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Donna Wilson on Sight Unseen!

6 December 2010

Here’s a little bit of press we’ve had recently on Sight Unseen, a wonderful online design magazine.

Studio Visit:
Donna Wilson, Textile Designer

by Ali Morris

It’s always seemed to me that being Donna Wilson is indeed as much fun as it looks. From her Aladdin’s cave of a studio in London’s Bethnal Green to her colorful, vintage fashion sense, Wilson actually does live and breathe her work. On the rainy November afternoon I visited her studio, which is filled floor-to-ceiling with bits and bobs of yarn, I asked what she might do if she had any spare time. She pondered: “I think I’d like to travel to Scandinavia and probably get a dog.” Which led into a discussion about the possibilities for a range of Scandinavian-style dog sweaters, as everything usually comes back to the knitting. Of course, though Wilson made her name creating woven poufs and rugs inspired by the Fair Isle sweaters of her youth in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, it’s not actually just about the knitting anymore but also about bone china, linens, melamine trays, totes, piggy banks, ceramic Staffordshire dogs, biscuits, packaging, furniture and more. At this point, there isn’t much that Wilson hasn’t turned her hand to.

I first met Donna in 2007 when I worked at SCP and she was designing her first furniture pieces for the brand, but by that point she was already well on her way to becoming the undisputed queen of knits. She studied textiles at London’s Royal College of Art, and it was there she began creating the dolls made from old sweaters that were the precursors to her now-famous Creatures: knitted, polyester-stuffed, often misshapen, sometimes two-headed cushiony creatures with names like Edd Red Head (dislikes sports, loves cuddles) and Cyril Squirrel-Fox. They’re huge in Japan, but they have a quirkily British feel which has won her a fan base at home as well, selling out at local department stores like Heal’s and John Lewis.

Wilson never had any plan to be the next Orla Kiely or Cath Kidston. In fact, she had no intention of emulating that scale of success, which is perhaps why she seems so continually surprised at her own popularity and delighted that people enjoy the things she makes. “It all just seemed to kind of happen,” she muses. This month, in addition to a solo show at New York’s Future Perfect and windows at Tokyo’s Isetan department store, it was announced that Wilson had been named Designer of the Year by Elle Decoration’s British Design Awards. Things have been extra busy ever since; her latest commission is a knitted piece of royal wedding memorabilia, which Wilson and her team are busy brainstorming. (Kate and Wills tea cozy anyone?) But she’s found a happy medium: “I really like the people I work with and I’m happy at the level we’re at,” she says. “I think the bigger things get, the less enjoyment you get out of it. Having said that, I never expected to be where I am now five years ago and I’d like to keep challenging myself to keep things interesting.”

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Wilson’s studio is located in a former Victorian factory building just off Bethnal Green Road in London’s East End. The space also houses the offices of a British Bengali newspaper, an art gallery, and various other design studios, including her next-door neighbor and friend Thorsten Van Elten.

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Visiting Wilson’s studio always feels a bit like entering another world of unlimited cups of tea, strings of fairy lights, countless balls of yarn, friendly knitted creatures and magical machines that spew out reams of brightly colored wool. She moved in only a couple of years ago, but already she is rapidly outgrowing her small studio space. She recently opened an additional showroom on the floor below the main studio that acts as a display/storage space and is an area of relative calm in contrast to the hive of activity happening upstairs. “The idea was that I would work down here, but I actually don’t like to be in on my own, so I squeeze in on the table in my main studio. I like to be around everything that’s going on.”

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Wilson has always felt strongly about keeping her work handmade in the United Kingdom, and production is deliberately kept to a small scale so that her designs can maintain the unique handcrafted appeal that she believes makes them so popular. She has only five staff members, most of whom seem to be Scottish girls in their 20s. When I point this out, she laughs: “Actually today is unusual, as the Scots are outnumbered by English! We’ve grown a lot over the past year and it will be interesting to see how things move on.”

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Fabric for the creatures is knit on the small machine above, and larger pieces like the poufs are woven on an industrial machine in a factory in Scotland. The creatures are sewn by four specialists in Scotland, like Elaine from Orkney, who is rumored to churn out 40 Cyril Squirrels per week.

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Frank, Henry, and Ernest poufs, upholstered in Wilson’s Nos Da fabric, for SCP. Most of her patterns are inspired by her childhood growing up in the Scottish countryside, where her parents still reside.

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Confectionery is a recent addition to Wilson’s already lengthy list of product categories. She showed me these intricately decorated animals and cloud-shaped cookies, which began selling through the Japanese distributor Trico at Tokyo’s Isetan department store earlier this fall. Soon, Wilson will also launch a series of packaging designs for macaroons made by the French pâtissier Pierre Hermé. The designs will be sold only in Tokyo, where Hermé has seven outlets. “I’m working on some designs for Valentine’s Day, which is apparently a major event in Japan,” she says.

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For Isetan, Wilson also created a line of knitted piggy banks whose mouths squeeze open to accommodate incoming cash.

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Wilson’s creature-inspired designs have a huge fan base in cartoon-happy Japan, which explains her recent exploration of the country’s sweets. But she finds herself quite inspired in general by the country. “A Japanese woman who visited the studio gave this to me. It’s a photo documentation of vintage Japanese objects that she’d found. I love the photography.”

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A wall in Wilson’s showroom space acts as a pin board for design sketches and works in progress. She uses a broad range of media to begin the creative process — a mixture of digital prints, hand sketches, fabric samples, and watercolors. Here, she points out the original painting for her macaroon packaging design.

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Wilson’s orange Fox scarves — a witty take on the fur stole — are a surprise bestseller. “We can’t keep up with the orders for these. It was the same last year, so we made loads more this year and we’re still running out,” Wilson says.

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Fox scarves in their final form.

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In 2008, Wilson made some wooden dolls for a show she did at SCP during the London Design Festival. She recently took them to India to try and get them produced, and these folk-art totems had just been sent back when I visited. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t really happy with the quality of them so this time it won’t work out,” she says.

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Wilson has the unerring ability to channel the aesthetic of her work into her outfit, and quite often, much to her frustration, when she’s pictured on blogs, her eye-catching clothes steal the show. “I did a photo shoot for The New York Times this year and I was wearing my bright green Orla Kiely cardigan. We must have had 20 different people emailing from the U.S. to ask, ‘Where did you get your cardie from and can you give me the knitting pattern?’”

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Fashion design is, however, something that Wilson has often considered, having already dipped a toe in with her hats and scarves. It’s impossible to sneak into people’s homes to find out how they’ve placed your sofa or throw, but there’s an immediate feedback loop with fashion that Wilson loves. “I was on the phone to my Dad on Saturday walking through Shoreditch, and I saw a guy wearing one of my hats and I got really excited. When I designed them I never imagined that they’d be worn by a trendy Shoreditch guy but actually when you think about it, it makes sense.”

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Wilson cites Alexander Girard, Stig Lindberg, and Paul Smith as design heroes, but she often finds inspiration in the anonymous as well. She found this French children’s book in the London bookshop Magma. “It’s just a children’s book, but I love the images and I like the way they’ve just used the two colors.”

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This book, the work of a Scottish-Italian ceramicist named Ravilious who worked for Wedgwood in the 1930s and ’40s, was lent to her for inspiration by Sheridan Coakley of SCP when she was designing her Sprig bone china for the brand last year. She’s currently in the process of designing new additions to the range including a teapot and dinner plate.

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This book, the work of a Scottish-Italian ceramicist named Ravilious who worked for Wedgwood in the 1930s and ’40s, was lent to her for inspiration by Sheridan Coakley of SCP when she was designing her Sprig bone china for the brand last year. She’s currently in the process of designing new additions to the range including a teapot and dinner plate.

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Final versions of her Sprig collection, which launched at Maison et Objet in the fall of 2009. True to hers and SCP’s commitment to home-based production, the pieces are manufactured in Stoke on Trent with clay sourced from Cornwall.

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I noticed these strange organic sculptures in several places around the studio, their shapes resembling branches or fingers that had been partly wrapped in yarn. As Wilson explained, “These weird ceramic objects were part of my graduation project at the RCA, along with some of my creatures and a rug design. They’re dotted around the studio but they’re all breaking, as I keep knocking them over.”

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The creatures are also hidden in nooks and crannies all over the studio. One of her most prized possessions is an oversized original Angry Ginger creature (likes mustard, dislikes marshmallows). One of her first creatures, it had a tomato-red body and an extremely hairy chest. “I’ve gotten rid of most of my original designs, but I’ve kept hold of him,” says Wilson. “He lives in my flat.”

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Even as Wilson’s product range gets bigger and more ambitious — above is a detail from her recent rug collection for SCP — she hasn’t forgotten her roots. “My grandmother was the person who got me into designing,” Wilson remembers. “She was a school teacher, and every time we went to her house she’d get the paints and pastels out and teach us how to draw.” Thanks to her grandmother’s enthusiasm, somewhere in Aberdeenshire a Donna Wilson original is hanging on someone’s wall. “She framed my sister’s and my drawings and sold them at local art shows. She sold a life drawing of mine for £95 when I was 12!”

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On view this month at The Future Perfect is a solo show of Wilson’s work, for which the shop created a wooden house and wonderland to showcase the breadth of her output. Against the wall are two of the four knitted people she created for the show, also for sale.

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And this week only, you can enter to win Donna Wilson’s Nos Da cushion for SCP as part of Sight Unseen’s Perfect Present Giveaway. We’re giving away one product from the shelves of The Future Perfect each week for four weeks! Click here to visit the sweepstakes entry page, and don’t forget to come back daily to increase your odds of winning!

Please visit Sight Unseen to see the full article.