Paul Smith tells the V&A about the power of small differences
The designer told a specially invited Victoria & Abert Museum audience about the things that help him think differently
Paul Smith knew what he didn’t want his book to look like. “What I wanted to do was not just have a series of mannequins, with the clothes from 1980, 81, 82, etc.,” the world-famous British designer told editor Tony Chambers, during a special discussion hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Monday. “What I love to do is show how I think about things.”
The way Smith thinks about things truly sets him apart. Over the past half-century, he has created clothes that both paid tribute to classic forms and styles, while introducing a wild array of new motifs and treatments. Much of that innovation simply comes from Smith’s inherent genius, though many elements can be traced back to his wide array of objects, artworks and design classics that fill his office. Smith is an unapologetic collector, and is quite open about the way in which the stuff he owns influences the stuff he makes. This is why Chambers, who worked on our new book with Paul, said during the discussion, “I feel the inside of your [Paul’s] head is a bit like the V&A.”
That was a huge compliment from Smith’s perspective; the designer has spent many happy hours in the museum’s galleries, admiring everything from its kimono shows through to its camera collection. While Smith’s own collection doesn’t quite rival this august London institution, there are many objects in Smith’s new book that are just as noteworthy as items in the V&A’s collection.
In his new book, he singles out 50 objects that say something about his illustrious, 50-year-long career; during the talk he ran through a few of these too. Picking up his Kodak Retinette Film Camera, Paul recalled how his father, an amateur photographer and founder member of the local camera club, built a dark room in the attic of his family’s house. Smith also suggested this vintage camera could serve to discipline today’s photographers. “When we take our phone and go click, click, click, we take about 20 pictures and we erase 19 of them,” he points out. “ When you’ve got this you can’t erase any of them, because it’s film.”
Smith’s vintage Bauhaus book, led him to describe his admiration for the seminal German art and design school. “Looking at the tubes of a bicycle and thinking of a chair?” he wondered, recalling Marcel Breuer’s famous design innovation. The book also made him recall his collaboration with the Albers Foundation, working classic Anni Albers designs into his clothes.
A simple vase of tulips also led Smith to recall an old anecdote. When the designer first opened his initial shop in Nottingham - his home down - he also took on a variety of other jobs, simply to make ends meet. One of these involved designing fabrics for a nearby mill. Smith accompanied the mill to a Frankfurt trade show, and helped decorate their firm’s booth. Thousands of other fabric manufacturers were trying to draw in clients, and each displayed bits of their fabric. Smith recognised the power of thinking differently, and instead placed a vase of fresh tulips in its stand.
The mill owner criticised Smith’s choice, but later changed his view when, two days into the fair, Calvin Klien came into their booth and placed a huge order. As Paul reflected during the talk, “just a little difference makes someone notice you.”
To better understand the genius of small differences, watch the full talk above, and order a copy of our Paul Smith book here.