I’ve been very lucky to have had lots of press at the moment, here’s one I’m really proud of.
Homespun is cool
Article by Hannah Booth, Photographs by Daniel Stier
At times, a designer can be so “of the moment” it seems daft for anyone else to bother. In the late 90s, Cath Kidston’s 1950s florals swept everything before them, but despite jaw-dropping profitability her cutesy chintz began to take on the tinge of over-exposure. A few years later, Orla Kiely designed a much-desired graphic flower that has become so ubiquitous it’s now decorating radios and casserole dishes.
This, though, is Donna Wilson’s moment. The Scottish designer, 33, is everywhere: her knitted, animal-shaped cushions are best-sellers at John Lewis and Heal’s; her patterned sofas, armchairs and pouffes are one of furniture retailer SCP’s most popular products; and her cutesy-scary stuffed creatures are the biggest thing in Japan since sushi. Her work sells in 25 countries.
As with other success stories, it’s part luck, talent and timing. Wilson, who grew up on a farm in the Scottish countryside, is purveyor of a kind of naive craftwork — all Nordic patterns, cosy knits and owls. Her products, including blankets, ceramics, scarves, gloves, hats and, from January, rugs, are warm, comforting and nostalgic, perfect for a Britain gripped by swingeing cuts.
Wilson produces most of her work from a cramped workshop in east London, employing two full-time staff. All her smaller pieces, such as toys and scarves, are knitted on a machine – “I’m such a slow hand-knitter,” she says. Larger blankets and cushions are knitted by a small, family-run business in Galashiels on the Scottish border. When I visit, the workshop is littered with cushion covers pegged on to lines to dry, and smells strongly of wet sheep. “I could have gone down the factory route, but I wanted to keep as much control as possible,” she says.
She studied at the Royal College of Art and knew from the off that she wanted start her own business. While still a student, she knocked on the door of west London design store, Couverture, showed them her knitted dolls – a college project – and they bought six on the spot. From then on, they ordered 20 a month. “They were £20 each, so they paid my rent through college.” Wilson graduated in 2003.
Her first big market was Japan. She took part in a design show there after graduation, and by the time she’d got home, there were large orders for her animal scarves and knitted creatures, particularly the weirder-looking ones. “I thought, oh my God I need help,” recalls Wilson, who then hired her first employee.
By the time SCP had spotted her, buying first her creatures, then cushions and blankets, Wilson’s flat, which was doubling as her studio, had grown too small. So she took on a studio space with a friend. “It felt like a huge risk at the time.”
The high street came calling two years ago when Heal’s approached her to design a cushion. John Lewis contacted her soon after. “I never thought my work would sell there,” she says. Why? “It’s so huge, I always assumed I’d just end up in small design shops.”
Does she feel her rise has been meteoric? “It feels more slow and steady,” she says. “But things have really taken off in the past two years. I was worried about the recession, but that’s because we’re a small company. We’ve always been really resourceful, and luckily it doesn’t seem to have affected us – we’re still growing and it’s going really well.”
How about her status as the next big thing (the day after we meet, she emails me to tell me she’s just been awarded Elle Decoration’s British Designer of the Year)? Does she worry about exhausting the Donna Wilson brand – and that her faux naive designs will end up on laptop cases?
“I’m not doing any conscious brand-building,” she says. “I am an admirer of the likes of Orla Kiely, but I like being slightly more niche. I like being hands-on, it’s the part of my job I enjoy the most. I still feel more comfortable with a needle and thread as opposed to a calculator.”
Wilson hasn’t taken a holiday this year. “I don’t mind working hard when it’s my own business, but I get homesick for Scotland. I miss the countryside,” she says. Her parents, both farmers, are hugely proud of her success. “But it wasn’t until I was featured in The Press and Journal when they really said, ooh, she’s made it.”
Happily designing and making colourful creatures and odd objects for you and your home since 2003.
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