February 2020

Isla Simpson is certainly inspired by romance.

Just take one look at her Instagram profile and it's clear to see how her whimsical outlook on life inspires her illustrations and designs: pink taffeta ruffles from a Baroque painting, an ice-cream coloured drawing room brimming with mountainous sponge cakes, a pretty chintzy tablescape complete with heirloom plates. We caught up with Isla to find out more about her creative work, which spans illustration, calligraphy, paper-cut artwork and specialist surface painting. Read on to discover where it all started, learn about her undying love for all things English and how, through embracing technology, Isla is able to keep up with modern-day demands. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Growing up, what inspired you? Were you always drawing and being creative?

My nose was always stuck in the latest Laura Ashley catalogues and I was craft crazed as a child, I knew exactly what I wanted to be. My parents' chintzy cottage style hugely influenced me, but we moved to Moscow during my teens with my Father’s work. Being an expat gives you a very heightened and nostalgic sense of what England is about. In the holidays I lapped up the ballet and museums in Russia, at boarding school in Bath I romanced the architecture and history.

Where and what did you study?

I trained in Printed Fashion Textile design at Central Saint Martins in London. I was the worst student in possession of a squeegee, much preferring designing to working at the print room table. I never practiced as a textile designer and went straight into handbag design, preferring product to surface design. But I’ve gone full circle now!

You started working with handbag designers including Anya Hindmarch and Aspinals; what was your role and what did you learn from this experience?

My 15 year career in fashion accessories, latterly as senior handbag designer, saw me design everything leather, from handbags to luggage and wallets. It was the ‘It’ bag era, and I found myself in a very niche career, very much in demand.  The pace was furious, I learned everything I know on the factory floor, all over the world.  Leather is the most wonderful material to work with and of course if you can handle a fashion deadline, you can take quite a pressure cooker. I designed it all, from leather colour palettes, to metal hardware and the bag shape itself. Let’s just say you have to get comfortable with a lot of Adobe software packages! 

You launched your own studio in 2017; how did you find the transition to freelance?

I was conscious that I didn’t want to be stuck in the engine rooms of brands, invisible, for the next career chapter, or worse still, be stale. To have real longevity in the design world you have to stick your head out of the parapet. As someone with a low risk appetite, freelancing can be deeply uncomfortable, but you learn a lot about yourself and get better at difficult conversations (mostly money related). I’ve never felt more creative or understood my purpose more, it just got buried under a few fashion brands for a while.

How do you work?

Between my paints and my iPad, where I’m increasingly loving the immediacy of drawing digitally. The trick is getting it not to look digital though, as my work is so steeped in nostalgia and the romance of those old chintz fabric techniques that have been somewhat lost. I’ve had to embrace technology to keep up with the lightening speed brands and clients need things by.

What are your favourite materials to work with?

I adore painting on mirrors, it took me a long time to perfect the technique, but the luminosity and story telling of making those looking glasses is something I want to continue exploring.

Your work covers different aspects of stationery items – what one item of stationery must one never live without?

A handwritten thank you letter goes a long way, it’s about how you make people feel in this life, that matters.

Where do you go for inspiration?

For a country stay with my friends @willelc and @xaviercharlesleclerc who have this idyllic Kent cottage, like a mini museum, filled with curiosities. We whizz off to National Trust houses, day dream and chase the beauty.  

Which artists do you admire?

Pat Albeck and Mrs Delaney, the original female papercut artists, and William Nicholson for capturing the light in oil paint, like no other.  

What are your top three country houses?

I’m drawn to the comfort of Arts and Craft houses, so Standen House and Perrycroft in Malvern are top favouries. I recently had tea at Bryan’s Ground which just fizzes with magic.

When you’re not working, what can we find you doing?

Cooking! I’ve started inviting inspiring friends who perhaps might not otherwise meet, round for ‘kitchen suppers.’ Nothing fancy, just simple things liked baked hams and Diana Henry tray bakes, I feel like those evenings are a real meeting of minds. And they stop me working every hour, which is a good thing…..

What’s in line for Isla Simpson during 2020?

Plates, fabrics and wallpapers are the long-term plan. I’d love to be the next Laura Ashley.