Applying a kaleidoscope of bold bubblegum playful patterns to buildings across the world she has become known for bringing smiles to peoples’ faces through her work. Drab urban buildings have been given a second life through her murals in London and New York, transforming the lives of the people who live in, work in or pass by them every day.
Before her career lifted off, you could find Walala either selling her patterns on cushions and wallets in East London markets or signing off her name as a street artist on Brick Lane. But when a friend opened a nightclub and invited her to design the interior she took a chance and never looked back.
The unmistakable style of her designs draws on a broad range of eclectic influences from the patterns of ancient South African tribes to the vibrant architecture of Mexico City. 20th-century art remains a huge source of inspiration, with her work referencing Italian titan Mondrian and the Memphis Movement, she has also named the Ukrainian-born French artist Sonia Delaunay as a hero of hers.
In the past few years, her patterns have graced the halls of Facebook, a range of accessories for Armani, apartment blocks in New York and luxury hotels in Mauritius. And last year her exuberant playground of pattern and colour Walala X Play, was one of London Design Week’s most talked about exhibitions.
Her ambition is simple; to make people more joyful and playful through her designs. And at a time when the world is in desperate need of colour and life, Camille Wallala’s work might be more important than any of us think.
So, tell me about your history, how did you come to be such a sought-after designer?
It took a little time to get there. I’ve always been interested in patterns, colours and strong graphics. And any opportunity I’d get, I would look to apply my patterns. I’ve done a lot of interior design and some immersive rooms with patterns. I like to see people’s reactions, and I’ve noticed that with patterns and colours you can make people ecstatic or you can give them warm feelings somehow.
When did you notice that you were giving people warm feelings?
I think I had this amazing opportunity in 2012. At the time, I was just making cushions and wallets and selling them on Broadway Market [East London].
I wasn’t pushing it very far and I was a bit bored with my work. I had this great opportunity to do a nightclub in London called XOYO. I didn’t know anything about the project, or anything about interior design really. But it was three months back and forth with the owner showing him the patterns I wanted to use.
Three months later when the launch happened, I went in there and it was just amazing to see people looking around everywhere going “What the Hell!” I was so excited about the place and the patterns and colours everywhere. At the time, it was 2012, it seemed like there were so many things like that happening. Unfortunately, three months later he sold the business and the new owner changed everything.
"I think the council now sees that colours and patterns and playfulness are having a big impact."
Yeah, I know. But look online [link] you can still see it! It made me stand back and realise that I wanted to do things unrestrained, not just designs on cushions.
How do you deal with things changing so quickly? For example, if a building changes its design and then you see your work in it again, are you comfortable with that?
Well, the thing is that is how I started when I was younger. I was doing street art, painting big glamorous ladies. Working on them in my room and then putting them on Brick Lane at 4am, and sometimes when I’d come back at 7am to take a picture they’d already be gone. So, I kind of grew up with that risk that things might disappear. But with XOYO, I was pretty gutted and I don’t think even the guy who sold it knew what would happen.
So, you’re a real East London girl?
Yes, I mean I’ve lived in London for nearly twenty years.
Talk to us about the travelling you do, and also the photographs you take. Is that a way you find influences? What are some of the most influential places in the world for you?
When I was selling my cushions on Broadway Market, one thing I thought was “I never want a shop”, it feels like I’m in jail somehow. I want to go abroad and work freely everywhere in the world. I didn’t know how to do that at that stage, but now I can just go into a hardware store anywhere and find what I need. So, it’s great that I have so many international requests recently.
I think Japan is an amazing place. And I love Mexico as well, so much colour. It’s a really inspiring country and the architecture there is amazing. All of the Luis Barragán for example, he’s an architect that I love with his bold graphic shapes, quite simple, very angular, but really colourful. He’s not scared of using colour, which you don’t usually see with architects. I’d love to do a project like that with architects.
Better Bankside Crossing, London
Do you think maybe that your work is a response to the greyness of London? Like when you come to a grey city you want to fill it with colour?
Well, where I grew up in the south of France, my family home was decorated by my mother and she used a lot of colour in her interiors; Italian designs and African fabrics. It felt like a natural continuity to use colour in my work. I love London, but I think colour is just a bit more joyful.
You’ve said your objective is to put a smile on people’s faces. Do you find that you meet your goal most of the time? That you make people happy?
I think most of the time, yes. My work is quite accessible, and I think I’m trying to get people to open up. When I do an exhibition in an art gallery, I want to make sure everyone feels comfortable to come in, to experiment and to have feelings about my work.
Sometimes you go to a gallery and you have to explain what you think of a piece. I try to work more in terms of emotion rather than cerebral reflection. I want to allow people to become less inhibited. When I did the installation, there was a really nice response; people came in and told me they felt like a child again, and they were just excited to be inside the installation, which was ultimately what I wanted people to get out of it.
What would you say is the best singular response you’ve had to your work?
Besides people telling me it brought back their inner child, probably when I did some work for a psychiatric hospital last summer. It was organised by two men working in the NHS, one was a psychiatrist. I was really touched when we did the painting and saw that perhaps just having something vibrant and happy in the hospital was going to make the patients’ lives a bit easier.
Industry City, New York
Do you think that we’ve forgotten in a way to be a bit more playful in our buildings, our designs and in how we interact with our city?
Yeah, I think it’s changing though actually. There is so much more art in the street. When I did the zebra crossing, [pic] it was a really nice way of being approached by the city. And it was only supposed to be for two months, but then they noticed people were taking it a lot more because it was nice and colorful.
I think the council now sees that colours and patterns and playfulness are having a big impact. The crossing was supposed to be there for two months and now it’s been three years. They’ve realised people are a lot more reactive if there’s something joyful there.
Talk to me about your influences. You’ve mentioned Bauhaus, Memphis Movement, Mondrian, Op Art and African Art. I even find that there’s a little bit of a vintage, urban, Nike, kind of nineties influence as well.
Not intentionally I guess, I wouldn’t really look at Nike especially as an influence. But maybe the nineties or kind of eighties… I’m not really sure which one you’re thinking of.
The Spike Lee era?
Yeah, I think it’s quite eighties actually. All of the eighties was a big influence and into the nineties as well. The playful patterns.
So where do you draw your influences from? Or how do you collect them?
My dad used to take me to a lot of exhibitions when I was younger. I got into certain tastes. I’ve always been attracted by anything really bold and graphic, ever since I was little. So I started taking reference from people like Sonia Delaunay.
But I’m thinking now everything to do with the eighties is starting to get really trendy so I don’t really want to get stuck in that era for inspiration.
Also, a lot of the African tribes – when I’ve been travelling and taking pictures. Sometimes the composition of colours can really define a place, and I’ll take a picture of something I find on the floor even and use those photographs later as a reference for my work.
Nowness Gallery, London.
Would you say your Instagram is your mood board?
Well, I have definitely used it as a visual diary. I can see my tastes changing on it, and now I can see I’m attracted to colours that I never thought I’d be attracted to. You can see what I’m going through in terms of influences.
Tell us about some of the clients that you’ve worked with. Can you walk us through the most memorable names?
A few years ago it was really nice to be contacted by Facebook. It was when I’d just started. They wanted me to do their offices in London. And one of the most surprising ones was Giorgio Armani because they love everything beige and plain. They wanted me to do a collection of accessories. And they also wanted me to style their products, so I produced a line for them. I’d heard they never like the first thing you show them, but I created something really pop and optical and they liked it from the first viewing.
I’m doing one at the moment for an Italian fashion brand, quite an older brand too which is nice, working with an older crowd.
"People came in and told me they felt like a child again."
What would an absolute dream project be?
Maybe working with an architect’s firm and starting from scratch on a building, maybe in Mexico. It would be nice to get involved on that level. My dad is an Architect; they usually don’t use much colour on their buildings. And usually I’m making old buildings look nice, I would say, but it would be amazing to work with someone on a building from the beginning.
Is there a colour that you don’t like or that you steer away from?
I’m not big on brown or beige.
I don’t know, I just don’t find them very attractive colours.
Is it true that you can’t draw?
Yeah, I draw but I’ve still got a bit of a blockage on that. I think it would be good to push myself right now to do more drawing.
So you’re more technological?
Yeah, I don’t know. I’m good with the composition of colours and shapes. If you ask me to draw an apple or a landscape, I’m not really good at that.
Pop Life Studio, Ohio
Your work is so vibrant and fun, it almost has a flavour to it. Would you say you could almost taste it in a way?
Yeah maybe, it always has this great positive vibe to it and it’s nice to have feedback from people who really like it too.
And what puts a smile on your face, Camille?
I like to see really elegant ladies in the street, like old ladies who are really dressed up.
Have you seen the Instagram account dedicated to old stylish women in, it’s great?
Oh, I must see that it sounds great.
Do you think you’ll still be climbing buildings at sixty?
Yeah. I think so. Maybe. Hopefully.
And what’s the next project you have after the hotels?
I’m doing a solo exhibition in Shanghai in November. And I’ve got quite a lot of things abroad. And a big project but I can’t really talk about that.
Last question, how do you design your life? Are you quite chaotic or organised?
I’m a bit chaotic but it’s getting better with age, and with a good partner I guess who’s showing me how to be a bit less chaotic. It’s quite hard because we travel a lot, especially being healthy. Everything in life has to be a bit more in balance I think, with middle age even more, so we’re trying to have a nice healthy life.