Interview: Keith Stephenson of Mini Moderns

Keith Stephenson & Mark Hampshire of Mini Moderns
Keith Stephenson & Mark Hampshire of Mini Moderns

Mini Moderns is an interior brand that I have been following with great interest and admiration for some time now. Specialising in applied pattern across a range of products including wallpapers, fabrics, cushions, rugs and ceramics, this creative duo never disappoint and every new design that they bring to market is equally as good, if not better than the previous collection. Last year, Mini Moderns was shortlisted for the Elle Decoration British Design Awards in the category ‘Best British Design Brand’, which is testament to their brilliance.  So rather than just admiring these guys from a far, I decided to put them in the hot seat and give them a good grilling about their background, their inspiration and their design processes. Luckily, Keith Stephenson was only too happy to oblige so read on and find out what he had to tell us.

Mini Moderns Backgammon Wallpaper in Mustard
Backgammon Wallpaper in Mustard

Can you tell us what you were both doing before Mini Moderns, how you met and how Mini Moderns came to be?

KS. I worked as a textile print and graphic designer for various fashion companies ranging from jeanswear to cult fashion brand Red or Dead where I was for several years. Mark had worked in television and had also created his own interior designer-maker business selling his collections through Heal’s.

We met at a branding agency in the mid nineties – where we were always put together as a team for projects, so we always knew we worked well together and had a similar aesthetic, a similar approach to projects and most importantly a similar sense of humour!

We then migrated to another design agency where we also worked together; Mark as a brand strategist and myself as creative director. We always felt that some of our skills were not fully utilised and so when we left our full-time jobs we set up an independent branding agency specialising in retail and lifestyle brands, but we were determined not to be pigeonholed by job titles or clients. Our flexible and collaborative approach led to a commission by an interior boutique to design a wallpaper collection for them in the early 2000’s. The resulting collection was an immediate success, with a lot of international press attention and it was shortlisted for Elle Decoration’s Future Classic awards.

To exploit Mark’s experience of home accessories design and my experience in print design we built on this success by creating our own independently financed collection of wallpaper, and Mini Moderns was born. The brand benefits from both our experiences in design and print, as well as our branding expertise.

Mini Moderns Paisley Crescent Wallpaper - Tangerine Dream
Paisley Crescent Wallpaper – Tangerine Dream

How has the business developed since it was launched?

At first, we realised there was a real gap in the market for cross generational interior design. Most family-orientated homeware was very twee – and we knew that there were a lot people crying out for something that meant they could either use our prints in nurseries and children’s rooms or equally successfully in more grown up parts of their home.

Being the first brand to do this,  it was a great springboard for us. Since then we have branched out into a broader market with designs that are both sophisticated and fun. We have built a recognised warm-feeling brand that our customers really feel engaged with – which we love.

Mini Moderns Whitby Cushion - Lido
Whitby Cushion – Lido

Where do you get the inspiration for all of your designs?

Mini Moderns first collection was inspired by Susan Williams-Ellis’s designs for Portmeirion pottery, Ken Garland’s designs for Galt Toys and the textile designs of David Whitehead Ltd. Other textile designers of the period which are an inspiration are Marian Mahler, Lucienne Day, David Parsons, and the Festival Pattern Group. Illustrators who inspire our collections are Victor Reinganum who mainly created book jackets, our favourites include the Muriel Spark collection for Macmillan in the very early 1960’s, Paul Rand, Charley Harper and David Weidman.

Mini Moderns Do You Live in a Town Wallpaper - Milk Chocolate
Do You Live in a Town Wallpaper – Milk Chocolate

We also often draw inspiration from our collective childhood memories. The wallpaper Do You Live in a Town is named after a line in the opening titles of ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’ – an animation from the 1960s that truly reflected the urban environment that most kids live in. The print depicts all types of houses, from high-rise flats to Victorian terraces. Its graphic appeal sums up the Mini Moderns cross-generational approach – specified for teenage bedrooms and architects studios in equal measures.

Other design references include 1970s environment enrichment panels by Alexander Girard and textiles by Lucienne Day and Marian Mahler right up to ‘new wave’ 1980’s designs. But we are not simply retro fanatics. Mini Moderns designs are very much 21st Century. We also like to mix influences and incorporate personal travel experiences into the designs.

Mini Moderns Pet Sounds Wallpaper - Powder Paint Blue
Pet Sounds Wallpaper – Powder Paint Blue

Pet Sounds – from the 2010 Folk Rock collection – was inspired by a trip to the American West Coast, resulting in a woodland cacophony of music making creatures. Our Daytripper collection, draws influence from British pastimes and hobbies, which includes Festival – our personal celebration of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and Whitby, an homage to the harbour where Mark and I spent a lot of time both as children and adults.

Mini Moderns Whitby Porcelain - Espresso Set
Whitby Porcelain – Espresso Set

The success of the collections is that they are eclectic – 1950’s influences sit happily with 1970’s inspired designs, and contemporary themes and colourways with 1980’s post modernism – and sometimes all in one print design!

We annually create a newspaper/brochure which gives an insight into the design process of the latest collections – this has been very successful and will continue next season when we launch our ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ collection. This collection has a much more direct source of inspiration – as it is based on the book of the same name by Hanif Kureishi. It is much more 70’s inspired, taking a journey from the early seventies to the birth of punk in 1977.

Mini Moderns Camberwell Beauty Wallpaper - Midnight
Camberwell Beauty Wallpaper – Midnight

Which of your collections is the most popular and why?

We luckily have a number of collections which still continue to sell well – we very rarely discontinue a range – and continue to build the Mini Moderns brand with varied collections. As the prints are usually personal our designs all have a similar aesthetic and handwriting. This we feel is a real strength as we love to be able to mix and match and clash patterns from various ranges.

‘Do you live in a town?’ was our first best seller and continues to be popular and influential in terms of design trends. C60 from our ‘Folk Rock’ collection has always sold well – and also from that particular collection ‘Pet Sounds’ has always been a best seller. Recently, ‘Festival’ and ‘Whitby’, from our ‘Daytripper’ collection, have been incredibly successful for us. ‘Paisley Crescent’ and ‘Backgammon’, both recently launched from our ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ collection, have started to sell successfully.

Mini Moderns C-60 Wallpaper - Chalkboard and Gold
C-60 Wallpaper – Chalkboard and Gold

People seem to really respond to our aesthetic and the concepts behind our designs – we try to push our prints a bit further and are always based on a very specific concept – so I think they are popular because they always have a story as well as being able to be enjoyed as fun designs. Colour plays a great part and this is something that Mark is mainly responsible for in the team.

All of your products revolve strongly around the use of pattern. What advice would you give to people who are a bit scared of using pattern in their homes?

We are primarily a pattern based brand and utilise interesting ways of application. Pattern has become increasingly popular which perhaps it wasn’t when we started. The trick with using pattern is to use as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. Our most popular item has always been wallpaper – so there are a lot of people out there who are not scared of pattern, but we also produce cushions and fabrics for people who may only want an easy update or flash of pattern in their interiors. Like wise for renters who also may not be able to wallpaper.

Mini Moderns Whitby Fabric - Washed Denim
Whitby Fabric – Washed Denim

We never specify where or who a specific design is aimed at so this means that patterns that some people would think are children’s prints other people use in dining areas and vice versa. We were sent a picture from a US customer who had used our ‘Festival’ print in a nursery which looked spectacular with Calder-esque mobiles and modern nursery furniture. And our ‘Pet Sounds’ wallpaper was used to great affect in a dining room of a London gastro pub.  We leave the customer to decide how they want to engage with our brand.

However if you are wary of using pattern – use our wallpapers as either feature walls – or even back shelves to bring in a bit of variety and add visual pace to a room. We always think our patterns are at their best mixed and matched together adding more depth and personality.

Mini Moderns Pavilion Cushion
Pavilion Cushion

You try where possible to produce all of your products in UK. What made you go down this route at a time when most people are seeking out cheaper production options elsewhere?

Times very definitely change. When we launched at our first trade show, we were constantly asked about why we didn’t produce in China in order to reduce our price points. This used to be very frustrating as, apart from being something we really felt passionate about, it is not usually understood that the price of Chinese products is usually based on huge initial quantities, which as a start-up business you just cannot commit to financially. Working with UK companies – as well as reducing our carbon footprint – has also allowed us a flexibility that has enabled us to grow at a rate we can both afford and feel comfortable with. We are totally self-financed and have no external investment.

Mini Moderns London Mug Collection
London Mug Collection

We would never considered producing our main line range anywhere other than in the UK. We have always sought out UK factories right from the very beginning. For example, our wallpaper factory is one of the last flexo printers in the UK, as the machinery does require a very skilled, almost artisan approach to production, and our fabrics are hand-screen printed, which also requires great skill. By making in the UK we get to know all our manufacturers on a personal level – and it is great to be able to support these independent businesses. Most of our products carry the phrase ‘Made in the UK by Nice People’ which is true – we deal with some great manufacturers.

Mini Moderns Clock Rug
Clock Rug

Can you describe your design process for us? How does a design go from being an idea in your head to a product available to buy in your shoppe?

The design concept process is fairly quick and fun for us and not very laboured. It’s the part of the job that is very exciting whereas production and selling is usually the thing the takes up all of our time! In general, we will talk about a theme for a new collection and let it mull over in our minds. We will then continue to discuss it without actually designing anything. At the same time we will also be immersing ourselves in reference material.

By the time we settle down to start designing we work in quite a rough visual way – some designs change entirely from initial drawings to final designs. For example our ‘Pet Sounds’ design was two wallpapers that we decided to combine. Our ‘Whitby’ design was initially a square wood block looking print until Mark realised it could actually work as a dynamic nautical stripe. This was almost at completion stage so we kind of had to start again.

Mini Moderns C-60 Cushion - Multi
C-60 Cushion – Multi

As most of our designs come from our shared experiences as children or something that we have both seen – we often have almost exactly the same visual reference. The boats on the ‘Whitby’ print were actually the boats we photographed on a weekend break to the North Yorkshire coast.

After we have settled on the final design – it still can change while in the drawing process – sometimes we scale everything up and have to reconstruct the repeat. Both ‘Whitby’ and ‘Camberwell Beauty‘ took the longest to complete. It is often the prints that look the simplest that are the most difficult to produce as the final design needs to look light and spontaneous and shouldn’t look like it has had lots of weeks devoted to getting it right.

Mini Moderns Whitby Wallpaper - Washed Denim
Whitby Wallpaper – Washed Denim

When we have drawn the prints out we then work very closely with our wallpaper manufacturer before the design is engraved on a roller. We have to be very careful at this stage as each colour is a separate roller and does cost a lot – so if we can maximise one roller we do that. We also know the limitations and the positives of the process and can work these into the way we design the pattern. We never produce our wallpapers digitally as the technique we use has a warmth and depth that suit our designs.

At the design stage, Mark and Charlotte will also start pulling together colour stories for the collection. We work on the designs purely in black and white or tone so that we are not distracted by colour, this ensures that the drawing work is the best it can be. When the colourways are added it is very exciting as we then see the pattern with fresh eyes.

When the roller is then engraved it goes into production. Then we have to photograph the final wallpaper and then start to promote it and upload to our Shoppe. The process is fairly similar for all our products – though we always work on the designs as wallpaper first.

Mini Moderns Vanessa Wallpaper - Harvest Orange
Vanessa Wallpaper – Harvest Orange

Mini Moderns has recently collaborated with the Courtauld Gallery, the Southbank Centre and the London Transport Museum Shop. How do these collaborations come about?

Our first part collaboration was with Southbank Centre. It’s possibly one of our favourite places and pieces of architecture in the world – so it was a real honour to work with them. We originally created a wallpaper for them based on the iconic 1951 carpet design, ‘Net and Ball’ designed by Festival Hall’s architects. We were then approached by the Courtauld Gallery to create a wallpaper, which was based on an original rug design by Vanessa Bell for the Omega Workshop, to coincide with an exhibition of work from 1913-19. We have recently produced this design in new colourways and new name ‘Vanessa’.

Working with LTM and TFL was very fortuitous as we had already started designing our ‘Daytripper’ collection and it was a perfect match for where the collection was going – we even managed to utilise our collection of vintage bus tickets as well as using one of the original Gibson ticket machines at the museum.

Mini Moderns Hold Tight Tea Towel
Hold Tight Tea Towel

We have recently designed a brand new print exclusively for Southbank Centre, which is currently in production. This will be used across wallpaper, cushions, bags and accessories.

What can we expect to see next from Mini Moderns?

We are currently expanding our fabric range, which is a new product category for us. We have just launched ‘Whitby’ fabric in irish linen and the next print to be launched will be our Pavillion print in 3 colourways. We have also just been working with Magpie to create a new range of porcelain products based on our recently launched ‘Backgammon’ print, with party ware in the same mix-and-match patterns, based on this print, in paper cups, paper plates and coasters.

We are also in the middle of our new collection ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ and have two new prints in development from that collection to launch in September at Tent London. We are always experimenting with new avenues and are also working on a new products to launch at the same time…which is a secret!

Another exciting development is the Mini Moderns beach house, which we are currently refurbishing and will be totally ‘mini modern-ised’. We have always said if we can’t live with our products then who can?

Mini Moderns Hold Tight Wallpaper - Mustard
Hold Tight Wallpaper – Mustard

Can you tell us something that not many people know about you?

As well as Mini Moderns, we continue to take on a select number of clients for branding and packaging design work. This is much more focused on lifestyle and beauty. We have just completed a brand repositioning including a full range of packaging for an exciting cosmetics collection, packaging and branding for a US based Ayurvedic personal care range, as well as branding and packaging for a new groundbreaking luggage company whose first product was The Conran Shop’s best selling accessory item last year – and we are continuing to work with them as they expand their collections.

Thanks to Keith for giving us this great insight into the work that he does with Mark at Mini Moderns. If you enjoyed hearing from Keith don’t forget to let him know by leaving a comment below or sending him a tweet @minimoderns. And don’t forget to pop on over to the Mini Moderns Shoppe to browse their beautiful products.

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