There’s nothing beige about fabric and wallpaper designer Molly Mahon. She talks to School Notices about her love of colour, which she brings to life in her beautiful block printed designs.
Molly Mahon has always been drawn to colour and recalls a fetching image of herself at university wearing pink dungarees. A sense of feeling uplifted by wearing something bright moved to her surroundings when she bought her first home. But the seeds were sown in childhood by an artist mother who was “always doing things with her hands”. Mahon describes weekends immersed in creativity, trying marbling, upholstery, book binding. “We spent most of our time at home and to me lockdowns felt rather nostalgic because we weren’t doing all the rushing around that’s so much of a feature of modern life”.
When she graduated from Newcastle University – where she spent as much time hanging around the art department as in her own anthropology department – she set up an events business with a friend. Molly describes a time when she was “young or naïve enough” not to be scared of the concept of working off an ironing board and her need for creativity found an outlet in designing invitations and organising flower arrangements.
Then she met and married Rollo and three children followed in quick succession. Babies and parties didn’t combine well, but evening classes continued, in everything from life drawing to pottery. She came across a block printing class, and “for once, didn’t drift away”. Molly was introduced to the teacher’s collection of lino and wooden blocks and printed her first piece of fabric. Back home she started to carve her own designs. Her business began, almost by stealth, at her kitchen table where she made stationery, lampshades and cushions which she sold at fairs.
Since then, she’s built an international brand of traditional block-printed fabrics and wallpapers, mainly made in Jaipur, with a more recently created print studio situated near Delhi. Her bestselling design is the hardest to print. “Luna looks incredibly simple, stripes in two different colours side by side, but it’s hard to keep the lines straight.” As demand for her work grows she’s experimented with digital and screen-printing, but nothing compares to “the nuance, energy and the story of something made by hand”.
She describes the challenges brought by Covid as hard. “I wrote a book and had huge plans and book signings”. She launched with prestigious design house Schumacher in the US and was excited about going to America with her husband. None of that happened either. However, the setbacks proved a good exercise in experimentation. Molly started doing Zoom workshops and realised how powerful Instagram could be.
Her IGTV workshops went so well she opened a supply store so customers could create their own designs at home. “This was never in the five-year plan, but sales are really strong”. The art of creation, Molly believes, is just one of the ways Covid has made us look at our homes with fresh eyes. “We’re getting more colourful. In small ways and large – look at lampshades, which always used to be beige and flat. Kitchens are increasingly in bold blues or greens. I always say to break the rules – putting pink and red together has become something of a signature – but start small. You can’t go wrong with a tea towel or patterned lampshade”.
Another trend is sustainability: “If we haven’t realised that what we do has to be thoughtful, we must be on another planet”. But Molly admits that working out how to print fabric in India and send it round the world does tend to make her head spin. She works hard to ensure a clean studio by using water-based paints and natural unbleached cloth, but says it’s never going to be a completely organic process. She rationalises the head churn with a desire to create balance: “A joyous piece of printed cloth is uplifting for the soul”. And she’s worked hard to find the right people to work with: “our business is small, personable and the slow process of the hand block keeps production at a gentle pace”.
Talking of collaborations, there’s the aforementioned partnership with New Yorkbased design house Schumacher, a brand that’s literally part of the country’s fabric, having been used by everyone from Jackie Kennedy in the White House to the set designers of Gone with the Wind. “They are huge but also a perfect fit for us, and they are going to help us take block printing into parts of the world that aren’t so aware of it”. A “fun clothing collection” is on the horizon, but Molly is tight-lipped until its official release date. She can reveal that she’s working with Anthropologie on the Kings Road during London Craft Week in May.
Back at home in rural Sussex, it sounds like Molly’s three children are enjoying a similar upbringing to her own. She says she doesn’t push art at them, but that the children are “embroiled” in the process nevertheless because so much of the business happens around the kitchen table. The studio is an idyllic trot through the woods and her oldest child often pops in on her way back from school. Their future, like their mother’s, sounds bright.
Buy fabric and wallpaper, book a workshop or simply be inspired at mollymahon.com. You can also enrol in a virtual workshop with Molly’s ‘The Art of Block Printing’ at Create Academy (createacademy.com). We also love Molly’s Instagram feed @mollymahonblockprinting – she answers all your messages herself.