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Blog Category: Donna’s Diary

Behind the scenes of our photo shoot: Meet Thorsten van Elten

11 October 2017

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”.

Our AW17 shoot in the home of Thorsten van Elten

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.

Our AW17 shoot in the home of Thorsten van Elten

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.

Our AW17 shoot in the home of Thorsten van Elten

Our AW17 shoot in the home of Thorsten van Elten

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.

Our AW17 shoot in the home of Thorsten van Elten

The Pennan Collection

26 September 2017

Donna takes us behind the scenes of her new woven throws and cushions, inspired by childhood memories of her most treasured place, Pennan.

Traditional techniques

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!

Pennan, photograph by Colin Heggie

Pennan, photo credit Colin Heggie

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.

Donna Wilson - Pennan Throw Green Yellow

On location

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.

Our range of Pennan throws and cushions is online now.

Pennan, photo credit Colin Heggie

Pennan photo credit: Colin Heggie

The Cushion Collective

19 September 2017

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.

On repeat

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.

Small Faces design by Donna Wilson (from Odd Objects & Textiles)

Dogs design by Donna Wilson (from Odd Objects & Textiles)

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!

Donna Wilson Cushions

 

Throwing shapes

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.

Welsh weave

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.

Donna Wilson Cushions

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!

Donna x

Shop the new cushion collection here.

 

Donna Wilson Leaf and Acorn Cushions

Donna Wilson AW17 Sneak Peek!

15 August 2017

AW17 Homeware & Accessories

We’re launching our AW17 Homeware & Accessories collection in the US at NY NOW this weekend, then in Paris at Maison & Objet in September. If you’re a Donna Wilson stockist – or would like to be! – email jess@donnawilson.com to make an appointment at either show or for more info.

Foraging for inspiration on the forest floor, Autumn is abundant in the new collection. Our signature knitted cushions take the shape of leaves and acorns – as well as a giant log bolster! We have bundles of blankets to keep you cosy, and our ‘creature’ gang continues to grow as we welcome new knitted creatures Barry Bear, Bonny & Bone, Fee & Fish and Monty & Mouse.

New for AW17 – cotton bed linen, towels and cushions

We’ve branched out further than ever for our Autumn Winter collection, and we’re super excited to launch our Bed and Bath collection featuring 200 thread-count, 100% cotton bed linen in classic Donna Wilson prints, and 100% cotton towels available in four sizes. We’ve also introduced a huge range of 100% cotton cushions.

Here’s a sneak peek of what we’ll be launching online very soon…

Donna Wilson AW17 Bed & Bath Collection - Bird Feet Bed Set Yellow

Donna Wilson AW17 Bath Collection

Donna Wilson AW17 Bed & Bath Collection

New Donna Wilson designs at Land of Nod

8 July 2017

This week we unveil more new things we designed in collaboration with The Land of Nod. This new range of baby bedding is now up on their website for all to purchase.

I’m so in love with all the designs we made for them, they’re all 100% organic cotton. My favourite is this reversible Night and Day baby quilt. On side there is a sun, on the back is a moon!

There is a matching bed sheet set for toddlers and even a baby changing mat. This Forest Friends bed looks so cosy… I’m ready to dive right in. Sweet dreams.


 

The good news is they can ship to the UK! Happy shopping everyone.

Visit The Land of Nod website for more Donna Wilson collaboration designs. There still a chance to grab some Christmas treats that we designed last year, read our blog post here.

 

Happy Living: The Japanese House at The Barbican

8 June 2017

All year round, the Barbican Centre hosts a diverse range of exhibitions within the fields of contemporary art, design, fashion and architecture. When I used to live in the Golden Lane estate I could easily pop over and be truly inspired by what was currently on display. Now I have 2 little boys and live further East, it’s a bit tricky to get the time to go as regularly. I managed to find some time to see The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 last month and it really did not disappoint.

When you arrive, the exhibition starts on the mezzanine which gives you a terrific bird’s eye view of the installation-scale models by some of Japan’s most iconic architects. My favourite was the fantastic wooden teahouse by Terunobu Fujimori that sits in a minimal garden of grassy mounds. You can climb inside, take a seat and people watch through the massive porthole window (pic above, right). I thought it would make the best tree house in my back garden  (you may have read my Tree House inspiration post earlier last month here) The shape of this tree carving (pic above, left) reminds me of my Giant House Cushion.

japanese house barbican

japanese house barbican

I loved the styling of the Moriyama House model (by SANAA’s Ryue Nishizawa, pic above right) which is a combination of 10 stark white-painted prefab units including fully -furnished rooms. In Tokyo, this is a real building which that is co-habited by Yasuo Moriyama and a community of  5 other tenants. The maze-like structure and gardens have such an unusual warmth when you walk through and you discover personal possessions in every corner. From piles of books, vinyl records, functional kitchen utensils and ambient lighting. When can I move in?

I also want to highlight Hideyuki Nakayama‘s series of childlike sketches (see pic above). All his buildings designs use these drawings as a starting point.  It’s the same approach I take when inventing new knitted creatures.  I think about the way that children draw things and how uninhibited it can be. Like drawing a cat with ten legs and three eyes or a bird with an exaggerated big head.

The exhibition is on until the 25th June. I hope you have time to visit and enjoy it as much I did! Make sure you visit The Conservatory too. It’s a bit of a hidden gem.