Interview

Bonnie Ashley and Neil Downie

by Lisa Marie Corso, Managing Editor
Friday 25th September 2015

Melbourne’s most colourful design duo Bonnie and Neil have been firm favourites around here for a LONG, long time.  Who can blame us!? These guys are just such a brilliantly clever, hardworking pair… and they’re super lovely too.

Having grown their little homewares business exponentially over the past five years, Bonnie and Neil now have over 80 stockists in Australia and 18 international retailers too! This month marks another milestone, as Bonnie and Neil open their first ever retail store!  Attached to their new headquarters in Brunswick, it’s a beauty, and we’re proud as punch.

Very few people in this world can get away with being referred to exclusively by their first name. These people include Madonna, Cher and Beyonce. We’re adding Melbourne design duo Bonnie and Neil to that list! Since launching their hand screen-printed homewares and furniture business in 2010, Bonnie and Neil have become household names here in Australia, and have won an impressive list of stockists abroad.

Bonnie Ashley and Neil Downie moved from New Zealand (via London for two years) to Melbourne in 2003. At the time, Bonnie worked as a textile designer for a Melbourne design studio and as a florist, while Neil worked as a furniture and set designer. After making and designing homewares and textiles for their own home and friends, the pair decided to launch their own business in 2010.

Bonnie and Neil’s first product was a screen printed cushion with an image of a cockatoo. Five years on, this distinctive print is still one of their most popular, and really was the product that unleashed Bonnie and Neil into the world of interiors! Originally, the pair worked from a very modest studio in Brunswick, where Bonnie and Neil would do everything themselves, from designing, printing, dispatching and securing stockists. It was here, five years ago, that they designed and manufactured their very first range, and launched it at a local trade show, nervous that no one would place an order. Boy, were they wrong.

After a few short years, Bonnie and Neil now employ six full-time staff, two part-time staff, and have 80 stockists in Australia and 18 international retailers.  A few months ago, having outgrown their second headquarters, the team moved into a larger studio space in Brunswick. Here, for the first time, Bonnie and Neil have been able to create their very own retail shop front!  As expected, the store is a hyper-colourful space that offers the complete Bonnie and Neil range of homewares, tableware, plywood tiles and artwork, alongside some of their favourite Australian designers including Grazia and Co, Robert Gordon Australia and Maison Balzac.

Bonnie and Neil Showroom
121A Donald Street, Brunswick 3056
Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday 9.30am – 5.00pm
(Or by appointment)

Tell us a little bit about each of your backgrounds – what did you study, when did you move to Australia and what were each of you doing when you first moved?

Bonnie: When I was 13 I landed a job working at a florist. Around the same time I was discovering my love for art. When I finished high school I studied art at Christchurch’s School of Design, majoring in textiles and sculpture. In 2000, Neil and I moved to the UK where I spent two years working in fashion screen printing. When we moved to Australia in 2003 I continued working as a textile designer and printer as well as part-time florist before we launched Bonnie and Neil.

Neil: My background included studying at art and design school in New Zealand, which led me down the path of cabinet-making and building furniture. These skills set me up for roles in New Zealand and also the UK and Australia. When we moved to Melbourne in 2003, I worked in furniture and set building for large-scale productions like the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

In 2010 you launched Bonnie and Neil.  In the early days what motivated you to start the business and did you ever anticipate for it to grow as it has?

Bonnie: In our home life we’ve always been working on some creative project or another, designing products for our own home and making things for friends, so it just felt like a natural progression for us to start our own collection in 2010.

We launched at the trade show that year and were extremely nervous – we didn’t know whether anyone would order or like the products that we had made!

Neil: We never anticipated that our business would grow to this scale, but it’s the encouragement of our customers, stockists and the industry that makes us keep going (and growing). We have lots of exciting plans ahead and ideas to extend our business and product range, so this has really evolved from a passion project to a way of life.

What was the first ‘light bulb moment’ where you thought ‘we’ve made it’?

Bonnie: I don’t know if we have really had that moment yet but there have been plenty of important ones along the way.

One of our most exciting moments was at the Maison&Objet show in Paris this month, where one of our all time favourite stores came to our stand with images of our range on their inspiration boards and placed their first order with us. That was pretty amazing.

How would you describe the Bonnie and Neil aesthetic, and what influences your style?

Bonnie: Well we are definitely huge fans of pattern and colour! Our aesthetic is quite eclectic with references to vintage pattern and textiles. Our design work is influenced by historical pattern makers, flowers, artists’ studios and mark making, while our colour inspirations can come from fashion, nature and vintage textiles.

Flora and fauna are our most recurring sources of inspiration. Australia is a huge country with a wide range of different landscapes but we’re also influenced by the natural world on our travels. We always visit botanical gardens wherever we go and I’m constantly taking photos that are referenced throughout our designs.

Neil: When we’re designing a new collection it is a collaborative process. It usually starts with an image or an historical reference that we’re both inspired by, from which Bonnie designs the patterns and I focus on how this will work across our timber products.

You’ve recently upgraded Bonnie and Neil’s main HQ to a larger space in Brunswick, and this week you opened your first Bonnie and Neil showroom that includes a retail shopfront! What can we expect from the Bonnie and Neil shop?

Earlier this year we moved to a bigger warehouse, which has made a big difference. We now have more space to spread out and dedicated areas for each of our production processes – as well as a bigger space for our biannual studio sales!

We’re really excited to be opening our first retail space at the front of our studio. The space gives customers the opportunity to purchase our archival range of products (which is also available online) as well as being able to view our new limited edition paper prints in person.

We’re stocking a select range of Australian products including Robert Gordon Australia ceramics, Maison Balzac candles and hand creams, amazing Solid timber bird sculptures made by Rob Bast. We’re thrilled to announce that we’re a retailer for Grazia & Co furniture, which can be customised in our hand printed fabrics.

The shop also includes windows into our studio along its back wall so visitors can see firsthand all of our handmade production in action.

What have been one or two favourite recent projects or commissions?

Last year we worked with Georgeous on the David Jones Marquee during the Spring Racing Carnival. We were commissioned to design a bespoke tile for the walls, bar and floors that also complemented our cushions. The end result looked amazing!

We’ve also worked with Chard International on the corporate suites, private dining rooms and restaurants at the Australian Open for the past few years. The transformation those stark function spaces undergo is incredible.

Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of your business and creative process? How do you manage the day-to-day side of the business, while doing all of your screen printing and designing in-house? How many employees do you currently have and who does what?

Bonnie: When we started in 2010, I was working in the business full-time and Neil was working part-time (weekends) while he was still working his day job in construction. Neil moved across full-time in 2011 and for that first year we both did everything from taking orders to making product, dispatch, sourcing stores and suppliers.

Over the years our team has remained pretty small with only two full-time team members and a few casual staff helping out when we need them. We’ve recently expanded our team to six full-timers and two part-timers but we also have a team of casual staff members who we call on during peak periods.

We have three full time screen printers (Neil, Will and Jake) with Bonnie also printing occasionally. Under Neil’s guidance, ‘the boys’ all work on timber projects together too!

Tessa manages our studio and works with me on the production schedule. She liaises with our local and international stores, acts as customer service for retail orders, coordinates our suppliers and manages dispatch. Meg is our studio assistant who works closely with Tessa, picking and packing orders for dispatch. Amy looks after marketing (including our website and social media), PR (liaising with media and stylists) and events. And finally Ruken helps out in the studio as well as working in our new shop!

Being a small team we all help each other out on a daily basis, so when there’s a job to be done we all get stuck in and work hard to get it completed. By employing team members who can look after other key areas like administration, studio management, sales and marketing, we have more time to be involved in the creative process, work on creative collaborations and design upcoming ranges.

While we’re always thinking about new ideas and gathering inspiration the actual design process happens within a defined period of time each year which means we can 100% focus on production when we need to. The creative process is the fun part but we enjoy the production side just as much, as this is our ideas coming to life.

We’ve implemented a number of tools in recent years to help run our business even more efficiently, including Asana, which we use on a daily basis for all creative projects including our print schedule.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

First thing we’re responding to emails early and getting organised for the day ahead, which includes reviewing the print schedule and shuffling priorities around if we need to. With stockists around the world there are always emails that come in over night that need to be responded to!

To kick start the day we stop by Padre on Lygon Street for a coffee, and we’re at the studio by 8.30am Monday to Friday.

Once we get to the studio the day starts with a briefing from Tessa, and checking in with the Printers on the schedule. Sometimes we might be creating new artwork, or making new screens. If we’ve got a trade show to prepare for, or an event to plan, we’ll meet with Tessa and Amy to go over the details.

We try to have lunch as a team (including Rosie and Foxy the dogs) at our communal table, or coordinate it with meetings at a local café like Pope Joan or Jack Horner.  We also often pop out during the day for client meetings, to pick up samples or source materials. Returning phone calls and emails usually makes up the rest of our day!

Finish time is 5.30pm, and we stop in at the dog park on the way home so Rosie and Foxy can have a run around before we head home for the evening.

We love cooking (and eating) so preparing the evening meal is our relaxation time!

Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?

Robert Gordon Australia. Such a great local family business that we have been collaborating with for many years now. We love working with Kate and the team there!

Sally Smart. A talented artist who we have printed elements of her art for her for many years, but she is also a friend and mentor.

Grazia and Co. Grazia is one of our newest industry friends, and now also collaborative partners. Grazia’s aesthetic works so well with our product and we love her approach to design.

Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?

Our main sources of inspiration are actually offline: galleries, botanical gardens and museums mostly. Bur to see what is happening in the creative world we sometimes refer to the below we regularly visit Pinterest, interior design magazines, blogs like The Design Files, The Planthunter and Design*Sponge, Bloom magazine and fashion magazines.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

Being invited to show our latest collection at Maison&Objet is a career highlight. It was such an amazing experience and so inspirational.

What would be your dream creative project?

Definitely a hotel or restaurant. Imagine the bedding, towels, ceramics, tableware, furniture, tiles!

What are you looking forward to?

The official opening of our retail shop! We love meeting customers face-to-face, hearing about their relationship with our products and seeing how they interpret our designs in their own homes. We are also looking forward to developing new product ranges next year.

MELBOURNE QUESTIONS

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

We live and work in Brunswick, so it would be wrong to name another neighbourhood. We love the area for it’s great food, amazing coffee and creative community. It’s close to the city with a nice mix of industrial and residential property but has lots of green space.

What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?

Is a cocktail considered a meal? We’re big fans of The Everleigh on Gertrude Street, a few drinks here are usually followed by a walk across the street to Anada.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

At the studio! Saturday is the day that Neil and I can catch up on the week, plan the week ahead and any new creative projects we have coming up. That might be trade shows, collaborations or designing the next collection.

We usually start a little later on Saturdays though, take the dogs for a walk and grab a coffee on the way.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Such a hard question! We love Melbourne as a whole, and while it’s well known as one of the most liveable places in the world, it’s constantly full of surprises. We’ve been living here for 12 years now but there’s always something new and different that we find to love.

Bonnie and Neil’s new retail space in Brunswick. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files.


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