LDF 2022 Special: In Conversation with Bethan Gray

LDF 2022 Special: In Conversation with Bethan Gray

Part story teller, part celebrated luxury furniture designer, Bethan Gray combines narratives she collects from around the world with extraordinary craft skills and creative flair.

Her work is awash with whimsy and wonder. Rich colours, gleaming detailing, intricate patterns, and an expressive, free flowing style define her pieces, which have earned her awards, accolades and glowing global admiration.

With her London-based practice built on collaboration, Bethan highlights and the skilled makers that bring her concepts to life, working to spotlight and give fresh relevance to endangered crafts such as marquetry.

Each design is embedded with narrative, from the Dhow design which draws its flowing linear stripes from traditional Omani sailing boats to the arched Nizwa pattern which is inspired by shapes found on Oman’s Nizwa Fort.

As London Design Festival 2022 opens its doors for its 20th anniversary edition and creatives from around the globe flock to the capital, we are delighted to announce the launch of the Bethan Gray collection at Chaplins, with her pieces exclusively on display at our Greater London showroom in conjunction with LDF 2022.

Join us as we sit down with Bethan to hear her LDF plans, and to step into her enchanting world.

How did your design journey begin?

Nizwa 3 Door Cabinet | Shop Now

Dhow Bar Cabinet | Shop Now

Growing up in Penylan, east of Cardiff, I was always encouraged to be creative and to make things, inspired by my Scottish grandfather, a forester who was constantly carving me objects out of fallen wood and making me pieces of furniture, plus my great-great-grandmother was a trained cabinetmaker so it obviously runs in the blood!
After completing a 3D Design degree at Leicester’s De Montford University and winning the New Designers Innovation Award for my graduate collection, I was talent spotted by Tom Dixon – then Head of Design at Habitat – which really kick started my career. I cut my teeth in the interiors world by working with retail giants such as Habitat, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Crate & Barrell in the US before founding my own studio in 2008.

How would you describe your work and aesthetic?

Nizwa Collection

My approach to design is streamlined, tactile and intelligent – I’m drawn to nature’s graphic patterns and harmony of colours, traditional crafts executed with passion and integrity, tactile materials such as solid wood and hand-dyed wooden veneers, leather, stone, ceramic, brass and handblown glass.
My network of craft partners around the world have helped to push the boundaries of my designs and in turn, I’ve challenged them to create modern pieces that are truly unique. It is vital that my work is not only beautiful but connects with the stories of who makes them and where they come from.

Your fascinating heritage links back to a nomadic Rajasthani clan that migrated across Arabia and Persia, how has that influenced your work?

It has encouraged my deep interest and curiosity in people, culture, patterns and history, inspiring me to always look for ways to respect and harness the past while lending these traditions relevance within a contemporary present.

Nizwa 3 Door Cabinet | Shop Now

Nizwa Collection | Shop Now

You say everything you create starts with a story, how do you imbue your work with narrative and history?

Everywhere I go, I look to the shapes, symbols and geometry. My starting point is to focus first on the history connected with the makers or the material, into which I then weave my own stories and ideas which become part of it as a collective whole.

What has partnering with traditional craftspeople around the world taught you?

There is something very calm, peaceful and happy collaborating with an artisan who is proud of being able to do one thing really well, drawing on the knowledge and skills handed down to them through generations. Take working with marquetry expert Shamsian and his team of craftsmen in Oman, for example; I am humbled by their history and enjoy learning from them, but I love to push what is possible too. Marrying their ancient 16th century know-how with modern laser cutting techniques has elevated the quality of the curving lines in my Nizwa and Dhow patterns so that the pattern looks fluid yet very precise.

Bethan Gray & Shamsian

Nizwa Bar Cabinet | Shop Now

Tell us about the new Inky Dhow collection – it’s incredible that the pattern is realised in marquetry on woodwork rather than paint!

Inky Dhow is an evolution of my original Dhow pattern, first inspired by a trip to Oman where I was taken with the patterns made by the billowing striped sails of the dhow boats sailing across the Arabian Sea. I began exploring painting the Dhow pattern on a larger scale by hand, working with inks, calligraphy brushes and watercolour papers to lend it a more painterly feel, and giving the lines more variety in depth of thickness and intensity of colour.
Through different craft techniques, the Inky Dhow design has been applied across marquetry for cabinets and tables, digitally printed leather by Bill Amberg (used to upholster my new Ripple modular furniture collection), as handblown glass lighting with Murano-based Baroncelli, and I’ve painted it onto hand thrown Seven Sister vases made in collaboration with 1882 Ltd. The most exciting thing is that while they are all beautiful stand-alone pieces, they also resonate beautifully together.

Inky Dhow Collection

Inky Dhow Ripple Armchair | Shop Now

Inky Dhow Collection | Shop Now

Do you view your creations as art as well as practical objects?

I create functional pieces imbued with the artistry of my own hand and that of the people making them. I like to think that each of my pieces can fit into any space. There are so many variations available through customisation – for example, with a Nizwa cabinet, the dimensions can be tweaked, the colour combinations varied and the number of doors and drawers adapted – that I love the way people can personalise my designs to perfectly suit any interior.

Nizwa Bedside Chest of Drawers | Shop Now

Nizwa Bedside Chest of Drawers | Shop Now

When did you feel like you’d ‘made it’ as a designer?

It was incredibly exciting to bring together all our craft partners into the one space, in full Inky Dhow immersion, at the Rossana Orlandi gallery during Salone del Mobile in Milan this year. It was quite emotional, having been apart from our makers and customers for so long during the pandemic, to see the collection work so beautifully together.

Inky Dhow Collection | Shop Now

What drew you to working with Chaplins?

As one of the UK’s most admired independent furniture retailers, I am thrilled to be included within Chaplins’ impressive mix of world-leading brands. It is such a beautiful store, where my pieces can be showcased with a lifestyle feel, allowing customers to understand better how a Bethan Gray design might sit in their own home, supported by the experience and knowledge of the Chaplins’ sales team who I can trust to tell the stories behind each piece.

Lustre Coffee Tables | Shop Now

Nizwa 3 Door Cabinet | Shop Now

Lustre Coffee Tables | Shop Now

What do you get up to outside of studio life?

I love to go to Wales, where I grew up, and to be beside the seaside or immersed in nature whenever I can. I swim regularly, both wild and in a pool. And travel is essential, whether it is going to a music festival with friends or exploring a new city with my husband (and business partner) Massimo and our young son Cian. I am always in search of things to excite my imagination.

Any new projects on the horizon?

I have just designed a new console-style desk where the Inky Dhow marquetry wraps around every surface, including its legs – shown for the first time during London Design Festival as part of a month-long immersive installation within the entrance hall of Sketch – and I’m currently working on a more vivid colour palette for Inky Dhow to complement yet contrast with the softer tones of jade, teal, coral pink, charcoal, grey and white I’ve used for my Dhow and Nizwa collections.

Shop Bethan’s work exclusively at Chaplins – pay as visit to our expansive Greater London store to see the new display and hear the tales behind each beguiling piece.

More Articles