Interview: Morag Macpherson, textile designer

FOR a designer inspired by the world around her – travels to Japan, Cambodia, Morocco, the US – it should be no surprise to discover that Morag Macpherson’s most important commission to date is from Manhattan's newest, chicest destination hotel.

As of next month, the über-hip Union Square Hotel on Fourth Avenue will be home to dramatic headboard panels by Macpherson, part of a five-figure deal for the designer, and created a very long way away indeed – in her studio in Kirkcudbright.

It’s the highlight, so far, in a career that has been a little like her varied travels. Because the 39-year-old from Glasgow didn’t take a direct route into what she calls “surface pattern design” – a craft that encapsulates textiles, wallpaper, cushions, scarves and “wearable art” (wraparound skirts and kimonos that feature her vibrantly coloured floral and abstract prints).

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“I was always arty at school,” she says, “and went through all sorts of phases, wanting to do fine art, things like that. I went off in my teenage years and ended up in graphic design because that was the sort of thing you could get a job in. I studied that for three years, then went on to work as one for about 12 years.”

But the siren call of the art world was strong – particularly when you consider that Glasgow School of Art’s Centre For Advanced Textiles was right on her doorstep. “The digital technology in textiles made me realise what I was doing on paper could be transferred to fabric. It all tied in,” she says.

After her studies, she combined the two jobs for four years “which was a bit chaotic” and has now been focusing on textiles full time for six years.

The move to Kirkcudbright happened even more recently. “I just wanted a change of scenery,” she says. “My collection at the end of the year will have some direct inspiration from the countryside around me. But it doesn’t even have to be as literal as that. I’m always rushing about but the quietness here really calms me down. I feel I have more hours in the day.”

Her studio is full of books about other cultures, and photographs from her travels of diverse shapes and patterns. “I get a lot of inspiration from art history,” she adds. “I never studied it but I wish I had.”

Macpherson’s itchy feet have taken her all over the Middle and Far East, as well as to New York several times. And it was during one visit – as part of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in 2010 – that her work was spotted by the interior designer/architect partnership behind the Union Square Hotel. “I had a lot of nature-inspired work, with an African twist. I’d been looking at the way the women decorate their bodies with whatever is around them and had set up this collection called The Masculine and Feminine in Nature. It had a Japanese sort of sensibility to it too, so I displayed it on these big tapestries.”

It proved eye-catching, but Macpherson’s more prosaic roots were an added bonus for the New Yorkers. “The whole Glasgow connection was picked up. The Americans are very enthusiastic about it – it seems to be a real plus point. They like your work, then they realise you’re Scottish – it’s a big pull for them. I think they recognised that legacy of design.”

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Her brief was all about allegory and nature, taking the juxtaposition of urban Manhattan with the serenity of the park outside the hotel’s front door. “They asked me to just go wild with the pattern,” smiles Macpherson, “so I did. There are elements from about ten different collections all merged, with hundreds of colours. And the panels are reversible. So there’s spring/summer on one side and autumn/winter on the other. Hotel staff will turn them over depending on the different seasons.”

Macpherson would love to be there for the big launch or as soon as her schedule allows – “the last time I saw it, it was a shell with just one room mocked up” – but she’s already due in the Big Apple later this month for a trade fair, then will be hoofing it straight back to the UK for Clerkenwell Design Week, which will see 45 of Scotland's best interior and furniture designers showcasing their work in London. There's also the Spring Fling in Kirkcudbright at the end of this month, during which she will open the doors to her studio, and which has seen her mentor the young artist Coral Beattie.

“Everything has just been gathering pace,” she says. “I’d like to do more of this type of project, bigger commissions, bigger orders.”

But for now, she’ll take Manhattan.