In conversation with the maximalist designer
First published in the January 2013 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
I meet Sue Timney for breakfast in one of my favourite haunts, The Goring Hotel in London’s Belgravia. She is already there when I arrive, characteristically resplendent in a dress made of seemingly patchworked layers of thick black and white (with a touch of yellow) tweed, a necklace formed of skinny ropes of a stripy jersey fabric, big black earrings, absolute armfuls of silver, wood and Perspex bangles and the whole ensemble finished off with immaculately black-lacquered nails. Her look is artfully composed but without a sense that she tried too hard. This is for me the true definition of style. She makes me want to run out and buy similar jewellery, but I’d get it home and realise it didn’t suit me. Such is the power of inspiration. But then this self-confessed maximalist is one of Britain’s most original designers with a repertoire that spans abodes for a host of discreet celebrity clients to rugs for The Rug Company and a collection of home and fashion accessories for House of Fraser. But what I want to know is what triggers her imagination? And why, in June 2012, did she take up the post of president of the British Institute of Interior Design (BIID)?
I believe some of the answers lie in her peripatetic childhood. She was born in Benghazi, Libya, in 1950, the eldest daughter (with two sisters) of ‘a very straight Scottish mother’ and an Indian Army father. The family dutifully ‘travelled the world’ following her father’s postings and, while the constant moving made formal education challenging, Timney recalls, ‘I was always collecting things. All I could do was draw. I was very shy and not academically confident but I used to sell my drawings for pocket money.’ And what nationality does she consider herself to be? ‘I’m a person of the world really. I feel an affinity to so many different countries, from North Africa to Japan, because of the different parts of my life.’
Nevertheless, Timney landed in the UK at the age of 15, started art school in Carlisle a year later. ‘I had virtually no qualifications. School had made no sense to me. But I had a portfolio,’ she says. And that was enough for her nascent creative talent to be recognised and nurtured. After art school she ‘promptly married at 18’, explained thus: ‘It was the late 1960s and the choice was either go wild and do drugs or get married and build a life. I wanted to do too much!’ By the time she was 24 it was a sculpture and fine art course in Newcastle that beckoned (‘I was the only girl in a class of eight. I loved it’), followed by the birth of her first child mid-course, and then onto an MA in tapestry in Edinburgh and finally an interdisciplinary MA at London’s Royal College of Art. Here, not only did she win a travelling scholarship with which she went to Japan, instilling a lifelong affection for the country (‘I think I’ve been more than 50 times’) but crucially, she met Graham Fowler, ultimately husband number two and founding partner in the hugely successful Timney Fowler fabric and design company. The brand went on to achieve worldwide renown for its bold monochromatic signature and trademark use of ‘exotic classicism’.
But for the past 15 years, replete with husband number three, photographer Justin de Villeneuve, Timney has concentrated on defining herself, for herself. And the importance of arts education is a particular beef. ‘It’s being reduced to an hour a week in junior schools. This erosion of art and creativity, how will it affect the next generation of designers?’ she exclaims. ‘The BIID was only recognised as an institute two and a half years ago,’ she continues, ‘as only one is permitted within each profession.’ And the point of it achieving this lofty aim? ‘To develop the profile of the profession and to build the reputation and regard for interior designers to the level enjoyed by architects.
‘There’s a gap at the moment between degree courses and becoming a fully qualified interior designer,’ she adds, ‘so we’ve begun a huge initiative to develop a formally accredited pathway between the two in order for clients to be confident of the professional skills, knowledge and creativity required to be a designer.’ This couldn’t be more timely. Interior design has often suffered from the perception of being a profession peopled by what I politely term, ‘ladies who dabble’. As Timney puts it, ‘There’s a new kind of younger designer out there. It’s about how good you are. I want to bring creativity back! Personality and identity!’
Timney exudes a palpable sense of excitement for her mission. Not in an agitated, time-is-short sort of manner, but rather a supremely positive, let’s-get-on-with-it vibe. ‘I get excited by the unknowns of each day and the challenges they may bring,’ she concludes. This is key, as I don’t believe this sort of energy has been witnessed in interior design for quite a while. Exciting times indeed.
The Q&A Sue Timney
Tell me five words to describe yourself. Disciplined. Multi-faceted. Excited. Happy.
What’s your favourite colour? Black and white.
What’s your favourite kind of music? Soul – it brings me alive and I love to dance!
What’s your greatest fear? That something will happen to one of my children.
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with? Lots of people. That’s a dangerous question.
What’s your signature dish? I’m a dessert person. I’m known for having a sweet tooth. My mother taught us to bake and sew and I became quite a cake-maker. At college I had cake parties and made people pay to come!
If you were an animal, what would you be? A husky. I love the idea that they’re part of a pack that wants to work together every day.
Do you have any pets? A dog. It’s a little miniature thing, an Alaskan Klee Kai.
Your house is burning down – what do you grab? The dog! Plus I have 30 years of notebooks and sketchbooks piled by my desk: I’d have to grab those.
Do you collect anything? Everything! From a tin trunk full of postcards from my childhood to charms for bracelets. I’m a real hoarder. It’s a real problem.
If you had to lose one of your senses, what would it be? That’s a dreadful thing to think! It couldn’t be sight [said emphatically]. Sight is so precious to me, for colour, light, everything. So I’m tempted to say taste, as I’m probably not the most food-driven person.
When you were a child, what did you want to be? I knew I had to make and do something of my own.
What was your worst subject at school? Maths. I once got 4 per cent in a maths exam. They shouted it out in the school assembly as a record low!
What does luxury mean to you? A day when I don’t have to worry about anything I’m doing because I have time to myself to walk, eat, be cosy, be with my husband, family and dog.
What star sign are you? Cancer.
Do you believe in luck? I believe there is such a thing as luck, but I think most people don’t recognise it. Some people watch luck pass them by.
Do you have a motto? No regrets, because everything you do, you can take something positive from