Mini Moderns weekend: Q&A with co-founder Keith Stephenson

Mini Moderns Keith Stephenson, Mark Hampshire If you picked up Issue 3 of the Simple  Things, which featured 'Whitby' wallpaper by Mini Moderns as end papers, or saw our blog post earlier this week, you'll know how much we love the work of this London-based interior design company.

And it's not just us, as Kirstie Allsopp is heavily featuring the designs of Mini Moderns' co-founding designers, Keith Stephenson and Mark Hampshire, in her latest Channel 4 series, Kirstie's Vintage Home.

Keith was kind enough to answer some questions about his and Mark's inspirations and approach to design, which we hope you find as fascinating as we did!

Mini Moderns do you live in town

How did Mark and yourself meet?

We met at a branding agency in the mid-nineties. Mark and I were put together as a team – which is the way we realised we could work together successfully.

At what point did you realise that you shared an aesthetic, and which designers did you bond over?

On Mark's first day at the agency, I arrived late and immediately started quoting from the play Abigail's Party. Mark immediately recognised it and I think this was the first time we bonded over something of shared experience from our childhoods which we loved. The majority of our design references overlap – I am more textile influenced and Mark is a lot more product and architecture inspired. We both share a massive admiration for [Terence] Conran and the whole history of Habitat – we even have a collection of back issue catalogues, 1971 being our absolute favourite.

When you're coming up with a new design, how does that evolve?

We start our collections with a concept for the theme – sometimes this can be fairly loose – like 'Day-tripper' - or very specific like 'Buddha of Suburbia'. We immerse ourselves in the theme first, pulling images from our own memories or things we collect and pictures from our library of design books. We then begin designing.

Do you make the initial design for a specific medium, e.g. as a wallpaper?

We always work on the wallpaper first. This how we feel comfortable and we can work within a square and repeat this. Sometimes designs take quite a long time to feel spontaneous. The 'Festival' print was planned out very roughly and then drawn on screen very accurately, and then printed out and traced by hand, and then scanned and redrawn with all its hand-drawn quirks. 'Whitby' was a particularly difficult print but the overall effect is one of simplicity, which we like – the hard work should never seem evident in the final design.

Mini Moderns festival

Did you always plan such a wide range of products?

Initially, we had no idea of the reaction to our first collection, 'Family Album' – we'd had success with a commissioned wallpaper design and wanted to build on this. 'Family Album' was an immediate success. We realised we needed to accessorise the collection, which we did with a range of bone china mugs, plates, money boxes and cushions to coordinate with the four initial designs. None of these original items are in our collection now but they definitely helped up focus on where we were going.

How do you feel about the 'retro' tag that some may give your work?

While we're very much a contemporary design company, we're fairly transparent about inspiration, as our print designs all have a story and it's this that a Mini Moderns customer really responds to. Until we launched the 'Festival' wallpaper in 2011, we were never described as 'retro'. But we're more than happy that people engage with our brand on whatever level they want to.

Mini Moderns backgammon orange

You've told us that the Lido colour in your Environmentally Responsible Paint range was inspired by "art deco outdoor swimming pools", so you seem to take inspiration from everyday sources. What's been attracting your attention lately, and why?

We're inspired by everything and, as you say, very everyday subject matter. Our inspiration comes from specific things we are enjoying or remembering at the time we start theming our collections. At present, we're very inspired by the designers we've been mentoring for the Southbank Centre 'Boost' project. And also our new project, which is the redesign of a beach house we're currently working on in Dungeness. We often see something in our own back catalogue which we then want to revisit. Our 'Festival' print was an example of this – we pulled out part of the print, which became our 'Pavillion' print and co-ordinates with both the 'Festival' and 'Backgammon' wallpapers. Sometimes we name a print, and love the name so much that we have to make it work!

What prompted the new range of Environmentally Responsible Paint?

Mark and I had always wanted to do paint. While on Twitter, we noticed Newlife Paints had started to follow us so we checked them out. We were rather shocked by what we found. Not only did we hardly believe that what they do is possible [Newlife re-process waste water-based paint back into a premium grade emulsion], but also we'd always disposed of our old paint 'responsibly' through the local authorities, but had no idea it just went into landfill or was incinerated! We immediately asked if we could meet up with Newlife with a view to doing a range with their help. We couldn't be happier with the results.

Mini Moderns house Photo By Andrew Boyd

Have you used your own products in your homes, or would that be a case of 'taking work home with you'?

Absolutely, our house is full of our collections. We always say that if we can't live with with our products, who can? We are our best benchmark for our products.

What are your own favourites from your ranges?

From the new collection, we're really excited that the 'Paisley Crescent' wallpaper is doing so well, it really was designed to pull and emphasise the whole theme of the collection, but the response has been incredible. From past collections, we obviously love our 'Whitby' print. As a place it is such a big part of our childhoods. We really wanted to try and capture in the print the exact feel of the place and area. This print has definitely touched a lot of people and we're really proud of that. 'Festival' is also a print that is very near to our hearts – we love the Southbank Centre and have been collecting Festival of Britain items for some time now. One print which was a big surprise to us was our 'Pet Sounds' design, with its almost woodblock look , which is still one of our most viewed and bought prints on our web shoppe. On the whole the reaction to our work is incredible and we are really lucky to have customers that really feel part of our brand, and we wouldn't want it any other way.

Mini Moderns Paisley Crescent

We love your new 'Backgammon' range, are you both avid gamers? What traditional board games will you be playing this Christmas?

Last Christmas, on our final studio day, we played 'Operation' most of the day. I never won one single round. We have quite a collection of vintage Spears games: we like a game of 'Floundering' from time to time, 'Mousie Mousie' and 'Car Capers'. We also have old 'Cluedo' and 'Muppet Show' board games from when I was younger. Mark is definitely a 'Mousetrap' and 'Kerplunk' fan.

And, finally, what's your 'Simple Thing'?

We both love a crisp sunny dry Autumn day – it's our favourite season.

Mini Moderns Pet Sounds

Keith also kindly supplied us with a full list of the Mini Moderns items used by Kirstie Allsopp in her TV show, Kirstie's Vintage Home, which will appear on this blog tomorrow @ 2:30pm GMT.

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