A Patterned Life

I have always been in two minds about the work of Irish designer Orla Kiely. On the one hand I like the simplicity of her stylised plant inspired designs, but on the other I find some of her colour choices a bit dour, and then there is the matter of merchandising.

A small exhibition currently open at the Discovery Centre in Winchester, Hampshire, UK focusses on her output and features design pieces from across her career. The exhibition was organised by the Fashion and Textile Museum and the opening wall text panel claims that it shows how Kiely “walked from the Minimalism of the 1990’s into the colourful world of 21st century pattern. This exhibition offers a privileged insight into how she creates a characteristic look for our era.” (Exhibition wall panel, text by FTM, London).

Retro styled shoes from Clarks

Entering the exhibition via the stairs from the library the stairwell is flanked by two gigantic coats designed by Kiely in her signature patterns. Once inside the single room is not large, but is filled with examples of her work. One wall is covered with handbags, something that she became well known for, this wall must contain one example of every bag she ever designed. It is certainly the showstopper.

The bag wall

Opposite this are a group of mannequins wearing examples of clothing designed by Kiely. What stuck me most was how old fashioned the designs are. I think that others might say ‘retro’, but I think that really old fashioned is more appropriate and this includes the fabrics the clothes are made from. Lots of synthetic fibres making then more in line with fashions from the late 1960’s and 1970’s that filled my own childhood and teenage years. Many are again in drab colours, which the fabric does little to alleviate, which is a shame as the actual designs themselves are full of fun.

Retro styled dressed and coats from the Orla Kiely collection

There cannot be anyone in the world that has not seen a Kiely design given that her work has appeared on wallpaper, bedlinen, homewares and even a Citroen car. the most popular design is called ‘Stem’ and features a single stem with pairs of simple oval shaped leaves covering it’s full length. The actual designs are simple, but really only variations on a theme – a simple 4 petal daisy, the paired leaf stem and a basic cup shape manipulated in size and colourways, they are instantly recognizable and have an obvious easy aesthetic which can be applied to practically anything.

The Winchester exhibition features some tiny dolls set in small plastic wall mounted boxes which, together with the oversized garments, form an installation created specifically for the exhibition, elaborating on a play with scale. Each miniature doll wears an exact replica of one of the giant garments, the intention being to highlight Kiely’s love of the unexpected – a lace trim, plastic flower button detail or a floral pattern picked out in jacquard. Complimenting the mini dolls, there are two giant wooden dolls that let visitors ‘design’ their own Kiely based garments. The whole oeuvre is playful, and I enjoyed the exhibition, but I can’t help feeling it is not wholly original, for me there is too much of the designs of 1960’s Mary Quant and Biba about it.

Mini doll exhibition installation
Giant coats flank the entrance to the exhibition
Design your own Kiely collection

The exhibition is free and can be seen at the Discovery Centre, Jewry Street, Winchester until 5 January 2020.