Shopping: Coaster to coaster

Table mats have long been icons of tableware naffness, but designer Ella Doran's eye for striking, off-the-wall imagery is transforming them into an essential menu item for any stylish dinner party.
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU believe coasters are irredeemably naff, and you'd rather have your table tops garlanded with wine rings than succumb to the suburban horror of surface protection, then you're a little behind the times. All those awful images of the castles of England, framed in burgundy borders, are long gone in the world of tableware.

The coaster and its equally unhappy cousin, the table mat, have finally come of age, and Ella Doran is the person responsible for their renaissance. Her witty and striking designs, which include photographs of peeling posters on New York buildings and luscious close-ups of lilies and roses, have catapulted table mats onto the pages of the glossy interior and style magazines, and back into our lives.

It is Doran's ability to create powerful images from quirky and unexpected details which has not only revitalised the humble coaster but ensured her success as a designer. Joanna Dodsworth, curator of The Bodleian Library, was so impressed by her eye for the unusual that she commissioned Doran to work on a series of postcards for the Impressions of The Bodleian project. "We asked her to spend a couple of days at the library photographing things that caught her attention, textures and colours, aspects of a book one wouldn't normally think about." Other recent collaborations include a commission for a wall feature for a bar in Farringdon, and a very appropriate link up with Absolut Vodka, for whom she has designed a limited edition set of interlocking coasters featuring the iconic bottle. "I'm very partial to vodka," admits Doran, "so it was a great job!"

Having graduated from art school with a degree in printed textiles, Doran imagined her future lay in bed linen, blinds and other soft furnishings. Had anyone suggested that her career would take off with coasters, she would have laughed out loud; in fact, she does laugh out loud - with embarrassment at it all. "It does feel a little odd to admit, when people ask, that I make coasters and table mats for a living."

She is also amused by the fact that she has forged a career based on her photography, a skill she developed initially as a means of gathering inspiration for her textiles. Wherever she travelled her camera went too, and the shots that came back were not the usual tourist snaps of faces and places, but little details that captured the essence of a place or served as aides- memoires for future designs.

"It is strange that I am now recognised for these photographs, and yet I'm sure that if I'd trained as a photographer, I wouldn't have come this far." One image of fiery red and yellow leaves arranged across the bright blue pages of an open notebook has become one of her best selling designs and, in a neat twist, dates back to the six months she spent in Kenya trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

On her return to the UK, Doran held an open studio show with a friend. "I had been making cushions and bed linen, so we created a bedroom scene and called the show La La Salama, which is Swahili for sweet dreams. On a table in a corner, I displayed a few coasters I'd had made up at a photo shop as a joke." The show sold out, everything going, including the coasters.

Following this, Doran drew up her first business plan and applied to The Prince's Youth Business Trust and the East London Business Centre, both of whom came up with cash. "Eighty per cent of that plan was about printed blinds. The coasters were only there because a friend suggested them as a means of generating revenue."

But the demand for her coasters (pounds 19.50 for a set of six), mats (pounds 39.50 for six) and latterly trays (from pounds 20.50), has been such that only now, with two part-time assistants and another couple of outworkers, can she turn her attention to the blinds, the first of which has just arrived in the studio. It's a one-off commission designed for a kitchen, featuring enlarged versions of the seed packets for runner beans and cabbages on her Legume collection of mats. "That's where I really want things to go next," she explains. "Lots of individual projects for interiors. I hope to have a range of designs people can choose from and adapt in whatever way they wish." She has already started production on a china collection, elegant bowl-shaped cups with stripy stones lurking in their depths which are an extension of Stones, a range of coasters bearing photographs of pebbles set against black and white text and her studio floor.

It is now just two and a half years since her first coaster went into production and Doran seems to have conquered the world: her trays are snapped up by design conscious Americans at Ad Hoc in New York, and the coasters and mats grace the smartest homes from Notting Hill to Los Angeles and soon, following a frenetic week doing deals with buyers in Tokyo, the Japanese will be sipping their Sapporo with an Ella Doran coaster to hand.

Contact Ella Doran, 1 Tenter Ground, London E1 7NH (0171 375 1466). Her coasters are also available by mailorder from Purves & Purves, 80- 81 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9HD. Call 0171 580 8223. The Bodleian Library 01865 277 216/091 or