“Think about what you buy. Buy it be­cause you love it. That you feel it adds some­thing, and that you’d like to keep it”

The Simple Things - - LIVING | WISDOM -

Ded­i­ca­tion, de­ter­mi­na­tion and a love for what she does have made Orla Kiely a quiet force in the de­sign of our lives. Here, she talks to Frances Ambler about her pas­sion for pat­tern

Orla Kiely is giv­ing a glimpse into her de­sign process: “The sim­plest look­ing things are the hard­est,” she says. It’s tempt­ing to see that as a wider phi­los­o­phy. Her crisp, bold, colour­ful and, ap­par­ently, sim­ple prints have each passed through an in­ten­sive process – from ini­tial idea to re­search to sketches and then re­fine­ment and then some more, un­til Orla is fi­nally sat­is­fied. Since Orla Kiely ( pro­nounced to rhyme with ‘highly’ rather than ‘re­ally’) launched her epony­mous busi­ness in 1994, ini­tially fo­cused on hats, we’ve be­come so used to her de­signs bright­en­ing the land­scape of our lives – fash­ion, home­ware, even cars and pushchairs – that it’s easy to over­look the hard graft, ded­i­ca­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion that got it there.

It’s the morn­ing be­fore the open­ing of the ‘Orla Kiely: A Life in Pat­tern’ ex­hi­bi­tion at Lon­don’s Fash­ion and Tex­tile Mu­seum. While she makes it look easy, there’s a help­ful check to that idea in the form of a snap­shot re­pro­duced in her lat­est book, also ti­tled

A Life in Pat­tern. Show­ing a small, over­flow­ing room (and a small child), it’s cap­tioned, ‘ We have come a long way’. Although Orla Kiely the brand now ap­pears an em­pire, the photo re­veals its home­grown na­ture. “That was in our first flat,” Orla re­mem­bers. “The kids were ba­bies. I had a full-time free­lance-de­sign­ing job and was de­sign­ing for us [the Orla Kiely brand] on evenings and week­ends. So Der­mott, my hus­band, was do­ing all the pack­ing and de­liv­er­ies, and sales and talk­ing to fac­to­ries… That photo says a lot.”

Orla stud­ied in Dublin, then at Lon­don’s Royal Col­lege of Art, be­fore work­ing in New York. Like many of the post-war fe­male pat­tern de­sign­ers that in­spired her, such as Bar­bara Brown, she free­lanced for var­i­ous com­pa­nies, while – with Der­mott – build­ing their own, be­gin­ning from a kitchen table, babe ( her sons Robert, then Hamish) in arms, their Lon­don flat mul­ti­task­ing as de­sign stu­dio, of­fice and distribution cen­tre.

At that stage, she says, “there was never re­ally a great plan. I didn’t want to put pres­sure on my­self.” It grew “or­gan­i­cally”, out of love. “I was al­ways do­ing it be­cause I liked it and just loved it when other peo­ple liked it,” Orla says in her soft Ir­ish ac­cent.


“Look­ing back, I’m so pleased that we did it when we did it,” she says. While now there is more space and more staff, they were able to grow around their fam­ily, as they put down roots in south Lon­don. “We’ve al­ways been in con­trol and that’s very nice, es­pe­cially when you have young kids,” she notes. “They were al­ways our pri­or­ity, although we were busy work­ing. We could de­cide where our de­sign stu­dio and of­fice could be. If I needed to dash home, I could.”

Orla’s cre­ativ­ity is also a home­grown af­fair, fos­tered dur­ing her child­hood spent just out­side Dublin. “Oh, there was def­i­nitely al­ways a de­signer there. My grand­mother lived in the west of Ire­land and she’d

come and see us in her lit­tle green mini. And she was al­ways mak­ing,” Orla re­calls. “She was cro­chet­ing, knit­ting, tuft­ing rugs, mak­ing cakes. I re­mem­ber sit­ting with her, do­ing all those things.” Aged 12, Orla got her first sewing ma­chine. And? “I tortured my two younger sis­ters, mak­ing them wear my cre­ations!”

Her fam­ily con­tin­ues to pro­vide both sup­port and in­spi­ra­tion. Der­mott, who she met in Dublin, re­mains man­ag­ing di­rec­tor – his fo­cus on the busi­ness side ( pack­ing du­ties long since passed on) gives Orla space for cre­ativ­ity. But it was her fa­ther, at Lon­don Fash­ion Week in “very early days”, when they were fo­cus­ing on hats, who noted that, “Not ev­ery­one has a hat on, but ev­ery­one – all the women at least – they’ve all got a bag. So, there’s a mar­ket…” Her sub­se­quent bags pro­pelled the Orla Kiely name into wider pub­lic con­scious­ness. A wall in the ex­hi­bi­tion hon­ours their con­tri­bu­tion – she’s look­ing for­ward to show­ing her fa­ther when he vis­its from Dublin. A will­ing­ness to lis­ten also ex­plains the breadth of her brand’s col­lab­o­ra­tions – from ra­dios to cof­fee pack­ag­ing – “I love sur­prises,” Orla says. “When we’re ap­proached to »

do some­thing I’d never have thought of.” A favourite was be­ing asked to dec­o­rate a sculp­tural DNA dou­ble helix to raise funds for Can­cer Re­search. “I thought, that’s quite spe­cial. I love that kind of thing, when a print brings some­thing pos­i­tive.” Last year alone, causes ben­e­fit­ting from Orla’s work in­cluded the Ir­ish Heart Foun­da­tion, The Royal Bri­tish Le­gion and Spina Bi­fida Hy­dro­cephalus Ire­land.


It’s hard not to con­flate Orla Kiely the brand and Orla Kiely the per­son – es­pe­cially when re­s­plen­dent in her Orla Kiely-brand dress, bag and san­dals in readi­ness for the open­ing. How­ever, the suc­cess of the for­mer has un­doubt­edly been honed by the lat­ter’s ex­act­ing vi­sion. Within the ex­hi­bi­tion, she’s still tweak­ing dis­plays, just hours ahead of open­ing. “Things re­ally bother me vis­ually,” she con­fesses. “I can drive my­self crazy.” An­other im­por­tant value: in­tegrity. “As long as I con­tinue, I want to make sure that in­tegrity is never com­pro­mised,” she says. “I’m very care­ful not to put my print on things that I don’t like. It’s say­ing ‘no’ as much as we say ‘ yes’.” And that clear vi­sion makes it eas­ier to over­look high-street ver­sions that seem to have taken a leaf ( lit­er­ally) out of her de­sign book. “We have an in­vis­i­ble bal­ance that we’re al­ways try­ing to achieve. So I can see from a mile off that they’re just not the same.” And, although she pro­duces a fash­ion col­lec­tion each sea­son, she re­fuses to fol­low the fickle de­mands of “trends”. “We do it the way that we do it and that’s it. I fol­low what I love,” she ar­gues. “As long as it’s your pas­sion, your style, you’re in con­trol.”

See­ing her work to­gether gives a bet­ter sense of that in­vis­i­ble bal­ance. How Orla is al­ways – in her own words – “look­ing, ab­sorb­ing, notic­ing”, car­ry­ing ideas in her head, rather than a sketch­book. Her palette is in­flu­enced by the land­scape around Dublin, while she loves mid-cen­tury de­sign for bring­ing func­tion­al­ity and qual­ity, as well as beauty, into ev­ery­day life. Many of her own de­signs – such as the world fa­mous Stem pat­tern, which she de­scribes as “the land on which the house was built” – are in­spired by na­ture. But it’s Der­mott, not her, who is the gar­dener. “I just di­rect,” she says. Although prone to ideas that strike at 3am, Orla man­ages to live what she de­scribes as “a quiet life”, es­pe­cially en­joy­ing the re­lax­ation that comes

with tak­ing their dogs, Olive, a labradoo­dle, and Ivy, a west­iepoo, “for lovely, long walks”.

It fig­ures that Orla be­lieves that our sur­round­ings im­pact on our well­be­ing. Pat­tern, as her book’s sub­ti­tle ex­plains, “can make you happy with­out you even notic­ing”. “I think that’s true!” she says ex­cit­edly. “Pat­tern can stim­u­late or soothe your eyes, it’s the rhythm of it. Words don’t have to say any­thing.” With Stem, con­tin­u­ally re­vis­ited since its first ap­pear­ance on a bag in 2000, “We’ve been told of­ten that it makes peo­ple smile. I love the thought of bring­ing colour into peo­ple’s ev­ery­day life. As long as they en­joy what they have, I’m very happy.”


In her own home, Orla’s use of her colours and pat­tern is bold and in­spired, but care­fully edited. “Half of me is a min­i­mal­ist,” she ad­mits. The other half en­joys ‘things’ – although not just any things. She’s drawn to “the quirky or the colour­ful”, with a con­sid­ered ap­proach to pur­chases: “Think about what you buy. Buy it be­cause you love it. That you feel it adds some­thing, and that you’d like to keep it in your home.” There’s usu­ally space to squeeze in a find from her trav­els. “Ob­jects can mark times in your life,” she be­lieves. “I love it when you buy some­thing and it re­minds you of a par­tic­u­lar trip.”

Her ex­hi­bi­tion – “not a ret­ro­spec­tive,” she laughs, “That makes me feel old!” – is filled with mem­o­ries. For Orla, it’s been “an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity” to pause and take stock. “When you never look back, you spend your life go­ing for­ward.” Orla re­calls her first trip to the ware­house to ex­plore what might be in­cluded. “I was quite ner­vous – ev­ery­thing was buried in boxes, not even very tidily. We just dived in and were pulling out things, it was like ‘Oh my god, look at this!’ All these flash­backs.”

It’s evoca­tive for vis­i­tors, too – like how happy I felt recog­nis­ing the pat­tern of the dress that I wore to my sis­ter’s wed­ding. But, asked about what in­flu­ence she’s had over the 20-plus years of cre­at­ing such mem­o­ries, Orla is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­est. “The nice thing now is that there are many dif­fer­ent styles and op­tions, there’s so much to like.” She con­tin­ues: “I just think about my work. That thrill of a new print that you love, in­tro­duc­ing it to the world. And, ev­ery day, we’re still learn­ing – ev­ery time some­thing goes wrong or some­thing new hap­pens, you learn. Once you know it all, I think it’s time to stop.”

There’s no chance of stop­ping just yet though. Orla Kiely is, she feels, “just in the mid­dle” and, with her sons now grown-up, there’s “time to do even more”. With the ex­hi­bi­tion show­ing the breadth of what she’s achieved to date, there’s a sense of pos­si­bil­ity about what might come next. Watch this, soon to be even more colour­ful, space.

From the ‘Stem’ print, right, to ‘Aba­cus Flower’, left, Orla’s pat­terns adorn many an in­te­rior (and ex­te­rior, too)

The brand branched out into home­wares in 2007 with a mug: our kitchen cup­boards haven’t looked the same since

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