Tricia Guild, resplendent in new-season Prada blue and white, is surrounded by London's design press at her flagship Designers Guild Homestore. The woman who has been called the "empress of colour" is hosting a spring breakfast to launch her latest collection. This being Tricia Guild, we are surrounded by rapturous colour, florals and pattern: large-scale ikats mixed with wide Bayshore stripes on a slim sofa; Mariedal digital print cobalt flowers covering a lampshade; and a lushly textured moss rug next to a hand-drawn topiary floating wall.
The textiles have evocative names, such as brera alchemila or sofiera, and signature colours from peony to chartreuse. This is not your average high street store.
Boasting the crucial elements of aspirational home settings, the homestore and adjacent showroom on London's King's Road offer a peek into the lifestyle empire fashioned by its founder. With passions for gardening and nature, opera, ballet, cooking and travel and a holiday home in Tuscany, Tricia has ample outlets for self-expression, and true to her reputation as a colour maestro, her hall at home in London is a vivacious April green.
Tricia opened her first small "corner shop" 40 years ago, on the then unfashionable stretch of King's Road. A single mother with little money and no formal art or design training, she surprised London and the typically neutral northern European palette with the unrepentant hues and patterns of her initial collection of re-coloured Indian hand-blocked prints. She had been to India, and its dazzling colours were an enormous influence. "I still 'need' to go there at least once a year," she says.
When asked how those fabrics captured the mood of that moment, she replies: "Maybe they were quite joyful. I think they found the kind of freshness and informality of the collection quite pleasing."
Tricia had always been inventive. From the outset, she revealed how to use those new fabrics in real spaces. "It wasn't about just selling textiles," she says. Her initial concept must have been a breath of fresh air because it worked. "I love designing spaces and that's how I started. I wanted to use colour and different fabrics but I couldn't find what I wanted in textiles," she explains. "But even in that first collection, I realised that people needed to see how to use them, so I had a sofa made and covered it in fabric, had vintage furniture, Carlton Ware, etc. And the concept hasn't changed. I don't think of fabric in an abstract form. I think of using it - and that's what I love."
At his equally renowned showroom across the road, the British textile titan and Tricia's long-time friend Peter Osborne of Osborne & Little explains how her winning formula works. "Really it's all about her incredible courage with colour, always putting together combinations that no one else has dared to do. She introduced colours that, now, the rest of us go along with. I mean look at the colour of her shop [moss green]. That's bold. So I think she's this incredible talent - the best colourist around and she was 42 years ago, when I started. I think it was probably a bit of a struggle in the early days getting this sense of colour through, but now it's really what everyone wants. You've got to admire her for it. And of course, it's not just colour. She also has this wonderful painterly style that we tend not to do. Tricia was even doing designs 20 years ago with artists like Howard Hodgkins. That was brave."
From early on, Designers Guild worked with artists such as Kaffe Fassett, Lillian Delevoryas and Janice Tchalenko, none of whom had previously worked with fabrics. "I loved their paintings," says Tricia. "I'm always searching for a difference." And the King's Road was changing. People were more receptive, things were moving and it was an interesting time.
A decade later, in 1986, Hodgkins' enormous tulip fabric Large Flowers for Designers Guild became a huge success. And the 1990s and 2000s, despite recessions and global uncertainty, have generally borne good news for the innovative British firm. Turnover at Designers Guild has grown to £50 million (Dh306 million) in the past 20 years, with 280 people working under Tricia and her brother, Simon Jeffreys. The company is a global concern, with distributors and shops worldwide, plus offices in New York, Paris and Munich. Tricia also holds countless honorary degrees and awards, including an OBE and four royal commissions. She has written 15 books; her latest, A Certain Style, features homes graced by the familiar yet shrewdly varied Designers Guild treatment.
What gives Designers Guild the edge over others comparable in the field? "There are so many beautiful fabrics to choose from but where do you see the whole look? So I believe we offer more choice because we're offering that guidance and vision," Tricia says.
Additionally, although she is an expert colourist, she has always been able to express herself in black and white. "Of course I love using colour and pattern, and feel very invigorated by that, but with that, half our collection is plain, and a third of that is natural, neutral, black or white. I always use a lot of those ingredients with colour. So when you look at our collections as a whole, it's very broad, and it also separates certain areas. That's what interests me."
Her distaste for being pigeonholed means there is freshness in her approach, an element of surprise to inspire her legion of fans via myriad projects. One need only browse through A Certain Style to notice how she adapts instinctively to a diverse range of homes. Citing one example, Tricia explains: "The house in upstate New York was particularly challenging, very beautiful retro architecture without any fabric at all. We added fabric and it really added to the house and the client loved it. I think he was surprised. Often, I think more minimal or more architectural people are frightened of fabric or colour - although less so in the last three or four years."
It must be even more challenging to work for Britain's royal household, considering Tricia is known for contemporary boldness, fearless pattern mixing and, one might assume, hues to make any monarch fretful. What was it like designing for the queen? "Pretty scary," she admits. "Every collection is a challenge, but it's my way of expressing myself. It comes from gut instinct. Royal Collection was new, very demanding - and quite rightly. The people who run this are very particular, especially in the first instance. Yes, there are constraints but all quite valid, and we respected those. We discovered the language and they did, too, because they'd never done this before - and I loved it."
She admits the first collection was "possibly more conservative because it had to set the scene and they had to be happy with it. [There was] no point in repeating ourselves, so the second one was a little more open, I think - slightly more domestic probably, but it also works off the first one".
Tricia adds: "It's not just a question of reproducing old documents, because there are enough in the world. So we are creating those fabrics as well as being inspired by the archives, but it's creating for a completely different set of aspirations. And I really enjoy that. The whole point of doing it - whether DG, Royal Collection or Christian Lacroix - is so that we can offer to different parts of the market."
Designers Guild in the UAE
Designers Guild's official UAE stockist is Maison d'Art, located on Al Wasl Road, Dubai. Established in 2004, the sumptuous villa showroom, which opened two years ago, stocks a wide range of wallpapers, fabrics, furniture, tableware and decorative accessories. In addition to the latest spring 2011 Sofienberg collection, there are also Designers Guild lines by Christian Lacroix, Ralph Lauren, Jasper Conran, William Yeoward and the DG Royal Collection.
Also in store are collections by Duralee, Kandola, Spini and Vaughan. Current season items can be browsed in store and most products can be ordered for delivery with an average waiting time of one week upon confirmation of the order.
Before a move to new premises this year, Maison d'Art is holding a stock clearance special offer on a number of lines. See the store for details.
Maison d'Art, Villa 1186 Al Wasl Road, Umm Suqeim 2, PO Box 58111, Dubai, 04 34 88 550, www.maisondart.ae