Keith Stephenson and Mark Hampshire understand the power of pattern like no-one else. Launched in 2006, their interiors brand Mini Moderns specialises in bold and quintessentially English designs for wallpapers, fabrics, and ceramics. With influences ranging from literature and records to childhood memories, their nostalgic homeware will make you feel as if you’re living in a Penguin paperback novel, and has led to commissions from the likes of TFL. Another collaboration led to the recent launch of their eye-catching enamelware range, perfect for a chic camping trip as well as brightening up your kitchen. The pair cite their shared love of ‘field trips’ as a source of inspiration.
1. Tell us something about yourself that might surprise people.
Unusually, Mark and I were both at college in Newcastle at exactly the same time. Mark was at the University studying English and I was at, what was then, the Polytechnic doing a degree in Graphics. But we never met. When we met in London, about 10 years later, we realised that we had the same friends in common – it was ridiculous to think our paths had never crossed – and realised it was purely to do with which evenings we went to which clubs with the same people. It is also something that unites us in references – we can always have a laugh about a place or something that occurred during the 3 years we were at college.
2. Mid Century design clearly influences your work. What is it about the past that captures your imagination?
Although we are branded sometimes as a retro brand – we really are just visual sponges and put our own contemporary stamp on our work. We are particularly influenced by mid century design – mainly because when we were teenagers in the 80s, 50s clothes and interior products were really cheap. So we always wore 50s clothes, or made things out of mid century curtains to wear when we were going out, or we were always watching re-runs of things like The Avengers and other classic TV shows on the newly launched Channel 4.
We are both really inspired by social history, and design is all part of that.
3. What 5 things can’t you live without?
Being a superstitious person, I am reluctant to answer this – the last time I answered a ‘cannot live without’ question – I answered Lucan our tabby cat, who then promptly died. So I would rather keep these things to myself!
4. Are there any pattern designers that are exciting you at the moment?
There are a lot of really great pattern designers out there, and it is usually the designers that don’t work or look anything like us, that we admire. For example Timorous Beasties are the trailblazers for boys in pattern. We would never, and probably couldn’t, ever create work that could be confused with their work, and likewise, their collections would never look like ours. We also really admire Ella Doran’s work, although she is not strictly a pattern maker, she uses a lot of pattern in her compositions, and again our designs could never be mistaken for her work, as we don’t produce photographic pattern work.
Both of these companies have strong concepts in their work, which is what we admire a lot; taking a strong idea and making something beautiful at the end of it, is a great skill. We are not fans of pattern making which is an image flipped horizontally and then upside down, and calls itself a repeat. There is no skill in that apart from knowing a bit of Photoshop.
5. What do you think it takes to make a good artist?
Believing in yourself and being true to yourself, is such a big thing as an artist or a designer. I heard a quote the other day, which said something along the lines of “people who can’t do it, will always tell you it can’t be done”. It takes a lot to be true to what you believe you want to do. It is quite hard to set up on your own and follow your own path, and some of the time it is not hugely financially rewarding so you really have to believe in what you are doing, and what you hope to achieve.
Being original is also a key part of it too. It is tough enough to survive as an independent artist and designer, but if you are basing what you do on your contemporaries work – you don’t have a good foundation to build on.
6. Your patterns are all about narrative and evoking memories. Which collection/pattern conjures up the happiest memories?
All our work has a very personal starting point, some are more obvious than others. One of our most personal prints is Whitby. Mark and I would go on holidays to the North Yorkshire coast when we were younger, and still visit the harbour now when we venture North to see family. Another very personal print is Dungeness from our most recent collection, Hinterland. Having spent a lot of time renovating a beach house there over the last couple of years, we wanted to evoke the atmosphere of the area that we fell in love with almost 20 years ago. The print also features our house – so you can’t really get more personal than that. The print has also become something of a time capsule – as some of the visual studies in the wallpaper, of the buildings on the beach, have either been redeveloped beyond recognition, or the extreme weather has taken them away.
Our new collection which we are working on at present is called Saturday Night/Sunday Morning and will also be a personal journey of some of our varied weekends – well the ones we can remember anyway!
7. You’ve worked on some exciting collaborations, from Rob Ryan to TFL. Which has been your favourite so far and do you have any future collaborations planned?
Everyone we have worked with so far are so amazing to work with, and mostly come about by word of mouth, or through friends – we have never gone out and said ‘we want to work with you’ without knowing we had things in common, or friends in common. With Rob, he was working with Clothkits, who we also collaborate with – who suggested we should see if he wanted to do wallpaper, it then transpired he knew lots of people we knew too – so we instantly knew it would be great to work together – also Rob is such a great person, and we have a lot of respect for each other. Matt (Sewell) was a different story, and we have known him for so long now I can’t actually remember how it all came about. I think it started with us being in touch through twitter, which is rather apt for Matt, and we loved his work. We met him at his book launch at The Social in London, and we started to talk about working with him then. With collaborations, you really have to respect each other, otherwise it’s no fun.
We have recently designed a set of enamel topped low level tables for TFL for their exhibition at London Design Festival, and Milan. They were produced by another collaborator of ours, A.J.Wells who also work with us on patterned enamel kitchen splash backs and heat resistant backdrops for wood burning stoves.
8. What is your favourite room in your home and why?
At present we are re-furbing our London studio/house so we don’t like any of the rooms, but we love our living room at Dungeness – which is a Victorian railway carriage. It is great to get there – and not having any TV, or internet – we tend to listen to all our old vinyl on our record player. We have some fun nights – and it’s almost like being teenagers again in our bedrooms.
9. If you didn’t do what you do, what would you do?
We would both have been pop stars – not that either of us are particularly musical – but we have always loved popular culture, and we always have in the back of our minds when we design our collections that they are like albums with all the different wallpapers being hit singles. Which is why we focus on the titles of our collections so much, and enjoy coming up with all the names of our wallpapers.
Maybe one day we will do a ‘Now that’s what I call Mini Moderns!’ compilation.
10. What advice would you give to aspiring interior and pattern designers wanting to start their own businesses?
I think it would be the same as what makes a good artist or designer. Really believe in what you want to do, and the best advice we ever had was, keep your overheads down. The more successful you become the more expensive it gets!
Chloë Owens and Badger