Paul Smith won’t sit still. He’s at his desk, behind mountains of knick-knacks, squirming on his seat like a hyperactive schoolboy. “I’ve got this busy mind,” he says, wriggling around on the z-shaped leather chair. “It’s just so jammed with stuff, there’s no space or time left any more.”
He is surrounded by a wunderkammer of bits and bobs, piles of clocks and globes, dolls houses and cameras, amongst which he sits like the gnomic proprietor of a curious antiques shop. It is an exact recreation of his personal study, transposed to the Design Museum for an exhibition that appears to have cracked his busy head open and let it spill out into the galleries in a colourful riot.
The exhibition space is filled with piles of personal ephemera, lining two main walls with his collection of photographs, paintings and prints, and re-staging fascinating room-sets, from his studio to his very first shop, a 3m by 3m windowless room in Nottingham.
“It was so small that it was just me standing there, right in your face,” he says. “But I’m not very good at confrontations with strangers.”
His solution was to fill the premises with what he calls “icebreakers”, bits and pieces scavenged from markets on his travels, from glass ashtrays to antique dolls, to strike up a conversation – and then he’d probably sell you it too, along with the shirt and suit.
Smith says that street markets are his “favourite places in the world”, and the show reveals quite how far his capacious appetite for collecting has influenced his work: from Afghan dresses to Zanzibar-print shirts, his ravenous eye sucks it all in and spits it out in heady cross-cultural combinations.
But his clothes make up only a small part of the exhibition. Despite producing 28 collections a year (“to pay the rent”), he finds time to turn his hand to bicycles and snowboards, cameras and rugs.
A room devoted to these “collaborations” shows how he has plastered his trademark stripes on everything from Evian bottles to Mini’s, and even a bottle of HP Sauce.
Developed by wrapping coloured thread around strips of cardboard, his psychedelic barcodes have been a victim of their own success. With endless objects smothered in the ubiquitous pattern, it has become a brand too easily wheeled out, leaving the designer imprisoned behind candy-striped bars.
But the exhibition shows that there is much more to Smith’s world than the signature stripes. What emerges is a picture of a man who is more a gatherer and curator than a straightforward designer, whose promiscuous interests and boundless energies have seen him try his hand at everything, all at ferocious speed.
It might be good if he slowed down a bit and narrowed his focus. But then again he’s never going to sit still for long.