There are people who work in creative overdrive, and then there is Bethan Laura Wood. Sitting in her London home, she is surrounded by objects of both her own creation and those collected from different places and times. Small artworks, textiles and mirrors populate her walls; lamps and sculptures sit atop shelves. All speak of a well-travelled and observant collector who finds meaning in beauty and vice versa. This is the world of Bethan—one defined by a love of pattern, a talent for teasing many threads out of single ideas, and, importantly, great respect for the unique capabilities of both artisan and industrial modes of production. “I’ve always been fascinated by this mix of the hand and industry,” she says. This fascination dazzles across her diverse portfolio, which spans furniture and lighting, pattern and textile, sculpture and installation, accessories, small wares and even set design.
Wood started her multidisciplinary studio in 2009, after obtaining an MA in Design Products at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA). Since 2011, she has worked closely with Nilufar Gallery in Milan, showcasing her self-directed limited edition and one-off works. She has also worked on a number of major brand collaborations with the likes of Moroso, Cassina and CC-Tapis, as well as others outside of the design world with brands such as Hermès and champagne house Perrier-Jouët. These collaborations, she says, allow her to explore other worlds, and to discover the ways her craft-based approach can be nuanced by specialist mechanisation.
Wood is recognisable as much for her individualistic appearance as for her confident visual language. Costuming and makeup is a big part of her public persona: she is often seen and pictured with a coloured dot on each cheek, draped in hyper-patterned fabrics and adorned with entirely wondrous shoes, scarves and head pieces. Wood lives in her ideas: “Quite often, I’ll pick up certain colour tones and start wearing them,” she says. “That’s my way of first digesting colour, and then you'll see me place those within my work. I grow a bit more of an understanding, because I've physically put myself into it.”
Wood has always been rigorous in her approach to design, but she says the pandemic has helped her be more meditative. Lockdown periods have reinforced the importance of some of the key questions with which her practice already grapples: where are our systems taking us? And, “Is that the best place to carry on going?” The answers might lie somewhere among her works, somewhere in her world—somewhere between the hand and industry.
What’re you working on at the moment?
I've been working on some new pieces for Nilufar. I had a big solo show with her for the 2021 Supersalone, and I was really pleased with the work we made for that. I made 10 new pieces, and quite a lot of those were new bodies of work, new languages; the Meisen collection, Ornate, the Bon Bon lighting. I've been working on some further explorations of these families. Hopefully, you'll see that in this year’s Salone, in June now hopefully. I also have some beautiful carpets that will come out for Salone with CC-Tapis. These are very much connected to meditative drawing I did during lockdown. It was really lovely to see CC-Tapis reinterpret those hand drawings within the language of the knot. I like the sensitive way that they've managed to evoke the ink line; it's a very different type of carpet to the more colourful Super Fake carpets we did, which are very bold and strong. These ones are much quieter.
You’ve got such a multidisciplinary practice. How do you summarise it?
I trained in product and furniture design, so everything I do will eventually stem back to that core body—but I've always enjoyed having a multidisciplinary approach and applying different media or materials or working with different creatives. That can create a wide variety of things, from lighting and lamps and more traditional furniture, through to pattern-based works. For example, the Mono Mania Mexico collection I did for Moroso in 2018 was based on flat pattern work, but engaged with what happens when that’s interpreted by others. It’s always fascinating when you get to work with technicians that specialise in understanding certain details, producing nuances between things made in a one-off or limited quantity, and things made with machines that rely on a larger system of formatting.
I also do a lot of collaborations with brands that are outside of my main industry. For example, also in 2018 I designed handles and clasps for Valextra for a collection of bags, called Toothpaste.
More recently, I’ve been working with champagne house Perrier-Jouët. They’re very connected to their heritage and identity, with roots in the Art Nouveau movement, and one of the founders was a passionate botanist. Originally they needed a large sculptural piece that could travel, as they’d been invited to design the VIP lounge at Design Miami. It was interesting to use that brief as a way to build a body of work with a particular language. I developed techniques for building with US aluminium specialists Neil Fei to make the collection, called HyperNature. I've subsequently designed domestic pieces drawn from that language that have gone back into Nilufar. We've made chandeliers and wall sculptures using the same techniques but within proportions that suit the home—and then again reinterpreted those for Perrier-Jouët. I really love making bodies of work that can expand in all different directions, depending on the needs of the client or the connections I make through collaborations. That's kind of what I do.
Tell me more about the Mono Mania Mexico collection, which occupied the whole Moroso showroom for the 2018 Salone. How did those designs evolve? How did the collaboration with Moroso, and particularly with Patrizia Moroso, shape the outcome?
It was an honour to be invited by Moroso to make an installation for them. It’s a really amazing tick of approval from Patrizia that says you have an interesting world or an interesting voice that can make some something in conversation with them. If you look at a lot of the textile-based works that Patrizia has been involved with at Moroso, they quite often take things that are from a craft world and rework them in a respectful way, transforming it into something different. It's never pretending to be the original craft; there's an interpretation that happens that nuances it with industrial techniques. Patrizia saw my Guadalupe daybed, which I originally made for a one-off project for Kvadrat and that was inspired by the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. She wanted to work on developing applique techniques together. She also saw all the preparatory sketches and all the different obsessional versions I'd done, based on the Basilica's windows, and she suggested seeing how it developed and changed using industrial techniques. It was so interesting to be able to take that one obsession, and make it fill a whole space and show how one pattern can be we worked and given many different outlets. The show of patronage from Patrizia was huge, and I was so happy with the end result. I have a lot of the pieces in my house.
Where does your interest in the combining of artisan and industrial approaches in contemporary design originate?
The main thing that shaped my practice was my time at the RCA [Royal College of Art]. But even before that, studying at Brighton University really offered a bridge between craft and design. I liked being able to move between the different workshops and the course allowed me space not to have to specialise. I've always been fascinated between this mix of the hand and industry. Back then, for example, I was really obsessed with slip casting and ceramics rather than hand building because I was fascinated by this mix between the moulding, which allows you to have repeatability, and then the nature of ceramics, which are incredibly unstable.
When I studied at the RCA, I was in a platform led by Martino Gamper and Jurgen Bey and their manifesto was about zooming into your location and making work directly with systems that already exist. So again, this mix between the physical hand, and the abstraction of a city, which is essentially a late-industrialised space. I've always been interested in how you re-look at things outside of the context of being mass-produced; asking whether they should still exist if they weren’t. That's a common thread in my work.
Your Colourdisc work for Cassina exemplifies that interest. The pieces are so joyful and elegant and so beautifully crafted; they don't look like something that could have been mass-produced and yet are so refined. What did that process of merging the worlds of mass and handmade entail, or offer?
Cassina was interested in working with me to make table objects or smaller objects that could have conversations with larger industrial pieces, their classic pieces. The Cassina archive, they've got some crackers in there, so I was a very happy bunny. They were interested in doing this within a collaborative context, namely with Venini, masters of handmade Murano glass. For me it was navigating both worlds, nodding to each universe in my design and combining them. At some point we hit pandemic time—a curveball for how I would normally work, which would be to get quite physical within the production space. I did manage to visit Venini and I've visited their factory before, but we were more limited over some of the experimentation. Looking at the Cassina archives, I noticed this detail of double dots within the construction of pieces, like their Olimpino table by Ico Parisi, which struck me as a distinct Cassina identifier. I built the vessels and then worked on balancing the discs, making this theoretical balancing act between Cassina’s two identities and details from their world, and a literal balancing act between the vessel and the discs. It allowed me to really push the composition.
What was it like working so closely with Patricia Urquiola?
Patricia is obviously an amazing designer. Her background is architectural and design, so she has perhaps worked more in industrial than I have, but her practice is also wildly mixed discipline. She's a wonderful woman to spend time with; she has such strong passion. It was a really amazing treat to be able to discuss ideas with her and get more of an understanding of how she and a company like Cassina work. I've predominately worked within the design industry in a limited edition and one-off manner with Nilufar, which I really cherish. But I'm also always hungry to understand different ways of working. For me, it's a balance between understanding something well enough to be able to then abstract it but not so well that you feel constrained, that you can only do it in one way.
“I’m fascinated by it; this need for early humans to make spaces, to paint walls, to communicate with each other through objects, to find beauty in inanimate things, and create universes around them or develop crazily complicated things to be able to polish, to perfect, to transform elements.”
All this talk of “balance”; I’m interested in how you navigate the incorporation of the many different cultural influences present in your work, coming from your own cultural background?
As I've grown older, and worked longer, of course I've become more aware of certain things. I'm aware there are countless examples, in the past and more recently, where this gelling of worlds is not a gel, it's a taking; such as big brands copying, say, the embroidery design of women from the south of Mexico, but producing in China with no connection to them. I hope, and I strive to find a balance between me being able to do the work that I find very rewarding and being inclusive and respectful. A lot of the time, the works that draw on particular spaces or cultures come from invitations to make work in that place.
When I was at the RCA, a group of us attended a residency in Venice. Our manifesto was to live there and visit as many artisans and craftspeople as we could to make work with them, and in response to them. I worked with a beautiful lace artist called Lucia, who was passionate about keeping the craft of lace alive. We did two projects together; one involved lace teeth that related to the history of the carnival in Venice. I was fascinated by one of the traditional women's masks, which is basically a black velvet cover you hold with your teeth, which was meant on the one hand to be liberating but also, is obviously problematic.
I made all these drawings of teeth, and Lucia embroidered a pair of teeth that we made into a veiled hat piece with another milliner friend of mine. We also did a series of lace confetti. I had not been to Venice before and I was massively in love with the patterns of the place. Confetti was everywhere; every morning I'd get up and there'd be swathes of colour on the ground. Some of the lace confetti took on more traditional lace shapes, and others were shapes and forms that I had drawn. It spoke of this issue Lucia saw where tourism, a good thing on one hand, had started to devalue this intricate craft as it drove demand for cheap lace, made in China. That was creating a context of throw away for something that is so precious, a slow skill. When you industrialise lace and bobbin, there is a point where the machines can't do what the delicacy of the hands can. I think Lucia really enjoyed this conversation in the confetti we made, because it spoke to the beauty of the elements of Venice, but it could also be read as a critical comment about how contemporary setups contribute to a throw away perception of specialist skills like hers. I hope that my work is a celebration of the positive things we have from mass fluctuation between different parts of the world, unlike the cheap lace. But I'm also aware of ensuring I stay on the right side of this rather than the exploitative side.
Where else do you find inspiration? I imagine you're someone who spends a lot of time imagining and dreaming.
I spend a lot of time looking. I think looking is one of the best pleasures in life. I love Paul Smith, who I've recently met a couple of times because he came to my Moroso show, which was lovely. He speaks beautifully about the skill in looking and the importance of observation. I think you can see within his amazing fashion empire, he's always taken details and colours from here and there and created a universe that's intrinsically his. I've always been really inspired by creatives, regardless of field, that build these worlds that are distinct, but also connected to working within their setup. Jaime Hayon, for example—I've admired the way he works for a long time. When I graduated from my BA, I brought him a teacup I'd made to a show of his in London. He was so kind to me, considering I was this small clown person that just wandered into his show offering him a teacup. I've really enjoyed the way he creates his own universe, but you can see the detailing that moves and changes within it. Everything is "land of Jaime", but he understands the nuance of how to apply his world to both an industrialised process and a hand process. Ettore Sottsas, who I'm also a big fan of, was very successful in the same way. He had such a strong design identity but one that he refined and fluctuated depending on the partners he was dancing with. That’s something I've always tried to emulate.
You are an avid collector. What is it about the human tendency to collect that interests you? What are you drawn to in your own collecting?
There's not only two different types of people in the world, but there is generally people who do and people who don't collect. I think there's a base element within human nature, and also in other animals, to collect. Again, it's something you can see in a purely celebratory manner, or you can look at it within a critical context of consumerism, of valuing things of no worth. But I'm fascinated by it; this need for early humans to make spaces, to paint walls, to communicate with each other through objects, to find beauty in inanimate things, and create universes around them or develop crazily complicated things to be able to polish, to perfect, to transform elements. It's beautiful and disgusting, and I do find those contradictory things to be often the most interesting. I'm somebody that finds comfort in having objects around them and I love understanding an environment through objects. Objects are such an interesting conduit into understanding people and what's happened in places, the movements that have come and gone. Being able to understand or educate and learn through objects is super rewarding and it penetrates my mind better than if I'm just looking at a textbook. That's my excuse for why I need to go to as many flea markets as possible.
Your mind seems to work like a web—one investigation or idea gives way to another, and they layer upon each other, growing into larger wholes, and maybe spawning off to create new beginnings. Do you wind up always holding a lot of disparate ideas in mind at once?
There are usually certain avenues that I'm more interested in exploring for a period of time than others. I have bodies of work that I've carried on doing since the beginning, or have carried on for a long time, but I intermittently move away from and come back to them. I have learnt how to digest different elements and then decide, of all the things that are interesting me, which is the correct one to play with in a given moment with a given partner. I learned to be critical with myself, knowing that if I put something down now, it doesn't mean I can't play with it in the future. You can't put everything into every design; there needs to be a rhythm, there needs to be some continuity that helps you navigate the reasons why something is one way and not another way, and in turn allows people to find a connection into your work.