ONE MIGHT SAY BETHAN GRAY is a woman born with artistic instincts.
The Welsh designer’s mother was an art teacher, and her great-great-grandmother, a cabinet-maker. Gray herself was discovered by respected designer Tom Dixon upon her graduation, when she received the New Designers Innovation Award for a piece of furniture she exhibited. Now based in London, Gray’s works are carried by recognised brands such as Liberty, John Lewis, Rado, and Anthropologie.
It’s easy to tell her signature in a piece of furniture, often dressed in fine marble or leather, and inspired by craftsmanship from around the world.
Take her Shamsian collection, a collaboration with Iranian artist Mohamed Reza Shamsian. Based on Omani architecture and crafts, the handmade furniture reveals patterns on stained wood, produced using marquetry and inlay techniques that have existed in Islamic craft for centuries.
Gray’s cultural references have proven easily adaptable, too. The Dhow pattern, for instance, was adapted for the maple veneer case of the newly-launched The Glenlivet Winchester Collection Vintage 1967, with its curved solid copper overlays that echo the whiskey distillery’s copper stills.
Gray also worked with Scottish master glassblower, Brodie Nairn, to create the bottle showcasing hand-cut lines that result in an ombré colour effect with the whiskey that goes from light to dark, mimicking the 50-year ageing process.
We sit down with Gray to talk about how she’s inspired by the art and culture of the places she visits, and the process of working with hundreds of craftsmen.
Your intercultural perspective stems from your family background. How does it inform your work?
I’m inspired by my ancestors’ journeys – they were a Rajasthani clan that travelled from Northern India through Arabia and Persia and then to Europe, before eventually settling in the Celtic heartland of Wales. I’ve been brought up to be proud of my Romany-Gypsy heritage, so I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures.
Take me through your creative process each time you take on a new design project.
I start with research, and I like to look at many options in the concept phase. So, I’ll 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.
Are you very hands-on in the manufacturing phase?
It’s really important to understand 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.
It’s all about pushing the boundaries to show off the craftsmanship so much better. You work around problems and make them work.
Explain 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.
Describe your best business decision.
Getting my husband, Massimo, to join me in this business. He’s got this great way of bridging the creative and business worlds. Sometimes it’s difficult but he pushes me out of my comfort zone. Although I don’t always appreciate it at the time, I do appreciate it afterwards.
The biggest career challenge you have ever faced?
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.
Your vision of the future of design?
Sustainability. For instance, using pearl shells from pearl factories that would otherwise discard the shells. We’re also using goose feathers, scallop shells, abalone shells and pen shells.
We are doing this as a new collaboration with a Philippines company making sustainable products, usually surfaces for yachts. This is the first furniture line by the brand, and there are about 10 pieces and some accessories.
I think 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.