Adventurer artist-designers

For certain artist-designers, travel is the bedrock of originality, says Emma Crichton-Miller. Their intrepid adventures – from the Amazon to the Atlas Mountains – imbue their work with a richly evocative identity

Bottle-shapred stoneware pot with dolomite glaze, £1,200, by Daniel Reynolds, at Dorset Square Hotel, London
Bottle-shapred stoneware pot with dolomite glaze, £1,200, by Daniel Reynolds, at Dorset Square Hotel, London | Image: Simon Brown

Daniel Reynolds is a ceramic artist based in London. Besides his handbuilt sculptural work, his sensuous vegetable-inspired vessels (from £750), ceramic mobiles (from £4,500) and veined porcelain lights (from £200) are much sought after by hotels and boutiques. Kit Kemp, of Firmdale Hotels, is a fan, using his lights and displaying his decorative pieces in London’s Dorset Square (bottle-shaped pot, £1,200) and Ham Yard hotels, and the Crosby Street Hotel (pots, £600 each) in New York. But while embedded in London and New York, Reynolds is also half Venezuelan, and much of his inspiration derives from widespread travel through the country – from his mother’s home city of Güiria in the far northeast, to the Amazon rainforest in the south. He claims that his organic pieces are inspired by early childhood memories of visits to an uncle in the countryside, who lived on a smallholding. All the children would swim in the local river while the adults would cook lunch and serve it in large gourds, “which we would cool in the water”. He adds: “Then we would be sent home to English boarding schools.” It is no wonder that the memory became fixed.

Daniel Reynolds making one of his mobiles
Daniel Reynolds making one of his mobiles
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A quite contrary influence was South American modernist architecture, with its love of geometry, exemplified for Reynolds by Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s masterpiece, the University City of Caracas. In particular, he says, “its main auditorium and concert hall has an acoustic installation of Nubes de Calder, as they are known locally. These are giant ‘cloud’ shapes designed by Alexander Calder to cover the entire concave ceiling, protruding at various angles. The effect in scale and colour is amazing.” They have been a profound influence on both his lights and his handbuilt vessels. So despite the current dangers, for Reynolds, journeys to Venezuela are an essential adventure.

Bernie de le Cuona crocodile Stowaway travel bag, £8,700
Bernie de le Cuona crocodile Stowaway travel bag, £8,700
Bernie de Le Cuona
Bernie de Le Cuona | Image: David Cleaveland

Setting out late last year to visit a collector in Caracas, en route to the opening of an exhibition including his work at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, he recalls: “I flew from London to Port of Spain in Trinidad. From there I travelled the length of the island to the southernmost tip where, by prior arrangement, I met a man who owned a long fishing boat with an outboard motor. Passport formalities having been completed in a breezy government shack, he agreed to take 11 of us across the open sea on a two-hour journey to the village of Pedernales at the edge of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela.” They arrived in the early morning light, gliding silently through forests of mangroves haunted by scarlet ibis, occasionally passing Warao Indian families in fishing boats. It was an unusual way to deliver a commission.

Stoneware and copper-oxide pots, £600 each, by Daniel Reynolds, at Crosby Street Hotel, New York
Stoneware and copper-oxide pots, £600 each, by Daniel Reynolds, at Crosby Street Hotel, New York | Image: Simon Brown
De Le Cuona wool/linen fringed Expedition cushion in Kilimanjaro, £190, unfringed version, £180, and Sebastian Arabica linen and leather throw, £570
De Le Cuona wool/linen fringed Expedition cushion in Kilimanjaro, £190, unfringed version, £180, and Sebastian Arabica linen and leather throw, £570 | Image: D Blackmore

Travel inspires us all. For many artists and designers, however, it is the bedrock of their originality. For restless Bernie de Le Cuona, renowned creator of beautiful and luxurious fabrics and accessories, journeying – whether in search of craftspeople, rare techniques or unique materials – is fundamental to her business. Born in South Africa to a father of Spanish descent, de Le Cuona grew up on a farm outside Johannesburg. “All I ever wanted to do was travel,” she says, and the idea is embedded in the names of her creations – collections entitled Grand Safari (£170 per m), Expedition (£170 per m; cushions, from £180) and Buffalo (£223 per m); and accessories such as the Adventurer travel bag (£11,700), Wanderer backpack (£4,500) and Stowaway travel bag (£8,700).

Wool/silk Erased Heritage rug, £2,520 per sq m, by Jan Kath
Wool/silk Erased Heritage rug, £2,520 per sq m, by Jan Kath
Kath at the Bochum Showroom in 2011
Kath at the Bochum Showroom in 2011 | Image: Dimo Feldmann

Artisan techniques underpin each new fabric design – whether it is her soft, understated stone-washed linens (from £90 per m), sumptuous embossed-linen velvets (£140 per m) or fine, intricate wool/cotton paisleys (£200 per m) – and she travels from Kashmir to rural France to find her collaborators. Not long ago, she spotted a wall hanging by Colombian textile artist Olga de Amaral in a museum in New York, and wondered whether she could find someone to create a similar cross between a wall tapestry and a Chanel jacket. An online search turned up a mill in Scotland. After a five-hour train journey, de Le Cuona found it. “Instead of using yarn, they use ribbons or tapes. For me, they are weaving with rubber and plastic.” A hunch that a mill near Como in Italy with a new kind of laser might help her burn off a pattern on some beautiful linen velvet she had commissioned led to her discovering some vintage copper rollers there, used to emboss leather. Soon she had pressed the mill into service. As she puts it, “I am interested in using old techniques to create a new effect, workable for today’s market.” Most recently, de Le Cuona headed off to Wrocław in Poland to investigate some old Soviet mills that were being revived. “We found some amazing craftspeople who are trying to reinvent themselves,” she explains. Just 15 of the 1,000 looms are operational, but the operators are highly skilled and speedy. She has taken some tweed that they are turning into trainers. “I am surprised by the quality,” she says. She spent the night in Łódz, in a hotel created inside an old mill. “All these places stay in my mind,” she adds. It is the breadth of her travelling – from Swaziland to Moscow, from London to Lake Como – that gives her fabric its cultural depth and resonance.

Jan Kath wool/silk From Russia With Love rug, £1,980 per sq m
Jan Kath wool/silk From Russia With Love rug, £1,980 per sq m
Glazed stoneware and porcelain A Daisy Mother Pumpkin, £23,000, by Kate Malone
Glazed stoneware and porcelain A Daisy Mother Pumpkin, £23,000, by Kate Malone | Image: Adrian Sassoon

Jan Kath is one of the world’s most original carpet designers. His carpets, handknotted in Kathmandu, Agra, Malatya in Turkey, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and in Bangkok, are echo chambers of history and culture, drawing on local traditions of craftsmanship while reflecting his own distinctly contemporary, western-metropolitan sensibility. Recent collections, such as Erased Heritage (£2,520 per sq m) and Erased Classic (from £2,250 per sq m), bring the metaphor of influence itself to life, building a sense of time and history, of tradition and its erasure into the very fabric of the carpet. Based in Bochum, in the post-industrial Ruhr area of Germany, the son of a dealer in fine antique rugs, Kath says, “I was more or less born on a stack of carpets.” He resisted the family business, however, setting off after school on the hippy trail to India and spending two years travelling, before running out of money in Kathmandu. Here, his destiny caught up with him. He ran into the man who had begun supplying Kath’s father with newly made rugs – an enterprise to employ Tibetan refugees – but who was tiring of travelling to and from Germany. Kath worked for him, then took a year out to source craftspeople all over India and Mongolia for another carpet company, before taking over the Tibetan-refugee rug business. “I then found out it was not just about production but about inventing new things,” he recounts. He had no money to pay a designer – so became his own, starting out, as he puts it, “pretty mainstream”. His breakthrough came when he realised it made no sense for a small company “to swim with the sharks”. He came up with a minimalist, modernist collection inspired by Bauhaus designs, and “we hit the market big time“.

Glazed stoneware Stealth Magma, £7,600, by Kate Malone
Glazed stoneware Stealth Magma, £7,600, by Kate Malone | Image: Adrian Sassoon
Malone in her Barcelona studio
Malone in her Barcelona studio | Image: Adrian Sassoon

Kath now employs 2,500 people worldwide, although the core team are still based in Kathmandu. He produces two or three collections a year, with his designs translated in Germany onto graph paper so that they can be reproduced wherever in the world Kath can find the craftsmen. “I travel a lot,” he says. “In 2014 I was up in the air for eight months.” And while part of the purpose of travel is to find collaborators and meet new clients, the journeys also feed Kath’s imagination. The result is work like his brilliantly coloured From Russia With Love collection (from £1,980 per sq m), inspired “by catching the train from Moscow to Ulan Bator, when I was working in Mongolia”, or his newest Billboard collection (from £1,850 per sq m), influenced by frequent visits to Bangkok to look after the hand-tufted carpets he creates there.

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“When I arrive at Suvarnabhumi airport and drive into town, I see the huge billboards by the roadside. Most have oversized advertising stuck on them, yet they are thoroughly cleaned whenever the campaign changes. That is the moment that appeals to me. The normally so brightly coloured billboards are suddenly completely naked. You can see that they are welded together from simple metal plates, and can often still discern faint glints of colour and some old advertising slogans in squiggly Thai writing, which the sun has burnt into the background. I commissioned a photographer and gave him the task of photographing blank billboards throughout the country.” These pictures served as the design template for the Billboard collection. It is an appetite for such elusive and tangential memories that gives Kath’s carpets their richly evocative character. As he puts it, while some clients are drawn to them simply as decorative objects, “so many more people can relate to these places and these journeys. The carpets might prompt a memory of their own or inspire new travel.”

It is no surprise that India, too, has proven such a draw for artists and designers, with its great diversity of culture and wealth of traditional skills. Kate Malone is a leading potter whose extraordinary one-off creations have been inspired by over 30 years of travelling (with her equally intrepid husband) all over the globe for two months each year – but who returns time and again to India. “The social complexities are such a fascination, as is the beauty of the temples and historical sites,” she says. “Then there are the sacred ceremonies and thousand-year-old traditions, which are deeply spiritual.” There have been perilous trips, such as “the motorcycle ride as pillion behind my husband in 1996, from Goa to Sikkim, up to the Chinese borders and deep into the Himalayas across bridges so sparse and high I dare not remember”, or “a bus trip to deepest Gujarat in the 1980s – we thought it would be eight hours and it became 18”. She recalls an encounter with Shining Path terrorists at Machu Picchu, swimming with puffer fish in Cuba, “lying in the jungle in Asia, tempting giant monitor lizards from the dark with fruit to see their long tongues whip it from in front of us”, and sleeping in derelict Raj palaces before their restoration. And then there was the dawn boat trip up the river Mrauk U from Sittwe in Myanmar in 2012. “Imagine a river so wide you are unable to see to the other side. Scorching sun rising through the mist, a big two-storey open-sided ferry boat, chickens, bicycles, fires on board to cook breakfast, packed with people going between riverside villages, all quite grey and green except for the golden temple tops rising from the forests on the shores.” These trips have inspired vivid hand-illustrated notebooks that will feed her pottery for years to come. And while it is easy to see certain direct influences from her adventures on her work – the strong, figurative Moche earthenware or the love of total-surface decoration seen in Thayam ceremonies in Costa Malabari, Kerala – Malone has a different account of how her work draws on these exploits: “I feel this sense of experiencing the extraordinary and profound in travel helps me be brave and bold with my work.” What she says could be true of all these makers and designers: “To be brave in making is perhaps marked by having been brave in travel.”

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