Design: Taste for a life less ordinary
Thursday 08 January 1998
Kave Quinn's new house in north-west London may be in a modest Victorian terrace, but everything Kave Quinn is doing to it looks larger than life. Her talent for using colour and pattern in film-sets including Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and A Life Less Ordinary, has made her one of today's hottest talents in the industry. Hardly surprising, then, that in the home she is decorating with her partner, Aidan, she does everything celluloid-style.
The smaller the room, the bigger the scale of the pattern she chooses for the walls. And the more intense the colour. Humble little spaces mutate under theatrical handblocked archival wallpaper from Sandersons. There are willow fronds on steroids designed by William Morris in the front parlour, big birds crouching among tulips coloured by Voysey in pink and purple and lemon, with matching woodwork, in their bedroom. Colours in these wall- papers are so intense it takes a week to print each one - they don't come cheap. Labels on the paint tins - Silver Sky, Golden Aspen, Zephyr Green, Shy Violet, Bardot Red, Magnolia Red - only hint at the hallucinogenic effect she is creating.
"I especially like complementary colours. Blue and orange. Pink and green. They zing." Kave Quinn takes colouring in so seriously she visited a mortuary to get the right bedroom wall colour for the Edinburgh flat in the award- winning Shallow Grave, in which the life of three young professionals gradually falls apart when find their new flatmate dead in bed soon after his arrival. Until then the interior of the flat could have been an advertisement for Ikea, with pale pine chairs around the trestle tables, big squashy sofas in red and green with contrasting cushions. But the power of colour and light can change a mood, as Quinn well knows. The sickly blue she chose to off-set the pallor of death in the dead man's room hit the screen at the exact moment when the film turned nasty. Not just the plot but the colours thicken as they shift from bright sunlight to sinister twilight. Shadows lengthen.
In her own home, Kave Quinn has gone for cosy colours, but I doubt that a band of Merrie Olde Englanders would feel at home there. Before you even get to the archival wallpapers, the hall with pale violet walls, brilliant aquamarine skirting boards and dark green ceramic tiled floor gives the game away. This isn't Arts and Crafts revisited. It glamorises all that earnest worthiness and subverts it, Nineties style. I can't see the Rossettis reciting poetry in Quinn's front room, papered with a wavy mauve and ivory leaf pattern from Morris that reflects in the mirror she found while filming in an abandoned home for the mentally disabled in Surrey. Any more than the pre-Raphaelites would play the spinet under her plastic chandelier. The furniture either follows sinuous shapes upholstered in crimson and lime green by Tricia Guild of the Designers' Guild, or Mormon plain Jane furniture that Quinn picked up on location at Salt Lake City while filming A Life Less Ordinary. For that film, she had to design Heaven - and it's all white. Not a touch of magnolia but a white so dazzling and pristine that the camera crew had to wear surgical boots and gloves to film it.
Quinn's skill lies in mixing wildly different aesthetics, drawing ideas from disparate sources and morphing them into design statements. So it's not surprising she dislikes special effects. Rag-rolling, scumbling, stencilling and all that "picked-over" look of paint effects are abhorrent to her. So is that completely co-ordinated look of Laura Ashley, "the whole thing mixed and matched, even to what you wear. Just like the Stepford wives."
Standing in the glacier blue conservatory that she and Aidan call a glass- topped extension room - "conservatory is too middle class" - she explains how she first discovered wallpapers in an old shop in Paisley, Scotland, while making props for Trainspotting. Chuffer-train Sixties wallpaper in primary colours for the boyhood room where Ewan McGregor's character, Begbie, suffered cold turkey. The difficulty when styling Trainspotting was not to glamourise heroin addiction - or to adopt a documentary style, all filth and degradation, that would revolt viewers. So Quinn tried another angle to make it more interesting. She used Francis Bacon's canvasses as an inspiration for the film's intense, day-glo pinks and oranges, as well as for camera angles to get that peculiar sense of isolation. Distance and scale are important to her. She paced out with producer Danny Boyle every set and layed chalk marks. They often exaggerated room dimensions to get long shots.
"Films aren't remembered for their designs," she says modestly. "But I like to add another dimension, not necessarily beautiful but to make you see things differently. Like that red bedcover in the blue bedroom in Shallow Grave, which was so decadent."
Decadence as an ideal dates back to her days as a punk with pink hair, wearing her own designer clothes and strutting her stuff up Tottenham Court Road. She's very gentle and shy so it must have been worn like a warrior's costume. Then she went to Central St Martin's College of Art and Design and designed her own textiles and collections a year ahead of John Galliano. Costume design appealed to her but everything in the mid-Eighties was frozen in period-piece costume dramas and she was too creative for that. So she went to film school, started styling ads and worked as an art director and production director on promos, TV films and features. With producer Andrew MacDonald - whom she met at film school - and Danny Boyle as director, Shallow Grave, her first major film, became an international box-office success story.
Now she wants to design textiles again and do some more interior work. She had to turn down The Full Monty because she was on location in the US, but she says it was the best film of last year. Besides film work, she also designed an office for a film production company in an old warehouse in King's Cross and thinks it would be good to do more of that. Then there's her second child, due at the end of January, and the house to move into. "The incredible thing about Quinn, along with her strong sense of colour and space," says Danny Boyle, "is that you know on the day that everything will be absolutely perfect. It doesn't matter what I decide to do at the last minute. She'll have covered the eventuality."
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