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Behind the scenes of our photoshoot: Meet Karen Nicol

6 December 2017

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.

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

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.

Make Your Own Fox Mask with Noodoll

5 June 2017

Our friends at Noodoll have some great creative ideas to get you making! Donna has shared how to make this super easy DIY Fox mask over at Noodoll’s blog. Looks a bit like Cyril Squirrel Fox! Find out how to make your own here. Take a look at Donna’s Pinterest board for more Mask inspiration.

You’ll also find more fantastic coverage of our MYO Magazine Launch Party from the other weekend. Thank you to the Noodoll team Yi Ying, Darcy and Dana for joining our fun!

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.