UPC In Conversation With Gareth Devenold Smith

Picture of Simon Stone

Simon Stone

The view from Gareth Devonald Smiths roof terrace is oddly timeless. There are acres of sky – unusual in such an urban setting – with a windmill in the centre of the frame, some classic Victorian brickwork dotted around in the nearby industrial and domestic buildings and a lot of open space and grass. “Brixton can surprise you,” he says with understated elegance.

Understated elegance is pretty much Gareths’ MO in both his work and the way that he presents himself. When I ask him how he describes himself and his work, he laughs and says “Painter and Decorator”. This is a very understated way indeed of summing up his successful work as a designer of bespoke lighting and furnishings for individual clients and as a Consultant to Porta Romana – a high end supplier of individual pieces made and designed by craftspeople from across the British Isles. I can see why Gareths work has remained in demand across several decades: although “timeless” is a hackneyed phrase, the work which Gareth designs and produces seems to have come from anytime between two centuries ago and tomorrow.

Gareth himself has a well-grounded sense of his own part in a rolling backdrop of creativity and innovation. He comes from a deeply creative family: his father Tom Smith was a very well respected Make Up Designer in film and worked and was a friend of many of the “greats” of cinema from directors such as David Lean, Steven Spielberg and David Attenborough to screen icons such as Eva Gardner and Olivia de Havilland. Shortly after Gareth left Winchester Art School, much to his surprise, he was given a job with Mary Fox Linton, the doyenne of interior design. “Mary Fox Linton was a pathblazer and incredibly well known and revered for her innovative eye” says Gareth “She made design associations which nobody else was even thinking of in those days back in the late 1950s/early 1960s. She had what might now be called eclectic taste and mixed tribal artefacts from other continents with steel framed tables and kilim rugs. We accept that taste now but so much can be traced back to Mary. I learnt a lot from her”. He worked with Mary for several years and built a more robust understanding not only of how design can affect the way that we behave and feel but also a grasp of how to interface with clients. Throughout that time Mary Fox Linton was a professional inspiration and continues to be a friend.

Gareth also finds inspiration from cinema and cites with ease scenes and images from films dating back to the 1940s right up to contemporary releases. Lockdown allowed Gareth a little more time to indulge his enthusiasm for cinema and he watched a slew of films. “Classics?” I asked. “Not necessarily, many of them are rubbish!” he replied. “But there are some images which are remarkable. ‘Deception’ – the 1946 original rather than the 2008 remake – features a New York apartment where Bette Davis’ character lives. It’s just so modern in its look with soaring glass walls and that eclectic mix of furniture which was unknown to post war England. That visual sits with you in your imagination. I came to the film just a few years ago and even though glass walls and mixed up décor are now familiar to me, that jolt of seeing such modern images portrayed in a black and white 1946 movie is still exciting and inspirational to me.”

We talk for a while about Bette Davis and those screen sirens whose very names conjure certain emotions and responses from audiences – today they’d be called brands perhaps. Which leads me to ask Gareth whether he considers that his own work has a “signature look”. “Perhaps not” he replies thoughtfully “The pieces that I produce have a uniformity in the attention to detail and an understanding of proportion and craftsmanship but otherwise I feel that each piece is individual. And since several of my pieces are designed specifically for the environment in which they’ll be seen, they have individual personality and balance.”

In the past year or two Gareth feels that his view on his work has shifted somewhat and the more recent work is a bit softer, has more colour and is more organic in its form. He also sees how the placing of his pieces in an environment can create a very different mood. “I’m thinking in a more cohesive and perhaps a more sculptural way about the work and its place in its setting.” Gareth is also producing soft furnishings and bespoke rugs – not an unusual design discipline for him as his first training was in Textile Design.

The past two years have given us all an unusual amount of time to contemplate our own environments. Few of us have responded with such an intense amount of hand-crafted work to elevate the look of our homes. Gareth spent over a week adding white on white texture to a two-storey wall of his home with carefully applied plaster. He’s also added more colour in his living room – a glorious pink wall is offset by grey and natural-coloured textured wall covering while an adjacent wall is lifted with subtle shades of lemon-y yellow which move across an integrated door to give it a slightly secret appeal – hidden in plain sight. The ground floor of Gareth’s unique property is given over to his working studio which is a space of experiment, an intriguing mass of materials and a certain amount of mess which inevitably goes with work-in-progress. This is also a stark contrast to the beautiful and restful restraint of his living quarters. It all looks pretty perfect to me but I ask what one thing he would like to add to his home – money and common sense no bar to the answer to this question. “An open fire please” he replies. “I enjoy the change that a real fire brings to a room but haven’t yet found the right way to bring that feature into my living room.”

It’s a typically elegantly understated response from Gareth – a man who laughs very robustly and often, has informed views on a catholic range of issues and a hearty way of knocking back some of the more idiot issues of our times. When I went to meet Gareth my expectations were perhaps that he would be different to the man that I found in Brixton or “South Central” as he jokingly called his neighbourhood. We had a hoot and I learnt a lot. Not least that I really ought to watch “Deception” again soon. Next time we meet he’s promised to show me the best fish and chip caff in “South Central” and I can’t wait.

Madelaine Cooper | March | 2022

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