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.
Donna takes us behind the scenes of her new woven throws and cushions, inspired by childhood memories of her most treasured place, Pennan.
The Pennan throws and cushions are woven in the UK, in a small mill in Bristol. Made from 100% lambswool, the Pennan design is based on traditional handwoven weaving techniques, and is inspired by a small Scottish fishing village on the Aberdeenshire coast near where I grew up.
A village frozen in time
Pennan is a unique place. Nestled into the surrounding cliffs, it can never get any bigger. It seems to have been frozen in time. My grandma used to take me there as a girl, and we’d spend hours walking along its long pebbly beach, collecting stones and sea glass worn smooth by the waves and exploring the abandoned fishing boats. Even now, Pennan is my most treasured place. It feels so remote, a million miles away from the chaos of London life!
Fruits of the Sea
The Pennan design, with its exaggerated floats and strands of chunky wool, is reminiscent of the sea’s waves, and its muted shades of green and yellow are inspired by the beautiful colours of the landscape of North East Scotland.
Pennan is also the village where the film Local Hero was shot in the 1970s. It’s a story about a rich American oil company employee who is sent to a fictional version of the village, Ferness, to buy up the town for his company, spelling the end of traditional village life.
As we launch our new AW17 cushion collection, Donna strolls down memory lane to look back at lambswool cushions past and present.
From creatures to cushions…
After the success of my knitted creatures, I wanted to have something else to that would appeal to the same kind of design shops who had been stocking them. I was looking for something woolly and knitted, so cushions seemed like an obvious choice.
My first lambswool cushions featured repeat patterns. I designed the Small Faces motif first – around 2006 – then Dogs, and then my signature Rainy Day and Blah Blah patterns. The transition from making something by yourself to working with a manufacturer is really hard when you’re starting out. I’d been making the creatures by myself, knitting all the fabric on my machine and stitching them together on my sewing machine, then taking them home at night to stuff them and embroider eyes onto them. I couldn’t physically make the cushions myself as you need more high-tech machines for these. I was really lucky to find a great manufacturer, a husband and wife team working in the Scottish borders. They were willing to produce small quantities – 50-100 – rather than 500-1,000 minimums that most manufacturers ask for.
Big in Japan (and beyond)
SCP and Indish, both interior design stores based in London, were two of the first retailers to stock my early cushions, and have been really supportive of me and my work right from the start. Australian stores Safari Living and Space were also great and stocked my whole range.
2006 was also when I first went to Japan. I had an exhibition there, arranged by our now-distributor, Trico. Things really started to take off in Japan after this, with stores placing big orders for my creatures, cushions and blankets. I remember the brown Dog Mini Blankets, in particular, were really popular. The people who bought them told me they really liked them, as there was nothing else like that for babies at the time – just the usual pink and blue.
When you know, you know!
From there, I developed the first of my more commercial designs, the Owl Cushion. This was the cushion that went on to be stocked by John Lewis and Heals around 2009. It took me ages to get the Owl Cushion just right, but as soon as I did, I knew that it was going to be successful. There was something about it – it’s graphic and modern, yet nostalgic – and I thought ‘That’s the one!’ It was right before the whole Scandinavian trend happened, so the timing was perfect.
Birds and beasts
I went on to design a series of similar graphic animal motif cushions, and they’ve stayed a part of our range for some time now! From my Owl Cushion, I then designed a Fox Cushion – everyone loves foxes! Next I added a Robin Cushion, then a Badger Cushion, and then a Dog Cushion, as well as a Rabbit Cushion exclusively for London interior store SMUG. It was hard to better the success of the Owl and the Fox Cushion though, and along with the Robin and Badger cushions, they’ve remained part of our range to this day. For a while I would see the Owl and Fox Cushions everywhere – sofa adverts, in people’s houses on TV, in estate agent brochures!
Alongside the square cushions, we’ve always had our shaped cushions too – clouds, houses, mountains. I think people have generally always come to us for something you couldn’t get elsewhere. Our cushions are a bit different, a bit special. If you can’t afford a new sofa, you can always go and buy yourself a new cushion to refresh your room.
The first woven cushion I designed was the Nos Da Cushion, made exclusively for SCP. The idea came from Sheridan [the owner of SCP] wanting to do a modern take on the traditional Welsh blanket. He wanted it to be made entirely out of British yarn, so he got in touch with the British Wool Marketing Board. They’d been trialing a new yarn, which Sheridan had spun and dyed especially for this project. We wanted the cushions to feel like those old-fashioned, dry, Welsh blankets, to have a vintage feeling. Everything I’d produced up to that point had been soft and felty, and Sheridan wanted these cushions to feel quite different. He really invested in the project and we had lots of bespoke yarn colours dyed – it was quite a lot of work really! The cushions were woven and produced in Wales, and were named Nos Da which means ‘goodnight’ in Welsh. And the Bora Da, which means ‘good morning’ in Welsh were our follow-up design.
Everything I’d produced up to that point had been soft and felty, and Sheridan wanted these cushions to feel quite different. He really invested in the project and we had lots of bespoke yarn colours dyed – it was quite a lot of work really! The cushions were woven and produced in Wales, and were named Nos Da which means ‘goodnight’ in Welsh. And the Bora Da, which means ‘good morning’ in Welsh were our follow-up design.
And now for something new…
My 2017 cushion collection taps into the recurring theme of nature, with playful shaped Mushroom, Acorn, and Leaf designs, plus the more graphic designs of the Flower and Geometric Cushions. This is the first time we’ve featured a flower motif on a cushion. This design has featured before in blankets, but we’ve taken the image and blown it up.
This collection also includes the very special Pennan Cushion, which has been inspired by traditional hand-weaving techniques. It’s important for me to use a mix of different techniques throughout my work. The Geometric Cushions are knitted using a jacquard knitting technique whereas the Flower Cushions, like the animal cushions, use a knitting technique called intarsia. It’s quite unusual to use this in soft furnishings – it’s more commonly used in sweaters and fashion – as it’s more costly as it takes longer to knit, but it’s the best solution if you want to have motif in the middle of the cushion. Over the last few years we’ve also started to make cushions from the same fabric as our woven blankets – like our Forest and Mountain Moon Cushions.
There’s something for everyone in our new cushion collection – we hope you love them as much as we do!