Designer outlet: Timorous Beasties hit the Big 3-0

Timorous Beasties, the Glasgow-based textile and wallpaper company, has become an international phenomenon. The firm is renowned for its stunningly original and eye-catching designs which marry tradition, colour and texture, and beautiful depictions of nature with a liberal sprinkling of West Coast irreverence and wit.

Old pals act: Alistair McAuley, left, and Paul Simmons became friends at The Mack, and have never looked back
Old pals act: Alistair McAuley, left, and Paul Simmons became friends at The Mack, and have never looked back

And now the company is finally getting round to celebrating its 30th anniversary – a year or two late due to the pandemic, but nevertheless an important milestone.

Founders Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons set up Timorous Beasties in 1990, after meeting at Glasgow School of Art.

Alistair explains that their success was by no means assured, nor did it come quickly: “We were pals throughout art school, and realised that our work ethic and ideas complimented each other in our last year.

Glasgow Toile

“Our work had a certain look but we were under no illusions as our stuff wasn’t particularly commercial. It’s not easy to make a living after art school, but I think we had more against us than most.”

Not only did Alistair and Paul’s intricate designs take a great deal of time and effort to complete, but their bold ideas were in direct opposition to the minimalism that interior design was in thrall to in the 1990s. In addition, the pair’s idyosyncratic work was not exactly cut out for the mainstream.

This turned out to be a challenge that spurred them on to their later success. Alistair recalls: “Companies weren’t interested in putting our stuff into production so we had to do it ourselves. We had no training in business, but we had orders for things we had produced during art school, so we were doing small jobs to get money to produce the next item.”

As for their challenge to the minimalist aesthetic, it could be argued that Timorous Beasties’ designs not only swam against the tide back then, but eventually helped to change its direction.

Timorous Beasties

An early meeting with Humphrey Boyle, head of Wallcoverings International and founder of luxury design group Zoffany, initially gave the pair scant encouragement. Alistair recalls: “He predicted that the way we were working would mean we would go bust in a year. But, he invited us to his factory and gave us offcuts of wallpaper that we could print onto and that helped.

“At our lowest ebb, we tried to do something that we knew we could sell, but that was even worse. The people that were interested in us liked what we did, and if they wanted ‘normal’ wallpaper, they could go elsewhere and get it cheaper. So we doggedly stuck to our guns and for several years, we had support, but no money – but the horizon always looked brighter, which kept us going.”

He jokes: “How long was our overnight success? – probably about 14 years!”

In 2004, Alistair and Paul opened their Glasgow shop and were nominated for Designer of theYear – as well as winning other awards – having realised that staying put in Glasgow was the only way they could survive financially.

Alistair explains: “We needed a big studio and we could never have afforded London prices. But, we found that when we did open our shop we were really supported by Glaswegians, and that allowed us to expand elsewhere.”

Ironically, this included a showroom in London, which proved influencial in spreading the word. Alistair says: “We have all sorts of people coming in to chat with us. We had the Prodigy in to look at soft furnishings when they were in Glasgow for a gig a few years back, which was a bit surreal. Keith Flint, their late lead singer, then bought a lot of stuff from the London shop.”

You can see the connection, there is definitely an alternative, almost punk aesthetic in Timorous Beasties’ designs. Most infamously perhaps, the Glasgow Toile is a take on classic toile de jouy patterns, a very traditional print in pale blue, gray or green which typically depicts scenes of pastoral idylls.

Their version includes the sights seen outside their first factory on Raeberry Street, just off Maryhill Road, and shows the seedier side of Glasgow life, including knife crime and drug abuse.

Alistair says; “Paul and I always loved drawing and painting, but we also loved the manufacturing process. And because we were doing it ourselves meant we could take risks.

“No-one else was bankrolling us so we could try all sorts. The bottom line was never ‘this will work really well in the market’ – just things that we liked.”

And it was an attitude that has paid off handsomely. The scope of Timorous Beasties’ design work now is huge, including book covers, film sets, a concert programme for a Kate Bush tour, branding for whisky, gin and chocolate, marble engravings on the Robert Burns walkway in Ayrshire, gravestones and a huge sculpture at the entrance to Princes Square in Glasgow.

Alistair says: “We put ourselves up for stuff that is unusual, we love to try things out and give it a go.

“Such projects sometimes involve working with electricians and stone masons and all sorts of skills that people who design wallpaper don’t know anything about. But we can learn and we like trying new things.”

He adds: “We are fortunate enough that we get presented with really interesting jobs. People come to us because of our aesthetic.

“Textile design has a classic library of source material, which is nature, but the depiction tends to be stylised, taking the horror out of it. We like to put it back in.”