Mark Eley, designer, on a perfectly manicured lawn bowling green
GB Tell me why you chose this.
ME Bowls has been a pastime of mine for the last six years and it’s something I grew up on, with my family – my grandfather, my great grandfather. From the age of zero I grew up on a bowls green in Wales. They played for Wales and Britain in things like the Commonwealth Games so they were dedicated bowlers. I’m very serious about it now. I took on the baton about six years ago and I’ve become very much impregnated in Streatham Park Bowls Club in Surrey and I’ve also joined Aberkenfig Bowling Club in Wales. Everywhere I go in the world, I search out bowling greens.
GB Are there lots of them around the world?
ME Lots in The UK, New Zealand, Australia but they’re few and far between I’ve found them in New York and five greens in Japan. My Mecca is the one in Laguna Beach and I’ve never been there yet. It’s right on the peninsula. Mostly I play in the Surrey, Wimbledon area. I’ve played in Scotland and Wales. I just have this desire to find these beautifully manicured lawns of a certain size, with markers down the side that enable me to throw so woods up. If the green is perfectly true it enables you to form a relationship with your technique and the time invested in terms of getting your wood from your hand as close as possible to the jack. It’s very competitive, even with yourself. It’s a bit like therapy. You’re alone with your hand eye co-ordination, You have to give yourself the space and time to properly execute it. Progress is slow. You do improve with practice but you have to keep that going. You can go indoors and play in the winter but you’re playing on carpets so it’s a different relationship from the grass. I like the elements. Throughout the summer, come rain or shine, I’ll be out there. The green changes during the day so it has its own personality. The length of the grass or the morning dew on the grass will change the game. There are all these crazy nuances. It’s perceived as being for old people but personally I think it’s for everybody. A lot of the world champions are quite young. It is predominantly a sport for retirees but if you look at the competitive aspect of it, there are lots of young players.
GB Is it one of the games that seems very slow and gentle but it’s actually quite vicious, like croquet?
ME It can be, the way I play is for myself more than anything else. It doesn’t matter if I win or lose, it’s about accuracy and consistency. If your opponent isn’t very good it can get a bit boring but it’s really just about you and the jack.
GB Do you go to the kind of clubs where everybody wears white?
ME Yes, I’ve got my whites. On weekdays we wear grey with a white top and at weekends we wear whites.
GB Was the whole visual aesthetic part of what attracted you to it?
ME No. It’s my therapy. It’s the time and space away from my work. I can leave work and get to the green in ten minutes, then play until the sun goes down. I just focus on what I’m doing there and then on then on the green. There’s also a really cheap bar! Our club was established in 1948. It has a rickety old shack and it’s in the middle of a housing estate but nobody knows it’s there because it’s surrounded by trees. Wherever you go, you find the same sort of people, the same sort of clubhouse, even in Japan, you’ll find people sitting around drinking tea or having a beer. When I’m sitting outside the clubhouse I feel like I’m waiting for my Spitfire to come in and take me off to war!
GB I read that the game dates all the way back to the 13th Century.
ME Yes, it’s crazy. I think it goes back to 1324 in Southampton. There are lots of different variations internationally that relate to bowls and you have expat communities who have taken it forward in Australia and New Zealand. We fight for mixed leagues at my club, so we’re pretty progressive. We also have jazz nights and film nights and book clubs. We’re very community-driven. We just got a grant from Sports England to build a new clubhouse so we might have an architectural competition. Sadiq Khan has been down. The new Labour MP for Tooting has used the clubhouse.
GB Does it tend to be quite posh?
ME Not at all. It’s very mixed. The demographic is quite wide and I like that. When you’re on the green all that is quashed. I meet people I’d never normally come across.
GB Is beauty a big part of your work?
ME We’re textile designers so we have our own independent understanding of aesthetics and the aesthetics that act as Eley Kishimoto. Our mantra from the very beginning was to try to make the world a prettier place by bringing colour and pattern to the world. We want to influence product and situation wherever we can and communicate through aesthetics. We’ve got lot of collaborations happening, we’re just finishing a shop in Kingsland Road. The principle of what we do is incredibly simple. We put a print on it. We were pioneering in diversifying from fashion pre digital age. Because we built up a reputation in advance of digital we hope that we’ve carried on this critical baton which is a precursor for all the rest of it.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
ME It’s something which I’m instinctively drawn towards, that stimulates the senses, possibly all at once. But even if it’s just one sense, it grabs your attention and that’s your focus.