Interview

Bruce Slorach and Sophie Tatlow of Utopia Goods

Elisha Kennedy
Friday 14th October 2016

Partners in both business and life, Sydney based Bruce Slorach and Sophie Tatlow launched Utopia Goods in 2012, and we’ve been hooked ever since. Their distinctive textiles and homewares celebrate native Australian flora and fauna, with explosions of blush pink flowering gums, cicada milky ways and Honeyeater birds with crimson wings.

With the impending launch of their new collection, and first permanent shopfront on the horizon, our newest contributor Elisha Kennedy sat down to chat with Sophie and Bruce.

I’m not afraid to admit that I can be quite hesitant when it comes to colour. I operate comfortably and safely within the realm of muted tones and well-worn pastels. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a bright palette, but only when other people do it. I just don’t have the knack. I can count on one hand the number of brightly coloured things that I own – a Utopia Goods cushion is one of them.

Utopia Goods’ vibrant prints fuse bold, contemporary style with a distinct sense of nostalgia. Each print is designed as a celebration of Australian flora and fauna, a kaleidoscope of colours from the native landscape. Transformed into cushions, tablecloths and bedding, they become objects for the home that evoke a strong sense of place.

All Utopia Goods’ designs are hand-illustrated by Bruce Slorach, who is somewhat of an unsung hero in the Australian design sphere. In the eighties he headed two cult fashion labels; Abyss and Funk Essentials (so eighties, we love it) and was the Creative Director of Mambo for five years, during the height of their success. Following this, Bruce and his partner Sophie Tatlow began Deuce Design, a respected graphic design studio now known for their architectural and environmental graphics for projects across Sydney.

Sophie and Bruce’s combined contribution to the Australian design landscape is endlessly impressive and always varied!

Tell us a little bit about each of your backgrounds – what did you study, and how did you meet?

Bruce: I have always drawn and painted. I studied Fine Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, and have been very fortunate to be self-employed as a visual artist, graphic designer and designer since I left school. I’ve been in the design industry for 25 years, and have designed textiles my entire career. For ten years I had a fashion label in the ’80s, and then worked as design director at Mambo. Sophie and I met through friends over twenty years ago!

Sophie: I studied at Monash University (Chisholm) followed by Object Design at Enmore Design Centre, then a Masters of Arts at UTS. I’ve been a creative director and copywriter for Deuce Design for about 15 years, working across all manner of design projects from research, books, branding, and web to heritage projects. I think the one key skill or task that comes from my background is the ability to ‘sweep the floor’ and to be flexible, I like to think I’d give most things a go.

When you launched Utopia Goods in 2012, what were the initial motivations to start the business?

Sophie: I think it was a five-year long conversation before it actually started! There were multiple motivations to start Utopia Goods. We’d discussed starting a creative product type ‘textile’ brand that was inherently Australian in attitude and content. Our mutual love of design, textiles, art and native botanicals were a huge part of the impetus, plus the desire to see something in the marketplace that paid tribute to the beauty of Australian botanicals, without going into the ‘Australiana’ category.

I think one of the biggest factors was Bruce’s life long history and experience with illustration and textile design. Bruce had one of Melbourne’s most successful street wear labels in the late ’80s, which was illustrative and screen-printed.

Utopia Goods owes its ‘look and feel’ to being a handcrafted product. It’s illustrated by hand, hand printed and woven on our specified 100% linen. The hand feel and texture has taken years to finesse, and we print it on 370gsm heavy weight linen.

Does your work with Utopia Goods overlap at all with Deuce Design?

Yes and no. They are run out of the same studio space in Surry Hills. They are intertwined on many levels but they also operate very independently and they have different design methodology and client base. The biggest difference is that Deuce Design is a design consultancy and we design for clients in a project-based situation, whereas with Utopia Goods we design for customers and manufacture. Some Deuce Design clients specify Utopia Goods for their projects, which is a nice crossover. Deuce Design has also had a portfolio of long-term heritage design projects (some that take many years to complete), which have had some influence on the content and inspiration behind Utopia Goods.

How do you construct a new collection? Does it stem firstly from Bruce’s illustrations or does the concept come first?

The design process is fluid, organic and at the same time extremely well planned. We’re generally working a year ahead of a collection launch. The manufacturing takes at least six months because of the handmade nature of the process. The design and drawing process is generally three months. Every print is hand drawn and can take Bruce up to six – eight weeks, depending on the print’s complexity and colour arrangement. Every print starts as a painting, then every colour or screen is redrawn (hence, our motto, ‘good things take time’).

The collection begins with a conversation that starts in January and ends in December. The concept can start with a colour palette, a particular native flower or plant, a painting we’ve seen or a botanical adventure. The new ‘Paradise’ print is loosely based on my thesis and the palette is derived from a painting, and a couple of the birds within the painting are endangered species from North Queensland. Each print has its own narrative and influence and then those prints make up a collection.

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

Bruce’s recent exhibition at Saint Cloche in Paddington was a highlight. We had a show of Bruce’s paintings and illustrations in March. The show featured a collection of paintings and prints of the original artwork for the textiles. We sold everything within a couple of hours at the opening, which was very exciting, and a great surprise. Our pop up stores are always great too, and a wonderful way to meet our customers and get insightful feedback.

We’re now on the hunt for a new home where Utopia Goods can maintain a showroom and shop front. Stay tuned, as I think we’ve found one! Bruce is also painting for a new show, and we’ve got a number of exciting commissions in the pipeline.

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?

Busy! It’s not a traditional 8-hour working day. We have to be careful that we’re not working every waking minute. We have a 14-year-old son (Henri), and we try to stick to the rule of not working or talking about work in his company (we break this rule all the time!) When you run a creative business with your life partner, the conversation will always find a way to circle back to work.

Running a business like Utopia Goods is like being a parent to an insomniac two-year old that never grows up.

You love it intensely, it’s unexpected, it’s constantly surprising you, rewarding, frustrating, sleepless (businesses don’t sleep), hungry (for cash flow), playful, demanding and can induce tears of frustration and joy, and there are growth spurts!

But we have the most fantastic customers and clients who are passionate, interested and engaged, which really helps to drive the day-to-day running of the business. There are five of us in the studio, each are integral to every part of Utopia Goods.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

To be honest they all feel completely different. Every day starts off with a homemade coffee at home by Bruce; it’s our little moment of ritual together. I head into the studio first, usually before 8 (it’s quiet and I can attack the emails), and then Bruce comes in around 9. Bruce is a keen road rider and rides most mornings – this is key to his creative well-being.

We’ve always gone ‘to and from work’ separately, so we don’t spend 24 hours a day together. A typical day includes: following up on emails, production checks with India, sales, client and customer requests, many ‘colour’ and ‘design’ conversations with Bruce peppered throughout the day, range planning and copywriting. Bruce’s day is almost 100% design between Deuce and Utopia Goods; his days also include many site visits for various Deuce projects.

You’ve done a few working holidays recently, from India to the US – can you tell us a bit about these?

We’ve just come back from the US where we’ve now got a couple of agents and the product has really started to started to sell well there. It is a wonderful feeling taking Australian-designed product out of the country and into new frontiers.

India is such an important place for us because it’s where we (proudly) print and weave. India produces some of the best hand printed textiles and weaving in the world, and has a three thousand year old textile history. The linen comes in the most sublime, heavy weight quality. Our printers and weavers are just so extremely skilled. We didn’t expect to have such an intense and personal relationship with the country. Travelling there has truly been life changing and has opened our eyes to the myriad of possibilities with hand crafted textile design.

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

Oh there are too many to name, both past and present. I love what the girls at Walter G Design produce, Sally Campbell, Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson. We work with many architects and designers, so it’s hard to narrow down but we do admire people like Adam Goodrum, George Livissianis and Peter McGregor.

As far as Australian artists go, Cressida Campbell, Albert Namatjira, Rex Battarbee, Fairlee Kingston, Martin Sharp, Laura Jones, Louise Hearman, Bill Henson, Lisa Roet.

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

First and foremost the Australian bush.

In the US we were blown away by some of the collections in American textile museums and archives of traditional cloth.

Instagram feeds for antique textiles – we always come back to those of Mary Bergtold Mulch, Christopher Moore, Katharine Pole and Cabana Magazine

We have a very large library of collected books both at the studio and home. The ones I’m looking at that are on our desk at this moment are: Printed Textiles (British and American Linens) by Linda Eaton, Imprints of Culture by Eiluned Edwards, Gods in Print by Richard David and a tall stack of various Australian botanical and bird books.

Sydney Questions

What’s your favourite Sydney neighbourhood?

We have two! Surry Hills because we’ve worked here for 20 years, we know it so well we could walk to work blind-folded.

Secondly we love Paddington because it’s one of Sydney’s best kept heritage suburbs. It retains some of the most beautiful Victorian buildings and features, and is a reminder of why we shouldn’t demolish our architectural history.

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

One of Bruce’s home cooked meals or Mr T Vietnamese in Paddington.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Walking the dog, without fail. It’s a great way to relax and get some exercise.

Sydney’s best kept secret?

Rose Bay dog beach. It’s a mad mash up of wet hairy pooches, kicking sand in every direction. And of course, our new shopfront! Stay Tuned!

The amazing Bruce Slorach and Sophie Tatlow of Utopia Goods! Photo – Nikki To for The Design Files.


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