Paul Smith on a few of his favourite things
Fashion designer and inveterate collector Paul Smith shares a few of his favourite things in a new book, and here with his friend and travelling companion Deyan Sudjic
Paul Smith, Vêtements pour Homme, as Smith called his first shop, was a life-affirming injection of wit and tailoring-with-a-twist into the cheesecloth and tank-top darkness of the 1970s. He had a tiny space, just 10ft by 10ft, in Nottingham, the English city in which he grew up. Its hours were 10am to 6pm, Fridays and Saturdays only. Along with the clothes, there was an Andy Warhol print on the wall that Smith still wishes he could have afforded to buy, and a selection of antique jewellery.
Then as now, what drives Smith is the delight he takes in discovering things, and the pleasure that he takes in sharing his finds with his customers, whom he treats as friends. Sometimes the discoveries end up on sale in his shops. He rescued the Filofax from the clutches of generations of compulsive list makers, before it became a badge of shame, a totem of the toxic materialism of the 1980s. He stocked vintage books, as well as Braun calculators by Dieter Rams.
He likes to tell you about the things he has seen. He once called to ask whether I’d been to Matt’s Gallery in London, the pioneering space for installation art run by Robin Klassnik. He had just seen ‘20:50’, the 200 gallons of sump oil that Richard Wilson had used to flood the building to spectacular effect. ‘It’s the last weekend of the exhibition, you have to go right now,’ he urged.
I had another phone call from Smith soon after he had opened his first store in Japan in 1984. ‘You have got to come to Tokyo, it’s the most amazing place on earth. Come with me next week.’ Luckily for me, I said yes and saw the city through his eyes. At Narita Airport, he pointed out the bus company staff, bowing low to a disappearing coach, a courtly gesture of respect that nobody but us would see. He took me to a tiny bar on an impossible-to-Find alley in Shinjuku, where the barman served sake in unvarnished hinoki wood boxes and knew his name, and to the street full of shops near the old Tsukiji fish market, selling surrealist plates of wax spaghetti. He also took me to dinner with Rei Kawakubo, whom he ambushed with a rubber chicken.
Smith is celebrating the 50 years since he opened that first shop in Nottingham with a new book, edited by former Wallpaper* editor-in-chief Tony Chambers, that tells his story through 50 objects, salvaged from the snowdrift of stuff that covers every inch of his office in London’s Covent Garden. It’s an accumulation that has spilled over from a desk so full of things that it is no longer usable.
There are tin toy cars, piles of books and magazines, Moroccan bottles, old cameras, a mountain of cycling jerseys, and a pink bicycle. There are a lot of rabbit artworks and ornaments, too. ‘I once said in an interview that seeing one brings me good luck, and the rabbits haven’t stopped pouring in ever since,’ Smith explains. A lot of Smith’s selection is a tribute to his father, Harold, and to his wife, Pauline. ‘My father bought me the Kodak Retinette for my 11th birthday in 1957. It was the first time I’d ever thought about looking and seeing, seeing things through the little view finder which makes you look more carefully. It was the birth of being creative, without actually realising it,’ he writes.
Pauline, who taught him how to cut a pattern, introduced him to Yves Saint Laurent, and gave him an understanding of art. The book includes one of her presents for Smith, a tiny steam engine by jeweller Joel Arthur Rosenthal, its boiler exquisitely made in gold, with diamonds for coal. Also featured is a customised wine glass, a gift from Euan Uglow, one of the most distinguished British figurative painters of the 20th century, and Pauline’s tutor at the Slade School of Fine Art.
The glass reveals another aspect of the artist, and the regard that Smith has for ingenuity and skill. He recalls: ‘We went to Uglow’s studio in Battersea, and it was full of things that he had made himself. I was given a glass of wine. The base of the glass was the handle of a tap. He told me he had dropped the glass, “so I repaired it”. I was blown away.’ Skill is the thread that connects the gold locomotive with Uglow’s wine glass, and with a 22-year-old citrus-green iMac, a gift from Jony Ive. It has never been used, but Smith had put it in the window of his shop on Floral Street, London, as a deliberate contrast with the vintage fittings. (‘As the head of design at Apple, a company that had just teetered on the brink of going out of business, I was never more encouraged or alarmed,’ remembers Ive in the book’s foreword.) Ive’s father, who taught design and technology, had given his son a practical approach to design.
Likewise, Smith’s father, who kept a soldering iron and a vice at home, had also taught him to respect people who get things done for themselves. Smith’s 50 objects are a powerful celebration of touch, a quality that the digital world cannot replace. And they each tell more than one story. Smith is famously a cycling obsessive. But his fondness for a lathe-turned Campagnolo seat pillar represents not just the memory he has of putting it into his bike for the first time, it’s also a reminder of the pleasure we all take in the physical quality of things. ‘I realised that it had a ridge on it, and when I ran my nail along it, I could feel how beautifully it had been made. Not only could you see how beautiful it was, you could actually feel it, too.’
It’s not just that the Braun record player in his selection was designed by Dieter Rams, it’s also about the music – Otis Redding, The Temptations, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin – that has been important to him for almost as long as cycling has. And it reminds him of the Wharfdale speakers that he packed into his car and drove to Paris to provide the soundtrack for one of his earliest shows. Smith’s anniversary comes in the midst of a pandemic that has up-ended the fashion world. He is still resolutely not doing things the obvious way, still full of energy, and still irrepressibly curious.
He has shops in lots of places now, from Melrose Avenue in LA, a shocking pink architectural tribute to Luis Barragán (W*86), to Albemarle Street in London, designed by architects 6a (W*174), where Smith himself is sometimes to be found behind the till on a Saturday. He sees that personal connection as an essential part of the future: ‘When people aren’t travelling, or coming into shops, working online is helpful. But it’s not a long-term solution. Online is not about enjoying a conversation, or about discovering things.’ §