2 January 2017

The Elegance of Entomology

Invited through the meandering hallway of Southdean House, I arrive at the door that exposes the heart and soul of the business, where mere concepts and ideologies become reality. Glistening beetles and rows of framed taxidermy butterflies adorn the walls while colossal tubs of Chanel moisturiser and 24 carat solid gold flowers lay among the organised melange of potential projects. The seemingly never-ending tables stretch the length of the room and overflowing with works-in-progress, have my eyes aimlessly darting around the room and trying to digest everything at once. Monstrous branches and delicately crisp leaves lay side-by-side, waiting to be transformed. Although the Scottish Borders has always been a base for model Stella Tennant, she found herself at home on the catwalk, working with essentially every international brand you can reel off the tip of your tongue. She's turned her hand to gilding – an incredibly specialist craft – so when I ask what drew her and her sister Issy to it, the latter simply replies “Gold” and why wouldn’t that be enough?


What is your current state of mind?
Stella Tennant: I’m really very, very glad to be making things again, you know. It’s something that I’ve missed after art college and modelling so I’m feeling grateful to be back in the studio.
Issy Tennant: It’s nice to have a sort of finished thing in your hand after a certain amount of time and having an idea and seeing it through to the finished object is really, quite satisfying.

How would you define “artisan”?
S.T: I would say it’s an artistic eye with highly skilled craftsmanship. 
I.T: Everything handmade, for us, some of our components we have to buy in, lamp fittings, stuff like that, but most of the components in our things are fairly handmade. 
S.T: Very handmade, that’s what I love about it, everything that’s made by hand has its individual handwriting, its different identity doesn’t it? It has a kind of human touch. 
I.T: Yeah, we never use electric sanders cause you end up with something that’s very flat and as a result, a little bit dead – to our eye anyway. You can tell that a lot of time and effort has gone into making it look like that. 
S.T: And I think even if you don’t necessarily understand what it is that’s different about it (artisan products), you innately recognise that it is not something that you could find mass-produced and I think there’s something that’s just sort of deeply attractive about that that won’t ever change cause we’re still animals. 
I.T: And also, we’re so surrounded by machine-made things so it’s refreshing to have things that are A. handmade and B. have a sense of nature about them. 

There’s an entomological and botanical theme to a lot of your work, why is this?
I.T: People like bringing the shapes of nature into their house. If you look back at old pottery, it’s often decorated with flowers, or animals so people do like images of nature in one way or another. In our case, we’re often actually using pieces of nature, real twigs, real butterflies; it’s that thing, you’re bringing a sense of nature into the home.

It’s a welcomed sense of familiarity.
S.T: Yeah, there’s something grounding and celebratory about it. I feel it’s like bringing a bunch of flowers, something ritualistic about bringing flowers to celebrate an occasion or event.


Is there a particular artistic movement or period that you wish you could have contributed to?
S.T: Personally not, I’d say I’m totally eclectic. There are inspiring things you find, whether it’s from the arts and crafts movement, or something you’d see in a Chapel in Florence.
I.T: You mentioned Greek icons earlier, bits and pieces from all over the place really but I don’t think I’ve got a favourite. 

The art of gilding is an incredibly specialist craft, what particularly drew you to it?
I.T: Gold (laughs) I love gold. I love it’s shine, it’s glow… it’s almost like sunlight or something. I think a little bit of gold can really lift a room.
S.T: That’s why it’ valuable, people close to worship it, don’t they? Just think of the Aztecs. 
I.T: People just love gold, there’s something really elemental and totally beautiful about it I think. 

Yeah, there definitely is, do you recall the first piece of art or perhaps a photograph that had a lasting impact on you?
I.T: I really love a painting called “Trial By Jury” by Edwin Landseer and it’s dogs as judges and attorneys around a table with documents on it.
S.T: The scene is a bit like your kitchen (laughs). 
I.T: We haven’t really brought dogs into our work yet.

Something for the future perhaps?
S.T: (laughs) Yeah, I think the first exhibition I saw that really impressed me was primitive African sculpture. I’d been studying art for a while and I went to New York and went into the Met where they have this incredible collection of African art. Having studied Picasso, Cubism and all that kind of stuff, seeing the actual masks that were so inspiring to them, that really impressed me.


Stella, has working with fashion houses such as Chanel, Givenchy and Céline influenced your creative outlook?
S.T: Well I think that one of the things I find interesting about modelling is seeing how the designers work. Definitely, with wearing the clothes, I’m interested in their design and their structure and how different houses have their own different looks and own specific vision. It’s influenced me in the sense that you’re selective and you’re looking. It’s visual and you’re discerning what it is that you like or don’t like about the clothes that you’re wearing.

With both being successful working females, what are your views on the omnipresent topic of feminism?
I.T: Well, girls are equal.
S.T: Yeah, you just have to decide what your priorities are and I think hopefully less and less, there’s a barrier in achieving whatever it is that you are trying to achieve 

It’s like what William Golding said: “I think woman are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they’re far superior and always have been”.
S.T: (laughs) Yeah clearly, exactly.

If you had to entertain your friend Karl Lagerfeld for a day, where would you take him?
S.T: I would take him to Hermitage Castle. I would take him up to the hill of the valley there and introduce him to a few blackface ewes (laughs). I think that the landscape here would really impress him and somewhere like Hermitage, where it’s sort of ancient history, I think that would be something he’d like to see.


With both being not only artists but Mothers, do you feel a responsibility to impress upon your children, the importance of art as a form of expression?
I.T: Yes, I guess so but what we’re making is decorative art, I don’t feel a huge amount of self-expression in it.
S.T: But then it is cause it’s what we love? 
I.T: True, I’m always encouraging the kids because it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed. I really like making things. 
S.T: I like making things too and it’s probably a lot to do with Mum, she was always making things. She was very good at sewing, she’d be making rag-rugs… she was always making things. She’s got an interesting combination of brain and hand. Often people who are very academic are not good with their hands but Mum mastered both. 

Stella, how has your focus on sculpture when studying at Winchester College of Art impacted the type of work that you produce now?
S.T: I’d say that between Issy and I, I do the much more three-dimensional aspect of the work.
I.T: Take this lamp for example, I found the pattern from old kimonos and the shape is totally Stella so that really is a good example of the two of us combining our ideas. 

If you could give your student self one piece of advice, what would it be?
S.T: Just love what you do. Be confident about what you like cause I think in art school I just got drifted off and in the first couple of years and found it difficult to find what is was that I really like. Issy what’s your piece of advice?
I.T: Oh, I don’t know. Actually, I suppose if you’ve got good ideas, get on and make them happen. I think it’s quite easy not to do it for various reasons: maybe not quite enough confidence, there’s a million excuses…too many student parties to go to (laughs). I’d like to have gotten on with it a bit sooner actually. Also, collaborate with somebody because it speeds things up. As soon as you both decide on something, so long as you have similar aesthetics, as long as you’ve agreed on something you think “right decision made” so you get on and do it. 
S.T: You don’t procrastinate cause it’s easy to make the decision and you get more confidence from doing it with something. I really wish I’d collaborated at college actually. 
I.T: Yes, so do I. I think you push each other. If I know that you’re about to turn up then I get a sample ready to show you cause you think this is my side of things.