Babylon Design is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. The group comprises design-led manufacturers Peter Wylly and Birgit Israel, a couple who produce coolly sculptural lighting and accessories. After a degree in fashion, “…I was designing very impractical sculptural clothing”, Wylly needed to earn a living and came up with the idea of wrapping stiffened silk around a conical metal frame and hanging the creation over a light bulb.
Like a garment, the shades could be realised in a thousand versions by using different fabrics, colours, trims and by modifying the basic shape. The peacock colours and exotic connotations of Bedouin tents and Eastern temples proved a welcome antidote to Eighties designer chic and a timely addition to the softer, ethnic influences flooding interior design in the early Nineties.
From 1991 to when he met Israel in 1995, Wylly was a one-man operation, getting and fulfilling orders to the usual London outlets, The Conran Shop, Heals and the like. Israel, Wylly’s partner in business and in life, was working as a stylist in her native Germany, spotted the potential of Wylly’s idea and suggested that she become his European promoter. The German market went mad for it, especially a chandelier version the couple designed together, and the basic principle became a phenomenally successful range of products.
“Birgit’s the business head, with a natural ability to simplify and organise,” explains Wylly. “It’s a combination of our energies,” adds Israel. “I’m good on the big picture, and Peter’s excellent on the design detail.” That marriage of talents, Wylly’s problem-solving head, Israel’s contacts and their mutually compatible aesthetic sensibilities, add up to a winner.
But Babylon is no one-horse idea. Supplementing Wylly’s many lighting designs, which incorporate ceramics, concrete, paper and plastics, as well as silk, the couple has branched into showcasing young talent from the UK and the US. “What drives Babylon is what we like”, explains Israel, “…we see a gap in the market and have an idea to fill it. We couldn’t find a beautiful essential oil burner so we adapted Margo MacDaid’s blue glass and aluminium box light, and now it’s selling in Neal’s Yard.”
Scouring degree shows for marketable products, Wylly and Israel use their accumulated production knowledge to convert college projects into saleable items. “We work out how to manufacture designs cost-effectively, and maybe expand one idea into several objects,” explains Israel. Jo Whiting’s raw porcelain chandeliers and Anna Thomson’s elliptical tableware, stars of Central St Martins and Brighton’s 1997 shows, are recent additions to the Babylon range.
Running the business from their warehouse apartment in Shoreditch, the couple have built a thriving international enterprise. The key is flexibility. Israel’s brother Cristoph prototypes the more complex objects in his workshop in rural Germany, while a lampshade manufacturer in Scotland supplies the bulk of the product range. Those diverse production capabilities provide Babylon with the means to constantly experiment with new ideas, and to fill bulk orders for its staple ranges… on time.
Planning a trip to Bali to source interesting woods, setting up the Babylon Design stall at 100% Design, Top Drawer and the Frankfurt Furniture Fair, searching out young designers, the couple are tireless entrepreneurs, but it’s obvious their business is much more than just a job. “We’re creating our own lifestyle”, says Israel, “and work opportunities are part of that.”