When looking at the sculptural curves, saturated velvet, and hand-cast resin that forms Bethan Gray’s exclusive-to-us Feather Collection, it’s hard not to wonder about the woman (and the mind) behind the designs.
Sure, a quick google of Bethan’s name will give you a timeline of her career accolades—New Designer’s Innovation Award, Elle British Designer, Best British Designer (for two consecutive years no less), we could go on. But we wanted to know… more.
We’ve already taken a deep dive into the inspiration behind the Feather Collection itself, (read it here), but what fascinates Bethan? How does she relax? What does family time look like? And how did she become the powerhouse that’s shaped contemporary furniture as we know it today?
We joined Bethan in her West London studio to talk about her love of travel, the balancing nature of yoga and a burgeoning obsession with shells.
Anthro (A): Describe yourself in three words…
Bethan Gray (BG): Creative, nurturing, travel-obsessed (sorry, that might be four!)
A: So, how did you make your way into the world of design?
BG: I studied three-dimensional design at De Montford University in Leicester and was awarded the New Designers Prize and a job at Habitat. I became the Design Director, which gave me a unique insight into global retail and the opportunity to work with craftspeople all over the world, before setting up Bethan Gray Design ten years ago.
A: Your own heritage plays a big part in the look, feel and techniques used in your collaboration with Anthropologie…
BG: Yes – my maternal family descends from an ancient Rajasthani clan that migrated across Arabia and Persia over centuries before settling in Wales. I knew my grandmother was a Romani Gypsy, but the rest has always been family folklore – I was delighted when a recent DNA test confirmed it. I love travel and I’ve visited many of the places my family journeyed through. I have always been inspired by the art and culture I’ve found on my travels and my work is about telling cultural stories through craft and design, in a way that appeals not only to those to whom those stories belong, but also to a global audience.
A: Your collection for Anthropologie focuses on the shape and form of feathers – what is it about feathers that appeals to you?
BG: I’m fascinated by the way that feathers are important to cultures all over the world from Pakistan to Polynesia to the Prince of Wales’ own heraldic badge. They are just one of so many perfectly formed shapes that you find in the natural world. I’m really inspired by spending time in nature and really paying attention to what’s around me. I take a lot of photographs and try to really notice the colours and patterns I capture.
A: Are there any other items or forms in the natural world that fascinate you?
BG: Oh yes, so many! My current obsession is shells – my growing collection is starting to get a little out of control! You’ll definitely start to see textures, colours and forms inspired by appearing in my work. I also love natural materials and use a lot of marble, leather and brass in my work.
A: You’ve already mentioned that you like to travel. What’s the most memorable place you’ve visited, what’s the place you recommend other people visit?
BG: My family heritage and my own research continually draw me to Middle Eastern art and culture as a source of inspiration. Oman is an incredible place – the fort at Nizwa and the arches and gilded domes particularly captured my imagination. My Dhow collection was inspired by the traditional Omani Dhow sailing boats, which are mesmerising to watch. I would definitely recommend Oman as a place people should visit.
A: What do you think makes a creative environment? And what kind of atmosphere do you create in your studio?
BG: We have a gorgeous view over the canal and usually have the windows thrown wide open. I am very particular about scent, so I always have a diffuser on the go. And there’s usually some chocolate on hand. In terms of creativity, I think it’s important to create an environment of openness. Everyone in our studio feels empowered to have an opinion and is comfortable to risk being wrong – that’s so important for generating good ideas.
A: Tell us a bit about your design process – do you have a tried and true method or is it quite fluid?
BG: It’s an ongoing process of exploring options and then narrowing them down. I start by reviewing the thousands of photographs I’ve taken on a particular trip and whittle them down to an image board that captures the story I want to tell. Then I start sketching and will create hundreds of iterations of a pattern before selecting the three or five that work best. Next, I work closely with craftspeople on materials and executions and again, we’ll try endless variations before deciding on the final option. You know you’ve got it right when a calm feeling descends – even the most complex pattern has a sense of balance and harmony when it’s right.
A: Outside of the world of design and travel, what are your other passions?
BG: I love yoga – I actually met my husband Massimo on a yoga retreat. It’s such a good way to nurture yourself and restore a sense of balance. I also love travelling, as I might have mentioned(!) and spending time in nature.
A: Does Cian understand what you do? And how does he influence the way that you approach both design and life at large?
BG: Yes, absolutely. He’s only four and he’ll often ask if I designed or made something – and he spots my work in magazines, which is very impressive. It’s really important to me that he sees me working and finding fulfilment in what I do, but of course, as any mother will tell you, having children changes your perspective on everything.
A: Your husband, Massimo, is also your business partner. What is it like working so closely together?
BG: I’ve worked in the design industry for 20 years now, and it is such a wonderful community, so I’m really pleased that Massimo gets to be a part of that and has been for the past decade. One of the major benefits of working together is that we can travel together – and Cian is still young enough that we can bring him along too, so we travel as a family and that makes a huge difference. It’s just great that we’re in this together and can support each other.
A: What does down time as a family look like?
BG: When we’re travelling, we always make time to enjoy the places we visit and spend time together as a family and with the families of the people we work with. Cian loves nature, so when we’re at home, we can usually be found in the garden or a local park. He’s got really into foraging recently, which is handy because, being Italian, Massimo loves to cook and Cian is definitely following in his father’s footsteps.
Have you seen our exclusive collaboration with Bethan Gray? Take a look at the Feather Collection.
Words by Leanne Mascoll.
Photography by Paige Anthony.