The Insider: Paul Smith, the colourful craftsman

The British fashion designer, known for his eclectic menswear, has created a colourful collection of carpets for The Rug Company, which he describes as strong in pattern and form.
The fashion designer Paul Smith has created the Oriental Birds carpet for The Rug Company, available at its DIFC store. Reuters / Luke MacGregor
The fashion designer Paul Smith has created the Oriental Birds carpet for The Rug Company, available at its DIFC store. Reuters / Luke MacGregor

Paul Smith’s first memory of carpets is linked to his father’s love of photography. “My father loved to experiment. One day he said, ‘Sit on this rug and pretend you are flying.’ He had arranged a patterned rug on some boxes and wired the corners as though it was flying. I sat with my arms in front of me. He then superimposed that photograph with a photograph taken of the Regency Oriental Brighton Pavilion.”

It seems fitting, then, that many years later, a collaboration with The Rug Company allowed Smith to create his very own collection of carpets. The designer is best known for the quirky clothing and accessories that he has created over the course of a 40-year career – not bad for a man who admits to having had no initial interest in design. From an early age, the British-born designer had his heart set on becoming a professional racing cyclist – but after a serious accident left him hospitalised for six months, this dream was destroyed. After his recovery, and with the help of a few friends he had made in hospital, Smith fell in with a group of local art students who imbued in him an interest in figures such as Andy Warhol, David Bailey and The Rolling Stones. Smith says it was at this point that he knew he wanted to be a part of “this colourful world of ideas”, eventually making the move into fashion.

Smith opened his first store after managing a Nottingham-based boutique for two years and taking tailoring classes in the evenings. With his newly obtained skill set, paired with the help of his wife, Smith showed his first menswear collection in Paris in 1976.

While he has since made his name with his immediately recognisable, unashamedly British range of clothing and accessories, he has never been averse to exploring other avenues – and has designed, among other things, a vintage-style camera and a very twee bicycle. His unmistakable style, which he describes as “classic with a twist”, mixes the traditional with a trademark sense of mischief and humour.

And then, 13 years ago, a chance meeting in London between Smith and Christopher and Suzanne Sharp, the founders of The Rug Company, kick-started a collaboration that has resulted in more than 45 rugs, wall hangings and pillows. Smith was one of the first big-name designers to collaborate with the company, which has since worked with the likes of Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander McQueen, Marni and Vivienne Westwood.

Smith’s most recent contribution to The Rug Company portfolio, available now at its DIFC store, is a hand-knotted rug called Oriental Birds, which is inspired by the designer’s long-held interest in stately homes that have “a feel of chinoiserie or things from the Orient”. This particular piece represents an entirely new direction for him, as many of his previous pieces for The Rug Company tended to focus on geometric designs. Made from Tibetan wool and silk, Oriental Birds, an intricate menagerie of birds, butterflies and flowers, took a year to create.

Seeing his designs translated into rugs was a surprising experience, says Smith, who was struck by the three-dimensionality of the end product and the “extraordinary depth of colour that you can get” with hand-knotted yarns. “It almost feels like you can put your hand into the design of the rug.”

Part of The Rug Company’s ethos is its promise to deliver a product that will last for generations. Founded in England in 1997, the company prides itself on utilising traditional weaving techniques, resulting in a product that can take up to four months to construct. This is a stark contrast to designing fashion, admits Smith, where a jacket or dress pattern can be cut out and draped on the stand within an hour. “Rugs like these take much longer to develop and so it’s all about being patient,” he says.

In order to create items that will last for generations, Smith has to carefully consider his chosen designs and colour palettes. “If you were working for a very commercial company you’d probably design things that are much more versatile in terms of the environments they suit,” he admits, but with The Rug Company it is also crucial to create pieces that “are very unusual”.

So what’s next for the ever-versatile designer? He is not quite sure. “I’ve been lucky enough to work on so many different things over the years; cameras, bicycles and I’m currently working on a very nice pen. I can’t say anything in particular except ‘challenge me’.”

Published: December 18, 2014 04:00 AM


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