Charming prints

Timorous Beasties’ subversive talent has deservedly put the group in the running for Designer of the Year, says Dominic Lutyens

Timorous Beasties, the Glasgow textile and wallpaper duo, form part of the mixed bag that is this year’s nominations for the ultra-glam gong of Design Museum’s Designer of the Year. Competing with Timorous Beasties’ exuberant wallpapers are Jasper Morrison’s glacially minimalist kettles and toasters for Rowenta, Penguin Books’ design team’s graphic identity for its Great Ideas paperbacks and the Design Council’s Hilary Cottam, for her rethinking of the design in schools, prisons and hospitals.

The duo behind the Beasties, enthusiastic, boyish Alistair McAuley and comparatively languid Paul Simmons – are pleasantly flabbergasted and proud of the fact that they are the first Scottish consultancy to be nominated.

Scottishness is very much part of the group’s work – its recent Glasgow Toile reinterprets traditional 19th century French toile de Jouy, giving it a radically Glaswegian slant. Although Simmons is Brighton-born, like McAuley he studied textiles at Glasgow School of Art. In 1990, they set up Timorous Beasties, taking the name from Robert Burns’ poem To The Mouse.

The group has created fabrics and wallpapers for Liberty, Sahco Hasslein and Monkwell Fabrics, a casino called Fifty at 50 St James Street, London, and an apartment block, 63 Wall Street, in New York. This year the group is exhibiting at New York’s ICFF trade fair and The Scottish Show Comes Home at The Lighthouse in Glasgow, and last year it opened a shop in Glasgow, selling not just fabrics and wallpaper but blinds and lampshades.

The group’s labour-intensive, mostly handprinted work is based on an appreciation of history. ‘We have taken a lot of time researching old methods, experimenting with complex repeats,’ says Simmons.

But the work is also provocatively contemporary, even political. The Beasties distort scale, blow up motifs and bleed inks into each other to almost abstract expressionist effect. The group’s Euro Damask print looks like a grid of Rorschach blots. And it gleefully subverts the politeness of trad wallpaper and furnishing fabrics – and the stuffy industry that produces them – with such motifs as iguanas gobbling insects or prosaic weather-chart isobars. ‘The fabric world is very strange,’ says Simmons. ‘You only have to have a print with a slightly evil-looking bird in it and everyone freaks out.’

The real shocker is last year’s Glasgow Toile. A wino boozes on a bench, a scamp pees in some bushes, a junkie shoots up, while behind loom the council blocks of Firhill, the working-class area Simmons lived in for seven years. ‘We wanted to portray the Glasgow the tourist board never tells you about,’ he says.

The Glasgow Toile appears to have been a clinching factor for the Design Museum jury. Museum director Alice Rawsthorn says it ‘marked a new direction in the group’s work by subverting a traditional style of textile design to depict the social and economic problems of contemporary Glasgow’.

However, the nomination of the duo has met with a mixed reaction. ‘The Design Museum tends to go with faddy design rather than thought-provoking solutions for contemporary life,’ says fashion and interior designer Russell Sage. ‘Timorous Beasties answer a trend for the 1970s revisited. I’m surprised the judges overlooked other wallpaper designers who have defined the zeitgeist, such as Abigail Lane.’

But the wider consensus is positive. ‘With a renewed interest in decoration, the Beasties’ contribution is being recognised. The group has stuck to its guns for more than a decade, and deserves its nomination,’ says the Guardian’s Caroline Roux. According to author and curator Lesley Jackson, ‘[The group] was championing decoration at the height of minimalism. It was one of the first to cross over into the now reinvigorated field of wallpapers.’

Of course, some of the reaction merely reflects positions taken on the dispute between Rawsthorn and former Design Museum chairman James Dyson on what constitutes ‘serious’ design. Approval of the Beasties’ nomination suggests a siding with Rawsthorn. ‘The group’s nomination highlights the current craft/ design debate,’ says Karen Turner, acting director of the Crafts Council.

Of course, this begs a question: are the Beasties are being used as political pawns by the Design Museum? Let’s hope not.

The Designer of the Year award exhibition runs from 5 March to 19 June at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 (0870 833 9955). The winner will be announced in early June

The Scottish Show Comes Home runs from 5 February to 18 March at The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow (0141 221 6362)

Latest articles