One of the UK’s most celebrated furniture and homewares designers is in Australia sharing the stories and inspiration behind her work.
Bethan Gray’s elegant and unique pieces have been on show in the Living Edge showrooms for the past couple of years, but this is the first time Bethan has visited Australia to talk about her work, which is an inspired and distinctive take on how to combine tradition with modernity.
Since launching Bethan Gray Design with her husband Massimo in 2008, Bethan has won four Elle Decoration British Design Awards, sold her products through Harrods, Liberty, Lane Crawford – and of course Living Edge – and has recently been awarded an honorary fellowship from Cardiff Metropolitan University. The recognition is obviously wonderful, but for Bethan the most important thing is staying true to herself and her roots.
Bethan’s ancestors were Romani Gypsy – a Rajastani clan who travelled from Northern India, through Persia and then to Europe before eventually settling in Wales. “I have always been very inspired by their journey and by other cultures, so I have travelled all over the world, exploring global art and culture,” says Bethan.
Everything Bethan designs starts with a story and the end pieces are a result of true collaboration. “I have spent the last 20 years developing close relationships with master craftspeople all over the world,” says Bethan. “And it’s a genuine kinship – when we visit our partners, it’s not just about work, but about sharing meals and watching our children play together.
“We work within equal partnerships based on mutual trust and respect to combine contemporary design and technology with traditional craft, resulting in furniture and home accessories that give endangered skills new relevance in commercial markets. I really enjoy that sense of dialogue – the process of pushing both the design and the craft techniques to be the best they can be.”
The result is rather exquisite. And hearing the stories behind the designs adds even more intrigue to Bethan’s work – be it the three-legged Welsh cricket tables of her childhood or the patterns inspired by the billowing sails of traditional Omani dhows.
Bethan’s Shamsian collection is the main focus of her Australian tour. The collection is made in Oman by the collection’s namesake, master craftsman Mohammad Reza Shamsian, and his team of 200 craftspeople. These artisans combine ancient techniques, such as 16th-century marquetry, with cutting edge technology and materials such as marble, hand-stained maple and brass.
As for the designs, Bethan draws inspiration from the culture, architecture and landscape of Oman. “On one visit, the fort at Nizwa really caught my imagination,” says Bethan. “It has these beautiful rounded castellations and at a certain time of day the sunlight falls across them creating a sort of ombré colour effect which I recreated in my Nizwa cabinet. The Dhow cabinet was inspired by traditional Omani sailing boats and the way their sails billow in the wind.”
The green Nizwa cabinet is not only the centrepiece of the collection, it’s Bethan’s favourite piece. “The cabinet is made from Italian maple veneers, which are dyed immediately after they are cut from the tree when they are still wet,” explains Bethan. “This gives the veneer a depth of colour and you can still see the grain very clearly.
“The marquetry pattern that makes up the castellations is made from 108 individual elements of solid brass and 118 maple veneer ‘petals’ for each door, all hand-made and hand-assembled. The huge amount of hand work gives the feeling of imperfect perfection.”
As for her favourite material, Bethan finds that a much more difficult question to answer. “It probably changes every six months,” says Bethan. “I’ve always loved marble. Each piece is different, like wood. I love the combination of marble and brass in my Lustre collection (soon to arrive in Australia). And the shells in the Exploring Eden collection – shells and iridescence.”
Exploring Eden is a collaboration with natural material studio Nature Squared, which was founded in 2000 with a mission of creating meaningful and self-empowering employment opportunities for people in developing countries, transforming sustainable natural materials into beautiful surfaces. It’s a perfect fit for Bethan’s love of natural materials and nurturing approach to craft. “When they invited me into their studio with 200 swatches, I was like a kid in a candy store,” laughs Bethan.
The result is items such as a capiz shell shelving unit, jade and pheasant feather lounge chairs, pearl shell cylindrical stools, a scallop shell table and a pen shell coffee table.
Bethan is in Australia as part of a three-month tour which includes store launches for Living Edge and talks at shows such as Design Beijing and Downtown Design Dubai. Bethan is also visiting her craft partners and, as always, is keeping her eyes peeled for new ideas and inspirations.