In this profile from 2018, east London designer Bethan Laura Wood explains the outré personal style that underpins her work, and why the creative scene in Hackney is her fuel.
Always the most riotously colourful character in a room, Bethan Laura Wood’s personal style is as captivating and inventive as her work – flowing patterned robes and kimonos, exploding headscarves, clunky bangles, pink-dotty cheeks, pastel blue hair and electric-blue geisha lips. Like a tribal goddess of pattern, these elaborate costumes are the performative, ever-evolving extension of her experimental and multidisciplinary approach to design. “I have a very layered Russian-doll look that I’ve been interested in for a long time,” she says, “but it does morph and change depending on other influences.”
Past Mexican jaunts (and Frida Kahlo in particular) have provided rich sartorial creativity and a recent spell in Japan (she also loves Yayoi Kusama) saw the Hackney-based designer discovering incredible kimonos, but it’s not all about faraway inspiration. Wood’s roving magpie eye is as likely to stumble across items that inspire in local car boot sales, flea markets or London’s Spitalfields as much as vintage stores abroad.
What Wood brought to the table first was a new surface language, which adapted traditional marquetry techniques to celebrate modern laminates as though they were rare wood veneers. The tops of her debut Moon Rock series of tables were like a punk-pop version of fossilised rock or precious stones. These, along with her mesmerising Totem lighting collection, which was created in conjunction with artisan Pietro Viero and layers laboratory-style volumes of mouth-blown Pyrex glass, caught the eye of influential Milan gallerist Nina Yashar. So just over a year after graduating, Wood was exhibiting her work at Yashar’s prestigious Nilufar gallery alongside her former tutor Gamper. Since then her ascent has been swift and steady, with a Design Museum residency and her prodigious creative potential recognised in 2016 when she was awarded the prestigious Swarovski Best Emerging Design Talent medal at the London Design Festival.
For Wood there was never any doubt a creative path beckoned, or that her outré personal style would be an inextricable part of the whole. “My mum said that my sister Sophie and I always enjoyed making things, but I had to do it – it was a compulsion,” she recalls. “Initially I wanted to be an artist, but probably just because it’s the most commonly understood creative role when you’re young. As I grew up, I enjoyed the idea of making objects that interacted, that had a connection between practicality and fantasy.” One such example being the hair slides she fashioned for herself aged 13. “I made them from Kirby grips with pencil sharpeners stuck to them. The homemade hair clips made me quite popular at school,” she recounts, adding that growing up in the Midlands wasn’t easy. “I never felt there was a group for me. I was even outcast from the cool outcast group,” she says.
She’s found her gang now, though. London was the answer, somewhere she had her sights set on from the 90s. Arriving in 2007 she initially fell in with a crowd of film and television students and started assisting a costumier friend. Her first foray into design was self-adornment, as much a product of circumstance as a definitive career move. “I did jewellery ranges and a teacup which I could produce from the kitchen of my shared house. There was also a great dress-up and nightlife scene going on and I could wear those pieces out.”
It’s a familiar narrative – the future stylists, photographers, fashionistas, designers, artists and musicians – heading for the Big Smoke to unleash their creativity and craft their identity after dark in clubland. Wood found her tribe at BoomBox in Hoxton Square, frequented by Giles Deacon, Gareth Pugh, Hedi Slimane, Princess Julia and Kim Jones among others. “I worked at Bar Music Hall and from Thursday night to Sunday there was lots going on. It was a really interesting mix of dancing and nightlife, inspiring all these creative facets. Making jewellery was right at that time.”
Today Wood’s gang is less about dancefloor expression and more about design studio productivity. Based in Hackney, she is close to the studios of Gamper and his artist wife Francis Upritchard and contemporaries like Max Lamb. “This part of east London has a very strong scene of creative people. We try to support each other and go to each other’s shows. I’d find it difficult to contemplate leaving.” When she showcased a series of blown-glass lighting pieces during the 2017 London Design Festival it was as part of a collective enterprise spearheaded by her friends, fashion designer Peter Pilotto and his partner Christopher De Vos.
The four-floor Townhouse Takeover pop-up atelier in South Kensington was billed as an immersive “otherworldly gesamtkunstwerk”. Alongside Pilotto’s kaleidoscopic clothing and Wood’s characteristically colourful, modular totemic pieces was seating by Gamper, ceramics by Upritchard, blankets by Lamb, glass vessels by Jochen Holz, china from 1882 Ltd, vintage finds from Schmid McDonagh and illustrations by Peter McDonald. It was a collective tour de force and by far the best installation at the Design Festival.
In spring 2018, Wood is as prolific as ever. About to hit Valextra stores is “Toothpaste”, her collection of seven squiggly leather handles, four clasps and three pocket accessories that offset the architectural lines and open up the possibilities of the brand’s Spring/Summer 2018 handbag collection. For Salone there are new designs for directional Italian-based rug company CC Tapis and pieces for Nilufar gallery and you can bet they’ll be as colourful, experimental and exuberant as Wood herself.