Longevity and understated luxury
Bethan Gray is known for her pure and simple designs, which feature understated but intriguing details. Her Noah dining room collection is new and exclusive for John Lewis
'I can't resist picking up the Noah benches and demonstrating how beautiful they are, even underneath,' says the designer. 'It's become my party trick.' For a fresh take, these benches, like the other pieces of living and dining room furniture in the collection, have been lovingly crafted from solid oak and oak veneer to show the grain horizontally rather than vertically. 'Longevity and understated luxury were essential elements of the design,' she says.
The collection includes a sleek dining table with a choice of matching chairs or benches, a sideboard that comes in a range of sizes to suit different spaces, and a nest of side tables that double as trays. 'The idea with the tables is that they lean over each other, and over a sofa, to make them as useful and flexible as possible,' she explains. 'I used a minky-grey lacquer to add detail and to give a nice, subtle contrast to the oak.'
Gray grew up in Cardiff and was encouraged from an early age to be creative, by her teachers as well as her parents. 'Mum was always creating arty collages with me,' she recalls. 'My father loved making practical things from wood and my grandfather was a forester, so I suppose my career path was pretty inevitable.'
She explored many areas of design before settling on furniture. 'I did textiles and fashion, and made a sofa bed in my craft, design and technology class at school – all sorts of things – before deciding I wanted to make beautiful three-dimensional things that people can use. I did a foundation course, which I'd recommend to anyone who's not sure what direction to take. You get to do a little bit of everything and then specialise towards the end of the year. It's an incredibly useful experience.'
After graduating from Leicester's De Montfort University in 1998, Gray worked at Habitat for 8 years, eventually becoming head of furniture design. In 2008, she left to set up her own studio, which allowed her to design for leading manufacturers and retailers, as well as developing her own label, Gray & Turner, which launches early next year.
She cites French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand as an influence, in particular for Perriand's Mondrian-esque Mexique bookcase. 'A mix of wood and enamelled aluminium in different heights, colours and blocks: it's a classic. It was way ahead of its time when she designed it in 1953, and still looks amazing now. I'd love one of those, one day.'
Wood is the material Gray loves working with best and for the Noah collection she took inspiration from many sources: vintage herringbone flooring, piles of wood stacked up on factory floors, ancient wooden sheds and even the roof of the new Pompidou-Metz centre in north-eastern France.
'I really like crafted heritage furniture and I get a lot of inspiration from the techniques used in traditional furniture-making,' she says. 'Seeing how old things are made and reinterpreting those techniques in a simple and pure form is something I'm passionate about. I'm also intrigued by details rather than things that overpower.'
Gray lives, and has her studio, in a converted building in a Victorian mansion in west London. The rooms have a big, modern feel with white walls, simple wooden floors and wonderful period details. Managing home and work life in the same space is a balancing act, and she relaxes by walking her dog, Patch. 'She's a cocker spaniel, and I walk her at specific times to break up my working day. She really is part of the furniture.'
A longer version of this article previously appeared in the Christmas 2011 issue of Edition magazine.