The Interview: Alistair McAuley of Timorous Beasties

We interview Alistair McAuley of Scottish textile brand, Timorous Beasties to find out about the company's signature style and where it all began.


The Interview

Bright, bold and slightly surreal, Timorous Beasties has been making waves in the design world since it arrived on the design scene in 1990. The company was founded by Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons and over the last 24 years the design duo have managed to simultaneously embrace and reject traditional designs and patterns, which has resulted in the creation of a range of exciting textiles and cushions, wallpapers and special one-off projects. We caught up with co-founder and designer Alistair to find out more about where it all began…

Q: How did Timorous Beasties begin?

A: Paul and I were at Glasgow School of Art together and we were getting good feedback from the work we were showing and, when we graduated, we decided to set up a business together. Back then it was the heyday of minimalism and we were producing things that were very decorative. That meant it wasn’t particularly marketable so the only way we could actually get our stuff produced was to do it ourselves. We set up a print studio to get our work to market but we ended up doing lots of design work for other companies. It was a very difficult time to manufacture and sell and it was around seven years later before we actually started to sell our own work properly.

Alistair McAuley of Timorous Beasties interview - wallpaper collection

Q: How would you describe the Timorous Beasties style?

A: A lot of our stuff is in admiration of very traditional work and there are classical references. If you look at the textile industry, there are lots of florals, birds and butterflies and we actually really hated the way a lot of that was produced. We decided to do it in a more realistic way, we see more beauty in how things actually look and celebrate the wildness of it all. It was probably the existing market being so miserable that prompted us to produce work based on very typical textile imagery but in our own style which we felt was more exciting!

Alistair McAuley of Timorous Beasties interview - Napoleon Bee cuhsion

It’s a very niche market, the typical person who buys from us is someone who doesn’t typically buy fabrics and wallpapers. The people who come into our shops, you wouldn’t ordinarily find them flicking through a Sanderson’s catalogue - these aren't typical textiles.

Q: How do you keep the Timorous Beasties designs fresh after 24 years?

A: It’s tricky all the time! You look at yourself sometimes and think, I know I’m drawing another plant or I’m drawing another bird – but it’s very different from the last one. There are so many manufacturing techniques now, you don’t necessarily have to draw something with a view to being restricted. When we started, everything was done by rotary screen and everything had to be hand separated, now, with digital, you can effectively do what you like! If you start embellishing fabrics with weaving and embroidery, the technology is there to withstand most mark-making techniques. You don’t need to be held back by only being able to do something in four colours, you now have as many colours as the print machine will produce.

Alistair McAuley of Timorous Beasties interview - grand thistle wallpaper

Technology has had a massive impact on how our designs have changed but the things that people like have also influenced the designs. Things that might not have been appropriate a while back might work now. People’s reactions to what you do helps influence your next design and makes you want to push it a wee bit further. However, there are designs that we produce now that have come from drawings that we started 10 years ago and never completed at the time. We revisit things later on, nothing is ever thrown away. Also, some of our biggest sellers are designs that people completely ignored 20 years ago! That’s great though because way back then, when we thought the design would work and it didn’t, the thing that kept us going is that we thought that it would work one day!

Q: What’s your favourite part of the design process?

A: I do like the start of something new when you are just fleshing out ideas and it can go in one of two ways – sometimes have to fight to make it go one way. You might be working with people who are looking at a project in terms of money or in terms of engineering and then you have to shoehorn in the aesthetic part. That’s the whole purpose of being a designer, you’ve got to find some equilibrium between the manufacturing process, the design and the cost. It’s actually exciting if someone gives you lots of restrictions, that’s when I find a lot of people can be more creative. Even when you’re not allowed to do this or that, you still have to make something really exciting and it makes your brain work harder.

Alistair McAuley of Timorous Beasties interview - wallpaper range

Q: Which is your favourite design?

A: I’ve always really liked the Napoleon Bee, it’s got a big fat ass on it and it just works. It works on simple backgrounds and on the more worked backgrounds as well and has a kind of nostalgic feel too.

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