For Mini Moderns creators Keith Stephenson and Mark Hampshire, the home is a playground where the past’s motifs inspire future ideas
Keith Stephenson and Mark Hampshire are mulling over a conundrum: which year would they whiz back to if they had a time machine? Mark is considering 1964, so he could meet his design hero Terence Conran when he was starting out in retail. Keith votes to go further back, to 1951 and the Festival of Britain. ‘It was a turning point in British design and you would have sensed a change in the air,’ he says. ‘Mind you, it rained a lot that summer, so I’d have to take a trench coat. And maybe a trilby.’
Trilby or no, with their love of 1950s and 1960s style, Keith and Mark would fit very nicely in either decade. They are the co-founders of Mini Moderns, creating wallpapers, fabrics and homewares that reimagine mid-century motifs with a contemporary eye. The light-hearted, nostalgic spirit that runs through their designs comes into its own in their London home, with more groovy lamps, chic coffee pots and kitsch vases than Betty Draper could shake a feather duster at. ‘It’s an eclectic mix that reflects us and our stories,’ says Keith. ‘There’s a variety of eras and styles, but I guess everything fits together because we’ve chosen it.’
Mark and Keith worked together at London design agencies before they decided to go it alone and launch their first Mini Moderns range in 2006. Although they didn’t meet until their twenties, they both come from Yorkshire (Leeds and Guisborough respectively) and lived uncannily parallel teenage lives in the 1980s. They listened to the same music, watched the same re-runs of The Avengers and The Prisoner on TV, and devoted their Saturday mornings to rummaging in junk shops and jumble sales.
‘We were both fascinated by retro style and would go out looking for weird, wonderful objects or 1950s fabrics to turn into something to wear clubbing,’ remembers Mark. Things like suburban tea sets, chunky studio pottery and so-bad-it’s-good glassware were catnip to their kitsch taste. ‘I’d bring stuff home and my mum would say: “What the hell have you bought that for?”,’ laughs Mark. But for both of them, finds such as Susie Cooper ceramics or wire record racks summed up the mood of an era, a time when design became accessible to everyone.
“We were both fascinated by retro style and would look for weird objects or 1950s fabric”
Now, their pooled collections are displayed throughout their home, a new-build house full of personality, but it didn’t always look this way. When they moved in, the rooms were intimidatingly blank: ‘We had to fill them with character,’ says Keith. Their home is unusual – a purpose-built live-work space with a studio on the ground floor, two bedrooms and a home office in the middle and their living spaces on the top floor. The ‘upside-down’ layout, reminiscent of 1970s architecture, actually suits Keith and Mark’s style. The live-work set up also made them dab hands at working from home long before the events of 2020.
Larger pieces of furniture also reflect their aesthetic, including a Danish dining table and chairs by Arne Hovmand Olsen bought at the first Mid-Century Modern Show in Dulwich, south London. ‘We use it all the time and love the shape,’ says Mark. The G-Plan sideboard is a more personal heirloom, having belonged to Keith’s late mother, while the modular String shelving can be added to endlessly. Furniture pieces that have been bought new, like their Robin Day Forum sofa, are modern classics that will endure. ‘The proportions are perfect, it will never go out of style,’ Mark says.
There is nothing throwaway about the Mini Moderns’ style. ‘We hate waste. Right from the start, we recycled packaging to send out our designs,’ says Keith. From the original mementoes that line their shelves to their new-yet-nostalgic wallpaper designs, everything in the Mini Moderns home could tell an interesting tale. ‘We love it when people tell us that a wallpaper we’ve designed sparks a memory for them,’ says Mark. ‘For us, good design has to include a good story.’
“We love it when people tell us that a wallpaper we’ve designed sparks a memory for them”
Q&A WITH KEITH & MARK
Why do you love Modernism?
‘It was something that people could buy into, even in the 1960s, even if it was only a set of Homemaker plates from Woolworths,’ says Keith.
What are you most proud of about Mini Moderns?
‘Our papers are printed in the UK on FSC-certified paper with water-based ink – we wouldn’t have it any other way,' says Keith. 'And that our designs often evoke a memory or story.'
What makes a retro look work?
‘We limit our palette to 12 or so colours across all of our collections, which gives our customers the confidence to mix and match. Choose patterns that feel right for you – don't be too slavish,’ says Mark
Image: Jake Curtis