Valentine’s Day designers with a difference

Annie Deakin talks to two designers who put an unconventional spin on romantic gifts
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The Independent Online

Rebecca Chitty wants to make you smile. She does this by subverting the traditional meanings of boring items which in turn, leaves you perplexed and - if all goes to plan - with a smile on your face. Just the kind of designer to bring a much needed quirky humour to Valentine's Day. In Chitty's studio, mundane objects like pillow cases and Selotape become objects of desire. She says, 'I play with perceptions of everyday objects to create new products. There is always an idea behind my designs, and usually humour, if slightly on the dark side.'

By toying with words and expectations, the St.Martins graduate creates just the kind of cheeky gift we’d like to rip open on Valentine’s morning. Her Sleeping Beauty pillowcase (decorated with an ornate frame, upon which to lie your head - and be admired) has a tongue-in-cheek charm; ‘It is the perfect gift to get the day focused on romance - and in particular bedtime,’ says the designer who founded her company Product of Your Environment in 2006. ‘It is a thoughtful, considered and original gift - a million miles away from most of the clichéd impersonal Valentine gifts or flowers from the petrol station. It will make your loved-one smile. It works on all levels - on that dream date in a fledgling relationship it hints that you want to take things further. And in a longer-term relationship it brings back romance and fun to the bedroom. The 'Sleeping Beauty' pillowcase tells your partner for you that you think they are beautiful (even though you snore and nick all the duvet) and it lasts so much longer than chocolates - each time you sleep on it wonderful memories of the day you got it will flood back.’

Valentine's season or not, Chitty's abstract and mischievous designs are of a style that sells. Two years after setting up her company, she won the Craft Central Bright Ideas award and was commissioned to design bespoke product ranges for the Hayward Gallery Shop. The result? The ‘Cerealist‘ bowl and the cheeky Exhibitionist mug that unveils ‘I have no pants on’ on the mug bottom as you swig your tea. ‘We like working with everyday objects to present the familiar in an unfamiliar way to challenge perceptions and create new meanings,’ Chitty says. Last year, the prestigious Arts Council funded Museumaker project brought Chitty a major retail commission. She designed the Coal Bowl – a miner’s helmet ceramic bowl for a former colliery near Newcastle called Woodhorn Museum and Archive. This year, she will unveil a ‘dirty fingerprint’ collection including a mug, tea towel and stationery featuring a dirty fingerprint design emblazoned with the text MINE! Other Chitty bestsellers include her ‘I Am Not Fragile’ packaging tapes, Exorcise book (for you and your demons) and the Bad Day Bag. Stocked at high end stores like the Design Museum, The Hayward Gallery and Tate Modern, Chitty is doing a sterling job of challenging our conceptions of the ordinary. Chitty says, ‘I used to be very cynical about Valentines day and thought it too commercial and cringey (still wanted that card though) but now I welcome the celebration and I think it's great to have a day focused on love and happy stuff. You can make it your own and still express your love in a unique and special way, especially with a unique and special gift like the pillowcase.’

Like Chitty, designer Rani Deshpande works with everyday objects to create surprise and delight. Her plantable seed gifts are a welcome respite after the onslaught of cliched corny tat;‘Valentine’s Day is an excuse to do something special for your loved one/s, which is always a good thing,' says Deshpande. 'However the way it is promoted can be rather predictable and sometimes off-putting.’ After designing her own wedding invitations in 2004, Deshpande realized she could cash in on her own creativity. She founded Unique Creations, a design service offering personalized invitations and gifts. One of her first commissions was a paper flower embedded with seeds as a wedding favour; ‘They are created from a unique seed paper made from recycled materials, when ‘planted’ the flower would break down into the soil – and the seeds germinate to produce seedlings.’

Feeling inspired, Deshpande launched ‘Plant a Heart’ for Valentine’s Day, the first design in the Little Bloomers range, now stocked online and in Harvey Nichols. The red heart is handcrafted from unique seed paper made up of discarded coloured paper, junk mail and cardboard boxes. The paper contains inclusions of natural materials such as flowers, ferns, mineral flakes and seeds. When ‘planted’, the paper breaks down into the soil and the seeds germinate to grow wildflowers. Deshpande says, ‘Plant a Heart is a gift that the recipient can use – to plant and then watch seedlings grow. It’s both interactive and memorable, which I believe is the key for a great gift.’ Last June, she created plantable place mats and coasters.

‘Rather than buying the red roses or having the ‘Valentine’s dinner’, try to think of some alternatives,' says Deshpande. 'They can be similar but just that little bit different.’ And best of all, they should make you smile.

Annie Deakin is interiors writer for sofa and interior design website