with specialist skills or whole regions where they make a particular thing. Like with the lighting I've been making [see below], I have been working directly with an artisan called Piedro. A lot of the detail of the construction of the scale relates to the length of his arms the diameters of glass he personally is happy to blow, the types of techniques he likes. For me, I really enjoy that informing the works. We have to talk through an interpreter. It's always fun to have a challenge! When I don't have a translator and I want a quick answer to an easy question it can slow stuff down but in general it adds to the flavour.
You collaborate often, for example with Laura Lees and Gary Card in the past, do you like that way of working?
I love working with people and learning about their skills for me that really helps to make life exciting. It would be boring if I just sat in a room with myself all the time. I know myself, I don't know other people, I'd rather go and hang out with them.
I remember reading that your Spaghetti Junction stacking tables were inspired by Elizabethan collars and Dalston nail bars! I love that!
Especially with the laminate work I love mixing all the stuff that we've got. So many layers of history. Nodding to certain things that I'm interested in. But I like them to be open enough that someone else could see shells, or bacteria, for instance instead. I find visual associations so interesting to work with. I love how a certain mix of mint green with brown in a certain proportion, for instance, can make you think of the Seventies interpretation of the 1920s; I really enjoy those subtle things. I love playing with that in my work where someone might look at a piece and go, “Oh my God, that's my mum's kitchen cabinet!” That kind of connecting people with objects is what I've found very interesting.
I know you've made the Soft Rock scarves (see above), but apart from that, textiles haven't featured much in your work. Just given your love of fabric in dressing yourself, wouldn't it be a natural thing to do for you?
I’m working on a lot of pattern based things at the moment. The Soft Rocks were my first foray into digital printing. From that I tried to teach myself how to do repeat prints. I'm very keen to learn more about different printing techniques. It's just finding the time. From my BA period up until the RCA I wasn't super-comfortable with people always thinking I was a fashion designer or a textile designer just because I wore patterns. It took quite a long time for me to feel confident to put pattern in the work because I wanted to, rather than because people assumed it was what I would do because of the way that I look. It's something I'm embracing more and more.
Who do you look to for approval?
I have some core people that are my oracles. Liz Farelly is a fantastic writer and teaches design history; I always love to talk to her about ideas. She is a great critical thinker . My gallerist Nina Yashar, at Nilufar is a strong and important lady in her industry and her knowledge of design, especially Italian, is great to be around. Martino Gamper (my tutor at the RCA) has always been important, I love to hear his opinion on what I'm doing.
Has the fact that the Italian design community has embraced you helped you develop more than you would have in the UK?
There are lots of avenues in the UK to make work. The fact that I'm working in Italy with Italian artisans has helped be be taken on over there I guess. Everybody comes to Milan for Design Week. That energy is great, I really enjoy that vibe and that period in Milan is very important and having an Italian gallery helps a lot.
Do you listen to music when you work in your studio?
Mainly I listen to movies, TV series and visual stuff where conversations are going on! My friends can't believe I can work like that. I'll have the same movie on repeat for four days. I go through certain waves or types of films especially when I'm doing computer based drawing or sketching for some reason it helps me focus. To write I need silence and focus. I find music quite lonely. I get bored of music faster.
What are your favourite movies to work to?
Suspiria [1977, directed by Dario Argento, see below] is a great one for colour. Also, as a film it's so wrong on so many amazing levels! It's one of the last films to be processed in Technicolor, so the nail polish is half hovering because of the laying! Also the music is by Goblin, so it's really intense. Leos Carax's Holy Motors and Bad Blood are awesome. There are lots of movies I like for the interiors, or the colours of the backgrounds, or whatever. Sometimes I'll watch The Omen or The Exorcist one after the other, then realise I'm in a dark studio all on my own!!!
Do you care anything for fashion and trends?
I dip in and out. If I'm working on an accessories range I'll see what's out there and what the price points are. I like fashion... I just can't afford it all the time!
I imagine you get snapped by street-style photographers all the time. Do you find it irritating?
I don't mind it; it is what it is. But mainly now I ask what it's for, because obviously often I'm wearing fabrics or jewellery I've designed, so you have to be careful. But if it's for their own stuff it's quite sweet.