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Blog Category: Home Inspiration

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

Home Inspiration: Kitchens

13 June 2017

My favourite room in my house is the kitchen. We have double height ceilings here and a great big window to let the natural light in. I hang my own plate designs on this cupboard wall along with some sentimental items from my childhood. It makes all the difference to add your personality to your kitchen. Here are some other ideas I love:

Keep it organised but keep it fun (pics below L-R) This giant pegboard wall is functional as well as decorative. With this modular shelving can move the pegs and the shelf so that it’s an ever-changing display(source: Position Collective) I love this idea of having the longest row of hooks, somewhere to hang your Mog Mug, brushes, oven mitt, utensils or herbs (Source: My Scandinavian Home/ Granit). I absolutely love the exaggerated giant cupboard handles in tactile solid oak.  This is designer Faye Toogood’s former London home (source: NY Times).

Add a burst of colour. Effective storage is so vital for keeping a tidy kitchen. Why not add some colour? My white porcelain plates with happy faces are great for a feature wall. Not just for the dinner table (Pics L-R: My kitchen (!), designer Dries Ottens colour block green sink, yellow storage by Uncommon Projects/ Jocelyn Low, mixed chairs round the table by Aurelie Lecuyer.

 

 

Natural materials Plants and polished marble. Country kitchen in Sweden. Love the shapes in this Terrazzo floor (source: Ioanna Roufoupoulou) and this Marmoreal counter by Dzek.

Home Inspiration: Special Day Decoration Ideas

31 May 2017

Party time! I hope these decoration ideas inspire your special day, whether you’re planning a wedding, a special garden party or an impromptu excuse to celebrate summer.

Details Details: (Pictured above) my bespoke knitted arrows leading the way at YSP my Endanger Species art installation in 2012. Donna Wilson faces plates, Greg and Grace. DIY Daisy backdrop by The House That Lars Built. Bright Mexican paper flower backdrop, quirky wooden stools for each little guest.

donna wilson wedding decoration

Decorations: I love spending time outdoors. The way the sunlight changes throughout the day is so magic. Simple decorations made out of paper are so easy and using coloured paper make a mega impact. Here’s DIY paper flowers here’s the how to guide for these realistic looking ones. For something more extravagant I’d love to get my friend Tord Boontje is so masterful with delicate natural floral shapes. I have this same lamp (see picture above top left) as a focal feature in my bathroom at home. Real flowers are also so classic. I love my regular delivery from Freddie’s Flowers. My sister makes such wonderful displays, foraging country flowers and displays them in vintage vases. Here’s my Bird Jug with freshly picked blossoms (photo by Erin McIntyre).

Cakes Designs: As you know, I use nature as inspiration for much of my work. Edible decorations on the top of cakes and pies make great table settings. A fruit pie with delicately shaped pastry leaves by Judy Kim on FeedFeed, herb infused pastel cakes by A Subtle Revelry. fig and blackberry cake (with a hint of decorative rosemary by Twigg Studio. Also pictured are Donna Wilson Forest and Acorn Dinner Plate and dream Mendels cake tower from Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.

donna wilson wedding cakes

Don’t forget to bring a gift! Shop our gift ideas here:

Gifts for Wedding
Gift Wrap and Trimmings
Gifts for Her
Gifts for Him

Glass City Vase Donna WIlson Styled

Home Inspiration: Tree Houses

24 May 2017

Summer is here in London! Hooray!

We want to build a treehouse in the back garden for the boys. I’ve been filled with ideas looking at these summer tree homes and grand designs. There’s nothing like being surrounded by nature, amongst the peace and quiet.

My ultimate dream would be this Nendo Bird Apartment (pictured above) which can house up to 78 nesting birds which visitors can observe. It’s in the middle of a forest in Komoro City, Japan.

I love the shapes in these inventive prototype structures by Worapong Manupipatpong.

Tree hotel in Sweden is 7 individually designed contemporary lodges high up in the tall pine trees. These cabins are stylish and eco-friendly and have epic views of the surroundings. There’s even one called Bird’s Nest made of foraged branches.

Terunobu Fujimori and London-based, Japanese architect Takeshi Hayatsu have created an inhabitable charred-timber roofed treehouse (last pic on the right). It looks so beautiful in the spring, surrounded by cherry blossom trees. Charring the wood is a traditional technique that actually protects the wood against rain, rot, and insects for at least 80 years.

Practical interiors are something I’d definitely consider for my dream treehouse, decorated with a Donna Wilson Woolywood blanket and cushions (of course!).  I’ve been looking at rustic cabins and I love the utilitarian wooden interior of Inshriach Bothy in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. It’s not a treehouse but a small cabin. Used for artist residencies with can be hired for a season.