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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

Week 04 — May 24, 2018

In Conversation

Orla Kiely Designer4 minute read

Orla Kiely’s work is instantly identifiable. The Irish textiles designer’s work can be found in many a wardrobe, kitchen, living room, garden, and, on occasion, splashed across a bus. From a graduate hat line to a global business, Kiely’s impressive – and impressively beautiful - design legacy is now being celebrated at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern takes a sweeping look at several decades of work (and over 150 patterns and products). Here, Kiely discusses childhood, nostalgia, and the continual influence of mid-20th century design.

Rosalind Jana

Interview Rosalind Jana

RWhat was your childhood like? 

OGrowing up in the 70s in our 1950s modernist family home, seeing my grandmother and mother’s great style, it was hard not to be influenced. My childhood spent with my two sisters and brother, playing on the beach and going on hikes through the mountains. Nature was an important influence then and it still is.

So, you began with hats, moved swiftly on to handbags, and then expanded outwards (explosively!) from that point. What was it that first led you towards wanting to make things?

I was quite crafty as a child, always drawing and making things. It was something I loved doing. My grandmother was an early influence. She was a doer, she taught me to knit and crochet, and inspired a curiosity in making things.

On my 12th birthday my father gave me a sewing machine, and that changed everything, I became dedicated to making clothes. My two sisters were great and wore the clothes I would make them. It opened a whole world of designing and making clothes that I couldn’t find in the shops. Selecting fabrics and prints was a pleasure, and a sign of what was to come.

Your stem motif has gained such a kind of ubiquity: instantly recognizable to so many of us. How does it feel to have designed something that’s graced everything from birdhouses to buses? 

Since that first moment in spring/summer 2000, the stem print has been part of every collection. It never stays the same, we are always evolving the design — its colours, repetition and using it as the basis of new prints. We always push it a little further. The beauty of the stem print is that it can be so versatile and reimagined on different products. We feel very fortunate to be its founders.

Where do you look for your visual inspiration? Is there any particular process involved in devising new prints? 

Nature is a great source of pattern ideas. My personal take on nature has always been more abstract and graphic. I absorb inspiration in my travels, reading books, films, going to exhibitions, it never stops. Everyday objects inspire too. They can be interestingly random, which I love. I will spot something and store it away for the right moment.

I read somewhere that you particularly admire graphic design from the 60s. Is that a point you see as a particular golden era? 

I have a great passion for mid-century design and print. This has informed our product from the ready-to-wear collections, fragrance, beauty, handbags, watches, jewellery, homewares, wallpapers and more. 

I always come back to mid-century design because it is so strong, in all areas. In the UK and Scandinavia, there were incredible designers at the time and their vision is one I have always loved. It was a time of simplicity and good design, a moment where people embraced new ideas and it changed how people approached design in their daily lives. These designs still hold up and look modern today. Not just by their beauty, but their functionality and quality. Essentials of good design.


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I’m also really interested in the whole rich tradition of textile designers (yourself among them) who’ve extended their abilities out in all sorts of directions – especially when it came to, say, individuals like Sonia Delaunay who was making art, garments, set designs, etc. Are there any other designers you especially admire? 

There have been great print designers — amongst my favourites are Barbara Brown who did great work for Heal’s in the sixties and seventies, Pat Albeck, and of course Vanessa Bell, whose illustrations with the Omega Workshops and Charleston are incredibly beautiful. And in Scandinavia, there have been trailblazers like Marimekko from Finland, who have consistently made beautiful products for the last 60 years. They are the benchmark for how to bring print and design into the every day.

Given the overwhelming span of your output — from clothes to kitchenware and plenty more – are there certain branches of your business you especially love, or do they all offer their own rewards and challenges?

Each category has its own challenges, and each demand a different design perspective and that is the rewarding aspect. I am very fortunate to have this freedom. Being able to design product that will be used in different ways opens the scope for potential prints and more. We are always thinking of new ways of applying prints and new products we would like to create. It never stops.

Your work is sometimes described as ‘nostalgic’. Do you agree? Is the concept of ‘nostalgia’ one you want to engage with? 

My inspirations will always be firmly based in the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was a time of great films, music and design. We look to our muses, Catherine Deneuve, Anna Karina, Julie Christie, for inspiration so our collections always have charm and whimsy in equal measures. Just the right amount of nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, but we always interpret it for our vision of today.

Your forthcoming exhibition sounds absolutely wonderful. What was it like to look back over your archives? Was there a sense of satisfaction at the scale of achievement? 

It has been a great adventure, going through the last 23 years of work, seeing the depth of our print archive, reflecting on all our projects, rediscovering bags we designed and knowing how far we have come. We are seeing this exhibition as a moment to celebrate. I think the body of work we have produced is my proudest achievement. 

Could you tell me a little more about how your L’Orla collaboration came about? 

L’Orla was inspired initially as a creative collaboration between our long-time stylist and Violet magazine editor Leith Clark and myself. When it comes to fashion, we appreciate the same references. I have the utmost respect for her clarity of vision and how she is totally instinctive in the way she works. L’Orla is a way of developing ideas that otherwise might be too whimsical for our mainline collection. 

Finally, your husband is also your business partner. Do you try to keep family and work quite separate, or are there points where the lines blur? 

I think having started this company with my husband from what was just an idea, to see it become its own entity is a great thing to have nurtured. We have been able to do that by maintaining our integrity when designing our products and working with good partners. Making sure our vision and message makes it to the shop floor and into people’s lives as we initially designed it. The lines can be blurred but our roles are always clear. It has been possible for me to focus on all the creative development because he has always managed the business side, which makes it a great partnership.

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