Catching up with Bethan Laura Wood, the Design World’s Reigning Queen of Color
Crowned one of W Hotel’s 2013 Designers of the Future, London-based designer Bethan Laura Wood is the reigning queen of all things color and material—and if you couldn’t guess it by her signature, exaggerated self-styling, simply step into her solo booth (organized by W Hotels) at Design Miami/ Basel. Known to reflect her local surroundings, this time, Wood has filled the booth with the sticky-sweet colors of candy she encountered on a trip to Mexico City, incarnate as glass lamps in Aztec and Art Deco patterns and created with the help of local Mexican and Italian artisans. At the fair, Artsy’s Marina Cashdan caught up with the designer—fatigued from working around the clock through the installation—to discuss the work, her draw to Mexico, the experience of staying with the family of a local artisan, and her strong ties to her Royal College of Art roots.
Marina Cashdan: How are you holding up this fair week?
Bethan Laura Wood: I’m a little tired, but that’s [part] of the joy of doing fairs; it’s full-on but it’s a really good way to get to show your work and to meet people.
MC: Can you talk about your commissioned work for the W Hotels Designers of the Future Award, including the research trip that inspired the collection?
BLW: This year was the first year they decided to do the research section. For me, I like to work with local environments, or go somewhere and make work in response to being there physically, so it was perfect that this was the direction [W Hotels] went for this year. And the fact they sent me to Mexico was even more perfect. I’ve wanted to go to Mexico for a long time.
MC: What about Mexico are you particularly drawn to?
BLW: I really love the energy there, and that there is color in everything, but really harmonized color. I really enjoyed going to different locations every day, and really getting a taste for the amazing architecture, to see the Frida Kahlo work, Mariachi... It was an amazing experience.
MC: Can you talk about the Mexican candy you have displayed the booth, and how these candies played a role in this project? And were there other sources of inspiration that you can tell us about?
BLW: I fell in love with [these candies] in Mexico City—they’re like long, giant lolly-tongues. I loved the color quality they had. These ones [displayed in the booth] aren’t quite the same as the ones I took photos of for color reference, but I just really loved the kind of slightly translucency and these really sticky-sweet colors, so I felt that could be a really interesting reference to use in combination with obviously my interest in the graphical flower arrangement. Then I also took references from other color sources like the [Art] Deco-Aztec architecture in the Palacio de Bellas Artes—the outside is Art Nouveau and then the inside is Art Deco. I liked the spirit of some of the shapes there and the strong graphics. I also really love the new Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and again, this great use of color. The stained glass [there] is super-graphical, but then when you go close up there are so many beautiful details that are actually very subtle.
MC: Had you ever worked with glass before this project?
BLW: I worked with Seguso glass in Venice, when I did the residency, and that was [my] first, small piece. But I haven’t worked with that kind of kiln glass since then; it was a one one-hit project. And then with the Pyrex glass, I did a previous project with Pietro Viero, who I also brought in on this project. I really enjoyed working with him as an artisan and working with that specific material.
MC: And did you work with glass blowers in Mexico as well?
BLW: So when I went to Mexico City, I was looking for artisans to work with, but what I found was that lots of the artisans that do the very traditional craft actually aren’t in the city at all—they’re much further out. But then I found a great glass studio [called Nouvel Studio] based in the city and they incorporate Mexican style and colors but with some Scandinavian techniques. And so I went to visit their studios, and they have this fantastic range of color they could produce, so I felt they could be a company that I would be able to turn around a project within this kind of time frame.
MC: Did you have specific designs for the lamps that you stuck to, or did you come across any surprises when making the lamps?
BLW: For the Pyrex [pieces], I went to stay with Pietro and his family, and we would go in the studio, and I would [show] him drawings of the rough scales and sizes, and then he would try and blow shapes and plates, and we would go, “a bit wider,” “a bit shorter.” Some shapes that I drew were very difficult to do, but then I would see another shape we could do that was even better than the ones I’d drawn, that we would start to create a language of pieces we could do. I also found some new Pyrex colors, like pink and purple and malachite—colored Pyrex is sometimes less stable to work with than the transparent —so then we also needed to play with those to see what size shapes we could make with those colors to then work out the proportions of the piece. Because if certain colors could only do, at maximum, certain sizes, then you have to cherry-pick how you get that color mix going. So Pietro and I worked very much hand-in-hand. Every night I would have more information from Pietro and how the Pyrex was going to shape, and then I would be sending PDFs to the Nouvel studio. With Nouvel, we mainly worked together via [email] and PDFs.
MC: I heard that you worked around the clock installing this booth. Can you tell us a little bit about the process?
BLW: It was quite a full-on install. I never make things easy for myself! We were finishing [the pieces] right up until we came here. We literally came here with everything in parts, and we wired everything here for the first time. I never managed to get this far to get everything physically finished, because I was running back and forth to Italy, or getting enough information drawn up for Mexico so that bit could roll, and sourcing the right components for hanging, and then you try one, and it comes, and it’s not what you think, and you have to order a different one, etc. So it was nail biting the first time I put it together was here, but I had a great team. Fernando, who came to Mexico with me, came and then also another designer Oscar Wanless, who’s a fantastic designer in his own right, came. He used to work for artists doing installs, so he’s very good at having a cool head and knowing how to install. So he came, bless him, and then I also had this great team of my two boys helping me get the work finished, and up, and nothing broken.
MC: Congratulations! I see a strong Royal College of Art (RCA) connection here at Design Miami/ Basel. There’s work by Philippe Malouin just around the corner, and I know there are pieces by your former tutors Martino Gamper and Jurgen Bey. Do you feel that this connection is a palpable one?
BLW: My love of the RCA is very strong, and I think a lot of designers that come through [Design Miami/ Basel] are associated with the RCA. Tomás Alonso, who I actually now teach with in Switzerland, he’s ex-RCA, there's Oscar, who helped me here, he went to the RCA, Martino shows in Nilufar Gallery.
I really felt like it was a very special time when I was at the RCA that I had such great support from amazing designers that help push you to think bigger and wider. And I definitely think that without going there and having these great teachers that I don't think I would be here now. I definitely think it was a very important period to push me to become a better designer. I may have found it very difficult at the time [laughs], but I definitely wouldn’t change my experience of being at the RCA and the subsequent friendships, and people that I’ve met through it. So for me it’s a really strong thing, which is why I’m happy to teach at ECAL in Switzerland. I think it’s really important to have tutors that are practicing.
MC: Does that RCA connection also resonate in London?
BLW: Yeah, I’m very good friends with lots of people that are all ex-RCA’ers. There will be pockets and groups; some people graduate and come together and set up studios, others are more independent.
MC: What’s next for you?
BLW: I have a September show coming up in Aram Gallery in association with Nilufar Gallery. So I’m hoping to take some of this work back to London to exhibit there. Plus I will be making some new pieces with some of the other artisans that I found in Mexico, but it depends how much time that needs, because time’s a-ticking. And maybe I will have a sleep for day [she laughs]. And then I’ll get back onto the focus of the show and what works are going to work together. But it will generally be work that I’ve made this year. But I’ve only just seen these pieces together this week, so it was difficult for me to gauge the right time or what exactly the show is going to be about.
MC: I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to walk through the fair, but if so, are there particular pieces that have stood out for you?
BLW: I purposely tried not to look at people’s booths while I was setting up because I’m here for a week and it’s much nicer to see small bits everyday, properly, than to feel like you’ve seen it all when you’ve not seen it all. But I’m very happy to be very close to Richard Woods’ work, because I love his large installations and his use of color. It’s always nice to see his pieces, and I’m sure there are lots more works here that I’m going to be very interested to see when I get a chance.
Portrait by Antony Lycett. Installation images by Claude Gasser.