One of the UK’s most renowned furniture and homeware designers, Bethan Gray’s exquisite pieces and visionary collections celebrate a kinship of cultural narratives, artisan techniques and modern design.
Queensland Homes interviewed the designer during her recent visit to Australia to celebrate her best-selling collections at Living Edge, including a new collection in collaboration with Mohamad Reza Shamsian, a highly sought after, masterful Iranian artist, to the contemporary design world.
QH: You have said that the Shamsian collection is inspired by your family heritage and your extensive travel through the Middle East. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you draw your inspiration from this when designing your furniture and accessories?
Bethan: I think it’s about staying true to myself and my roots. My ancestors were Romani Gypsy, something my family has always been very proud of. They were a Rajasthani clan who travelled from Northern India through Persia and then to Europe, before eventually settling in Wales. I have always been very inspired by their journey and by other cultures, so I have travelled all over the world, exploring global art and culture.
I love spending time there, particularly in Oman, and draw a lot of inspiration from the culture, architecture and landscape. On one visit, the fort at Nizwa really caught my imagination. It has these beautifully rounded castellations, and at a certain time of day, the sunlight falls across them, creating a sort of ombré colour effect which I recreated in my Nizwa cabinet. The Dhow cabinet was inspired by traditional Omani sailing boats and the way their sails billow in the wind.
QH: The Shamsian collection is a beautiful example of your skill at combining contemporary design – geometric patterns, cutting-edge technology and luxury surfaces like marble and brass – with traditional artisan techniques and finishes. Can you tell us a little more about the craftsman and artisan communities that you work with on your designs, and how that collaboration defines your collections?
Bethan: The Shamsian Collection is made in their workshop in Muscat. We use ancient techniques, such as 16th-century marquetry, combined with cutting-edge technology and the natural materials including marble, hand-stained maple and brass. This collaboration is really at the heart of everything I do. I have spent the last 20 years developing close relationships with master craftspeople all over the world. And it’s a genuine kinship – when we visit our partners, it’s not just about work, but about sharing meals and watching our children play together. We work within equal partnerships based on mutual trust and respect to combine contemporary design and technology with traditional craft, resulting in furniture and home accessories that give endangered skills new relevance in commercial markets.
I really enjoy that sense of dialogue – the process of pushing both the design and the craft techniques to be the best they can be.
Shamsian the name is named after the Shamsian (master craftsman, 200 craftspeople) close relationships. Kinship is about listening to them and spending time to get to know each other on a personal level. Depth of relationship is extremely important. Craft is such a vital part of any culture – and traditional skills are under threat. Working in close collaboration with craftspeople, we reinterpret ancient techniques, combining them with contemporary design and technology and making them relevant for new audiences all over the world. It’s a privilege to work with such talented people to tell stories through craft.
I am so excited to be going back next month to create new pieces for the collection and explore new ideas together. I rely on their craftsmanship and use their knowledge to create something.
QH: Do you have a piece from Shamsian that you feel is the centrepiece of the collection at Living Edge?
Bethan: I definitely have a close affinity to the Nizwa Cabinet in Jade. The Nizwa cabinet is made from Italian maple veneers, which are dyed immediately after they are cut from the tree when they are still ‘wet’ – this gives the veneer a depth of colour. You can still see the grain very clearly there is nothing on the market quite like it and at the time of the release there was only really neutral colours.
The marquetry pattern that makes up the castellations is made from 108 individual elements of solid brass and 118 maple veneer ‘petals’ for each door, all hand-made and hand-assembled.
The doors are also hand-shaded to create the ombré effect of the sunlight falling across the fort at Nizwa.
QH: You had a hugely successful showing of The Exploring Eden collection of furniture and accessories at this year’s Milan Design Week, teaming up with natural surface specialist Nature Squared to create the collection using leftover materials from the seafood and farming industries. How did this collaboration come about and what effect did these materials have on the finished designs and products?
Bethan: We met because we share the same building; they are neighbours of ours and share the same building block and just moved in. They invited me into the studio of 2000 swatches – waste materials and sustainability sourced.
Together, we wanted to show the world what we could do! The partnership grew from there as we have mutual respect for sustainability and the environment. Nature Squared is from the high-end superyacht world – secretive, and we wanted to work with them to bring this collection to the public allowing everyone to see their work.
I found the materials incredibly breathtaking, Abalone shells are beautiful and iridescent – a delicacy in South East Asia an abundance. I wanted to highlight the materials by using curves and pairing pearl with black, working with different combinations to achieve beautiful contrasts.
Discover more of Bethan Gray’s stunning work at Living Edge, including a showstopping collection of tables with brass and marble overlay, plus new additions to the Shamsian collection, including bar cabinets, a range of monochromatic beds and bedside cabinets, floor standing mirrors in three different colour combinations, and a stunning range of tallboys is pastel hues.