“You don’t go to art school to do wallpaper design. There’s no such thing.”
How you become a wallpaper designer, Paul Simmons explains — or at least, how he did — is “by default”, when you undertake a textile design degree, and you have “no money, like zilch”, so printing your work on fabric is just not financially possible.
“For a fabric collection you need about 20 metres of each — and not just each design, but each colouring — printed, just to have samples, and display lengths, and that kind of thing. And we just couldn’t afford it,” Simmons says.
So, along with his Glasgow School of Art alumnus Alistair McAuley, he got creative, and began “experimenting, printing onto spare bits of wallpaper”.
What the pair had discovered was that old cores of wallpaper usually get “flung out” because of something called banding, which is what happens when the ink used to dye industrial quantities of paper starts to run out.
“But in between those bands, you can still find 30, 50, 60-odd metre pieces,” Simmons explains. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Twenty-five years later, Timorous Beasties, a wallpaper design company founded by a pair of broke students is now a multi-discipline, multi-award winning operation, whose recent commissions include designing imagery for a new Scottish bank note.
“A lot has changed; thankfully!” Simmons laughs. “It’s been a mix of survival and perseverance. We’ve always kind of just stuck to what we’ve wanted to do, and it’s worked out well. It’s a weird, round-about thing that because we haven’t worked for other people, and we’ve just done our own thing, we’ve then been commissioned by other people. There was never a grand plan, it’s just kind of worked out this way.”
If there was any plan at all, it was just to do things differently, to move away from the traditional and twee designs on the market, and instead celebrate the beauty in the gritty, the disorderly, and the beastly.
“Insects were some of the first designs we started off with. It was a slight reaction to a lot of the twee textiles that were around at the beginning of the ‘90s, and at the same time a kind of comment on the imagery that people do use on textiles, which is always very ‘pretty’. But actually there are lots of quite pretty and amazing and wonderful insects that people would ordinarily think of as being a bit nasty. Nature’s very beautiful, but sometimes I prefer the nature in a decaying leaf to a lovely green, succulent, tropical leaf. There’s a darker edge to nature and I always quite like bringing that out and seeing how far we can get away with it. It’s a bit of a design challenge: see how beautiful you can make something that contains things that some might find slightly repellent.”
Other alternative takes on the traditional have included the Hotch Blotch series, which put the disorder of splatters and drips into the structure of a damask pattern, and their Glasgow Toile.
“Looking at a lot of the old toiles, and the reproductions on the market, we just thought that the content wasn’t relevant anymore. They were designed beautifully, and they were printed beautifully, and they told all sorts of stories, but they didn’t really have much of a connection with what’s happening now.
“So we designed a contemporary version of a traditional toile. The idea was still very traditional, but by simply adding modern buildings, and modern scenes of what happens in our lives today, it suddenly gave them a twist.”
Those toiles, damasks and other designs now adorn — as well as wallpaper — fabrics, furniture, rugs and ceramics. Timorous Beasties creations have been used in hotels, stately homes, boardrooms and supreme courts, and the duo’s patterns have graced everything from books, and backpacks, to Kate Bush concert programmes, and, of course, bank notes.
“The bank notes was a really interesting project. It’s all quite complicated what I’m allowed to say because of security, but yes, we were involved, and it was great fun.”
The commission came from the Royal Bank of Scotland, for designs to be used on new polymer notes. Timorous Beasties’ contribution included an otter which will be used on the £10 note (released in 2017).
“The design brief was not to come up with a really contemporary, funky, crazy new banknote, it was very much about the ‘people’s money’. There are lots of lovely little stories about why all the different elements are in there, which should hopefully start to be released soon.”
While perhaps unexpected, the bank notes commission is not the most unusual thing the duo has done.
“Oh, we’ve done plenty weirder,” Simmons asserts. “We’re pretty open-minded, and we’ve ended up doing loads of different stuff. From lace to concrete. I was going to say from the cradle to the grave — we’ve done gravestones — but we haven’t done anything for cradles yet. Maybe that will be next.”