It must be tempting to show off. When the Design Museum calls to say they want to put on a retrospective of your work, a solo show dedicated just to you, with your name above the door, the temptation to use that opportunity to say “Look at me! Look what I’ve done!” must be huge.
And yet even the name of the exhibition “Hello. My name is Paul Smith” implies a humble approach. Instead of showing off, Paul Smith has taken the opportunity to do two things. Firstly, to say thank you to those who have helped him along the way – from his father and his wife Pauline, to his Afghan hound, ‘manager’ of his first shop and the legions of fans who send him crazy sources of inspiration everyday. And secondly to inspire and encourage others to follow in his footsteps, to say, “Look at me – if I did it, you can do it too.” Everybody I speak to who has met him says how lovely he is, and that really comes across in the show.
The show opens with a reconstruction of his first shop – just 3m x 3m with no windows, a physical manifestation of the humble origins from which this Nottingham boy came. To start with Paul and Homer (the Afghan hound) only opened the shop on Fridays and Saturdays because Paul had to work Monday – Thursday to earn a living. He says, “It’s important to have a dream, but also to be able to support that dream.” And it wasn’t long before his dream started to become reality with a “proper shop” at 10 Byard Lane with staff that he was able to open six days a week.
The next room is covered, floor to ceiling, in artworks from Paul Smith’s personal collection, which includes everything from a Mario Testino, to drawings sent in by young fans. He’s certainly a magpie, with an impressive hoard of treasure! I love his democratic approach to art collection.
Critically successful designers who collaborate with big brands are sometimes accused of selling out, but Paul Smith explains, “I find collaborations stimulating and challenging. One of our first collaborations was with the car manufacturer Rover, on a Mini. Our strength has always been to know what to say ‘no’ to as well as ‘yes.’”
I love his update of the Cylinda Line for Arne Jacobsen – just the simple addition of colour on the handles. Beautiful.
He credits his father with his love of photography. He says, “I have been taking photographs since I was eleven. Photography is one of my hobbies. My father was an amateur photographer and founding member of the camera club in Beeston, Nottingham. He inspired my passion for photography. I have a camera with me at all times, where-ever I am in the world. It’s my visual diary.”
The who’s who of photography have worked on Paul Smith campaigns, but a couple of years ago someone suggested Paul shot them himself and he’s done so ever since. If you’re a photography fan, I highly recommend following @paulsmithdesign on Instagram – #takenbyPaul denotes the ones taken by the man himself, which seems to be pretty much all of them!
Paul also dedicates a section of the exhibition to his wife saying, “I owe so much to my wife, Pauline. Without her none of this would have happened.”
Another encouragement for aspiring designers is the mock-up of his first showroom, held in a Paris hotel room he rented for the occasion. He says, “My first collection comprised of just six shirts, two jumpers and two suits, which I laid out on a bed covered in black felt. Only one person turned up – at the end of the final day. But they placed an order and I was in business.” To give a real sense of what it’s like to work at Paul Smith, both the studio and his desk are recreated in the exhibition.
With my obsession with creative spaces, you can guess how much I loved that part, pouring over every detail of both spaces for clues to the creativity that comes out of them.
But my favourite part of the show, is what Paul jokingly refers to as the “aspirin room” because he thinks you’ll need one having been in there. I actually found it quite calming. You are surrounded by the sound of Paul’s voice, with that unmistakeable Nottingham twang, and floor to ceiling TV screens showing images that reflect what he’s talking about.
He says, “I still take my camera everywhere. It’s an essential ingredient to my travel arrangements every time. You can look at a beach hut, see the three colours and that can turn into a piece of knitwear.
“A lot of people think that design is just drawing something that comes from your head and the rest just magically happens. That is not true. Beach huts, ballrooms, military uniforms, rucksacks, are all things that help me create ideas for clothes.
“I’ve been to Hong Kong, Delhi, LA, I’ve been to places for less than one day, but I have probably done more than many people do in that time. I don’t like standing still. I love exploring new places, often only for 24 hours at a time, I love street markets, they’re my favourite places.”
“Ideas can come from anywhere. Inspiration can come from anything that’s around us. My father taught me how to take photographs, but also how to print them. Pauline, my wife, has kept my feet on the ground.
“The trick is to do something different, to look and see things in a different way. You can find a lot about a city by the shops in a very short time. I’m a great believer in lateral thinking, so don’t just go following what already exists, but be curious and ask what if I do that? And sometimes I will literally design in words, it might be a sentence that says ‘butterfly wings’, and that means iridescent colour and only I know what it really means, but it works for me.
“Pauline taught me to look and see. I carry a notebook everywhere and often I’ll wake up in the morning and realise I’ve written things down in the middle of the night.”
“Don’t spend too much time looking at what other people are doing, or going to all the shops – try to create from your own space. The ideas that we have can come from anywhere, you just need to look and see. Unfortunately, a lot of people look but they don’t see. It could be graffiti on a wall, an interesting pocket on a postman’s trouser, it could be shadows on a wall. It could be anything.
“I take a camera everywhere – it’s like a diary, a visual diary. I travel a lot and I always observe how the local people dress. If you’re in Rajasthan India, they mix hot bright colours together in pattern, it’s really inspiring. And in street markets you can look at embroidery, or you can look at an old jacket, or you can look at a photograph. These things can inspire you.”
“I love street markets, I love to go to Portobello Road. Because I travel quite a lot, I go to antiques markets around the world and there you can find lots of inspiration.
“Pauline taught me the importance of simplicity. Printing the unexpected onto a fabric is my handwriting. A flower on a fabric, a photograph I’ve taken printed onto a fabric. Shadows, I always love shadows. And often shadows have been used in my work, shadows that have been printed onto fabric. Venetian blinds, the shadows from them. We’ve used shadows of people, shadows of a bicycle. Shape, simplicity and proportion are all ingredients that are essential to design today.”
Further reading for the especially geeky:
- out and about :: in the making
- out and about :: home london 2014
- out and about :: coadg bursary at home london
- out and about :: east london design show