Our new Spring / Summer collection is a playful celebration of pattern and colour, exploring new textures and techniques.
We toasted the launch of our new collection at our Pop-Up Shop (alas, no more!) in the company of press and stockists. A big thank you to fiddler Lewis Murray and his musicians who provided a soundtrack of Scottish folk music, to Pickled Plates for their Donna Wilson-inspired nibbles, and to Taran Wilkhu for capturing photos of the evening.
Here’s a quick tour of the collection…
Ceramic plates, jugs and mugs
Our familiar Dove, Tree and Acorn motifs have been added to bone china dinner plates, jugs and mugs to make beautiful tableware with which to dine with friends and family. And in a new direction for 2018, we’ve expanded our ceramics collection to include a series of handmade, shaped plates. Perfectly imperfect, each features a woodland design impressed into the clay, finished with a matte glaze for an earthy, organic touch.
Inspired by childhood nostalgia and children’s birthday parties, this season’s signature shaped cushions take the shape of colourful balloons and bright bonbons – the perfect pillows to give you the sweetest of dreams!
New for 2018, these luxurious, 100% silk scarves complement our existing fashion collection with a pop of colour and pattern. Printed onto silk twill fabric, Donna’s bright and colourful motifs come in three designs, each one in two sizes, with two colourways to choose from.
Lionel and Richie
Not one but two lions join our ever-growing animal gang this season. Knitted from soft 100% lambswool yarn and crowned with felted manes, these friendly cats are fitting kings of the jungle.
We photographed our AW17 sweater collection in the London home of textile artist Karen Nicol, which she shares with her husband, collage artist Peter Clark. I spoke to Karen to discover more about her beautiful house and her inspirational career.
Firstly, can tell us a little about your home?
We live just up the road from Hampton Court Palace in a place called East Molesey, thirty-five minutes from Waterloo but with meadows and rivers close by to walk the dog. The house is really beautiful, built in 1857 and spaced over four floors; we’ve lived here for twenty-two years.
My husband is a collage artist and now that the kids have left home we use two floors as studios, workshops and showrooms, and the other two floors for living – it’s bliss.
You use colour in a really interesting way in your own home – can you talk a little about this?
The house is all painted white but we really love colour so the refreshing slabs of colour here and there make differences in the character of each room, the light in the house is wonderful so it makes the colours sing.
You have lots of collections of objects – can you tell us a little more about these?
Pete and I are slightly obsessive in our love for car boots and flea markets, finding materials for our work and inspiration in a miscellany of vintage finds. I find materials that, chances are, no one else will be using, like old Belgian black, shiny straw milliner’s fabric or vintage matte white sequins in the shape of wings… I even have a collection of teeth that one day I want to use to replace pearls in a piece inspired by Russian Tsars. There is also the technical inspiration in beautiful traditional embroidery, everything from old fagoted collars to bits of old embroidered cushions. Then there is the pure visual inspiration of things that just look beautiful, like our matte white pots with their multitudes of simple smooth textures. Our house becomes a big white canvas to visually play with all these ‘found’ visual treats. I tend to build little scenarios in my studio – I spend so many hours in here it’s great to have a little grouping of things that make me smile.
How did your career in textiles begin?
My mother was an embroiderer, milliner, upholsterer, painter and dressmaker and flower arranger so I was around it all my childhood, she made my sister and me our own pattern blocks to make our own clothes when we were 13 and we made everything we wore, so it was probably pretty well set from there.
I went to Manchester Metropolitan University to do a BA and at first wanted to do something with a bit more street-cred than embroidery, like fine art, but in the end the diversity of textiles couldn’t be beaten so I did my BA in embroidery.
I then went to the Royal College of Art where, as there was no embroidery/mixed media course at that time, I did my MA in knit and embroidered on it, falling in love with embroidered fashion. Leaving the RCA, I put my work in a suitcase and went off to Paris (to impress a new boyfriend with my courage!) and managed to get some orders for my embroidered knitwear. I put my contact details in the labels and was subsequently approached by a German fashion designer who had bought a piece She flew over to London the next day and we worked together for the next ten years, giving me an amazing opportunity to learn the ropes.
Does your work have a signature style, and how would you describe this?
I’m not sure you can see your own signature style, but I suppose when you look over my fashion, interiors and gallery work you can see they have all the same hand. I hope mine has a light touch and a bit of irreverence.
What inspires you?
Everything! So much inspires me, changing all the time. I carry a notebook and camera everywhere and record anything that I like visually so my archives of images and inspiration are huge and can be anything – a plant, a bit of street style, a bit of wood and of course hundreds of artists.
As a textile artist, you’ve collaborated with so many prestigious brands and artists – do you have any particular favourites?
Collaborations are fantastic. You can be given amazingly comprehensive briefs, or something like ‘I want something funky in silver’, but they constantly push you out of your comfort zone, into the unknown.
These are my favourites:
– When non-embroiderers will unknowingly ask for things which can’t be achieved with normal embroidery techniques and suddenly you have to start being inventive to make it happen. Then you find ways of working you can develop for other jobs and so it goes on…
– Betty Jackson once showed me an image of water droplets running down a window pane, an effect she wanted on blouses… glass beads just didn’t do it so I ended up dripping resin on fabric…and then later I used this technique and trapped photos in the resin for a series of fish I did for a gallery show.
– Clements Ribeiro wanted Mexican-inspired beaded skirts for a ‘Frida Khalo meets Singapore whorehouse’ collection but I had to be able to bead the whole skirt in an hour! I found I could buy sequin film and cut my own sequins and machine them down. I later found I could develop this and shape the film with my iron and create large flowers and feathers for swans.
Shop our sweater collection here. View the campaign lookbook here.
You can read an extended version of our interview with Karen in the new issue of MYO magazine, Volume 2, available to order now – or subscribe to MYO to have two issues a year delivered straight to your door.
Donna shares the story of her creature collection, from long-leggy dolls to squirrel fox families – and all the weird and wonderful characters in between.
Once upon a time…
It all started when I was at the Royal College of Art in London, working towards an MA in Mixed Media Textiles. I started working on the knitting machines and really enjoyed the fact that the results were quite instant. I could create patterns and textures and everything as I wanted to, but I wanted to make them into something – a product.
In between my first and second years at the RCA, I started to make my Donna Dolls. Their bodies were made out of recycled jumpers – at first I started out using my own old clothing, then when I ran out I would trawl the local charity shops for knitwear in all different kinds of skin tones. They were quite simple. For the face, I gave them two eyes, leaving the rest up to the imagination, then I’d style their hair and make clothes for each one. I never got bored of making them because each one was so different. Their outfits would vary by season, so in the winter they had hats, scarves and bags, and in the summer they might be wearing bikinis!
Initially, I made just six dolls and took them into college. My tutor, Freddie Robins, suggested I show them to some shops and see if they’d be interested to stock them. My very first customer was the London boutique, Couverture and the Garbstore. Freddie gave me the confidence to approach them – I think before that I’d have probably been too shy. I took my dolls into the store and they asked me to leave them there so they could show them to the boss. I got a phone-call pretty soon after saying, ‘We love them and we’ll take them all!’
It was my first experience of selling to a store and a great learning curve. Couverture went on to buy around twenty dolls a month, which paid my rent through college. People would send me requests for bespoke Donna Dolls. I made giant Donna Dolls, dolls for famous clients – I made one for my friend Thorsten who I interviewed recently for the blog, sporting embroidered stubble and wearing his signature flip-flops.
After the success of the Donna Dolls, I started to think about how I could develop them into a new product. Although they weren’t traditionally ‘pretty’ dolls, they were still quite conventional in form. I was inspired by how you draw as a child – when it doesn’t really matter how many legs or arms or eyes you draw; it’s just creative and free. I liked the spontaneity and freedom to just design a shape, and the idea of making a doll that was all-inclusive – it wasn’t about being perfect, but more about being imperfectly unique.
The very first creatures I made were amongst my weirdest and most wonderful. Cannibdoll, for example, was inspired by a TV documentary I’d seen about a German cannibal who was looking for someone to eat. I just thought that was the weirdest story ever! He was joined by Edd Red Head, Angry Ginger, Peggy Long Legs and Bunny Blue, who were all equally peculiar in their own unique ways.
Making my creatures by hand means that they all imperfect. You could never make two exactly the same. Even now when we make a big batch of Cyril Squirrel Foxes, they will all have a slightly different expression. What I love about them is that you might see two slightly different Charlie Monkeys in a shop, but one person will be drawn to one, and another person will want the other. The amazing thing about the creatures is that they appeal to adults just as much – in fact even more so in some ways – as children. They’re not too cute, but I didn’t want to make them too ugly or scary either. They’re somewhere in between, and that’s what I think has made them so recognisable.
It’s what’s inside that counts
It’s always started with the design, but right from the beginning the creatures’ names and personalities have been very important to me. Each one came with a tag or keyring where I’d write a little about them. It was as much about that as it was about the actual creature. I wanted people to know who they were; what they liked and disliked.
As I embroider their eyes and features, drawing out their personalities with a needle and thread, each creature tells me what type of character they are. The name comes along afterwards. I still look at them and think about their personalities – whether they’re sad or angry… I think that’s why people like the cats, for example, because they’re not cute cats, they’re quite grumpy cats.
I’m not picking favourites but…
It’s hard to choose a favourite, but I think Cyril Squirrel Fox is my long-time love. He’s my own interpretation of an animal. I didn’t want to make just a normal squirrel or a normal fox – I wanted to do my own take, so I thought I’d merge the two together and see what came out. Around 2006, Cyril was born. I made him a friend, Rudy Raccoon, then they had babies – Ralf and Rill – who had different characteristics from their parents. In Japan they think Cyril is a girl. It’s all open to interpretation.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Ed Redhead too – he has a giant red head with a tiny brown body. He’s just so weird – and kind of multi-functional in that he’s a creature, but also a cushion.
Handmade with love
We still make the creatures now as we did when I was making each one myself – knitting the panels on a domestic knitting machine out of soft lambswool, which is felted, cut and sewn into shapes and then hand-embroidered and stuffed. That’s a process I never want to change. I think that’s what makes them unique. Any little imperfections make them what they are, and the handmade process imbues each one with a little bit of love. It’s just as important as the finished product.
What has changed, is that today I don’t make them all myself. We have a full-time seamstress in the studio, Lora, who is a one-woman creature factory, and we also employ outworkers in the UK, who make the creatures in their own homes. There are three or four in total, but the longest-standing is Elaine. She lives on Orkney, a small island to the north of Scotland. At last count, she’s made close to 3,000 Cyril Squirrel Foxes, along with many other creatures, which she sends to me at my London studio. I love it when the creatures arrive and jump out of their boxes!
I don’t think I’ll ever stop designing and making my creatures – they’re a huge part of my story, and I love that they are so often the thing that people are first drawn to when they see my collections.
We’ve had lots of questions about the house that provided the beautiful backdrop for our new homeware and accessories collection. It’s the home of my friend Thorsten van Elten, so I crept behind the scenes to quiz him on his impeccable sense of style so we can all steal a little piece for ourselves…
Hello Thorsten! Can you tell everyone a little bit about your design background and how we came to meet?
I set up my own business in 2002, producing and distributing products by young UK based designers. Donna came to see me after her graduation from the Royal College of Art with, if I remember well, a rug made out of glove fingers. That must have been in either 2002 or 2003, I guess. We somehow stayed in touch, and when I opened my London shop in Warren Street in 2005 I started selling Donna’s dolls and all her other wonderful creatures. After that, we were studio neighbours in Bethnal Green for several years after I told her a unit was available in the building so we saw each other fairly regularly – sometimes even in the shared toilets on the third floor having a chat and a moan how freezing the building was. Coincidentally my partner studied and graduated with you at the RCA, so our paths would have eventually crossed anyway.
How would you describe your style?
I used to call it eclectic before that word became such a cliché, so I guess you could call it “playful modern”.
You have an online shop selling all kinds of beautiful design objects. How do you curate your product selection?
I’ve always had the rule that if I wouldn’t have it in my own house I won’t sell it. It may not be the most commercially-savvy attitude, but I have to love what I sell in order to sell it – otherwise I should have become a car dealer or estate agent and earn more money.
What are your favourite design classics that YOU own?
That’s like asking which one is your favourite child… I’m very proud of my original A0-sized 1972 Munich Olympic games posters designed by Otl Aicher (as seen hanging above the orange sofa).
Which upcoming designers should we watch out for?
Since I no longer produce products I’m not as in the loop as I used to be, so I guess it’s more like which designers’ products would I love to have in my house. I love Daniel Emma from Australia but then they are good friends of mine so I may be a little biased, and clearly Jonna Saarinen who designed the wonderful Wir machen Urlaub Tea Towels for me, based on her childhood holidays in Germany. I’m also a big fan of Ian McIntyre who does beautifully simple ceramics, as well as Jono Smart.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve recently moved from London to the East Sussex countryside and now have a large garden which provides me with endless inspiration and joy. I can’t go to a nursery without buying at least one new plant, to the point that one lady who worked at the nursery asked me if I had a plant addiction. And since I now mainly sell German/German-inspired products, I try to go to Germany as often as I can to visit flea markets and explore new places and new regions.
More about the house – where is it, what’s it like? Describe what it was like when you found it!
The house is a late 1970s bungalow in the East Sussex countryside, somewhere between Battle and Bexhill, about a 10-minute drive to the sea. It’s been added to in the 90s by the previous owner who was an architect, so it’s done in keeping with the style of the house. It’s split-level, and pretty much open plan with white painted breezeblock walls and a large terrace and garden. It had been rented out for about 10 years so the garden was totally overgrown and the house covered in ivy. The inside also looked a little sad and unloved with all the wrong furniture. Strangely enough, we know the lady who built the house with her ex-husband (she’s a neighbour’s sister) who’s been for lunch and loves the way the house and garden look now.
Do you have a favourite room?
I’ve always dreamt about having a ‘conversation pit’, a lowered seating area, so when I walked into my current house and saw it had one it was love at first sight. It’s particularly cosy in the winter when the wood burner is on. I’m a very lucky man.
We’ve had a lot of questions about your sofa! Can you tell us where it’s from?
It’s a Cuba Sofa by Cappellini which I bought more than 20 years ago when I ran a Cappellini & Christopher Farr shop in Westbourne Grove, West London. I lived in a third-floor flat with a narrow staircase, and the only way I could get a big sofa up there was if I bought it in sections. I had it re-upholstered when I moved into the current house in a burnt orange velvet by Raf Simons for Kvadrat. It wasn’t cheap, but I spend a lot of time on the sofa and it now looks totally new, so it’s money well spent.
And also your big prints – where did you get them, and where can we buy them?!
The really big (green) one behind the sofa is an original 1972 Munich Olympics poster by Otl Aicher. He designed the entire Olympics, from graphics to staff uniforms to the mascot – everything. I also have a few posters which he designed as an identity for the Bavarian town of Isny. Everything is based on simple black and white pictographs. I the big sun print behind the orange sofa at VitraHaus last year. It’s from the Alexander Girard exhibition. And then there are quite a few East German film and educational posters from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I have a large selection of those available for sale on my website.
How do you find such unique pieces?
You’re forever scarred once you’ve had a shop. You find things everywhere, turn over plates to check the maker’s mark, look for stickers or engravings on products, make notes in other shops when you see something interesting. You never really stop but that’s not a bad thing. I also love flea markets and vintage fairs.
What’s your favourite design object in your home, and what’s the story behind it?
Oh, I think that changes on a fairly regular basis. At at the moment I’m in love with my new Anna Vase by Daniel Emma which was a birthday present they brought with them when they visited last month. My other favourite item is a mirror by Belgian designer Lucile Soufflet which I tried to produce for her about 10 years ago but it was just too complicated to make it commercially viable. But I had to have one so bought one from her and loved it ever since.
A huge thank you to Thorsten (pictured below, second from left) for lending us his home, and to my fantastic photo-shoot team, photographer Gareth Hacker and assistant Amelia Pemberton.
You can find out even more about Thorsten – and shop his selection of beautiful design objects – on his website and shop our new AW17 collection online now.