Kassia St Clair is a design journalist and the author of top-ten bestseller The Secret Lives of Colour. We met up with Kassia in her garden office and writing shed in South London to talk design, obsessions and of course, colour.
You recently helped to create an immersive exhibition with Color Factory in New York, was this as much fun as it sounds?
It was completely unexpected. When they got in touch to ask if I wanted to collaborate of course there was only one answer. Doing that kind of collaborative work remotely was an unusual experience for me. The team there were very clear about their vision, but not seeing the space beforehand made it difficult to imagine what it would look like when it was completed. I’m really proud of it: I love seeing people’s images on Instagram, how people are interacting with the space and learning from the exhibit.
The subjects you write about includes materials, colours, craft, design, film, culture, history, crime – is this diversity important to your work?
Yes, particularly when I’m also writing books. It can take up to five or six years sometimes as a process. Having lots of different interests keeps you going but can also bring new ideas into what you are working on. I think most people have diverse interests, it’s hard to focus solely on one subject for a long time and still feel in love with it at the end.
Inspiring books and personal objects on Vitsoe shelving
Would you say your key influences were more in literature or journalism?
I’d say a bit of both, I trained at the magazine 1843 (formerly Intelligent Life), which aims to be a bit like the New Yorker but for a UK audience, so it was journalism, but less news-journalism and more literary in style. When I was little, I loved the idea of being April, the reporter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but that’s not me in reality!
Living in colour, Kassia in striking Rainbow skirt by Kitty Joseph
Did you have a favourite story or series of books as a child?
I loved Wind in the Willows. I was obsessed with the book, but we also had the audio tape version read by Kenneth Williams that we played in the car a lot. I still love audio books. In fact when I work now, I definitely think about how it sounds to read aloud. The sounds of words are really important. For me, if your writing echoes how you would speak then you’re doing something right.
A winding garden path connects home to workspace
An inspiring list of writers, poets and inventors famously worked in sheds, what do you think is unique about small, detached spaces?
Firstly, the detachment is very important. I’m very distractible – when I work in the house the stuff I find to do is endless, from re-organising clothes and kitchen drawers to sourdough baking! Particularly when working on a book project, I need to come away to a space that is wholly mine, that I feel completely in control of. I have space in here for everything I need. The act of coming into here (the world’s shortest commute!) into a space that is calming and soothing is very conducive to working.
Springtime emerging around Kassia’s ‘shed’
Be it clothing, furniture or architecture, what do you think makes a particular design timeless?
It is quite hard to say what might make a design timeless. There is something about it having an economy of purpose, that is has not been overworked and just does its job. Simplicity is very important. I also think some designs that become classic have an element of lightness to them, and you can see that they have been made with a sense of enjoyment.
The Secret Lives of Colour and The Golden Thread have both been hugely popular, and you are working on a new book now – do you search hard for inspiration or does it tend to find you?
I’ve been interested in colour for years and years, I have whole section of bookshelves dedicated to colour. Plus since 2013 I have been writing the colour column for Elle Decoration, so the decision to do the first book was a no-brainer. The book I am starting to work on now is something I was interested in (and began to research) two years ago. I put it to one side when I was approached to write The Golden Thread, so it’s nice to pick it back up now. So far, inspiration has always been there and happens quite naturally. I hope that continues!
Widely-translated book ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’
When researching such wide-reaching subjects as colour or fabric, do you have a preferred method of recording and organising your findings?
Yes! My research for The Golden Thread is all collected in two large folders and broken down by chapter. I think about themes, what I want each chapter to say, and give each section a coloured sticky tab. I take notes mostly in longhand. Once I feel like I’ve fleshed a topic out sufficiently, I’ll go through the research reading and highlighting, I might also have sub-divisions within certain chapters. There is a system. In the planning stages I will also use notebooks and make spider-grams which are colour-coded too. I have drawers full of inks, coloured tabs and highlighters – I’m a real stationery addict!
Research folder organised by colour tabs
When you’re away from home what kind of space do you seek to work in?
I like the gentle buzz of activity in cafes. I can work quite well in libraries too, although I do struggle a bit if the space is too silent. At university I would work in the Bodleian Library, which is very hushed – if someone drops a book the sound reverberates around the whole room. I remember once opening my laptop and the rubbish I had been watching the night before at my flat began playing out loud, shattering the silence – it was awful! For me, the shed is the right space to get something done in. When things are really busy just before a deadline I get up at 5.30am, come in with a coffee, and work through until 11 or midnight with just a few short breaks for meals and walking the dog and so on. That’s maybe why I occasionally move the furniture around, I spend a lot of time in here!
Warm materials in the light, eclectic interior
How can people find out more about your work?
I’m an Instagram addict, so if people want to follow me there they can – I’m @kassiastclair. The Secret Lives of Colour also has its own account: @secretlivesofcolour. I regularly give talks about colour, textiles and design; there’s information about dates, tickets and so on at kassiastclair.com under the talks tab. Also on my website there’s a sign-up form for my newsletter, which I put out seasonally and contains links to things that I’ve come across and found fascinating as well as a few pieces I’ve been working on that I’m proud of.
Kassia’s ‘shed’ is a 3rdSpace 2-Bay Modular garden room.
Photography: Beth Davis