Camille Walala — Thoroughly modern Memphis from the French artist and designer
It's the work that launched a thousand Instagram posts, and you can see why. Camille Walala's art is bold, bright and colorful. But there's more to Camille and her work than initially meets the eye. Riposte magazine editor Danielle Pender went to meet her.
Camille Walala’s work has the ability to make you smile even in the worst of moods. She paints whole buildings in bright primary colors and turns zebra crossings into playground interventions. Her most recent exhibition at London’s NOW Gallery saw 600 people running around like children on the opening night. Now she plans to turn one of the most boring, commercial areas of London into a giant inflatable Villa Walala for the upcoming London Design Festival.
You’ll have no doubt seen her work brightening up a drab city landscape or generic corner of the internet. Her Memphis-inspired patterns and colorific style is well-known, but the story of how of she got to this position – of cheering up everyone’s day on such a grand scale – hasn't been told much.
We meet not far from the café where, before she hit her own creative stride, she spent years serving coffee to hipsters as they loudly told each other about their latest masterpiece. “I was really grumpy, I used to put down their coffees and think ‘URGH get out’!” Camille says.
Having come to London from a small town in the south of France to work on her English, Camille had grown frustrated. She landed in Camden Town in 1997 and although she had the best time running around bars smoking, drinking and generally getting into trouble, she struggled to find any direction.
She floated from one waitressing job to another over the next eight years, until she met Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj and his sister. She worked in their restaurant and it was Hassan who turned her onto textile and fabric design. “For me it was my family, him and his sister. I love them so much. He was such a big influence and his style really resonated with me.”
Hassan is best known for Kesh Girls, a series of photographs featuring a cast of bad-ass Moroccan girls on motorbikes. Think M.I.A. in Bad Girls and you’re just about there. You can definitely see how this aesthetic has impacted on Camille and you can still find those early influences in her work. The welcoming, second-family nurtured her creative instincts too.
After ten years of waitressing and partying, she’d had enough. After a short foundation course, she went on to study textile design at Brighton University. “I wanted to do fashion at Central Saint Martins, but I didn’t think I’d be good enough. My course at Brighton was good, but I was ten years older than the other students so everyone was going out all of the time drinking Snakebite. I tried that once but had the worst hangover!” she says.
It wasn’t just the snakebite she couldn't get accustomed to. “I realized I didn’t want to be a textile designer because you have to follow trends and I wanted to do my own thing. It was difficult when I finished. I got pretty depressed. And so I started working at La Bouche selling cheese. Here I was, 32 and selling cheese!”
“I was ten years older than the other students so everyone was going out all of the time drinking Snakebite. I tried that once but had the worst hangover!”
But it turns out selling cheese would be the catalyst for her career. “My boss' wife opened a textile shop next door. She printed some of my designs and I started making my things – cushions, purses, that kind of thing. Supermarket Sarah saw them and invited me to create a wall. I went really nuts and everything sold out. It was such a great opportunity and really kicked things off,” Camille says.
Her first commission was for Shoreditch nightclub XOYO. She took over one of the main rooms and made it into the first Walala playground. “I’d never done anything like that before; it gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. I did these massive slogans and patterns everywhere, huge black and white stripes. I remember going inside and seeing all these people having the best time and it looked so good. I was so happy.”
After XOYO, things snowballed and commissions came in thick and fast. Products, buildings, brand collaborations, installations, zebra crossings – Camille approaches all these projects with a sense of humor. She wants to encourage people to stop taking themselves too seriously, and believes art and design should incite happiness; it should be fun. “The best exhibition I saw was Bridget Riley. I felt like a child again. That’s what I’m trying to create with my work – to have a really positive effect on someone. I think sometimes we forget about the feelings. The physical reaction to art is important. Not everything has to be so cerebral, you know?”
She has brought this sense of playfulness to her current exhibition WALALA X PLAY at NOW Gallery in London. Based on the idea of a fairground, Camille set out to bring as much fun to the show as possible. It’s turned into an amazing, disorientating installation of pattern, mirrors, light and color. It’s a rare feat to achieve something like this without it feeling trite or contrived, but she has brought genuine happiness to many a cynical Londoner.
After the opening, there's been no time to rest as she’s been painting a psychiatric ward just outside of London. It is a sharp contrast to the loud and hectic goings on at NOW Gallery and so I’m interested how she adopts her bright style for somewhere that requires quieter moments. “It’s a challenge. It took me a while to get my head around it. It’s not really a nice place, it’s got these really low ceilings and it’s pretty dark. I have had to be sensitive to the people who use the facility and their specific needs," she explains.
"I’ve tried to keep the colors a little muted, still vibrant but not in your face. I’ve kept the shapes large but simple, so there’s not so much detail and your eye isn’t drawn in lots of directions.”
Even in the few days since Camille started the project, she's seen a difference in the people who use the building. “The patients and the people who work there have been saying it has changed their mood and the atmosphere of the place, that there’s more unity there.” It shows that good design isn't a luxury, and that it's exactly in those places where the interiors can be an afterthought, where people can benefit from it the most.
On all of her projects, Camille is still very much at the center of everything. She’s the one with the brush up a cherry-picker, painting buildings. They’re all her own designs – there isn’t a team of assistants banging out the Walala aesthetic. "You know it’s like a dream for me. I feel so lucky. I’m really happy that I struggled for so long, I really appreciate everything that comes to me now.”
She worries about being too busy and not having enough thinking-time to develop her style and come up with new ideas. But if she craves some down-time, she shows no signs of making it happen. She’s about to launch Villa Walala, the landmark project of London Design Festival. “It’s going to be this huge inflatable castle, can you believe it?! It’s got these wonky, weird patterns everywhere.”
“It’s going to be this huge inflatable castle, can you believe it?! It’s got these wonky, weird patterns everywhere.”
Villa Walala will be installed on Broadgate in the heart of the City of London. It's the epicenter of a grey and corporate world — the exact place where people could do with taking themselves a little less seriously. They’re about to be given the full Walala treatment. “It’s going to be BAM in the middle of the square – really bright and full of humour. It resonates really deeply with me, so I hope people love it as much as I do.”
Creating the landmark London Design Festival project is a far cry from her days of selling cheese and serving coffee, but Camille’s not about to get complacent. “From being dyslexic, doing badly at school and struggling for years to where I am now, I never take anything for granted, not one single day. I’m excited for what’s next.”