Q&A: Lucille Lewin
The former fashion impresario and long-time Marylebone resident on carving out a new life as an acclaimed ceramicist
Words: Jackie Modlinger
Lucille Lewin is one of those ceaselessly creative creatures—a restless talent who has managed to reinvent herself several times: from aspiring artist to retailer to fashion entrepreneur, and back around to her first love: art. Her latest incarnation is as a ceramicist. “I think everything in my life happens because the universe takes over, a door opens and I walk through it,” she says. “I don’t so much plan as just get interested in something. And then I get obsessive.”
The first door that opened was an escape hatch of sorts. In the late 1960s, undergraduate Lucille Witz abandoned a fine arts degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, married Richard Lewin on her 21st birthday and the following day left her home country. “It was abhorrent to live under the apartheid regime,” she says. “Rick got into Harvard Business School, so that was our passport to freedom.” After arriving in the United States, Lucille signed up for night school to study drawing and found herself a job. “I worked in this wonderful furniture store called Design Research which had accessories and furniture from sixties Scandinavian and Italian and contemporary designers,” she recalls. Art took a back seat. Retail became her career.
After moving to London and working as a buyer for Harvey Nichols, Lucille—together with Rick—went on to found Whistles, a hugely successful fashion brand that began life in 1976 as a distinctive one-stop shop in Marylebone. Apart from a brief spell in Islington, Marylebone has always been the Lewins’ London stomping ground. Chiltern Street was their first choice for the original Whistles store, but the location proved too expensive, so they settled for a lease in George Street. “It was 200 square feet. It was 1976, the year of the three-day week, and we traded by candlelight, it was great fun,” recalls Lucille.
The couple sold Whistles in 2002, after which Lucille enjoyed a stint as creative director of the iconic Liberty. Then, years after abandoning her degree in South Africa, the urge to be an artist took over. After completing a diploma at City Lit, she found herself, nudging 70, accepted onto a prestigious master’s degree course at the Royal College of Art. “I’m very proud of that. I’m thrilled,” she stresses.
“I’ve always been into ceramics, but collecting them rather than making them. Having been brought up in South Africa and travelled a lot to Japan, I think I’ve always been attracted to really beautiful tableware. I had no idea that I’d ever land up working with clay myself,” says Lucille. Last year, she won the Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize, an award that recognises the work of contemporary artists who embrace the art of the past. This led to her exhibiting at the Cynthia Corbett Gallery, which oversees the prize. She also showed at the Connolly gallery in Mayfair, whose owner Isy Ettedgui describes her work as “extraordinary beautiful”.
We meet at the Lewins’ amazing property on Chiltern Street, which is both home and workspace for the couple. The living area is stunning, all wood, stone, pebbles and Carrara marble, with Lucille’s creative talent much in evidence. Her pure white porcelain work is distinctive: fairytale-like, ethereal, spiky, galactic, botanical; evoking frost, icicles, leaf fronds, stalactites and marine life.
We sit at her long table and catch up on the brilliant new career of a “sculptor working in white porcelain”, as she calls herself.
Was it hard to get into the Royal College of Art?
Well, they only take a restricted amount of people, I think 18 or fewer every year, so it was difficult—but they took me even though I didn’t have a degree, which was really kind of them. I never thought I’d get in. I thought I was just too old, but I seemed to thrive there. It was extremely hard work—the hardest thing I’ve ever done, really.
More so than fashion?
Well, fashion is about product as much as creativity. The way I’ve gone about this is much more cerebral. It’s more about an aesthetic that’s rooted in one’s mind and not so much about product.
What was it like being a mature student?
I was very much, I think, the oldest student, but there were a few people around 40 or in their early fifties, so I wasn’t alone. But I’ve stayed connected to even the young ones. By and large, we got on terribly well and I didn’t feel a difference between them and myself. I’ve got mates that I will keep.
What inspires your work?
I am inspired every minute of the day—now that I’m doing this, everything has relevance. My work started with an interest in the 18th century and the historic beginnings of porcelain, almost exclusively white porcelain. My first project at the RCA involved going to the V&A, which is where I spend a lot of my time. I found this little pepper pot made in 1740, which led me to start finding out more about the 18th century and the people who made this particular white porcelain.
I suppose there is a specific aesthetic—it is about curiosities, and the juxtaposition of strange things. I love things that relate to the natural world but are not of the natural world. I love the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Kettles Yard in Cambridge, the Science Museum, the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries at the V&A. I am inspired by Victorian scientists and early photographers—Karl Blossfeldt, for example. I’m inspired by Escher and Hieronymus Bosch.
Did you start out with the intention of selling your designs?
No, it started as a creative art, something I really liked to do—and then I just got hooked.
You seem to be the quintessential woman in white, working in white porcelain and wearing white.
I wear white a lot, particularly in the studio, because the porcelain doesn’t mark it so much. I wear white Vans every day. I wear white jeans, white aprons, white t-shirts—otherwise you splatter.
What do you think of the fashion world now? Are you glad you moved on when you did?
I’m glad we sold out when we did, because fashion has changed, and not for the better. In recent years it has become, like many other things, less personal than it was. Today, fashion seems to be driven more by brands and marketing than by the aesthetics of the individual. But in a way I wish I was still doing it, because I believe we would still do it with the same integrity as before, and I’m sure there is still a place for that. Would I ever go back? No, not really, this is my life now. I am still involved in helping and mentoring businesses, in fashion, homewares, accessories. Sometimes Rick and I do it together, sometimes I do it on my own.
How has Marylebone changed in the years that you have lived here?
I still think it’s my favourite place to live. I really, really love living here. I love the high street, the squares, the greenery of it. I love the chic un-chic-ness of it. It’s full of smart, interesting people, not just money. There’s a risk that too much middle-market nothingness could make the high street not so special any more. You have to make sure you keep the Marylebone pubs, the independent coffee shops, the old hardware store. Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle is amazing and we’ve a great magazine shop, Shreeji, on Chiltern Street. I love being known by people who will hold a parcel for you and phone you when it comes in. Even places like Robert Dyas know your name and they’ll put themselves out for you, chat, help old people. I think it’s such a lovely place to live, Marylebone, and it inculcates that feeling with everyone. I go to the Japanese Knife Company for my tools—they have the most wonderful quality, they sharpen things fabulously and they’re all divine in there.
What do you do in your downtime?
I go to exhibitions, I cook, read and draw. We have recently had a little grandson—Samuel, named after Samuel Beckett. I must say that having a grandchild is quite the most remarkable experience. I had heard this often and didn’t believe it would happen to me, but I am utterly smitten.
What does the future hold?
I am working at a quieter pace on a body of work—one where I can really focus and develop within it. I’ve had to cannibalise the hallway and bits of my bedroom, but I do need an extra studio as well. I will get one—in fact, it would be wonderful if we could start some artists’ studios in Marylebone. I think it’s sad that Marylebone’s has lost some of the artisanal quality, because when we first came here, there were butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers. I’m doing private commissions and I’ll be doing more exhibitions: Collect at the Saatchi Gallery at the end of February next year, then a solo show and a museum show. It’s very exciting.