London's first design focused boutique remains one of the city's most influential trendsetters. We present the indefatigable Themes & Variations.
It is hard to grasp the impact that Notting Hill’s Themes and Variations has had on London’s design scene. Co-established in 1984 by Liliane Fawcett and ,Guiliana Medda, the store was the capital’s first boutique wholly dedicated to 20th century design whose success in identifying key trends over the last 30 years is largely unparalleled. So too is Fawcett’s ability to identify talent – from Tom Dixon to the Campana Brothers, she has been instrumental in discovering a selection of today’s greatest designers. Similarly, Fawcett’s successful model has no doubt inspired the formation of similar boutiques and galleries that include Talisman, Willer and Lamberty.
Choosing to set up in Westbourne Grove, where the store remains today, an area then which was a world away from the chic tree lined avenue that it has become today. Instead, it was the epicentre for London’s bourgeoning creative scene, primarily populated by upcoming artists and designers of the time. Beginning as a specialist dealer in modern and contemporary pieces from the 1950s and 60s, Fawcett soon took notice of the designers and artists that had begun to make waves in the post-punk era of the late 80s. Whilst this didn’t entirely fit within her original scope, she let a select number of up and coming young designers exhibit their works at her boutique.
One of these was the now legendary British designer Tom Dixon, whose studio was located only two blocks away. Interestingly, it was the work of Andre Dubreuil, who shared the space with Dixon, that led to the introduction. The now legendary British designer, best known for creating the S chair and Pylon chair explains, “for a long while, though, she wasn’t very interested in what I was doing. She was far more interested in an artist I was sharing a studio with, André Dubreuil, who was more classic than me, and she started to buy his work for her shop. During that period, around 1985, UK galleries weren’t really interested in the kind of rusty industrial chic I was doing.”
The friendship began as a social one and made the more easy with Dixon’s fluency in French, a gift from his Tunisian heritage. However it was only when Fawcett began to appreciate Dixon’s work did the professional relationship began. Dixon recalls “if I ever needed money I’d make something, drop it off and she’d give me £50 cash for it. It’s a lifeline when you’re starting out, having people to support you. And she became a great person to do the dirty work of selling; unlike most people in sales she was very honest. Now I don’t consider her a collector, but a friend; I don’t push her to buy anything any more.”
Dixon’s first exhibition at Themes & Variations took place in 1988. The resulting success solidified their friendship and helped catapult the designer in to a much deserved limelight.
Dixon and Dubreuil were by no means the only designers whose careers had been nurtured by a stint at Themes & Variations. Fawcett has been instrumental in helping establish artists including Israeli Ron Arad and Mark Brezier-Jones. This theme for the uncovering the new and unexpected has continued through the years, with Themes & Variations continually one step ahead of the game.
In latter years Fawcett’s interest has been piqued by China and she has been heralded as the first in London to truly realise the market’s potential. Inspired by a visit to Beijing’s 798 art district Fawcett saw the underlying similarities between these designers and ones her store were already showing. Sensing an opportunity she decided to organise what would become the 1st major exhibition of Chinese design in London.
The 2012 exhibition ‘Chinese Design Today’ presented the works of 16 established and emerging artists including Shao Fan and Li Jai. Fawcett explains “We feel that the upcycling works [made using salvaged material] could run in parallel with the market for the Campana brothers who made pieces from wood found in the favelas.” Nostalgia may have also played a card here, for the Chinese designer’s medium and approach had striking similarities to Dixon’s early work which were equally formed from up-cycling salvaged materials.
Themes & Variations’ latest exhibition continued in a similar vein. Focused on reviving the hand-blown glass industry, Fawcett presented the latest collection of sculptural glass forms from celebrated designer Toots Zynsky in December. Known for her signature technique, ‘filets-de verre’ (fused and thermoformed glass threads), Zynsky describes her vibrantly coloured pieces as an “evolving animal fed by the inspirations of music, dance and art.”
Internationally recognised as an innovator and accomplished artist, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate’s work is highly prized by collectors. Lauded art critic Arthur C Danto has described her career as, “in an age in which the relevance of beauty to art is widely questioned, Zynsky’s work is uncompromisingly beautiful.”
From establishing the first design focused space in London, Fawcett has achieved much over the three decades. Working and developing the careers of designers as diverse as the Campana Brothers and McColin Bryan to Tom Dixon and Niahm Barry; the gallery has been a constant and integral force within London’s design scene. Thankfully there seems to be no sign of slowing and we can only assume Fawcett will continue as one of London’s finest trendsetters for a while yet.
Address: 231 WESTBOURNE GROVE, LONDON W11 2SE
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7727 5531
Images provided by Themes & Variations