An Interview with Paul Smith
Paul Smith must be one of the busiest people on the planet. He is chairman of the fashion business that he set up 40 years ago in Nottingham and, despite the fact that it is now a global brand, he still works as its chief designer as well. As a result he is constantly on the move and, even when he is in the UK, every minute of his time is accounted for.
So it is not surprising that his wish was for a way of getting away from it all. In order to do this, what, for a designer who represents a certain streak of Englishness, could be more appropriate than a garden shed? ‘It’s a place to escape,’ he said, ‘So you need a good comfortable chair that is probably very beaten up and either a table or a woodwork bench.’ For Smith, the time when he will be able to concentrate on the woodwork is far distant, so, he said, ‘A funny old radio and a chair will do me for the time being.’
Many sheds are hidden away in the corner of a garden but Smith wanted his to occupy a more central position so that it could benefit from views. But this did not mean that he wanted a precious object. ‘I want it to look like a nice well-worn pair of jeans, like something that lives in the garden,’ he said. ‘I don’t want it to be the centrepiece, i want it to be able to hide in the garden.’
This is what designer Nathalie de Leval created for him, a roughly finished structure in heat-treated ash which in the end was challenging to construct because of the ways in which Smith wanted to enjoy it. ‘One end should be all glass,’ he said, ‘because you inherit the countryside or your garden or a view’. And in order to be able to make the most of those views and of changing light conditions, Smith wanted the shed to be able to rotate, like the one in which George Bernard Shaw did his writing.
The other inspirations came from traditional fishing huts from Hastings and, in terms of the framing of views, from the Mexican architect Luis Barragan. Smith had never worked with de Laval before but he had asked her to be his collaborator, after they had met through her father, who attended the same health club as Smith. Smith is evidently a good judge of character, since the two got on well, sharing an approach to design as well as a ferocious work ethic.
The shed that de Laval designed was 3m square, dimensions that appealed to Smith since this meant that it was the same size as his very first shop in Nottingham. He wanted the wood to be virtually the only material (apart from the glass) with just a narrow strip of colour beside the door frame ‘just to add a bit of my handwriting’. The rough finish was deliberate. ‘We love the wood and we love the shed,’ he said.
In order to create this ‘simple’ shed, whose structure could have been compromised by the glazed end, and which also needed to be demountable as well as rotatable, de Laval had to call on help from structural engineer Arup. But, despite having no experience of designing buildings (her training was as a sculptor before she switched to furniture design) she has realised Paul Smith’s vision magnificently. The only part of the project which is probably beyond her powers is to create the free time in which Smith can sit in his shed, enjoy the view – and possibly even think about a woodworking project.