Interview: Award-winning designer Daniel Heath
Award-winning UK wallpaper, textile and surface designer Daniel Heath is renowned for his illustrative and engaging designs. He focuses on sustainable design through upcycling and re-appropriation of heritage materials. He took time out of his busy schedule to speak with 25ThC about his education, influences and his recent TV appearances:
Can you tell us about your background in terms of your education and training and how you got to where you are today?
I grew up and went to school in Eastbourne [in the South East of England], finishing up doing a Foundation in Art and Design at Eastbourne College of Arts and Technology, where I specialised in Textiles. That course really sorted me out. I took a year out and went travelling in North America for a few months, which was good for me I think. I managed to bag a place at Loughborough Uni to do textiles, specialising in print. I worked really hard there, but I also found life long friends and had a lot of fun. It’s also where I met my wife, Laura!
Me, Laura and a few close friends applied to the Royal College of Art. We didn’t expect that many of us would get in, but both Laura, myself and my mates Nathan and printed textile designer Laura Slater got in, so we ended up living together. The RCA was great. For me, it was all about working hard, meeting new people from different disciplines and working out how our skills could combine together collaboratively. Some of the best ideas came together in the RCA bar, after a few too many pints. It’s in the bar where I met fashion designer Christopher Raeburn, who I ended up starting my first studio with. We are still great friends now.
Which artists and designers have particularly inspired you in your training and career?
As a printed wallpaper and textile designer, my first big influence is the legendary William Morris, who came from Walthamstow where I now live. He was extremely prolific as a designer, but he also had some pretty strong social values that he stood up for. I’m quite into architectural influences too, so have been looking at Frank Lloyd Wright, especially his colour drawings for proposed textile designs. Charles and Ray Eames are an inspirational design couple that always pushed into all sorts of disciplines and were innovative with technology.
After completing your studies at the Royal College of Art you started your own studio which is now in the heart of East London. How has living and working in London had an impact on your career and can you see yourself ever basing yourself outside of London?
It’s been hard doing it all in London, but then you’re constantly surrounded by new stuff going on all the time. It’s exciting. It’s also really expensive to start out as a designer in London and it can be pretty hard going and exhausting. Rent on studio spaces and living spaces are very high, which can be limiting for people when they start out.
As an experienced lecturer and mentor you spend a great deal of time teaching others and passing down some of your techniques. Why do you feel it is important to give your knowledge and experience to upcoming artists/designers?
I think it’s important to be involved in helping the next bunch of designers through for a range of reasons. Firstly, it’s a tough industry to get into and there is a lot to learn that comes from experience, so I hope it helps for students to learn from practicing designers, as well as lecturers that have followed a pure academic route. Secondly, it’s great to see who is coming through and how they shape the industry from the bottom up. Teaching is an investment in the future of the industry I’m in. I could be working with these people on a project or with a retailer in the future, so it’s good to work with people who know their stuff. Once students graduate they can become part of the design industry network, which is very connected.
Your Perivale collection is based around the Art Deco period buildings around London and feature luxury screen printed designs. What is it about that time period and the designs that has inspired you?
It was quite a bold time for architecture and interior decoration. It flew in the face of what had come before it and, as with most big design movements, Art Deco was profoundly influenced by events of the time. For instance, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 was such a big story that Egyptian elements started to appear in design of the time, such as sphinxes, pyramids, snakes etc. I enjoy finding out about the history of design and what impacts upon taste or the designed outcome in any given era. I also happen to like the aesthetic of Art Deco and we have a lot of great examples of it in London and across the UK. The Hoover Buildings in Perivale were a starting point for me, but I also love to visit the De La Warr in Bexhill, which comes later in that period and leans towards modernism.
You have recently appeared on the BBC show “money for nothing” where you produced an amazing cocktail cabinet from an old trunk and a beautiful table. For those who may not have seen the show can you explain what it is all about and how you became involved in the show?
The TV show was great fun to do because it really provided varied design challenges throughout the filming. The idea of the programme is that the presenter, Sarah, gathers stuff from people throwing things out at the tip that she feels might be able to be upcycled. Those items are taken to a designer/maker to work in to some saleable artefact so that profit can be made and returned to the original owner of said junk. It’s sort of about highlighting the amazing things people throw away, but also celebrates craftsmanship and makers. I got invited to be on the first series of the show, but the timings for filming weren’t working out for me at that time, so I recommended Rob who is a mate of mine at Blackhorse Workshop who made some really nice vanity tables out of old drain covers. When the second series came along, the production company got in touch and asked if I wanted to do it this time around. I ended up doing eight items for them in the end, which is a lot of filming! I felt comfortable in front of the camera, and mostly tried not to say anything too stupid.
One of the items you produce is engraved reclaimed Welsh slate tiles. My daughter is fortunate to own a beautiful one with her name and your design engraved on it. How did you first come up with the idea of repurposing slate tiles and what does the process involve?
The salvaged slate came from an ongoing interest in salvage, waste and upcycling. I have done quite a lot of design work with architectural salvage, beginning with some antique Victorian oak drawer bases that were given to me to work on by a London based interior design and salvage specialist called Retrovious. They got the panels from the Natural History Museum and they formed part of the newly updated specimen storage facility. We transformed these panels into wall panels that were used on a range of high-end commercial and domestic interior projects. There were a finite amount of these panels and when they ran out I started to investigate other options. I wanted to find something that might have more longevity as a product, so I started to look at the slate. There are always houses in and around my area getting their entire roof done, and the old slates were just being skipped. Although it takes a lot of work to turn them into something usable, the resultant product has a time worn patina and a provenance.
I am also a big fan of your reclaimed antique mirrors which you then laser etch your designs onto. What in particular do you look for when sourcing these mirrors and how do you decide which of your designs will work best?
I look for interesting shapes, no chips and as few scratches as possible. If the ply back is rotten or of poor quality, then this doesn’t matter too much as I often cut a new one in our workshop. Mirrors with a decorative bevel work well. I mostly work with my bird illustrations on the mirrors, fitting them into foliage and a composition that works for each individual mirror. We have done quite a lot of them, but no two mirrors are the same. Because of this, we often inscribe personal messages into the artwork for clients.
A number of years ago I produced an album of music called “DH” inspired by your designs and manipulations of animal X-rays. This design is still in your collection and has just been released as a new wallpaper colour way. What is it about these rather dark and morbid images that inspire you?
That is an epic soundscape you produced there, and it worked really well with the whole vibe of the display. I had never considered the artwork as commercially viable at the time, it was produced as a kind of comment on fear. Shortly afterwards, I had a couple of quirky domestic commissions that used the artwork, but I felt that I was unable to add it to my general offering as I didn’t want to alienate my audience. Now seems like a good time to put those designs out there and it is getting a good reception. The idea of the animal X-rays was to show the fragility of nature and the body, but to put it into a recognisable pattern format so it could be more easily digested. A damask structure worked well with the imagery and the snakes create a flow in the repeat.
In the digital world where seemingly every image/piece of music/design seems to be up for grabs how do you protect your designs for being used by others without your permission?
It’s a chicken and egg scenario. As a designer, you want to make the most of social media and the reach that those channels afford, but you also want to protect your intellectual property from being ripped off. You can effectively reach a lot of people for free via the Internet now, which is a great advantage in many ways to young designers starting out who may not have the resources to afford PR support. I think I’ve been lucky not to have really been copied in any way that I could get upset about. My illustrative designs are quite well known and so that is protection in itself and I think, especially when it comes down to commission work, the client invests in the designer and the ethos as much as the design itself. I’ve always thought it funny that some universities have a no photography rule at their graduate shows, but then the students have all their stuff available through their online portfolio.
You can find out more about Daniel’s work and designs at http://www.danielheath.co.uk
Interview by 25ThC.