Despina Curtis is in her early 30s, and yet when she talks about her college days, it sounds a bit like one of those stories your grandparents tell about having to walk shoeless through the snow to get to school every day. Curtis studied printed textile design at the University of Manchester, and it was only when she left that the program’s first-year students were beginning to use digital design and printing tools — she had to do everything analog, even when it came to her eventual focus on huge 6-by-6-foot canvases layered with painting and screenprints. And yet, unlike hyperbolic ancestral poverty tales, hers had an obvious upside: All that drawing and hands-on work primed her for her current career as a stylist for the likes of Wallpaper and Casa Da Abitare, which she could hardly do from behind a computer. “Even now I draw all the set designs that I do,” says Curtis, who’s based in London. “A lot of people in my industry still do that, even though it’s quite old-school.”
Of course, if you ask Curtis, the most practical takeaway from her education was learning precisely how to wield her intuitions about color and pattern, which followed her through her leap from two dimensions to three. After initial stints at textile studios in Manchester and New York, Curtis had an awakening that led her to apply for an unpaid internship at Elle Decoration, whose pages she’d pored through for inspiration as a student. “To be quite honest, I think I got to a point where I was a little bit over the designing side of things,” she recalls. “I think I’d exhausted it, so I left it behind. I thought I would like to be the one putting things together rather than creating them.” At the magazine, she swiftly rose through the ranks to become style editor, where she found herself taking the lead on shoots like a Greek draping–inspired feature set inside a derelict building she scouted in her hometown of Brighton, complete with classical columns and peeling flocked walls. She went on to work at Wallpaper for three years as deputy style editor, where she developed her signature style: Arranging whatever objects she shoots into strong, abstract geometric patterns, often incorporating additional geometric elements of her own.
Now that Curtis has been freelance for two years — with a client list that includes a who’s who of design and fashion magazines, plus Harrod’s, AmEx, and the European fashion retailer COS — she’s finally begun to incorporate making back into her repertoire, starting with a series of framed prints for the London store Darkroom that first turned the editors of Sight Unseen on to her work. It was that series, part of a commission to create the windows for the shop’s Africa-inspired launch, that gave her the motivation. “It’s great to be able to work towards something rather than having to find time to do random tests and things like that,” she says. Now that she’s back in the game, though, she has been experimenting on her own: “I just started printing onto panels of stained wood, using the same geometric patterns but scaling them up a bit and incorporating metallics. And hopefully I’ll do another project for Darkroom soon.” In the meantime, we snagged some of Curtis’s time to find out what’s behind the amazing visual work she does. Here are eight of her biggest inspirations.
Faye Toogood, the London-based interiors stylist and creative consultant, has designed exhibition stands for Tom Dixon, windows for Liberty, displays for Dover Street Market, and sets for Wallpaper. But in all of her career, she’s had only one job interview. At the tender age of 21, having just graduated from Bristol University with degrees in fine art and art history, Toogood was called for an interview with Min Hogg, legendary founding editor of the British design bible The World of Interiors. “I had found out about a stylist job and decided I would go for it, even though I didn’t even know what that meant,” says Toogood. “I went in and it was the strangest thing. She asked me, ‘Can you sew, and can you tie a bow?’ I actually couldn’t sew, so I lied and when I got the job, I had someone do it for me.”
Who hasn’t suffered the sting of a thousand rejection letters? Imke Klee, for one. In 2007, having just completed an integrated design program at the University of the Arts Bremen, the German-born stylist and photographer sent her diploma work off to famed trend forecaster and design guru Li Edelkoort in search of some feedback. “It was sort of a trend book about how to transform traditional values into modern, contemporary ones,” says Klee — in other words, catnip for a trend junkie like Edelkoort, who responded almost immediately with an invitation to come join the Paris-based offices of Trend Union, Edelkoort's renowned forecasting agency, which counts companies like Philips, Virgin, Camper, and L’Oréal among its international clients.
A lot of designers call themselves multidisciplinary, but they’ve got nothing on Renata Abbade. A former stylist for magazines like Purple and fashion brands like VPL, the São Paulo–born, Los Angeles–based designer has spent the better part of the last decade involved in a wonderfully weird array of activities: creating a cult jewelry line in ceramics, dancing on stage at Lollapalooza with the Brazilian band CSS, starring in a series of self-produced dance and workout videos (including one for CSS, in which she wore masks depicting each of the band members’ faces), designing terrariums, landscapes, rugs, tapestries, and fabrics, DJing down in Brazil, and performing with a semi-fictitious band called High Waisted. She refers to herself both as a freestylist and a fashion artist, but in truth, what she’s often creating amounts to something more like performance art, where she is the subject, channeling personal interests and experiences into new and different media. “To me, it feels like I’m only doing one thing, even if I’m involved in a lot of different things,” says Abbade. “Like with the terrariums, it’s basically styling with plants instead of clothes, and land instead of people.”