We have long been fans of contemporary pattern design duo Mini Moderns. Mark Hampshire and Keith Stephenson began developing their wallpaper and textile collection in their South London studio in 2006. We catch up with the pair to talk about the influences and inspirations behind their patterns and to gain some insight into the design process.
Mark Hampshire and Keith Stephenson with their Festival range
Mini Moderns and 1950s pattern design
Influenced by Terence Conran’s designs for Midwinter ceramic tableware in the 1950s and mid-century textile designers like David Parsons, Marian Mahler and Lucienne Day, Mark and Keith tell me of their love of the work of Susan Williams-Ellis for Portmeirion pottery in the 1960s, “Her designs were both commercial but also had an ‘outsider’ quality to them. We have an entire Totem dinner service, which is incredibly striking and unusual. We like something with a bit of an edge to it.”
Mini Moderns Pavilion cushion
Mini Moderns and the Festival of Britain
The Mini Moderns Festival range was introduced into their Daytripper collection in 2011 to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain. “We had collected Festival of Britain ephemera for quite a long time, and we were inspired by the work of the Festival Pattern Group [a scheme involving 28 manufacturers who drew on the emerging science of crystallography to develop new pattern designs for fabrics, wallpapers, carpets and other products]. At the time there wasn’t a definitive textile that summed up the event, so we wanted to create a pattern that reflected the excitement of the 1951 exhibition, and act as a visual record of the bygone structures and pavilions.” As well as paying homage to 1951, Festival forms a stunning contemporary design in its own right.
It is easy to forget that in 2011, there were few 1950s wallpaper and fabric re-issues; this was all yet to happen. I ask Keith whether they set out to give the design a 1950s aesthetic, “We never directly reference past designers in our work, but with this design we felt that it needed to look like something that could have been commissioned at the time of the festival, which is why it has such a strong 1950s look. We studied a lot of textile designs from the period to really get a feel for how London’s South Bank may have been represented.”
A number of pavilions and structures feature in the Festival print, notably the Royal Festival Hall, The Dome of Discovery and the Skylon. Also in there is the Abacus Screen, a structure designed by Architect Edward Mills to shield the South Bank site from Waterloo station across the Thames without blocking the light. It’s this that forms the subject for the Mini Moderns Pavilion fabric, a detail from the Festival pattern produced to complement their Festival range. Mark explains, “We will sometimes step back from a design and notice elements we want to explore further, and Pavilion came about in this way. We based the criss-cross patterns on the structure of the screen, so it seemed obvious to exploit it as a repeat pattern, using hand drawn circles to evoke the coloured spheres within the metal framework of original screen.”
Festival of Britain, South Bank, 1951, Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Mini Moderns and the production process
Most of their patterns begin their life as wallpaper and the pair explains that the process from concept to final design can vary enormously, and that it is usually the designs that look effortless that take the most time. “The elements themselves can be resolved but then once you try and put them into repeat it can all go wrong. Repeats are something that shouldn’t be underestimated – it is probably the most difficult part of the process, and can make or break the design”. Of course none of this is apparent in the final designs, a testament to the skill involved.
Fabrics and cushions follow. Keith tells me that they screen print their designs onto heavy cotton fabric, due to “the flat block colour you can create with it”. Mini Moderns is now producing tea towels and bone china mugs too, adapting the designs so that these products look great even if you aren’t familiar with the entire range. You might say that Mini Moderns is quite egalitarian in that sense – there’s something to suit everyone’s budget here.
The Abacus Screen, Festival of Britain, 1951, John Maltby / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Mini Moderns and the mid-century chair
Mini Moderns’ designs have personality in abundance and the duo’s sense of humour shines through in their work; there’s a sense of fun in there that is distinctive to anyone who has met them. Sitting Comfortably? is one such pattern – it is a chair fanatics dream and that’s probably why we never tire of looking at it. Among the mid-century design classics represented are Bertoia’s Diamond chair, Day’s Reclining chair and Jacobsen’s Ant chair, each depicted as minimal line-drawings that cleverly complement the pared-down designs of the chairs themselves.
I was curious to find out how Mark and Keith selected which chairs to use in the design. “The print is a kind of wish list. They are all chairs we loved, but could not necessarily afford! We thought other people were likely to be in the same situation and that’s why we decided to create Sitting Comfortably?. At the time, some of the chairs were out of production – the bent ply Eames Elephant stool, for example, had yet to be re-issued, and we were intrigued that something so amazing was no longer available.”
The subject matter is an unusual, and somewhat daring, choice. It was one of the first wallpapers the pair designed and they tell me that this allowed them the freedom to experiment. “No one was doing objects on wallpaper or textiles at that point, so the impact of design classic chairs on a print was a bit of a shock. It has been quite influential in that respect, and we still love it. And we still can’t afford all the chairs!”
Mini Moderns Sitting Comfortably? tea towel
Mini Moderns: the clank
So how do they keep their designs so fresh and interesting? Keith says, “We only truly believe we have a design in our collection that really works if it has what we describe as the ‘Mini Moderns clank’ – something that is slightly at odds but works together.”
Sitting Comfortably? cushion
Join our mailing list to receive a weekly email with links to our latest articles – simply type your email address into the purple box at the top right of this page!
To see the entire Mini Moderns range, check out the Mini Moderns website
For more images of The Festival of Britain, visit ribapix.com
For more on the Festival of Britain, see our article The Festival of Britain: All the World is coming to London!