by Alex Galbinski
It was while at a friend’s house that artist Ali Miller received news of an amazing stroke of luck. Her Home Sweet Home tea set, featuring maps of the UK and Ireland, had just appeared on the second series of the BBC’s Sherlock and, within minutes, she had sold out of everything with that design.
While she modestly puts that down to good fortune, there is evidently more to it than that – raw talent. Early in her career, Miller exhibited twice at Liberty’s and has had her own shows in London and abroad.
She was commissioned to create a tea service for the Tate’s Alice In Wonderland exhibition, which is sold in the museum’s gift shop, and her pieces are also stocked in Liberty’s.
“There are many independent small businesses out there like mine which are creating their own things, but not everybody gets their work shown on something like the BBC and on an iconic programme that gets shown all around the world,” she acknowledges. “To have that kind of exposure, I would say, is something that money can’t buy.”
After school, Miller gained a BTEC in Art & Design Foundation at Camberwell College of Art, continuing her studies at Brighton University with a BA in fine art and sculpture. “I’m heavily dyslexic, so school was not my favourite place,” she says. “I found it so difficult and felt quite a different person compared with everyone else in the classroom, so art was always my way of expression.”
In her final degree show, she exhibited an art installation that was based on the number seven, which has strong significance in Judaism. She has held exhibitions entitled Brave Soldier And Black Butterfly that included the work of her late father, who was an Israeli army photographer, overlaid with her own screen printing and collage work.
“By doing this collaboration, I felt as if it were our last ’conversation,’” she says.
Miller’s background, including her Jewish roots, her family and her heritage, inspires her work, as do the stories she read in her childhood, such as Alice In Wonderland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She also explores the issues of mortality, morality and memories in her art.
“My Jewish identity is a huge part of my life, as is being English, and I am very grateful to be in this country,” she says, no doubt thinking of her two sets of grandparents who fled Europe during the Second World War. Her father’s parents, who were Zionists, moved from Poland to Israel, while her mother’s parents, who were also Polish but living in Belgium, came to England.
Of her tea sets, on which she hand applies collages, Miller explains: “I really love the Jewish connection in my work – Judaism and food is very strong. With the ceramics, I felt they would be an existing product that would be upcycled.
“So, for example, my grandma’s plate that already had a life and lived at her house, I would change it and put my artwork on it – my memories. I would then sell it on to someone, who would use it in that family and allow more memories to exist around the product.
“With all this teaware, it’s about people coming together and enjoying the memories,” Miller adds. “Hopefully it is a piece that stays in a family for generations and brings people together, which I think Jews and food and Friday-night dinner is very much part of. I like that it’s about food in this way.”
After university, Miller, now 35, worked as a visual merchandising assistant for Selfridges and then Fortnum & Mason.
“It was a great opportunity to gain insight and knowledge from those at the top end of the industry,” she says of her time at both, after which she joined Ikea as an interior designer.
It was around then that she also started working on other pieces at her kitchen table.
“I started playing around with paper, wallpaper and screen prints, making collages that I applied to furniture. I took ceramics out of the cupboard and very organically started adding collages to these, and then on to plates, which were more affordable for people to own.”
After displaying her work at John Jones in London in 2010 – “I got my work framed there and the owners said they liked it and let me have an exhibition in their reception area” – Miller came up with the idea of turning her name into a brand, Ali Miller London, something that turned the artist into a designer, so she now sits in both camps.
“The exhibition worked surprisingly well and I sold all the plates I had on display at this show,” she recalls. “I was upcycling plates, but I couldn’t keep up with demand and had to buy new ware.”
Miller hadn’t known her tea set would be featured on Sherlock, but her Hampstead Heath set, inspired by childhood walks across the Heath, has featured in the third series of the show and her Home Sweet Home range is stocked in the National Portrait Gallery’s gift shop. “It’s pretty cool to be in such an establishment,” she laughs, “especially after being an artist and going there from a very young age.”
She has also collaborated with the company Made.com, for which she designed a range of cushions and blankets. “It was fun because they allowed me to play around with colour and I like things to look as appealing and attractive as possible,” she says.
Asked to describe herself as an artist, the pregnant mother-of-one who lives in West Hampstead, says: “The way in which I work is very much that the idea is dictated more than the medium. If I’ve got something particular to express, I don’t sit down and say ‘I want to create this’. It’s more organic and emotional – I don’t know what my work is going to be about until it’s finished. I can look back at work and understand what was going on in my life at that time.”
She says the Ali Miller London brand has a “quirky, eccentric, surreal British sense of humour”. She describes her point of difference in terms of the homeware on sale in the wider marketplace. “It’s usually patterned, whereas mine is a little bit of art,” she says. “Mine tells a story and I hope other people will share their story using my pieces.”
• Details: http://alimiller.co.uk