British furniture designer Bethan Gray speaks to us about her Shamsian collection, a particularly striking example of modern Middle Eastern design.
Bethan Gray's Omani inspired furniture
From her use of amazonite, a luminous, blue-green, semi-precious stone favoured by the pharaohs, to the mother-of-pearl effect of her new wallpaper collection, Bethan Gray has a body of work that presents a respectful rethinking of traditional Islamic and Oriental motifs. This is perhaps unexpected of a designer born and bred in Wales. But her creations become slightly less surprising once you consider Gray’s family tree.
“I am Welsh; I speak Welsh and am very passionate about my Welsh heritage, but I am also a bit of a melting pot,” she tells me when we meet in Dubai. “On my mother’s side, my ancestors were gypsies from Rajasthan. Over centuries, they migrated from India, through the Gulf and then through Europe, and my clan ended up in Wales. They took up the triple harp and were very famous Welsh musicians.
“We have a photograph of my great-great-great-grandfather and his 12 sons playing for Queen Victoria. Maybe I have this thing about Islamic geometry because of them. I don’t really know.”
Her predilection for wood may also have been passed on by her forebears. “My father’s side is Scottish and my grandfather was a forester, so I’ve always had a lot of wood around me.”
Gray studied 3-D Design at De Montfort University in England, and in 1998, at the annual New Designers exhibition for graduates, was awarded the Habitat Innovation Award by Tom Dixon. This led to a job with British homeware giant Habitat, where Gray eventually became design director. She created 16 furniture collections for Habitat, honing the pared-back, geometric, almost-ascetic aesthetic she is now known for.
There is a simplicity to Gray’s style that is entirely deceptive. Since establishing her eponymous design studio in 2008, she has worked predominantly with wood, as well as hand-tooled leather, stone, marble and semi-precious stones. There is an inherent harmony to her pieces, a deft manipulation of light and dark, pattern and purity. She doesn’t include anything that isn’t entirely necessary, but still manages to imbue her creations with a sense of warmth and sophistication.
“Bethan Gray has an exquisite appreciation of the materials that she works with and a fine attention to detail,” the famed designer and founder of Habitat, Sir Terence Conran, has been quoted as saying.
Gray’s career has been punctuated by a series of high-profile partnerships. She has worked with British department store John Lewis and American homeware brand Crate & Barrel on a number of collections, and with Wallpaper Handmade, an annual initiative that sees the famed magazine team up with leading designers to create one-off objects.
Her first official experimentation with Islamic motifs was for The Ruby Tree, an initiative that Gray launched with Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites. The aim of the project was to take highly specialised, endangered and precious arts and update them for a modern audience.
Crites, who is a renowned arts scholar committed to preserving traditional crafts from the Islamic world, and was commissioned to oversee much of the stone-inlay work at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, was struck by the “harmony and intricacy” of the patterns in Gray’s Black & White Stripes collection of furniture and tabletop accessories. In his eyes, the motifs on these monochromatic pieces echoed those found in the finest Islamic art.
Gray has designed two collections for The Ruby Tree, both of which are hand-carved in Jaipur. Petal is an 18-piece collection featuring a table, several bowls and a platter. It takes its cues from the 17th-century Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, and features a recurring pattern delicately carved out in lapis lazuli, rose quartz and ruby. Stripe, meanwhile, sees coasters, candleholders and an incense burner emblazoned with a simple linear motif typical of 11th-century crafts, recreated by setting amazonite in black marble.
It was this collection that caught the eye of the Muscat-based artist Mohamad Reza Shamsian. “Mohamad has been producing furniture and objects for the last 40 years, mainly for the sultan of Oman,” Gray explains. “He has 70 highly skilled master craftsmen in his workshop, and they have been creating very intricate, detailed pieces that are very classical in terms of design. They saw The Ruby Tree collection and asked me to design a collection that utilised their techniques, but was contemporary and would open up new markets for them. Which, for me, is basically a dream project.”
This led to the creation of some of Gray’s most intriguing work − and to some of the best examples of modern Middle Eastern design currently found on the market.
Gray had never visited Muscat before she was approached by Shamsian, but scheduled a trip soon after. “I really loved it,” she recalls. “Everybody was so friendly, and I couldn’t believe how low-rise and clean everything was.”
Gray’s design brief had been kept open; she just needed to create something contemporary, employing age-old techniques such as marquetry, khatam, Damascene and solid brass inlay.
While in Oman, she was inundated with inspiration. The Dhow table was informed by the boat’s triangular lateen sails, which are made from cotton, sewn together in strips, then bound to the hull using coir ropes. This creates a unique linear pattern that Gray reinterpreted using brass inlay on a lacquer surface. The Nizwa cabinet, meanwhile, takes inspiration from the Nizwa Fort.
"There are castellations at the top of the walls of the fort, and that pattern has been repeated on the cabinet,” she says. “At sunset, because the walls are at different levels, some on lower ground and some on higher ground, a kind of ombré effect is created by the sunlight. It is darker in some parts and lighter in others. So that’s what gave me the idea for the ombré effect on the cabinet.”
This effect has now been reinterpreted on a collection of wallcoverings, in partnership with Dutch brand NLXL LAB 3, a pioneer in digital wallpaper. Together, they have recreated the luminous effect of mother-of-pearl on a two-dimensional surface. "For me, again, it's about materials. Not many people can afford to cover their walls in mother-of-pearl, so this is a way of capturing the essence of that material," Gray says.
Various things make Gray’s Shamsian collection remarkable. The first is the quality. The inlays fit so perfectly into the wood that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and the wood is completely smooth to the touch, like a stone that has sat on a river bed and been gently worn down by flowing water for an extended period of time. Then there are the colours. Every piece in the collection is offered in five different shades: a deep teal, soft pink, pearly white, striking jade and black. The effect of the Nizwa cabinet in jade green, with its distinctive pattern in gold, or the Paua table in a gentle pink, fringed with a paua abalone shell inlay sourced from the coastal waters of New Zealand, is mesmerising. Gray takes shades typical of Islamic and Middle Eastern design, but gives them a new intensity, and a fresh, modern look.
“Because it’s a dyed veneer, rather than a stained veneer, the colour penetrates very deeply through the wood,” Gray explains. “I think that there’s a real love of both natural wood and colour, which are combined here, at a time when people are moving on from that pared-back, pale oak, Scandi look. It’s perfect timing.”
But the best thing about the Shamsian collection is the fact that it offers a truly contemporary take on Middle Eastern motifs, in a refined, understated way. There are none of the usual clichés; nothing feels forced. “For me, it’s really nice tying in those references,” says Gray. “Some people see Islamic reference because it’s geometric and they’ve seen these references before. Other people see art deco references. So people see different things. I’m not trying to make it anything specific. These are patterns that work for many people, in different ways, and I think that’s why it works.