Smart Living

Camille Walala: A design for life

One of London's leading contemporary designers talks to The Jackal about seizing your ambitions, creating for the public and letting your inner child run free

Camille Walala is having a moment. Fresh from her triumphs at this year’s London Design Festival, the designer is contemplating what she’s just achieved, and why it worked so well.

‘I wanted to do something with an element of surprise, something that sat in stark contrast to the area which surrounded it. I wanted people to turn their heads and ask “what the hell is this?”’ 

That’s Walala all over, she’s brimming with confidence and she’s very direct. There’s a sense of imperiousness about her too – even when she’s at her most animated – which is aided by her velvety French accent.

“I wanted to do something with an element of surprise. I wanted people to ask ‘What the hell is this?’”

What she did at LDF was to take on the festival’s Landmark Project and create a giant inflatable vinyl installation, Villa Walala. It was an immersive structure covered in giant graphic prints with bright pops of pink, yellow and green. It was meant to offer stressed city workers a break and to inject some ‘childishness’ into a grey urban space.

It’s the first large-scale installation Walala has masterminded, but it still gets to the heart of her philosophy. Camille sees her design work as a ‘public good’ to lift people from the inevitable doldrums of everyday life, even if it’s only for a few moments. ‘I enjoy galleries or installations that create a sense of lightness. Design can be too serious. I don’t work on any deep intellectual concept,’ she says emphatically.

This focus on a fun, youthful aesthetic is the common thread running through Walala’s work, which includes multi-coloured zebra crossings, eye-wateringly bright interior design pieces inspired by the Memphis movement of the ‘80s and the repainting of Well Street in East London last year. All of it is united by its “in-your-faceness” and by its accessibility.

She continues, ‘the current generation of young city-dwellers is interacting with design more, and it’s important that when they come to see my work, it’s easy to engage with. I don’t know, maybe that’s what contributes to its popularity.’ No doubt, but there’s also something very current about it, despite the 1980s influence. Walala’s design is a welcome anomaly in a drab city filled with serious people doing serious things.

‘Design adds an element of creativity to our lives,’ she explains, ‘which I think is becoming harder and harder to find. Modern technology is speeding the world up and we’re all working harder, but if you can find ways to bring an element of familiar design into the equation, then the pace of change becomes more comfortable. Good design adds a sense of permanence to the pace of modern living.’

“Perseverance is everything. Six years ago I was selling cushions down Broadway Market. Now I’m here”

Permanence and (in Walala’s case) playfulness. After all, her design is distinctly other-worldly; all mad colour and unexpected graphics, but it does feel comfortable and familiar somehow. ‘I love creating urban art in particular,’ she adds, ‘things that lots of different people will see. We’re all too serious, I want to bring a smile to people’s faces. It’s important to find your inner child and there aren’t many pieces of design out there which bring that out.’

Bringing things out of people seems to be Walala’s forte. Perhaps this is because she came to design late, after years of ignoring her passion in favour of drifting through her 20s. ‘I didn’t really pursue this career until I was 28, there was something inside me that loved design, but I didn’t have the confidence to let it out, I wish I had sooner.

‘When I go and talk to aspiring young designers now, I tell them how it was a struggle to reach a point where I felt I could be a “designer”, but perseverance is everything. I worked in a factory, as a waitress and I sold cushions on Broadway Market. You have to push yourself to make something work. It’s important that young creatives realise that. I hope it’s reassuring for students to hear that six years ago I was selling at a market to get started and now I’m here.’

Of course, set aside the light-hearted, graphic world that she’s now synonymous with and Walala’s story is one of resilience, toughness and ultimately of winning through. When I ask for her one-line manifesto on what makes “good design”, her answer makes this clear. ‘It’s about positivity and energy, something that’s going to put some fire in my belly.’

Spend some time immersing yourself in her work; taking in its soaring lines, clashing patterns and bombastic colours, and you start to see what she means.