Orla Kiely, A Life in Pattern

Exhibition opens 7 February 2019 at the Dovecot, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh.

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If you have an eye for a strong pattern, if you recognise an iconic design, you will know an Orla Kiely when you see it. Crammed with colour and deceptively simple, Kiely’s patterns adorn hats and handbags, scarves and record sleeves, a Citroën and a sleek pair of shoes. They feature on John Lewis shelves, in Japanese boutiques and the front cover of the Design Museum’s Fifty Bags that Changed the World – you can’t get much more lauded than that in the fashion world!

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The new exhibition at the Dovecot is by no means a straightforward collection of items from an artist’s dusty back room. Care, attention and creativity has gone into the concept of it, developing organically through various stages, as has her internationally famous business, by her own account. It is brightly curated with plenty of space to stand back and admire the larger-than-life-size dresses hanging as if in a massive wardrobe, replicated in a set of miniature stick dolls with names like Agatha and Ivy.

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Colour and print are at the centre of both her life and success. After being encouraged at her convent school by the art teacher, Kiely won a place at the National College of Art and Design in her native Dublin. After a sojourn in New York where she honed her craft painstakingly mixing precisely the right paint shade, she wanted to learn about knitted textiles and attended the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and  Commerce (RSA) in London ”where you can go in with one idea and come out something completely different, where you can find yourself. “ In 2011 she became an Honorary OBE and in 2017 was made Senior Fellow of the RSA.

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The exhibition starts with the Print Library. Panels of natural, especially floral images in a broad palette range from turquoise to olive, and sunshine to the classic orange of the 60s childhood home. Scarlet discs amidst petals of muted blues reminds of Dick Bruna‘s Miffy illustrations which were popular with young readers of the late 60s. Retro yes design which ‘yearns for certainty in tumultuous times’, as the information panel put it? possibly, but look closely and you will discover an intelligence of design which bears living with on a day-to-day basis. Upended owls fit together nicely, playful juxtapositions of original shapes create something new: a peacock tail of flower stalks, parachutes made from petals, apples with flower cores, and somehow they lend themselves equally to dress fabric as to place mat.

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Around the corner is the Wall of Bags and opposite that a set of V and A clothes stands inspired by the mid to late decades of the 20th century. Glorious auburn zigzags, organza baby blue collar, and a raincoat made of the ubiquitous PVC (aka tablecloth material). There is a dated looking bathing costume to die for!

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Like many artists, she represents herself better in her work than in words. Let the vibrancy and clarity of colour speak for her, allow the focus and precision with which she has built her signature and brand do the talking, and you will believe that she is truly one of the ‘excellent women’, to steal Barbara Pym’s novel title with cover design by Kiely herself.

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