Interviews

The Beastie Boys

WORDS Oliver Bennett
PHOTOGRAPHY Richard Cannon

August 19, 2016

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from their studio in GLASGOW, DESIGNERS ALISTAIR MCAULEY AND PAUL SIMMONS have exported their witty, innovative prints as far afield as new york and australia. THEY’VE WORKED WITH EVERYONE FROM NIKE TO THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY – NOW IT’S GLENEAGLES’ TURN

Glasgow-based design studio Timorous Beasties is best known for its fabrics and wallpapers, which have won numerous awards. The studio’s vivid and singular designs have appeared on everything from packaging at Fortnum & Mason to the tail fin of a Netjets Challenger jet, and can be seen in the boardroom of London’s Victoria and Albert museum as well as being on permanent display at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. Timorous Beasties’ latest illustrious client is Gleneagles, for whom they are developing a unique print. We spoke to the studio’s founder designers, Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons.

Where does the name Timorous Beasties come from?

AM: It comes from the Robert Burns poem, To A Mouse [“Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!”] so it ticks a lot of boxes. We didn’t want to use our names and we wanted to be unclear about what we did. Plus it looks fantastic and exotic, just like us.

Where did you meet?

AM: Paul and I met at college [Glasgow School of Art]. We clicked, so we started working with each other. We both like drawing and back then, we were made to do a lot of floral designs. We hated them but found you could make them wild and abstract, which was exciting. In 1989 it was the minimalist heyday: all beige, taupe and white. Nobody was working with pattern, unless it was older and more traditional, like Sanderson. So we took it up, did well in our degrees and left college with overdrafts and a business plan. We then set up a shop and in the first week we sold one thing. Fortunately the second week was much better. Now we have a London showroom too.

Was it important to remain in Glasgow?

AM: We probably couldn’t have started a business anywhere else. We got a great big affordable space and although we were selling things that no one exactly needed, it was a fantastic place to get support. We’re often asked if we’re Scottish. Paul is full-blood English and I’m half-blood English – my mother’s from Chelmsford. But we love living up here. Our hearts and souls are in Scotland. As for our style, we’ve worked out our own version of Scottishness. We’ve even toyed with making a Timorous Tartan, but so far it hasn’t happened. When we’re asked about independence I tend to reply: “We’re all independent and we all need each other.”

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What inspires Timorous Beasties?

PS: Anything and everything. History, nature, old and new technology, challenging our perceptions of textile imagery, having fun, exploring new surfaces, John Ruskin… I normally just repeat a quote: “Most things, when you look at them long enough, are inspirational.”

Are you responsible for the return of wallpaper?

AM: Well, it’s a huge thing that we didn’t anticipate. We started making wallpaper back in the 1990s. Then in the late 1990s I recall going to 100% Design, a big exhibition in London, and wallpaper was absolutely everywhere, as if it had been rediscovered overnight. Our most famous paper is our Toile de Jouy, which normally has pastoral scenes of 19th century French shepherds. We redrew it in Glasgow with junkies and sink estates. It was a bit satirical but at the same time that’s what we saw near our studio. It was so convincingly pretty that someone told us we had “sold out”.

What other materials have you worked with?

AM: We love working outside our comfort zone, so we’ve done airline livery, cutlery, frock coats, even four gravestones. And we’ve worked on all surfaces, from granite and glass to stone and travertine. For a building in Cabot Circus, Bristol, we engraved a wallcovering along with twenty other artists, and we did an aluminium façade in Princes Square, Glasgow. We’ve done nets woven with large mosquitoes for the Wellcome Trust and patterns on lamps made from molecules. PS: Each project is a bit of a learning curve for us. Everyone demands a different approach but we like working with unusual and challenging materials that teach us new things and expand our knowledge. Our style is transferable into many different areas.

Your work is very intricately patterned and textured. Why is this?

AM: We think people want – even need – pattern and tactility. A minimal house is beautiful until you put a person in it, and IKEA is fine – but who wants a billion houses that all look the same? We’d rather people didn’t like what we do than have no opinion, as it proves they have an idea of their taste. PS: We’re known for detail and intricacy and often fantastical imagery. We don’t pay any attention to trends because they date.

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What are you doing for Gleneagles?

AM: We’re producing a surface pattern, mostly for wallpaper and fabric but also for other applications like key fobs and the inside of envelopes. It’s going to show Gleneagles’ sporting side, with eagle feathers and thistles, pursuing that sense of noble Scottishness along with the idea of a luxurious, aspirational hideaway.

How will you create it?

AM: As with all our work, it’s hand drawn with pencil and paper. We then put it into production on a computer. Right now we’re still refining it. There are several types of thistle – we’re trying to get one that’s a bit different – and also lots of different eagle feathers: about 50, all told, although this feather still has to be identifiable as an eagle feather. It’s a treat of a job.

Do you try to source and manufacture in Scotland?

AM: In the UK, definitely. We don’t want to have a situation where the manufacturing goes wrong and we’re miles away. Plus we want quality. There are some really great designers that still use traditional methods here in Scotland: Bute Fabrics and Harris Tweed among them. It’s odd: for one of the gravestones we designed, I looked absolutely everywhere for a stonemason, and then we found one right near us in Hillington in Glasgow. It just goes to show – you can find everything you need in Scotland.


The Timorous Beasties pattern for Gleneagles, Highland Bound, will be on stationery throughout the hotel from this summer. Visit timorousbeasties.com to see more of the studio’s work.

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