Orla Kiely: 'Colour and print can lift your spirits like nothing else'
By Gabrielle Fagan
Orla Kiely's renowned globally as the Queen of Prints - and it's a
well-deserved title. The Irish-born mother-of-two, who began by
designing hats and handbags in the early Nineties, has seen her retro
motifs - most famously stems and pears - adorn everything from
housewares to wallpaper and clothes.
Her latest book, A Life In Pattern: And How It Can Make You Happy
Without You Even Noticing, coincides with a major exhibition, Orla
Kiely: A Life In Pattern, at The Fashion and Textile Museum, London,
until September 23, 2018.
The designer reveals how it all began, her inspirations, and her tips on
decorating the Orla Kiely way...
What first inspired your designs?
"Growing up just outside Dublin, I was aware of nature and I loved art
at school. I'd always wanted to do fashion at art college - my sewing
machine was my most treasured possession - until I discovered the option
of printed textiles.
"As a student, I was very drawn to architecture, which influenced my
earliest print designs, the strong geometric lines dictating how the
pattern would work was something I loved. These early influences are
still there, often informing the structure of repeats throughout."
How did your business begin?
"If I am ever asked when we first started our label, I think back to
working at my kitchen table, designing handbags with Robert, our baby
son, on my lap. I had a full-time position as a print designer in the
fashion industry on a freelance contract, so those moments were usually
after work on the weekend.
"We lived in a purpose-built, first floor Victorian flat, which doubled
up as a design studio, office and distribution centre, where boxes of
stock were delivered and turned around while I was at work.
"Every day, my husband, Dermott, who had the business skills and
entrepreneurial tendencies, would do all the jobs a strong team would
normally do, in an office shared with Robert and his toys.
"We financed it ourselves from day one and our lives were invested. Our
second son, Hamish, was born - and nothing could have been more
motivating than our two little boys depending on us for their all."
Where do you get your ideas from today?
"Nature's a great source of pattern ideas. My personal take on nature
has always been more abstract and graphic. I absorb inspiration in my
travels, reading books, films, going to exhibitions, it never stops.
Everyday objects inspire too, they can be interestingly random, which I
love. I'll spot something and store it away for the right moment."
How would you describe your work?
"It's clean, controlled and orderly. It has a strong, bold graphic
style, where colour plays along. As a design company, we're always
drawn to modernist/mid-century design and print. This has informed all
aspects of our product, from the ready-to-wear collections, fragrance,
beauty, handbags, watches, jewellery, homeware, wallpapers and more.
"Our style will always remain quite Sixties and Seventies, but our
colours and prints continue to evolve - and we're always open to
off-piste influences for a quirky twist."
What's your favourite design?
"I can't help but say Stem, the simple organic leaf motif. The idea
arrived as an inspiration while developing new print designs back in
2000. It was, as all good things often are, a very quick sketch. It has,
for some reason, touched many people throughout the world, and became
the seed from which our brand flourished.
"I always think it's serendipitous, as it so resembles a rowan branch,
and Rowan is the family name of my husband and children. It's proved to
be very versatile and has morphed into an array of different variations
- I always get excited by the newest iterations."
How would you describe your own home decor?
"My home is Victorian with a very mid-century aesthetic, original
features, cornices, high ceilings and fireplaces. I've combined vintage
furniture found in fairs and second-hand furniture stores with products
"Growing up in Ireland has had a big influence on my taste for colour.
My love for green, from moss to seaweed, the greys and browns of those
rainy Irish skies, the mustard and orange of the wildflowers found on
the roadside, have become my palette. I mix these with some other bright
pops of colour, like pink and yellow.
"Our patterns are present in every room, whether it's a printed cushion,
wallpaper or ceramic, an element of my work will be there. In the
kitchen, our tableware adds something special at dinner times, and our
towels in the bathrooms add that extra colour and pattern to everyday
How do people create a successful interior?
"Consider the space and light of the room. Think of those colours that
you love the most. Research design eras you love, visit flea markets,
vintage fairs and off-beat stores. Find a piece you love - this could be
a couch, a table, a light - be open minded. These objects can inspire
and set the tone of where the other rooms can follow. I like to commit
to an idea and don't water it down. Colour and print are very important,
it can lift your spirits like nothing else. Most of all, don't be
"People have embraced more and more the expression of individualism
throughout home interiors. Customers now, will wallpaper entire rooms in
our prints and are much more fearless with how they mix their colours."
A Life in Pattern: And How It Can Make You Happy Without You Even
Noticing by Orla Kiely, is published by Conran Octopus, priced £25.