He's one of Britain’s most successful designers and still running his own company 51 years after founding it.
Earlier this month, we were fortunate enough to spend time in the company of Sir Paul Smith for a special one-off event at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.
Speaking with design journalist Aimee Farrell, Sir Paul spoke of his connection to Kettle’s Yard House and Gallery, and the influence of its founder Jim Ede on his own design journey, from his own home interiors to his passion for art and collecting.
He also shared his advice on life, personal style and his career as one of the most prolifically successful British designers.
Image: Kettle's Yard
Above all, he came across as an incredibly witty, and all-round decent human being. Waving as he walked, he was wearing a navy and dark red, checked suit and signature striped socks with an unassuming black nylon rucksack casually thrown over his left shoulder.
Resting easily in a Windsor chair, it was not hard to see why the willow-framed Sir Paul’s first ambition was to be a racing cyclist before an accident put an end to his dream at an early age.
Kettle’s Yard is about craftsmanship and innovation, words which you automatically associate with Sir Paul Smith.
Sitting in the bright airy extension of the gallery for the first time in 22 years, he described his first visit to the one-time home of Jim Ede, the former Assistant Curator at the Tate Gallery.
“On my first visit I fell in love. It’s very similar to the way I am and, my home. The way you find something of no value next to something with value. It’s a cocktail. I love it”.
The year of his last visit, 2000, was an important year for Sir Paul, he married wife “of 180 years” as he puts it, as well as being Knighted by Her Majesty The Queen. “It was a busy day. I got married in the morning and then went to Buckingham Palace in the afternoon”.
A love of objects
Describing his own personal style as eclectic, when asked about his home he quipped “Pauline [his wife] has a home, I have a room.
That room in question is his office which he has filled with hundreds of items he's collected or been given over the years.
“The room where I work is full of things. Fortunately, nobody has died yet” joking again. “I’ve had things sent to me from all over the world.
“One anonymous fan has been sending things for 40 years. I’ve had a skateboard, a plastic dog, a cow bell, a tennis racket, a branch of a tree. It’s never in a box – just stamps on the object and always anonymous”.
From the conversation it is clear that Sir Paul is something of a self-confessed hoarder of beautiful things. “An everyday thing can be precious to you”. He continued, "So much art in the world today is attached to fame but, a milk bottle with a flower in it can be beautiful”.
He continued, animated at the thought of the long list of gifts he’s received. “It definitely feeds you. That someone has made the effort. It’s fantastic, lovely, special”.
Luckily for Sir Paul he has an unflappable assistant, Kirsty, to help manage the flow of fan parcels.
Whatever arrives, she’s never surprised. “We had a message the other day saying there was a live pigeon in reception for Paul. She just replied, “That’s not in the diary”.
The conversation moved back to his own home. “A house is a history of you”.
Influenced by music, places of interest, he described how his house has changed over time. “One bit reflects this era, another the next”. Filled with art “but, nowhere left to hang it” he now buys it to support the artists.
He recounted one early purchase of a "pretty print of tulips” by David Hockney which still hangs in his home.
“It was either the gas bill or a David Hockey print. Guess what, I bought the print.
“They turned the gas off and I laid on the floor and cried. I got away with it for a week and then I found the cash to pay the bill”.
His love of domestic settings has tipped over into his business with some of his shops operating from houses, including London’s Notting Hill.
He continued: “I want my shops to be worth going in to. Beautiful shops, beautiful products.
“Having objects and art in our shops relaxes people. Christian Lacroix told me he’d found a book on Matisse in one of my shops that he’d been looking for”.
He opened his first store in 1970 with just £600. It was just 12ft by 12ft and was only open on Saturdays and Sundays. Squashing his hand up to his face and laughing to himself he said: “When one person came in it felt busy”.
He now enjoys stores in 70 countries but, despite his success when asked whether he felt successful he said he never had.
Looking and seeing
“I’m not into attention seeking fashion” he explained. This chimes with the company's classic with a twist approach.
As quick as a whippet, Sir Paul stands up and flashes the lining of his jacket. “This is a photo taken by my dad who was an amateur photographer” he explains.
Talking about his own eye for detail he starts pulling fabrics from his bag like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat.
The first is a silk lining which has an image of tree lined street across it. “I took this in Holland Park” he explains. It could be the South of France.
Image: Kettle's Yard
He continued: “So many people look but don’t see. I was 11 when I got a camera, The film was bought with pocket money, so you had to see. You had to get it right”.
It was impossible to listen to Sir Paul without the conversation turning to stripes. Asked what they represent he simply answered “happiness”.
“We build up the stripes using yarns around a card. They’re called windings. The most colours we’ve had in a stripe is 48 we’ve now got 28.
"Yarns are 3 dimensional so the colours reflect on each other…you get richer colours. It’s a great way to play with colour”.
Whilst he exudes equal measures of charm, wit and creativity one area he openly admits to not being comfortable with is technology.
“I don’t use computers”. He said. “I’ve moved on from a Filofax but, I still use a pen and notepad. A coloured pen" grabbing one from the inside pocket of his jacket "so I don’t lose it”.
The humour of this statement was not lost on the room when he went on to discuss his long-time friendship with Sir Jony Ive, another hero of British design. “I’m friends with Jony and was long before he was at Apple. I’m privileged to have been sent lots of things by him but, I don’t use them. I don’t have an email. Pauline [Lady Smith] doesn’t have a mobile phone. We have something called a landline”.
On one visit to see Sir Jony Ive at Apples HQ in California Sir Paul explained how he was asked to sign in at the front desk.
“I arrived and they asked me to sign in. I was looking for a book and a pen. The lady behind the desk gestured to a keypad. I had to explain that I’ve never used a computer.
“She then asked who I was, I said Paul Smith. When she asked where I was from, I said Paul Smith. So I spent the day walking around with a label which said Paul Smith, Self”.
Moving on to talk about the future of Paul Smith he said:
“I look in the mirror and wonder who let Rod Stewart into the house before realising its my image staring back".
He finished: "...my hope is that I have a group of people who will continue the business in the spirit of what it is today”.