Noted for its surreal and provocative textiles and wallpapers, the design studio Timorous Beasties was founded in Glasgow in 1990 by Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons, who had met while studying textile design at Glasgow School of Art. Timorous Beasties was shortlisted for the Designer of the Year prize in 2005.
By depicting uncompromisingly contemporary images on traditional textiles and wallpapers, Timorous Beasties has defined an iconoclastic style of design once described as “William Morris on acid.” Typical is the Glasgow Toile. At first glance it looks like one of the magnificent vistas portrayed on early 1800s Toile de Jouy wallpaper, but closer inspection reveals a nightmarish vision of contemporary Glasgow where crack addicts, prostitutes and the homeless are depicted against a forbidding backdrop of dilapidated tower blocks and scavenging seagulls.
Timorous Beasties was founded in Glasgow in 1990 by Alistair McAuley, born in Duntocher in 1967, and Paul Simmons, born in Brighton in 1967, who met as students at Glasgow School of Art. After beginning by designing fabrics and wallpapers for production by other companies, Timorous Beasties then started to manufacture its designs and recently opened a shop on the Great Western Road in Glasgow. McAuley and Simmons also execute special commissions, such as fabrics for Philip Treacy’s hats and for the interiors of the Arches Theatre in Glasgow and 50 Piccadilly, a London casino.
As their working practise as designer-makers has progressed, Timorous Beasties have become increasingly experimental in their approach to both hand-printing and machine production. These changes are reflected in their evolving aesthetic: from early wayward interpretations of naturalistic images of insects, plants and fish; to a searingly contemporary graphic style which, as Glasgow Toile illustrates, explores social and political issues.
Q. How did you each become interested in design?
A. Alistair: From when I was very young I was always interested in drawing and making things, I find it difficult to pinpoint any particular thing or time which started it as it always seemed to be there, however it took me until art school to get to grips with possible careers combining everything that I could identify with.
A. Paul: I always loved art and design at school. Once I was at art school it was a process of elimination.
Q. When did you meet, and why did you decide to work together?
A. We met and studied together at Glasgow School of Art from 1984 but only decided to work together after we graduated in 1988. Our fabrics attracted a lot of interest as our styles seemed to complement each other and we shared many common ideas about surface design and the market environment. We both wanted our designs to be produced but more importantly we wanted to be able to control all aspects of production. Setting up our own design and manufacturing studio was the only way forward.
Q. Which of your early projects were most important in establishing you as designers?
A. In the beginning we seemed to spend most of our time working for other textile companies, like Sahco Hesslein, Mantero, Osborne & Little and Dedar. Our first public project was commissioned by Graven Images, the design consultancy, for a bar in Glasgow called The Living Room. We used a series of insects and floral motifs printed onto paper which was engineered to fit each wall, and some drapes designed specifically for that place.
Q. What were your objectives at the time?
A. To produce unusual and beautiful fabrics, wallpapers and products which were sensitive to the interior they were designed for.
Q. How has your work evolved since then – both in terms of your practice and objectives?
A. Our objectives remain basically the same, but our practice has become more involved in designing for experimental techniques both in hand-printing and machine production.
Q. Can you describe your working practise, for example, the process of developing a new project?
A. The process of developing a new project can happen in many ways. Sometimes we develop work or a technique through a commission. This comes through close liaison with a client in response to their criteria and the environment. At other times ideas develop and change into something we had not anticipated in the production process, but we always design with production in mind. Sometimes we have an idea that develops slowly sampling onto various fabrics or papers to achieve the quality we want.
Q. Why did you decide to manufacture textiles as well as designing them? How has becoming designer-makers changed your approach to design and way of working?
A. We wanted to be able to hold up the results, and be independent from what the market wanted.
Q. Do you see your work as part of a tradition?
A. One could say we are part of a print tradition; we are one of very few companies which still designs and manufactures under one roof. Silkscreen printing is a relatively new technique, but the format falls into a kind of block printing style, which makes our style of printing more versatile than the norm. Maybe we could call it a modern tradition. A lot of our work features images that can look traditional. This comes from a love of certain traditional elements, like academic drawing, use of complicated repeats, and the hand printed quality of inks.
Q. How have advances in technology affected your work?
A. Technology has and will always affect the way people work, it does not necessarily change the work itself. We can handle a much larger workload now with technology than we could ten years ago; email has enabled us to deal easily with international clients and given us the ability to exchange ideas more freely. Computers are just another tool, we still hand draw a lot, but are now able to scan in the drawings, enlarge and reduce them. Previously we would have had to blow up and stick images together on a photocopier; previous to that to project them onto a wall and trace; and previous to that to scale up using a grid.
New technologies such as digital printing onto fabric are also being used a lot more, but the feel and quality is different, for example you can’t print metallic or opaque ink. At the moment we are experimenting with high and low tech processes, by having some parts of a design digitally produced whilst hand printing onto the back of the fabric to achieve a completely different quality.
Q. Who or what inspires your work?
A. Inspiration is usually very indirect, it can take lots of different shapes and forms which can also be influenced by timing. To name but a few: Dutch design, Josef Frank, William Morris, Joseph Beuys, Paul Klee, Leonardo, Picasso, Ridley Scott, Tom Kirk, Chuck Mitchell, Italian motorcycles, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Ricky Gervais, Mona Hatoum and so on.
Q. Which of your design projects have you found most satisfying – and why?
A. Opening the shop. Why? Because it took so long.
Q. How did the Glasgow Toile project come about?
A. The Glasgow Toile happened as a result of many things, firstly a love of the old toiles produced in pre-revolutionary France in the small town of Jouey in the 1770s. Having designed a few commissioned toiles in the past, one for the Sheriff of Nottingham, and another for a client who loved African Elephants, we believed the compromise had been too great, but had learned a lot about how toiles are designed and put together. The Glasgow Toile was a technical challenge, in order to separate the drawings like the originals, producing extra depth and texture by overlapping and leaving gaps in the artwork to create more tones when the inks overlap one another, and also by joining the scenes together with horizontal lines.
Q. The social and political sub-text to the Glasgow Toile marks a departure from your previous work. Why did you choose to explore those themes?
A. The imagery in the original French 18th century toiles was quite sinister. They depicted scenes which were then contemporary, but we now see as traditional. Some scenes showed the factory at Jouey, and others rural scenes of workers relaxing, drinking, dancing, and womanising. So we did not actually change much in the Glasgow Toile; a glass of wine became a can of super lager, a pipe became a rollie, and an old man sitting on a stool in a rural scene became a tramp on a park bench.
Some of the scenes are from an area of Glasgow where we lived and worked for a big part of our lives. The scenes are sinister, funny and moral. A junkie shoots up in a graveyard – the graveyard is a famous Glasgow landmark, called the Necropolis, where junkies go. The moral tale being that if you shoot up, you will literally end up in a graveyard. A young man pees against a tree in a park. A tramp takes a swig from a can of beer. The moral here is that if you start misbehaving early in life you may end up in the park later on. All this is happening as the Glasgow University Tower looms above like a fairy tale castle. Other landmarks are the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Church situated in Maryhill, a poor area of Glasgow where we used to have a studio, while Norman Foster’s Armadillo building represents the changes along the Clyde, a once booming industrial port. The urban landscape in many UK cities seems to change all the time. Modern buildings have become icons that give us a strong sense of identity, therefore the Glasgow Toile seemed a perfect expression of where we were coming from. To sum things up, we do love some of the traditional designs from the past, but it’s great fun to give them a new angle, to make them speak to us in the present.
See more of Timorous Beasties work at timorousbeasties.com
Learn more about British designers and architects on Design in Britain, the online archive of the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain