Using design to share stories of far-off places across the world

Yang Di
Bethan Gray is a London-based furniture and homeware designer, originally from Wales.
Yang Di
Using design to share stories of far-off places across the world
Courtesy of Bethan Gray / Ti Gong

Bethan Gray

Who is she?

Bethan Gray is a London-based furniture and homeware designer, originally from Wales, although her family history is a little more complex than that suggests. Her father is Scottish, and the Welsh side of her family descends from a nomadic Rajasthani clan that migrated across Arabia and Persia over centuries. Inspired by her heritage, and by her love of global art and culture, Gray has traveled to India, Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America. The most important thing to know about her work is probably that she tells stories through craft and design. Everything she creates starts with a narrative of some sort — usually inspired by her travels, the natural world, or both. Gray works really closely with skilled craftspeople — often local — to bring those stories to life for contemporary audiences. Together, they co-create luxury collections of furniture and home accessories. Her works are represented by House of Wang in Beijing.

Tell us about your works and name the one you are most proud of.

The Nizwa cabinet is one of my favorites — and is available from The House of Wang. I love the Middle East and was inspired by the rounded castellations of the Nizwa Fort in Oman and the way the sunlight creates an ombré color effect as it falls across each one slightly differently. It was so beautiful that it stopped me in my tracks and that’s what inspired both the pattern and the colorways. To capture that moment perfectly, the Italian maple veneers are dyed immediately after being cut from the tree when still “wet,” resulting in deeper, richer colors and then the ombré is created by hand-shading the veneer — a practice mastered by the craftspeople we work with in Muscat. They use ancient marquetry techniques to create the pattern — each door contains 108 individual elements of solid brass, copper or nickel and 118 maple veneer petals.

What projects are you working on?

I have recently launched a new collection called Inky Dhow. It all started when I was experimenting with recreating my Dhow pattern — originally hand-drawn and inspired by the billowing sails of traditional Omani fishing boats — using ink, calligraphy brushes and watercolor paper. I was really excited by the results and collaborated with 1882 Ltd, which is a design-led ceramics brand, bespoke leather studio Bill Amberg and handmade upholstery manufacturer Coakley & Cox, to bring it to life across vases, leather hides and a modular collection of sofas and armchairs.

Describe your design style.

A lot of my designs are inspired by nature, so it makes absolute sense to work with natural materials. I love their imperfections, their tactility and the limitations they put on the making process, which I love to challenge. One of the ways in which I push the boundaries and people’s expectations of natural materials is by using them to create bold, confident patterns, inspired by the shapes I see on my travels, from the growth spirals of shells to the sacred geometry in architecture. I take thousands of photos on my travels and over the years, I have distilled the colors I have captured into a palette that represents a modern take on femininity. It’s not “girlie,” but warm, welcoming and self-assured, just like my female friends.

Where are you most creative?

Usually, I would say when I’m traveling. I have definitely inherited that sense of wanderlust from my grandmother’s side of the family. But the events of 2020 have curtailed my travel schedule somewhat. Quietly working on the Inky Dhow collection over the summer on my own with the studio windows thrown open over the canal really gave me a sense of spaciousness. That felt like a different type of creativity and one I’m really grateful to have been able to access. That said, I am looking forward to packing a bag and heading out to Shanghai again!

What does your home mean to you?

Everything. Home is where I spend time with my husband Massimo and our son Cian, cosied up our big corner sofa with a log fire and a movie — and it’s where we welcome our friends and family. Our home is a real sanctuary, and we love nothing more than to share it with our favorite people.

What do you collect?

Seashells. I am fascinated by all natural materials, but none more so than shells, and I can’t visit a beach without pocketing at least a couple (only where that is permitted, of course).

What will be the next big design trend?

I hope it’s more than a trend, but the big shift I am seeing within furniture design at the moment is toward more sustainable and circular practices. I have always worked with responsibly sourced materials and designed for longevity, but Exploring Eden was the first time I’ve really embraced the circular economy. The collection, co-created with Nature Squared, uses waste natural materials such as the by-products of the food and fashion industries — things like shells and feathers — within high-quality furniture and accessories. This project was a catalyst for more circular design thinking within our business and I know the same shift is happening right across the industry — and that can only be a good thing.

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