Tucked away in a maze of clothing warehouses and welding workshops in east London is Bethan Wood’s studio – a skylit, double-storey space she shares with a group of interior designers, marble sculptors, fellow product designers and makers. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling in a beautifully organised collection of references: the tiny eastern European Christmas trinkets that inspired an Hermès window display, a marbled mirror and a postcard of Yayoi Kusama’s 2014 installation Infinity Room.
It’s an eclectic mix, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the combination of fabrics and textures draped over Bethan herself. The product designer and founder of Wood London is a recurring figure in design festivals from Salone in Milan to London Design Week, and wherever she goes is instantly recognisable for the liberal sprinkling of accessories and layers upon her person, like an exotic bird perpetually finding scraps of neon and silver to adorn herself with. We sat down with her to talk about the irresistible draw of the flea market, and the advantages of using your own body as a kind of living moodboard.
Do you think your visual research overlaps with the way you dress?
Yes. I’ve always been a really visual, physical person, and I understand the colour and proportion of things much faster when I can touch them or pick them up or see them. My collecting of fabrics and clothes, and in particular at the moment earrings, is interwoven with the objects that I collect. Sometimes I try and wear an object that may not meant to be worn if it looks like it will work that way. Also, I have a slight problem in that I like to collect stuff.
Are you a bit of a hoarder?
Everything has its place… [laughs]
When did you first start dressing up, and how has it changed over time with your practice?
I’ve dressed up since I was about 14 – that kind of age when you become aware of yourself a little bit more, those school years. I started then, but up until I did my Masters I wasn’t comfortable with that connection between my work and the way I dressed. I found the fact that people always assumed that I was a fashion designer or a textile designer really difficult. I just wasn’t ready to combine the two.
Then, being at the RCA really made me think bigger and wider – it pushes you to find out what it is that you’re bringing to the table rather than another designer, and I realised that dividing my dressing, or my enjoyment of that amount of colour and pattern, from my work, wasn’t something that I needed to do all the time.
I don’t put colour and pattern on every single project that I do but I definitely think that since the RCA I’ve had more of a free flow between the two worlds. Often I’ll start dressing in colours or in tones because I’m trying to digest or understand a different palette.
“Up until I did my Masters I wasn’t comfortable with that connection between my work and the way that I dressed. I just wasn’t ready to combine the two.”
- Bethan Wood
That’s interesting, so you use your clothes as a way of unpicking what you’re doing in your work as well?
Yeah, I think it all becomes one at some point, and I’ve sort of embraced that now. It’s all to do with money too, you know? Sometimes if I have some extra money and I want to print some fabric of one of the patterns I’ve been working on to make it into some clothes, then I will.
I like to keep a mixed practice where I’ll do big and small projects, so sometimes I’ll do a fabric and sometimes I’ll do jewellery. Of course I’ll wear the jewellery for a while because I need to check that the stuff works. For me, especially when stuff is patterned and coloured you need to make sure that it works well.
Do you make those clothes yourself?
I used to make a lot of my own clothes, but my sewing machine died, so unless I can bribe my mother to do some sewing for me then I work with seamstresses or makers. By the time you print all the fabric or you make all the marquetry, the cost of that alone is quite a lot, and then my hands aren’t as skilled in doing very specific craft jobs like joinery or sewing. The vanity of wanting to do everything myself is outweighed by wanting the end result to be the right quality.
Can you tell us about what you’re wearing today?
Today I’m wearing something in between – I will have many more layers on if I’m not in the studio, and I have more layers on now than if I was purely here to chop loads of wood downstairs, or that kind of thing.
I’ve got my new granny slippers that I found at the weekend. I like my jazzy granny. I don’t think a granny has actually pre-owned these, they looked very new when I put them on. Then I move from granny to Marks & Spencer, with my socks. I like that every once in a while M&S manages to make socks that look like they’re from American Apparel, but only for a split second, and then they go back again. I’ve got a slight M&S sock addiction at the moment. I like these ones because they’re really neon with this weird skin tone, which isn’t a colour that usually goes down well with me, but for some reason there’s something really nice about that combination.
These are my hoedown pants, which are a staple – line dancing pants. I found the original hoedowns when I was 19 or something in Rokit in Brighton, and I tracked them down through the power of Google to a lady on eBay called Dosey Doe who would sell them.
“I don’t stand in front of the mirror for days before leaving the house, but I am constantly thinking about colour, the proportion of colour, the meaning of colour, the proportion of pattern, the meaning of pattern.”
- Bethan Wood
And you’ve stayed true to Dosey Doe for ten years now?
I’ve tried to! Dosey Doe isn’t there anymore, she was a real hoedowner I assume, but now I just buy them direct from Sam’s. I’ve gone straight to the source.
The dress is from the Brooklyn flea market. It goes with the socks because there’s this big chunk of beige, which is not a normal colour for me, but I really like the off-kilter combo of the acid with the beige.
My earrings are from a man at the market too. He told me they’re made by a woman who repurposes things into earrings. We couldn’t decide if they were Santa Claus and Mrs Claus on holiday, or Santa and his fancy woman.
I’m wearing a lot of stuff from New York actually. I went for the first time since 2007 with Tory Burch for the Design Week there in May. I’d been working non-stop pretty much for a few months beforehand, so when I got to Brooklyn I had to go near a flea market, and spend a lot of my money. I’m really good at packing – I pack half a suitcase to go and come back with a full one. I arrived at the car boot sale in one outfit and I left in another one. I managed to make a whole new look.
Like, “can I just pop between those two car doors and add a few things, and take a few things off?”
That’s what I was doing! It was funny because I was talking to the stall owners from the beginning and they suddenly twigged that they had already spoken to me.
They didn’t recognise you from the first time?!
Not straight away! They suddenly realised that there was something on me that I’d bought from them. We did it before when I was in Mexico in 2013, when I did the Designer of the Future awards, at the market there. In the end we took a picture with everything that I had bought hooked upon my person. I quite liked that direct use – because I’m using it already I can’t feel guilty about the fact that I’ve just bought it. That’s what I’m sticking to.
The bangles – sorry, I’m like a stuck record now – they’re from a flea too. I went to several over a few days. She told me they were Bakelite – it’s this really weird plastic, it looks a bit like bowling balls, and I like the mix between this weird, disco-y swirling green and the mustard yellow, which again is a colour combination I wouldn’t necessarily go for.
It seems like all of your sartorial choices are very considered.
I don’t stand in front of the mirror for days before leaving the house, but I am constantly thinking about colour, the proportion of colour, the meaning of colour, the proportion of pattern, the meaning of pattern. So I can verbalise it by using what I’m wearing as an example. A lot of the time when I pick stuff up it’s because it’s doing something that’s different to what I’ve seen before.
So do you think one day it could do a 180 degree turn, and one day you could end up in black and white?
I’ll never say never, but I doubt it. Partly because everybody’s like “oh, wouldn’t it be amazing Bethan if one day you came in in all black?” [She grimaces] It’s not happened so far, so unless I suddenly really change my direction…
Do you mainly find your pieces through car boots and flea markets?
Sometimes. But this scarf I have, for example, this is a Zandra Rhodes piece, I love going to her sample sales. They’re also a slight addiction for me. And also Piers Atkinson, he is an amazing milliner, I have quite a few pieces by him, and Kitty Joseph, she does really great patterns and stuff. So I liked to mix it up a bit with contemporary designers and new things. But it also comes down to cost. If I was to have millions in the bank I’m sure I would go to very expensive boutiques to buy things, but you find stuff within your means. It’s interesting when you can start mixing them up.
So have you got a favourite thing in your wardrobe that you go back to time and time again?
Don’t make me do a Sophie’s Choice! I love all my knick-knacks and things as equally as each other and there aren’t any I’m going to be giving away.