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Meet The Maker: Tess Newall

The Kit Kemp Design Studio has designed this sculptural, geometric stack lamp and asked different artists to decorate them with a splash of colour. Our first collaboration is with decorative artist, Tess Newall, to give this one-of-a-kind piece a real paint splash of life and a finish that is totally unique.

Inspired by The Bloomsbury Group and the Omega Workshop, these Splash lamps will brighten any room when placed on a side table or paired at both ends of a console. Now available on Shop Kit Kemp!

There is something ethereal about Tess. Every time I see her it’s never enough. I don’t know what it is, but she has the ability to make you want to abandon your current life and escape to the rolling Sussex Downs, just so you can sit under the branches of a sunny tree and chat to her all day (although she will probably be too busy!).

Tess is a decorative painter for domestic interiors, including her hand painted children’s chairs for Pierrot and wall murals. She started off doing set design in the film and fashion industry, transforming spaces through scenic painting and art direction. Her unwavering attention to detail makes her a cut above the rest, from small scale books, props and set design for Guinea Pig classics and miniature series, Pride and Prejudice to the painted sets of the feature film Vita & Virginia.

How lucky we feel to be collaborating with such a colourful, kindred spirit. Let’s hear from Tess herself with a few questions on her upcoming projects and working with the Kit Kemp Design Studio…

Spending time alongside your painted murals is like sitting in the palm of the English countryside, surrounded with natural soft hues and delicately painted botanicals, safe and sound. Do you create them so people can escape the humdrum of daily life? What do you do to escape?

That is very lovely to say! Yes, I think that even as a child I’ve escaped from reality into nature, or into an idealised version of it in my mind. I was always building dens in the woods which I imagined fairies inhabiting, or dreaming about myths illustrated by artists like Arthur Rackham – his scenes have so much detail in them, you can just keep going deeper into the picture. You notice that the creature is wearing tiny boots with buckles on, and a handkerchief that has spots on, and the spots are actually snakes… you get lost in the details. I think I’m still the same, happiest in nature and feeling a bit removed from the world, at the top of a blustery hill or swimming in a very cold sea.

Fairy folk by an old gnarled tree by Arthur Rackham

What inspires you most?

Historic painted interiors, whether it’s Pompeii’s faded frescoes, a grand Indian haveli or a Swedish folk-painted farmhouse. I also often draw inspiration from antique embroideries. I adore the work of Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. She grew up in the Russian countryside, where traditional folk arts and crafts influenced her style. Her career began as a textile designer, and she went on to design incredibly theatrical costumes and sets for the Ballets Russes, and later, interior design. I’m inspired by artists whose work crosses boundaries between mediums. I love the concept of bringing art into domestic spaces through functional objects. The Omega Workshops’ belief was that people should be surrounded by beautiful, well-made things – they made candlesticks, book covers, fabrics and furniture – bringing a joyful, playful sensibility to the everyday. I think that’s an inspiring principle to live by!

How do you begin to create a new design? Does it evolve or do you have a process?

A new design often begins with an idea I have seen and want to explore. I recently launched a handpainted “herbarium” wallpaper, which was inspired by a room full of decoupaged botanical prints in the home of 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus. I loved the texture that the layers created. I handpainted my flowers onto sheets of mottled parchment paper, and decoupaged them with slight overlaps. I then mixed in an umber tint to the sealer, to give the walls more depth and a feeling of age. For a commission, clients usually come to me with a general idea of what they might like, and I then put together a mood board which will include a varied selection of references showing the direction that I think we should go in. Often the sources will be from very different places, but the concept or essence the same – so that the client can see different iterations of an idea. After coming up with a design, I paint sample panels, drawing on colours and textures that they might be using elsewhere in fabrics and furnishings. If it’s a bespoke printed wallpaper, then there is a lot of back and forth in sampling to get exactly the right scale of design and texture of substrate. I love tweaking details like these and seeing it all come together in the way we’d envisaged.

In the world we live in today, it is becoming increasingly rare to find one-off pieces. Creating something bespoke must be very rewarding. What does this mean to you?

I think that now more than ever, we need our homes to be a source of inspiration and creativity. We like to see brushstrokes, to feel textures, and to know that pieces have been individually crafted with care. I trained as a film set designer, and where the actor delivers their dialogue affects what is seen – the set serves more to create an atmosphere. It is heart-wrenching when the camera misses things, and when sets are scrapped after filming! There is something very rewarding about knowing that the pieces I create for interiors will be used and loved for years to come. In my work now, I try to bridge the fantasy of a set with a space that you want to be in. I often build up textures, applying powdered pigments with stippling brushes for murals, or waxes for pieces of furniture. I love watching a piece gain its own character, and transform the room that it lives in. It’s always touching when customers send me photos of things sitting happily in their new homes, or tell me the joy that it brings them.

You seem to be a real modern day polymath; from anthropology at Oxford to set design, now interiors and decorative art, not to mention bringing up a family! How do you fit everything in? Do you have any tips or tricks for someone trying to go freelance or start their own business?

I’m sure I’m still learning! But I think the best tip is to follow what you feel passionate about, and not be too self critical. I assisted a brilliant set designer full time until I was confident that I had learnt what I could, and had enough demand for my own work to go freelance. Being freelance has its pros and cons – it’s great being in charge of your own hours, but it also means you can end up with very little free time at all. In terms of having a young family, I’ve learnt to compartmentalise. On studio days, I don’t think about family admin. I need to be completely in my zone. But it’s equally important to be present when I’m being a mum, and not let my mind fill with designs I am currently working on. Children are intuitive and notice if you are distracted! Seeing the world through their curious eyes can also be very inspiring. I once spent what felt like hours watching a caterpillar crawl up a fern frond with my toddler, taking in every tiny vein and irregular curl of the leaf – details which I then brought into a wallpaper design in fact.

Your partner is also an artist and maker, Alfred Newall – would you ever consider collaborating with him?

Yes! Our workshops are joined, so we bounce ideas off one another a lot. Alfred is a real artist with wood. I love and admire his integrity, the emphasis he places on the properties of each wood when designing a piece. In my job, the importance is more in the overall effect of something. We are currently working on a collaboration of handpainted, folk-inspired lamps and mirrors. But it takes discipline to work those projects into our schedules when we both have a lot of “real” clients on the go…

We are so happy that lockdown is starting to lift, where is the first place you will book when everything is open again?

We’ve been so lucky to have had the space and isolation of the countryside, so I think I need a London fix. A long wander around the V&A Museum, particularly the ceramics gallery on Level 6 – followed by a splurge at haberdashery VV Rouleaux in Marylebone – and then supper at The Cow pub or Petersham Nurseries. That would be heaven!

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