Gallery Visit - Orla Kiely, A Life in Pattern

Posted on: Jul 18, 2018

Who doesn’t love Orla Kiely’s designs? Her symmetrically pleasing ‘stem’ pattern can be seen on everything from bags to cushions to ceramics. There’s something so familiar about her retro-style work, it’s hard to believe her popular designs only date back to the millennium.


Orla Kiely handbag

As part of my ‘let’s get over this fear of taking time off’, I put on my out of office and hopped on a train to London. I’ve never visited the Fashion and Textile Museum before, but now that I know it’s only a 20-minute tube ride from Marylebone, it won’t be the last time.


Fashion and Textile Museum London

I also was unaware that the Fashion and Textile Museum was founded by the punky princess of pink, Zandra Rhodes, in 2003. But when I saw the vividly painted exterior of the building, this made perfect sense! The museum has no permanent exhibits, so all the space they have is given over to the visiting exhibitions.


I’ve always admired Orla Kiely’s work but didn’t know much about her as an artist or business woman, so this was my chance to find out.

As luck would have it I arrived just as a tour was starting, and Claire the guide took us round the various displays. She explained that as Orla was only in her 50s this wasn’t a retrospective, more a celebration of her career so far.

I found out that she started as an in-house pattern designer, then started making hats. It was her Dad who astutely pointed out that perhaps people weren’t wearing hats as much as they used to, and wouldn’t it be better to start making handbags instead? We saw the fruits of this sage piece of advice upstairs, where a wall was full of an impressive display of 100 Orla Kiely handbags.


I have to admit I was surprised by the variety of designs on display, as I used to think of her as a bit of a one trick pony (blame the ubiquitous stem design), but there was real diversity here, from the humorous to the subtle.


Orla Kiely wall of handbags

We also saw a wide range of clothes from her fashion collections, and unique items that had been commissioned for the exhibition, such as the large wooden totem poles and oversized garments that played with the idea of scale. There were also illustrations by fashion designers such as Zandra Rhodes and Daisy de Villeneuve of Orla’s work.


Orla Kiely exhibition

I think the key to the perfectly-pitched retro appeal of her designs is in the colour palette – a mix of greens, browns, yellows and blues that irresistibly calls to mind the swinging sixties and seventies and was inspired by Irish landscapes. Any blues or purples that pop up are invariably dusky and muted, and black hardly ever gets a look in.


Orla Kiely totem pole

My only complaint is that I would have liked to have seen some of her sketches and rough work, and to see the development process that she referred to as ‘cleaning it up’ (i.e. making the designs as simple as possible). My other complaint is that I couldn’t afford to buy the lot...


Read more of my gallery visits here


Comments (0)

Add a Comment

Allowed tags: <b><i><br>Add a new comment:


Blog Topics

Latest Posts


Want to talk about your project?

Let's Talk