She’s a mug. She’s a feature wall. She’s a postage stamp. She’s a skirt. Perhaps most of all, she’s a laminated tote bag on the school run. Orla Kiely’s deceptively simple repeated prints of flowers, fruit and plants grow on everything. A Dubliner by birth, her design empire has thrived in the very British tradition of using abstracted nature for decoration; one thinks of the tradition of William Morris or Laura Ashley, only without the frills.
“I love the work of Morris,” she tells me. “It is very intricate and beautiful. But I love the idea of simplifying things.” Hence Stem, perhaps her most iconic design. Leaves, and a stem. In colour, in white, just a line, or a fragment of a line. Now disseminated via John Lewis, Stem is all-conquering.
It could easily not have happened. She began her career designing hats, but at her first London Fashion Week her dad noted that while nobody was wearing a hat, everyone was carrying a handbag. So she switched to printed canvas bags. But what about cold and wet weather? Laminate them. Bingo. You suddenly have a cleanable accessory that always looks smart and is resistant to British weather. It went to the hearts and homes of millions of middle-class women. “We were the first to do it,” says Kiely, modestly. “Two weeks before London Fashion Week, I challenged the factory to produce them, and it did. People just love them. Even in the summer, they don’t want unlaminated now.” In 1997 the Orla Kiely Partnership was founded by Orla and her husband Dermott Rowan, and the empire began in earnest.
She lives in a Victorian house in Clapham, south London, although the interior is defiantly mid-century modern. “I walk in the garden for inspiration,” she says, although it’s Mr Kiely who wears the gardening gloves (in Stem, naturally). The family have lived there for years with their dogs Olive (a labradoodle) and Ivy, a small but aggressive westiepoo. Named after key colours in the OK palette, one imagines.
Yet there is something about Kiely (pronounced as in “highly”, not as in “feely”) that indicates she is not quite so keen on her stuff being such a middle-class signifier. The populist terrain of the Alessi lemon squeezer or the Cath Kidston biscuit tin is a prized one, but it seems to be something from which she slightly shudders. Politely, of course. “Cath Kidston? We are often classed together. She does great things! But it is a different product. They [Kidston products] are much more accessible, with great prices. I don’t know how they do it.” There is a pause. “We are more on a Marimekko level, I think.”
Who? Marimekko is a Finnish design label, with dresses starting at around £225 and teapots for £60. Very exclusive and quite pricey, but with the same clean Scandinavian line.
Modernism had a huge impact on Kiely, 52. “Growing up in the late 60s and 70s I was very aware of modernism. And as a student in the 80s (in Dublin and London) I was always hunting out modernist vintage, and of course the Scandinavian look.” Her own look is understated but elegant; little make-up, flat shoes, one of her own dresses. Very cool. She is the star judge in the final episode of the latest series of BBC2’s Great Interior Design Challenge, which begins this week. “It was much more challenging than I thought,” she says. “Contestants are expected to do an amazing design with a specific brief in a very short time.”
She admits that although she loves vintage, and retro, it has to be the right sort. And she doesn’t want to engage with ephemera. “I don’t like our throwaway culture. It’s very sad when you see sofas chucked out on the front doorstep. I love things that last. My mother would have re-covered a sofa. When I grew up, it was always about giving things a new lift. I like that.”
But come on, Orla, we are drowning in stuff, and designers like yourself are partly to blame! John Lewis has 187 different Orla Kiely products available online, including phone cases, watches, casserole dishes, handbags and candles. “The world is full of stuff, and it is too much,” she concedes, “I am adding to it, but I am hoping that people who buy my stuff will keep it for ever. But you are right, at the end it is still cluttering.” A pause. “People want new things. I like the idea that people enjoy what we do; in the end it makes people smile or happy.”
How does she feel when she encounters it in the everyday? “Years ago, I was walking down the street to get the papers. This woman walked past with one of my bags. And I said to her: ‘That’s my bag.’ And she was horrified, she thought I was accusing her of stealing it. And I said, ‘No, no, no, I designed it. I am Orla Kiely.” And she said, ‘Oh, OK.’ It wasn’t how I intended the conversation to go.”
The Great Interior Design Challenge is on Monday-Wednesday at 7pm on BBC2