Studio Visit

Bonnie Ashley of Bonnie & Neil + Studio Sale + Giveaway!

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
24th of June 2011
Versatile timber boxes by Bonnie and Neil
Stunning linen tea towels by Bonnie and Neil
Shadow boxes and printed timber placemats by Melbourne design studio Bonnie and Neil

I have been meaning to interview Melbourne design duo Bonnie and Neil ever since first spotting their STUNNING screenprinted textiles and timber boxes when I shot the gorgeous Katie Marx' House!  Remember?

After years working together at Spacecraft Australia, last year Bonnie Ashley and partner Neil Downie took the plunge and launched their own little design studio - Bonnie and Neil.  Their combined experience strikes the perfect balance of varied skills, and has resulted in such a seriously impressive debut range.  With a background in textiles and floristry, Bonnie designs the prints, patterns and colour palettes, whilst Neil's experience in carpentry and passion for working with reclaimed timbers gives their work a raw, architectural edge.

Bonnie and Neil have been overwhelmed by the response to their work - although really when you take a look it's not hard to see why it's been so popular!  Despite being the new kids on the block, they already have an impressive list of stockists and fans - a testament to their incredible talents and many years of experience.  Their work spans textiles, timber boxes and shelving, and combines geometric patterns, botanical / wildlife imagery and a bold colour palette - it's just so striking and somehow seems really different from other print designs on the market (and let's face it, there is no shortage of screenprinting going on in Melbourne - much as we love it!).

YOU GUYS should all give yourselves a pat on the back for being so brilliantly supportive of local design studio start-ups like these.  There are SO MANY indie craft and design studios in Melbourne, yet we love and support them all.  There's little sense of competition, and local retailers seem to lap up anything new.  Nice work team!

If YOU would like even more brownie points for supporting local craft and design you should head down to Bonnie and Neil's first ever studio sale THIS SATURDAY! You will get to see their fantastic little studio in Brunswick, and have the opportunity to buy seconds and samples, tea towels, shadow boxes, wooden storage cubes, tablecloths and more.  I can't believe I am telling you about this actually.  I want one-a them tablecloths!

Bonnie and Neil Studio Sale! Saturday June 25th, 10.00am - 4.00pm 6 Duckett st Brunswick, Vic

ALSO, Bonnie and Neil are so sweet, they have kindly offered the most gorgeous giveaway for two lucky Design Files readers!  They have offered TWO of the incredible Red Rosella Shadow Boxes (pictured below), handmade by Neil using reclaimed timbers, and handprinted by Bonnie!  Stunning stuff.  To be in the running simply leave a comment on this post, today, Friday June 25th, by 10.00pm Melbourne time.  A winner will be selected at random and contact by email over the weekend.

*UPDATE - two winners have been selected!  Congratulations to Simone (comment #198) and Lucy (comment #142) who have each won a Red Rosella Shadowbox!  Thanks so much for all your lovely comments!

BIG thanks to Bonnie and Neil for this beautiful giveaway, and for their time with this interview.  Do pop in and support this lovely local pair by checking out their  sale this weekend.  If I haven't already convinced you, it must be said that Neil has the best accent ever (Scottish).  Makes sure you hunt him out and strike up a conversation. You won't be disappointed :)

Red Rosella Shadow Box by Bonnie and Neil - 2 up for grabs!  Comment today to be in the running!
Tell me a little about your background and Neil’s - what path led you to what you’re doing now?

I have a Bachelor of design in craft art from the School of Design in Christchurch, NZ. It was a unique course in that I got to study a range of craft disciplines before deciding to major in textiles and sculpture. During that time, I fell in love with all print-making processes especially screen printing. I also worked part time as a florist while studying, a fall-back career that has stood me in good stead throughout those inevitable ‘starving artist’ periods of my life. After moving to the UK, I worked for a company printing fashion fabric for designers such as Eley Kishimoto, Jessica Ogden and Peter Jensen, as well as hand-printing furnishing fabrics. In Melbourne, I worked as a textile designer and printer at Spacecraft for six years, as well as a florist and wholesale flower-buyer, whilst working on my own creative projects on the side.

Neil studied art and design in his home country of Scotland before he emigrated to New Zealand where he took his apprenticeship in cabinetmaking. He’s worked since as a furniture designer/maker in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, doing everything from fine furniture to architectural joinery to commercial installations at Chelsea Flower Show and Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival. Just in his spare time, he’s managed to renovate our Brunswick home, though sometimes we’ve lived for some time around his creative hiatuses…

For many years you worked with Stewart Russell at Spacecraft before going out on your own – how have you found the transition from working for a respected local design house to launching your own range and working for yourself?

It’s been fabulous and challenging. I’ve been able to pull together all the many things I’ve done to date and I’ve come to see my career in a holistic way, including that my sideline career as a florist hasn’t been a sideline at all but in fact has been integral to the way I create and the work that I do. I think you can see the inspiration that I get from nature in my work. That started to come together at Spacecraft where I contributed to the beautiful botanicals and other prints that they are well known for. It was around this time that Neil and I were first able to collaborate in a career sense, producing and printing various timber products under the Spacecraft label.

There was at least a year transition from the time I left my job to the time when Neil and I released our first range. The launch response has been overwhelming, it was more than we had ever hoped for. We were just excited to be doing our own thing, both getting to do what we love doing and to collaborate in producing products we think are beautiful.

What have been some favourite recent designs / projects for Bonnie and Neil?

One of our favourite projects to date has been a decorative façade with our robin design for a stunning kitchen in a St Kilda road penthouse. We’re also excited about launching our new range of furniture including new versatile shelving and storage.

And of course I’ll always love printing textiles. I’m super-excited about the new range of prints and of course the native bird designs which have become one of our signatures. I’m passionate about natural fabrics and linen in particular so that will always be a cornerstone of our range.

Cushions, linen on bed and timber block all by Bonnie and Neil

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

I guess, like all small workshops, there’s really no such thing as a typical day. That comes with the territory as it’s mostly just the two of us (along with a few willing part-timers) making small runs of products that are handmade and hand printed. We have pretty clearly-defined roles and, although we share our studio in Brunswick, my domain is the print studio whereas Neil is the master of his own workshop. I might be doing anything from designing new prints for the collection, to mixing inks and printing orders to answering e-mails or taking orders. Neil might be out and about sourcing materials for a project or other days will find him in his workshop designing and making prototypes or making/finishing furniture for a client order.

Shadowboxes by Bonnie and Neil
Where do you turn for creative inspiration when beginning a new range or project – travel, nature, photography, art, books or the web etc?

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Some of our patterns are evocative of something from our daily life – like our landscape collection of 2011 which began with a walk along the Merri Creek.

Neil is always true to his material. I think his inspiration comes from the character of the timber and looking for a sympathetic use for it. As well as blooms or foliage that I photograph or collect, I also have a habit of ‘hoarding’ all kinds of beautiful things that I come across, such as tapestries, textiles, vintage clothes or other curiosities so they always inspire me.

Merri Creek - the view from Bonnie and Neil's old studio (wow!)

Which other designers other creative people do you admire?

People like Eley Kishimoto, Florence Broadhurst, Piet Hein Eek, locals Katie Marx and Greg Hatton are both very clever. Neil wouldn’t necessarily nominate well-known designers but always says he’s worked with so many amazing craftsmen over the years who have passed on their knowledge of the industry and the craft and continue to influence him in his work.

What is the best thing about your job?

Definitely having the freedom to develop a piece from the original idea and see it through to the final physical product. To wake up in the morning with an idea and be able to start putting it together straight away is so great and of course there’s a such sense of satisfaction when you first see the final, polished product emerge.

Also, one of the perks has been to work with fantastic retailers like Catherine Southwood (of Southwood Trading, South Melbourne and Southwood Home, Fitzroy North). I’ve found my retailers have understood our product really well, which has helped develop our understanding of our product and how people might use it.

What would be your dream creative project?

In a way we’re living our dream already, collaborating and creating beautiful functional pieces together, which represent what we like to have in our own home to use and look at.

If we had to think of one large-scale ‘dream’ project, it might be working with an interior designer or architect developing ideas and interior concepts collaboratively, say for an eco lodge or retreat (preferably somewhere tropical while we’re dreaming!) Seriously though, it would be great fun to collaborate with someone on an project who shares the same philosophies as we do.

What are you looking forward to?

August marks a milestone for us – a year since we launched at our tradefair. So we’re definitely looking forward to that trade show this year. Also tomorrow we’re having our first public studio sample sale. As we usually wholesale only, it’ll be great to get a chance to meet the people who are actually taking our products home. After our first year in business, we are also looking forward to a holiday!!!!

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

I would have to say Brunswick, we’ve lived there 7 years and recently moved into a studio here as well. I think a lot of people in creative fields live in Brunswick, probably because it’s such an eclectic community. We love the restaurants, cafes, bars, the mediterranean grocers and spice shops.

Over the years, we’ve managed to persuade a lot of our friends to move here too! While it’s changing rapidly, it still has the character that attracted us here and that it’s known for. It’s such a great mix of industrial and residential, urban and suburban and of course it’s been the textile industry hub in Melbourne for many years so I feel it’s quite poetic that we’re living and working launching our own printing studio here as well.

What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Anada on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy… Their beautiful tapas make it one of our faves. We especially love the pork belly with eggplant puree… yum!

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Anywhere and everywhere! As our range is nature-inspired, we think it’s really important to use sustainable or recycled products where we can. We find timber for our reclaimed range wherever we can get our hands on it - we’re lucky that we get a lot of tip offs from Neil’s friends in the industry. Thanks to them, we recently scored a load of kauri timber from a beautiful 1880s bungalow in Hawthorn which we’ll use for our next range of reclaimed furniture.

Where would be find you on a typical Saturday morning?

At the studio usually, friends often drop by the studio to hang out or help or just bring coffees down to fuel the creative process.

Cushions by Bonnie and Neil... I wish you could see the cute striped piping!

When we’re not working, we hit the road and head out to country Victoria. Saturdays might find us combing the second-hand shops in Lake’s Entrance or Castlemaine.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Summer was a pretty well kept secret in Melbourne this year!

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