Thrilled to interview co founder of this global textile brand Paul Simmons on an Instagram Live recently. We were in the same year at Glasgow School of Art, 1984-1988, with Alistair McAuley, the other founder of Timorous Beasties and share a lot memories
We natter on for an hour, not realising that Instagram cuts off lives after 60 minutes, oops!
So viewers were deprived of Paul’s full response to my probing questions at the end about being a man in a woman’s world and whether his success was due to this? I am certain that Paul was just about to fully assert that “of course women can design just as well as men!!”
It does take a wee minute to connect on an Instagram Live at the start, which stresses me out a bit, but going forward I am going to use this time to fully introduce the subject of my interview rather than just mildly panicking. We do connect successfully and manage to establish that we have known each other 37 years: a long time and an amazing testament to him and Ali’s friendship and commitment to their work. We marvel at many of our peers tenacity to their careers in the art and the design world actually and recall a widespread assumption in our year that we were there to train to earn our living. It was not just a ‘fun thing to study’ – we were utterly serious. Paul compared us all to fisherman who never learnt to swim – very true!
Paul and I both remember a talk given to us in first year in the beautiful Mackintosh lecture theatre, a little uncomfortable despite its staggering elegance – we would all pile into this historic arena every week for lectures in art history and were probably often a little bored but this particular talk by recently graduated painters, Steven Campbell and Adrian Wizniewski, who had firmly put Glasgow on the art world map just in advance of our arrival at the art school, was anything but boring. Their advice was to forget London and look out at the rest of the world. Paul and I were a little unsure as to whether either of us had actually followed this sterling advice but he did recall that they were both drinking vodka for refreshments during the talk which definitely enhanced the entertainment value of their message!
I love the peek behind the scenes of the Timorous Beasties studio in Glasgow – the piles of books and drawings. Paul relates how his inspiration has always been the natural world and natural history books, illustrated with engravings. He cites John James Audubon who illustrated Birds of America – the most expensive book in the world, a series of four volumes, as a huge influence. Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of sea life and the exquisite volume, ‘Insects of Surinam’ by Maria Sybella Merian, recently republished, by Taschen, as constant sources of reference for him and Alistair. An internship at the Natural History museum in the entomology department, while studying at the Royal College of Art, stayed with him for ever, of course, even if once or twice he was caught slumped over a microscope asleep, drawing the detail of the folding mechanism of wasp’s wings…
The importance of drawing and being interested in things, to the point of obsession and the value of collaborating with fellow artists and designers is a huge theme for them both. Collaborations include Nike, Brintons Carpets, fellow RCA student, the milliner, Philip Treacy and the Royal Bank of Scotland. When listener, fellow GSA graduate Claire Christie, asked him for his dream collaboration he was a little stumped – I think he has done it all by now!
Paul admires creatives who traverse disciplines and disregard the distinction between art, design and architecture. Architect Thomas Heatherwick and Ron Arad are both heroes to him: he mentions Ron Arad’s inclusion of sound in his designs; Thomas Heatherwick, for his total lack of limitations and unpredictability. ‘You are a designer, you don’t just have to design fabric, you can design anything’, Paul reminds us. ‘I love the conceptual Dutch design company Droog for their all encompassing, communal attitude to art and design: chandeliers you can literally swing from for example.’
He believes that you have to adapt and him and Alistair have embraced modern technology to the full. Initially committed to hand printing everything, which they still love to do, but they had to move on. Self starters both, they did not wait for commissions or opportunities, rather created them. The key to their success has been adaptability and growing their business slowly they believe. Going forward Paul is full of optimism about the opportunities available to designers nowadays, with the gifts of modern technology. Their business is about 50/50 domestic and commercial and include a magical mix of highly lucrative projects and equally important projects that were maybe less directly profitable but were a feel good experience and a challenge – Paul’s advice is to just keep creating – try things. I so agree and I think so many artists and designers experience reflects this.
You can hear the full interview here on Instagram IGTV – enjoy!