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Design rebels of Burns Night

Glasgow design group Timorous Beasties make Burns Night a wild affair, discovers Annie Deakin

Like Marmite, you either love or hate Timorous Beasties, the surreal design agency inspired by the poet Robert Burns. Along with Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and Mozart, designers Paul Simmons and Alistair McAuley think highly of Scotland’s late Bard who, this weekend, will be honoured at Burns Night.

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Simmons and McAuley named their wallpaper and textiles firm Timorous Beastie after a line in Burns’ poem "To a Mouse": “Wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie,/ O, what a panic’s in thy beastie!”.

I tracked Simmons down to discover why. "When we started the company in 1990, most textile trade shows and companies were called things like Heimtex and Furnitex." He told me from their Glasgow studio, "We didn’t want an ’x’ at the end so we went abstract and turned to Burns who we’ve always liked. Fabrics and soft furnishings are timorous by nature but our designs which are rather ‘out there’ suit the word Beasties - especially as our early designs featured insects."

"Out there" is an understatement. Their designs depict drug addicts, foetuses, flies and syringes earning them the nickname: "William Morris on acid". "It’s flattering but also boring," Simmons laughs. "I'm nowhere near as grand or ambitious as Morris who did so many things politically. But I prefer that to being called Damien Hirst on Ovaltine."

Their mission to rock the Chelsea Harbour world of wallpaper was an act of rebellion against the soft floral prints of the declining Thatcherism years. Akin to fellow designers Johanna Basford, Selina Rose and Dominic Crinson who are available at mydeco.com, Timorous Beasties pioneer avant-garde wallpaper. The most hotly debated is their Glasgow Toile pattern, first specced as an in-house joke.

Timorous Beasties put a subversive spin on the 17th century rustic scenes to illustrate today’s city life in all its glorious debauchery. Glasses of wine, old men on stools and smoking pipes are substituted by cans of lager, tramps on park benches and a rollie. Crack addicts, prostitutes and the homeless mill around before a backdrop of dilapidated tower blocks and marauding seagulls.

"Our Toiles have a nostalgic link with the pattern association and an emotional link with the modern things," Simmons explains its popularity. "One week, we got sample requests from both Lord Linley and a prison inmate who wanted it for his cell,"

Not everyone shares their sense of humour. One client’s father had been a heroin user so their Glasgow Toile order, which depicted a junkie, hit a raw nerve. "We’ve had people buying them for children’s bedrooms and fair enough, it’s not suitable for a children’s bedroom but why don’t they look at the design first? The title of Bloody Hell - which has dripping blood and Iraq-type scenarios - tells you it’s not suitable for kiddies," says Simmons. An East London community centre returned eight rolls of London Toile wallpaper because they (wrongly) thought it depicted a black man holding a gun on a white woman.

Controversy is familiar. The latest drama is the legalities of decadent graphics on alcohol bottles. "I want to use images of people getting drunk on our limited edition whisky bottle for Inverarity 121, but you can’t show debauched aspects of alcohol."

Whisky will fuel their annual Burns Night dinner this weekend when 80 guests gather around their 20m print table in their studio. "We get very drunk, recite poems, sing songs and eat haggis. We felt responsible in taking Burns poem." The party doesn't end until dawn. Their customers are an equally wild set. Artist Dinos Chapman papered his kitchen walls with their Rorschach-blot-like Devil Damask designs. Fellow clients include milliner Phillip Treacy, the film set of Alfie and Brintons carpets. The banking hall of a Wall Street bank in New York used 7,000m of moth printed wallpaper and the medical research charity, Wellcome Trust bought 48 lampshades decorated with syringes, human foetuses and tsetse flies.

In February, Timorous Beasties will exhibit alongside hot shots Antony Gormley and Tord Boontje, at Metropolitan Works, London’s first Creative Industry Centre. "They’ve just invested £4 million in super dooper laser cutting equipment," says Simmons who has etched bricks with scenes from a rural landscape.

Scottish emblems like thistles, argyle checks and paisley patterns recur in their designs. "The thistle is a fantastic plant but because it’s got bloody spikes, it doesn’t feature in many textiles. That‘s stupid. There's an appreciation and pride in being Scottish but I hate the association of being parochial and narrow-minded. We live and work in Scotland but we’re not the big sabre-wielding Highlanders."

This is their busiest January yet and to celebrate, they're hosting a Burns Night to remember. Simmons says, "Burns, to us, is a secular way of celebrating human values of equality, liberty, and honesty whilst damming airs and graces, pomp, authority and hypocrisy."

Whisky, lampshades, wallpaper and laser cut bricks… Rabbie Burns is on a roll.

Annie Deakin is acting editor of mydeco.com