Her misshapen, odd-coloured and sometimes unrecognisable woollen cuddly 'toys' have captured hearts the world over. Now she's won the British Designer of the Year award. Meet Scottish success story Donna Wilson
AS WELL as being a knitwear producer's busiest time of year, winter has brought extra challenges for Scottish design star Donna Wilson. "One of our knitters at the factory in Galashiels has just phoned; the snow's so heavy he doesn't think a van will get through to pick up the work," says Wilson, a 33-year-old farmer's daughter from Banff, who's just been crowned British Designer of the Year 2010 in the prestigious Elle Decoration awards. The cold weather – which increases demand for her covetable wool blankets, knitted on six machines at one of the few remaining Borders textile factories – is also slowing down their production. To top it all, Wilson's got a hacking cough – but, being a tough Scot who trained in the Granite City, she bashes on regardless.
The current fashion for simple yet quirky woollen accessories is largely inspired by this designer's vision. Among her current nature-themed collection are skinny scarves knitted to look like foxes, flamingos, sausage dogs and tree trunks, with hats and mittens as snowy mountain peaks. Cushions come in the shape of rain clouds, and lavender bags as the moths they're designed to repel.
But it is her cuddly "toys" for which Donna Wilson, a graduate of Aberdeen's Gray's School of Art and the RCA in London, has garnered acres of glowing press coverage, and buyers on several continents.
These are not sweet-looking teddy bears and dolls aimed at children, but misshapen, odd-coloured, sometimes unrecognisable creatures that often border on the macabre. Yet the likes of Angry Ginger, Terry and Tina the Siamese twins, and Cannibdoll have captured hearts and sell to all ages, everywhere, from Edinburgh's tiny Moleta Munro boutique to the Isetan department store in Tokyo. What does it say about us that we have so engaged with these weird little beings?
"I think it acknowledges that we know we're not perfect, we all have our quirks and different characteristics – and that's what we love about them," Wilson says. "Or maybe we just feel sorry for them! Also, I think people find them refreshing compared to the mass-produced, Barbie-type dolls. The fact that they are all individually made by hand makes every one unique; some are happy, grumpy or mischievous." She gives each toy personal idiosyncracies, inscribed on a tag: Peanut is shy and needs coaxing out of his shell; Puddle Man whistles when it rains. "It's fun trying to name them," she says. "I stare at them, thinking, 'What would you like?'"
The Designer of the Year award has delighted her, she says. "I was so surprised. I've gone to the ceremony for years, hoping I'll win something, but I never have till now. And I got the top prize – but there was no ceremony this time, so I missed my moment on the podium. It was great getting a page in Elle Decoration, though, and it's definitely boosted sales."
This week Wilson and her team – four full-time staff in the studio, plus a few seasonal workers taken on to fulfil Christmas orders – are working long days in their chilly east London studio, which is cosily stuffed with coloured yarns, rolls of fabric and woolly creatures – but has no central heating – putting their all into meeting customer demand. "We keep thinking orders must start to slow down for this winter, but that doesn't seem to be happening."
Needles are clicking from Orkney to Wales in order to meet demand, because Wilson's wares are all made and hand-finished in the UK, mostly in Scotland. "There's Elaine in Orkney, who's worked with me for six or seven years," Wilson says. "She makes the best Cyril Squirrels, about 40 a week." The company's growing fast – there are 150 stockists in 25 countries – but Wilson is determined to hang on to her homespun ethos and not turn to the Far East for manufacture.
It's a proper Scottish success story, and Donna Wilson is certainly not struggling to survive despite a cold retail climate. It may have something to do with a work ethic planted in childhood: Wilson and her younger sister inherited a love of art from their grandmother, a talented amateur painter who taught her granddaughters "to draw and to really look closely at things". She sold her creations at craft fairs in Aberdeenshire, "so I always knew it was possible to earn money from what I made".
Her style may be founded on pure whimsy, but the key to Wilson's success is that she's also a grafter and a saleswoman. Right now the working day starts at 8:30am in the studio close to Wilson's home off historic Brick Lane – where the Huguenot silk weavers set up workshops in the late 1600s – and ends at 6pm, though Wilson says: "I usually carry on after the others have gone for the day; when it's your own business it becomes your life. I sometimes come in at weekends, too. I don't begrudge it, because it makes me happy. My creative side never really switches off. I can be out shopping or at an art exhibition and always thinking of new themes. I watch TV in the evenings, but even then I'll have a notebook beside me."
Wilson's eccentric aesthetic was refined during her MA studies in mixed media textiles at the Royal College of Art, to which she applied after working for a couple of years at London textile firms following her 1999 graduation from Gray's. Apart from her vivid imagination and general love of oddity, an early influence was Alexander Girard, she says (the late Italian-American textile designer, who had a prolific career from the 1950s to the 70s). "I like his colours and prints; also the fact that he too worked in different media." She also cites Scandinavia, whose aesthetic she adores, despite having not yet been there, and Scotland for her love of nature. "It definitely inspired me – the trees, the colours, the spontaneity of line. When I left Gray's my work was all about the shades and textures of rural landscapes. I grew up on a farm, where my parents and teenage brother still live, and spent a lot of time outdoors." Her parents encouraged their dreamy, artistic daughter to pursue her ambition of becoming a designer, "even though they didn't really understand what I was aiming for till they saw my work appearing in magazines".
She credits her RCA art tutor Freddie Robins for making her "more confident and pushy" in her work, which set her on the path to commercial success without compromising her unique style.
"The first dolls I made were pretty cute, and they sold, so she said, 'OK, you can do that – now challenge yourself.' I wanted to make less conventional-looking dolls, so I thought about kids' drawings, how they express themselves – it doesn't matter to them if they draw a cat with five legs or an extra-long neck. I wanted to capture the joy and humour of that navety."
She launched her business in London in 2003, with a single sewing machine, producing and selling her designs in tiny numbers. The intervening years have seen Wilson grow gradually but continually, to the point where she'll soon need a bigger studio, as the company has successfully expanded into furniture and ceramics. "I'd started thinking that the knitted stuff was too seasonal and it would be good to add another medium."
It was a leap that paid off. In November, the fashionable New York interiors store Future Perfect created a huge Donna Wilson display within its shop. A fairytale wooden "house" was furnished with her sofas, cushions, blankets, rugs, ceramics, trays and more. It is also testament to Wilson's talent that one of her best clients is the London designer furniture store SCP: celebrated for its sleek, high-end minimalist pieces, it cannot get enough of Wilson's woolly, bumpy signature style.
In the new year, Wilson and her team will take the new collection for spring – on which she's currently working – to the Maison & Objet home-decor trade show in Paris, at which she exhibits twice annually. After only seven years, Wilson has built an international profile and says herself "We can't get much bigger", but what is her ultimate ambition?
"To be able to live back in Scotland," she says, disarmingly. "I do wonder how important it is to be in London, even though it definitely helped me to get started. I'd have to make new contacts all over again, but that would be my goal – to have a little studio in Scotland, overlooking the sea."
• To see more of Donna's creations, visit donnawilson.com
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