I have been a fan of Mini Moderns since my very first visit to Tent London many moons ago. I can remember being utterly star struck the first time I met them in person. Keith Stephenson and Mark Hampshire are both thoroughly lovely, very talented and incredibly generous with their time and expertise, volunteering for initiatives like Boost. I couldn’t believe it when I realised I had never actually interviewed them for the blog – so I managed to pin Keith down and here’s what he had to say…
What are your backgrounds? How did you end up doing what you do?
I worked as a textile print and graphic designer for various fashion companies ranging from jeanswear to cult fashion brand Red or Dead – Mark had worked in television and had also created his own interior designer-maker business selling his collections through Heal’s.
We met at a branding agency in the mid-nineties, where we were always put together as a team for projects, so we knew we worked well together and had a similar aesthetic, a similar approach to projects and most importantly a similar sense of humour!
We moved to another design agency where we continued working together – Mark as a brand strategist and me as creative director. We always felt that some of our skills were not fully utilised and so when we left our full time jobs, we set up an independent branding agency specialising in retail and lifestyle brands, we were determined not to be pigeonholed by job titles or clients. Our flexible and collaborative approach led to a commission by an interior boutique to design a wallpaper collection for them in the early 2000s. The resulting collection was an immediate success – with a lot of international press attention and was shortlisted for Elle Decoration’s Future Classic awards. To exploit Mark’s experience of home accessories design and my experience in print design we built on this success by creating our own independently financed collection of wallpaper, and Mini Moderns was born. The brand benefits from both our experiences in design and print, as well as our branding expertise.
Your first collection was snapped up by Heals quite quickly – how did that come about and how did you feel when that happened?
It was really incredible to be honest – our first collection only had four wallpapers in only one colourway each – but luckily Heal’s saw the potential in our designs and became a stockist. It was amazing for us as all our heroes of pattern design like Lucienne Day, Marian Mahler and David Whitehead fabrics had all been stocked or exclusively commissioned by Heal’s so we were really excited that we were being represented by a company with amazing design credentials.
What is it about pattern that appeals to you so much?
We work with pattern in way that creates a mood or a story. We don’t create pattern for pattern’s sake – we won’t for example do a design because other pattern makers are doing it and it may be commercial – it has to mean something to us. For us pattern is and should be a personal thing. We love to hear how people respond to our designs and the memories or images they evokes for them.
Your designs are really distinctive and you’re constantly coming up with new ideas – what inspires you?
We always say it, but nothing is beyond inspiring us – it can be a recent holiday or day trips we had as children, vintage finds, TV programmes, films or music. This sounds very vague but the design process for us is quite vague!
A wallpaper print can start out being one thing, which we are totally convinced about, only to morph into something else before our eyes. They take on a momentum of their own.
What’s your top tip for overcoming creative block – or is that not something you ever suffer with?!
Our biggest problem is that we have too many prints per season rather than having creative block – financial block is usually our problem! As a small business we can only afford to produce the amount that we do per season and we have become pretty good at self-editing. Obviously it is disappointing when we have spent time developing something that doesn’t go ahead, and by the following collection we have moved on. But they all go into our design bank for a time when they may come into their own or influence another design.
How do you work together?
Our roles can be very similar at one time and then very different the next. We have a short spurt of pure design and concept time, which is when our roles are the same – we conceive the collection themes together and then start the design process. When we have finalised the designs, we take on slightly different roles. I do the bulk of the illustration and the artwork for production and Mark works on range development and colourways, which is his strength. Often Mark will take on the role of art director – so even if something is my idea and I am drawing it – having a fresh pair of eyes on something really helps. The Whitby print is a prime example; it was very different until Mark took a look at it. Sometimes his suggestions mean that the print is much harder to create but it is always the right decision. After the design period I then tend to take on the responsibility of the production, whilst Mark takes control of the online shop, orders and dispatch. It has also made a huge difference having Charlotte join our team, as it means we have another pair of eyes at the design stage, and she works with Mark on the selling part of the business. We are all flexible in our roles, which we really enjoy.
How did the collaboration with Rob Ryan come about?
With all our collaborations, we have just found ourselves in the right place right at the right time. Rob works with Clothkits, who we have worked with in the past and we have some friends in common, although we had never met. We asked around to see if anyone knew if he was interested in producing wallpaper. At first it was just to introduce him to our manufacturers. However, when we did meet he was more interested in collaboration where he created a piece of art, that we made into a repeat pattern and helped to produce with our manufacturers. We all got on immediately and he is really wonderful and inspiring to work with. He is always very, very busy but he always finds time for everyone.
Why is “made in the UK by nice people” important to you?
Well the ‘nice people’ is very important to us! When we started out we had no intention of working any other way. To us manufacturing in the UK was just a given that we both believed in – it wasn’t even discussed – we both just accepted that that is how we would produce. After our first trade show we did have a lot of people who came up to us and said we should produce in China, and we suddenly realised that we really had a point of view on it – so started adding the ‘made in the UK by nice people’ tag to all our products. We work so closely with all our manufacturers that we get to know them and so we can guarantee they are all nice people! Almost all our collection is made in the UK where we can find manufacturers that are still producing at prices we think our customer can afford.
Which is your favourite product in your current range and why?
Our favourite product is always wallpaper. Everything else comes from this – the patterns are adapted for accessories and the colours are used in our paint collection. The wallpaper is the starting point and is the thing that establishes who we are as a brand and what our collections are about.
Tell me the story of how it comes into existence – how does your process work from idea to final product?
We always start our wallpaper collections with a concept for the theme – sometimes this can be fairly loose – like ‘Daytripper’ – or very specific like ‘Buddha of Suburbia.’ We immerse ourselves in the theme first, pulling images from our own memories or things we collect and pictures from our library of design books. Then we start designing. We always work on the wallpaper first. This how we feel comfortable and we can work within a square and repeat this. At this stage we work out whether the flow of the design is better as a drop repeat or a straight match. Some designs conceptually feel more structured and seem to want to be straight matches – others need more movement.
Sometimes designs take quite a long time to feel spontaneous. The Festival print was planned out very roughly and then drawn on screen very accurately and then printed out and traced by hand and then scanned and redrawn with all its hand drawn quirks. Whitby was a particularly difficult print – but the overall effect is one of simplicity. Which we like – the hard work should never seem evident in the final design.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
Our jobs are so varied at Mini Moderns that everything is almost like a new challenge, which keeps it fresh and interesting. Even though we work very hard and long hours, we never have that sinking feeling on a Sunday evening that we had in full time jobs. We totally believe in what we are doing and have a bigger vision of what we want to achieve so everyday is a step nearer to where we want to be. Now that we are starting to be more recognised as a brand, we are approached with new opportunities all the time, which is also exciting.
What are you most proud of?
We have so many things that we are proud of. It’s not that we are easily pleased, but we love what we do and are constantly surprised by the positive feedback we have to all our collections. We are really proud that our customers have taken us to their hearts and really feel engaged with our designs and with us. A more tangible achievement would be this year’s nomination for the Elle Decoration British Design Awards. It was such an honor to be nominated alongside design icons like the Velodrome, Olympic torch and Lee Broom. The party was great too!
What’s your favourite colour?!
Blue, but not the obvious ultra marine blues. We love a vast array of blues. As an art student I was encouraged to always substitute black with other colours – one of which was Prussian blue. This seems to add a lot more depth and richness and is a great foil for other colours. We have always loved teal and duck egg blue as decorating colours.
Our love of blue is also inspired by our trips to the Gio Ponti designed Parco di Principi hotel outside Sorrento. The entire hotel is decorated in varying blue majolica tiles – and the vast view of the Mediterranean certainly gives us ‘blue’ therapy. Mark is keen when blues go quite green too. So something like our new linen Pavilion cushion in the Chalkhill Blue colourway is a winner for us both.
Further reading for the especially geeky: