Kylie Johnson has been on my radar for quite some time – she’s one of those clever creatives with a distinct style that is all her own. Kylie’s handcrafted ceramics, imprinted with the wise words of famous writers (and some of Kylie’s own poetry) form such a beautiful, elegantly executed range – and perfectly combine their maker’s two creative passions. After all, Kylie has a few strings to her bow – she’s a published poet as well as a ceramicist. After initially self-publishing her poetry books in editions of 400 during her twenties, Murdoch Books approached her to publish ‘Count Me the Stars‘ in 2008, which was subsequently followed up by ‘A Once Couragous Heart‘ – released in March last year. All the while, Kylie continued to create her ceramics and work a dayjob… until two years ago when she decided to take the leap and focus 100% on her growing business. Today Paper Boat Press is a thriving little workshop that employs five casual staff, and inspires many through Kylie’s popular blog, Instinct and Grace. One of Kylie’s most impressive achievements in recent time has been licensing three of her designs to Anthropologie in the USA! Brilliant work!
Kylie has really surprised me in this interview. Of course I was expecting an insight into her creative process, and details about the recent Anthropologie collab – but what I wasn’t expecting was so many truly priceless pearls of wisdom for any self-employed creative! Seriously, Kylie totally has it sussed. That bit about ‘realising you can’t do everything on your own – letting go, and giving up that feeling of having to do everything’… sheesh I really need to hear that! Thankyou Kylie! I am taking notes.
Kylie has been so generous with her responses below… but the generosity doesn’t stop there! Kylie has also offered one of her sweet bowls from the Anthropologie range for one lucky Design Files reader! (OMG I know, I know, giveaway overload this week!). They are truly so beautiful (see pics below). I especially LOVE the new blue type! To be in the running, simply leave your comment on this post today, Friday March 13th before 10.00pm Melbourne time. A winner will be selected at random and contacted by email tomorrow!
*UPDATE – thanks so much for all your comments! A winner has now been drawn for Kylie Johnson’s sweet giveaway! The winning comment was #142 – congrats Bianca!
Kylie will be at the Finders Keepers markets next weekend in Sydney!
Tell me a little about your background – what path has led you to what you’re doing now?
It has been a long way to here, but at the same time, I’ve been doing some sort of creative mix all my life. I went on a writers camp for my poetry when I was in grade six, my parents were potters in the 70’s and after 3 years of art college and then for 12 years following I was part of a ceramic and art collective here in Brisbane called Amfora. Throughout the years with Amfora I painted on ceramic pieces created by other potters within the group. After trying my hand at bits and pieces (ceramic jewellery mainly) during that time, Amfora sadly folded and I set up my own studio. Although I set up Paper Boat Press in 1996 (in the early years as a greeting card and paper based business), it is only in the last 8 years, going out on my own, with my own studio for ceramics that it has all come together and truly hit its stride. I have always wanted to be a full time artist, and have worked part time in many jobs through the years (mostly as a shop assistant) to pay the bills while my work grew, but two years ago I took the leap and left my last part time job at the Queensland Art Gallery store, with their support and blessing, and have now been full time all on my own, which is still something I can’t believe somedays!
After maintaining a small-scale, handmade production line for a long time, you now have collaborated with US retail giant Anthropologie! How did this come about, and what challenges did you face designing pieces for this new market?
When Anthropologie first approached me, I knew I was not able to supply them with the amount of vessels they were after. My ceramic vessels aren’t the ‘production’ line of my work like my quote tags and christmas ornaments are. My poetry vessels are more on my ‘one off’ side of work, with each letter of each word hand stamped. They are also the higher end price of my work, so it would both be unrealistic for them, and me, price wise and output wise. So we worked on a licensing agreement, whereby I designed a number of pieces and Anthropologie had them manufactured at a ceramic studio in Italy. It was a long and interesting project, I created the prototypes and designed the stamps (and got them made here in Brisbane) used by the Italian studio. This allowed the text to still look like a continuation of my other work. The Anthropologie team were so accommodating and easy to work with, and when hiccups appeared in the manufacturing, as they inevitably do, they pushed the release date so as to get the work just right and to keep the integity of my style – the hand stamped and textured feel of the letters. I was continually grateful for their commitment to quality considering the large scale size of their worldwide operation. We also made these pieces with blue text and a whiter clay so as to have a point of difference with my one off work.
As a ‘maker’ and big supporter of the handmade, there was some reservations in the beginning, but the way they worked and honoured my style and requests, and the personal thought that more people would read my words, and hopefully find inpiration in them, this was also a big reason to say yes. My friend Mel Robson (ceramic artist extraodinaire) wrote to me in my more questioning stage saying ‘There’s a lot of beautiful and important objects that aren’t made by hand. If you’re happy with what they’re doing then that’s all that counts’. These words helped my doubts in this sometimes critical ceramic world where mass production can sometimes be frowned upon. Anthropologie also purchased both of my poetry books so this was an added bonus and a lovely extension for my publishers that have been so supportive these past few years.
You also write poetry and publish books of your poems – how do you balance the ceramics with the writing and publishing – do you feel the two complement each other well?
Words have always featured in my ceramics, in one way or another, whether I use my words or quotes by others, so it just seemed a natural connection. My words are like marks or drawings are to other potters.
I self-published three books of poetry through my twenties, handbinding and collaging some pages – and producing 400 copies per book. It was these three collections that Murdoch Books saw and subsequently released as a collection. After ‘Count Me the Stars’ was released in 2008 and found an audience, they offered me a second book deal and ‘A Once Couragous Heart’ was released in March last year. With the growth of my business in the past 5 years or so, my writing isn’t the biggest part of my weekly work time-wise, but is still unwavering. I have journals and scraps of paper all over my apartment with new little ramblings, and in the quiet of some clay structures, new words form themselves…
How is your business structured? Do you employ anyone or outsource any significant tasks?
The business is a strange creature as there are so many facets to it. I now have a strong small staff of workers to assist with the production side of things (where the quote tags and Christmas ornaments are made). Most often they work alongside me. There are 5 staff (who are also some of my dearest friends) that work different days of the week in studio. We mostly work between school hours as a number are mums. So that is flexible and fun, and this leaves me extra time each day to deal with the designing, photographing, blogging, invoicing etc. Some of the girls are taking on some of the admin work from time to time too so that helps. One of my dearest friends runs my online store and does piece work both from her home, she also ribbons the tags and ornaments. I also have 4 girls who work from home doing piece work in the cleaning back of the production line. I have such a great team we actually really love spending time together, and support each other in our personal lives in good times and bad… this is one of the parts of the business that I feel is one of it’s most precious parts. There are a number of parts of my product I outsource like the journals and pencils, and I employ local graphic designers to help me with my lack of knowledge on the computer side of things, turning my designs and ideas into prepress.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced since setting up your company?
As my business has grown I have started to realise I can’t do everything on my own. Although cash flow can be tough, employing people is worth it in the end. There are swings and roundabouts in it all. By letting go, and giving up that feeling of having to do everything, I have more time to let other work have time to grow. Simple changes – like getting a bookkeeper to do all my accounts and GST – have made the road blocks easier. I think by far though the biggest challenge (and this is the age old thing with me!) is feeling brave enough to keep it all going, when self doubt sets in.
Are there any key lessons or tips you can share with others who might be looking to start up a small design-based business?
Mmm, I think my challenges in the previous question answer this… But I would also say above all try and find your own voice. It is hard with such a huge design and craft community to stand out, but just be true to yourself, find your niche and always, above all, always keep evolving. I gave a talk last year at a womens business graduation event, and I remember saying that when I started paper boat press there was no email, no websites, no blogs etc etc. And now, with all of that at my disposal, the core of my business is still the same – building kind and strong relationships with your suppliers and stockists, put lots of love and care into it, create with the environment in mind wherever you can. And work hard, work hard, work hard… it may take time but if it strikes a chord and finds a market it is worth it in the end.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Apron on, roll clay, stamp, email, clay, pack and post and orders, invoice, email, more clay, photograph, blog, email, pack a kiln, unpack a kiln, chat to the girls in the studio, more clay, cups of tea, more emails, more clay. Write a hundred lists, cross off only some of the items on list. Answer more emails.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration when beginning a new piece or new series – nature, travel, books, the web etc?
Nature is a big one, my library of books, my home, words, stories… and movies, I can’t get enough of them.
Which other creative people do you admire?
The list is endless, I have such an amazing circle of creative souls around me in Brisbane who I admire and who constantly inspire me. Word-wise I am a big fan of Neil Finn, Paul Kelly, American poet Billy Collins, E.E Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Michael Leunig. I really admire the business structure and work of Lotta Jansdotta, how she shares and inspires people while all the while creating a look that is distinctly hers, many have copied but she still keeps evolving. And I love the work of the Goldenink Collaborative, their designs and collaboration is fresh and beautiful and well made too… my collection continues to grow. And most of all my friend Pia Jane Bijkerk, she is an inspiration to so many people I know, but she is also a very dear friend and our conversations and support of each other and our differing yet similar creative journeys has been one of the most beautiful things to come my way creatively in a long time.
What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?
I am currently collaborating with my friend Sarah Bowe on our paper weight collection called WAIT. Where I create the organic shaped ceramic base and she decorates with her beautiful crochet. So this has been a long time coming and that is really a dream come true. Working with a kindred friend with our different sensibilities creating a lovely little thing. We are putting them out there at Finders Keepers next weekend in Sydney. I have a list, a long list of other creative projects I would love to work towards, but that is a whole other story.
What are you looking forward to?
Next week Finders Keepers in Sydney. And personally in the studio, seeing what my christmas bird prototypes look like this year, as they emerge from the kiln this week.
Personally, a 10-day trip back to Japan in a few weeks, a much needed holiday to one of my favourite places.
Your favourite Brisbane neighbourhood and why?
Paddington, it’s home, and that is probably why. But I also love West End and New Farm.
Your favourite shops to visit in Brisbane for locally designed gift or homewares?
My fabourite store to fix my love of all things beautifully japanese is Shibui Homewares in West End. Such a careful collection lovingly picked and imported by husband and wife team Justine and Shozo. Biome in Paddington, friendly to the earth and home of lovely things. Nook in West End run by the inspiring Michelle. And I know I am biased because I used to work there but the GoMA and Queensland Art Gallery Store is a great place for all sorts of wonderful bits and pieces, and most of all a great place to help my book obsession.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Brisbane?
I love the Continental Café in New Farm, it is warm and friendly and their food is always hearty and full of flavour without being over the top. They have a great wine list also. It is homely and European and friendly and real.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Sitting on my verandah reading the papers and drinking tea, all the while trying not to look at the work that surrounds me – as my verandah is my studio too, but the view is priceless so it is the best place to be. If not, you might find me catching a movie, I love a quiet Saturday morning movie date.
Brisbane’s best kept secret?
This was a tricky question, for do I say a place or restaurant or suburb… but in the end I want to say MAP magazine. It is the standout street press here in Brisbane, it has been around since 1999, and is still going strong, each month giving us a stylish and readable collection of information, events, products, comments, and inspiration. I know there is street press in all big cities, but in all my travels this one really stands out, and it is a Brisbane production! And it celebrates this city, and it IS a great city.