Donna Wilson - the Scots designer on how her homeland crafts her creativity

Donna Wilson and Cyril Squirrel Fox at home in London, as the designer prepares to bring her Creatures, ceramics and clothing to Scotland with a pop-up sample sale in Edinburgh this month. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Donna Wilson and Cyril Squirrel Fox at home in London, as the designer prepares to bring her Creatures, ceramics and clothing to Scotland with a pop-up sample sale in Edinburgh this month. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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From weirdy creatures to abstract homewares and a London base, Wilson’s evolving world always reflects her roots

Award-winning Scottish textile and product designer Donna Wilson is hitting the high road and heading home for the first time with a pop-up studio sample sale stuffed with her familiar woolly weirdy toy Creatures and ever expanding collection of homewares.

Wilson's newer work has taken a more abstract direction, especially in her ceramics and textiles, yet the palette of rural Aberdeenshire is still there as she re-connects with her roots

Wilson's newer work has taken a more abstract direction, especially in her ceramics and textiles, yet the palette of rural Aberdeenshire is still there as she re-connects with her roots

Gazing skelly-eyed and extra headed, the Creatures will be there, along with her popular ceramics, textiles, sweaters, accessories, as well as her new Spring Summer collection, T-shirts, scarves, skirts and wraps. Fans can take advantage of discounts on new and past collections, slight seconds and assorted one-offs from her 16 year archive.

Gazing skelly-eyed and extra headed, the Creatures will be there, along with her popular ceramics, textiles, sweaters, accessories, as well as her new Spring Summer collection, T-shirts, scarves, skirts and wraps. Fans can take advantage of discounts on new and past collections, slight seconds and assorted one-offs from her 16 year archive.

It’s appropriate that Wilson should be heading north as the 41-year-old designer from rural Aberdeenshire has always been inspired by her homeland, despite almost two decades in London. We’re not saying her hugely popular weirdy Creatures, from Peeping Tom to Puddle Man to Angry Ginger, directly reflect us, but growing up on a farm near Banff certainly gave her a love of animals that combined with her wry humour has resulted in Wilson producing a glorious array, from Cyril Squirrel Fox to the four eared, two headed Bunny Blue. The palette of Aberdeenshire is there too, the vibrant colours of the vast skies and seas and rolling farmland, as is a legacy of crafting in the textures and techniques, felting, knitting, sewing.

“It’s exciting to be able to come up and see the customers face to face,” she says. “Hopefully the knitwear will go well, with it being a tiny bit colder and people being more outdoorsy, and we’ll be bringing lots of weird creatures and odd things you won’t see anywhere else.” With the emphasis firmly on odd, but in a good way.

Wilson created Selkie Seal for the V&A in Dundee

Wilson created Selkie Seal for the V&A in Dundee

“My Creatures have always been such a strong thing and I’ve realised it’s because they’re so different, like one-offs, depending on who’s stitching on the eyes – they’ve got character, a homemade element and that’s the appeal. When I’m designing them I place the eyes in different places to see the expressions changing, and that’s what gives the humour.

“And they’ve got a kind of nostalgic feeling about them so you feel a bit sorry for them. My work is quite graphic and the colours a bit odd, and I think people appreciate that it’s still made in the UK. It’s not about mass producing something, more about producing something people will hold onto and make it last because they love it.”

Ask about inspiration and Wilson mentions Scandinavian textile and ceramic designer Stig Lindberg and American Alexander Girard. If money were no object she’d love a Vitra Polder sofa by Hella Jongerius, but she avoids looking too much at other designers’ work in order to avoid being influenced by it, preferring to plough her own furrow.

“I did buy a Stig Lindberg bowl in Stockholm,” she says, “and it’s kept up very high, away from the kids. Although they’re climbers, they can get into anything. They’ve broken SO many things now. Oh God.”

Wilson's quirky Creatures have been a hit since her degree show at the Royal College of Art. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Wilson's quirky Creatures have been a hit since her degree show at the Royal College of Art. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

If her inspiration is not other designers, but from the natural world, the genesis of the Creatures can perhaps be found in a grey, once pink, flannel teddy called Ted, which Wilson has had since childhood. He now resides with her in London after being posted down from Scotland by her mother when the twentysomething designer was suffering an episode of anxiety and is still Wilson’s ‘save in the event of a fire’ possession.

“Someone made him and my aunty thought he looked sad, so I distinctly remember her sewing a little smile on him, so he would be a bit happier.” She laughs. Sounds like the kind of thing Donna Wilson would do. “He’s only got one eye now,” she says, but doesn’t mention sewing on another eye. She clearly likes him that way.

Usually when Wilson heads north it’s to her parents’ farm near Banff, where she revels in giving her two boys, Elie, six, and Logie, three, a 
taste of the freedom she enjoyed as 
a child.

“I’m like ‘come on, you must like bales, get up on that!’ And they’re, ‘I don’t want to mummy’. I’m, ‘Go on, you’re fine! Get up there! Jump off! It’s good for you,’” she laughs.

“I didn’t know any different but I was always outside, making mud pies, playing with the animals and nature, running around the farm, going to the beach. And yeah, that’s in my heart and I’m happiest when I’m actually up in Scotland, just walking through the fields.”

Not that Wilson isn’t positively influenced by her current metropolitan milieu, and credits London with adding its own colour to her creativity as well as enabling her to network and develop her business.

“When I was at art school in Aberdeen my work was completely different: greens and grey-browns, farmy things, and my lecturer Charlie Hackett would say you need a blue plastic bag on that earthy bit for contrast. I couldn’t get it. Then I got to London and I must have been exposed to much more colour, the shops and galleries, and from that point my work changed and got brighter. There are the same bright greens in the seaweed in Pennan that you will see in London, but in London it’s an artificial colour and in Scotland it’s natural.

“I’ve thought about moving back so many times, but my roots are here now too, my family. And I love London, it’s full of opportunity and I don’t think I’d be as successful as I am now without being here because of the people you meet and opportunities you get. But yeah, I always have that romantic idea of maybe one day…”

After studying at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, Wilson left Scotland to study mixed-media textiles at the Royal College of Art, then stayed, setting up a studio workshop in East London in 2003. It’s there among the washing lines filled with fabric, samples and documents that she and her team of eight knit, sew and despatch, with a further nationwide team of knitters from Orkney to the Borders, and across the UK producing her designs.

Wilson found success with her oddly-shaped toys, inspired by medical textbooks that featured conjoined twins and gigantism, and admits that there is nothing she likes better than off-beat.

Wilson grew up painting in rural Aberdeenshire, before she discovered machine knitting at art school. Picture: 'Debra Hurford Brown

Wilson grew up painting in rural Aberdeenshire, before she discovered machine knitting at art school. Picture: 'Debra Hurford Brown

“To me, nothing is ever weird enough, actually. Recently I did two dogs and put them on Instagram for people to vote for their favourite. There was a weirder one called Donkey Dog and one with a smile that looked more conventional. Everyone loved the conventional one and I was really sad because I liked Donkey Dog more. In the beginning I would just have done Donkey Dog anyway, but now I think maybe I should do the one most people would buy,” she says, then adds, “I think I’m still going to do a few Donkey Dogs for people like me.”

Over the years Wilson has collaborated with big brands including John Lewis, Mamas & Papas and LeSportsac and seen her designs adorn the British Embassy and last Christmas the Hermès store in Paris in the form of a series of huge knitted horses. This year her Selkie the Seal bobbed up in the V&A in Dundee, a bespoke creation for the new museum, and along the way, she’s racked up a string of awards, her favourite being the Designer of the Year at Elle Decoration’s British Design Awards in 2010.

“I think that’s when people really started taking me seriously in the design world,” she says. “Up to that point I had just been doing what I love doing and I REALLY had no idea I was going to win that, so it was amazing. I was just doing something that was really different.”

Being a bit different has always been the Wilson way so after generating a following for her distinctive designs and seeing them march on the high street, and branching out into jumpers and fashion, it makes sense that the distinctive designer decided to change tack.

“I’ve stuck with what worked for a long, long time, and recently started to feel I’ve not moved it on enough. Last year I had a bit of an epiphany at a trade show when I thought ‘Oh god, I’m not standing out as much as I used to’, there are a lot of things with a similar aesthetic.

“In the beginning it was really important for me to be different, but as you find out what people want, you start producing that. So I felt I needed to take a few risks, try and evolve, but also get back to my roots, my core.”

With the desire to reconnect with her creativity and the need for head space to play around with ideas, she headed north to the Aberdeenshire coast.

“I put the kids to my mum and dad’s and went to Pennan for three days. That’s where my granny used to take me when I was young so it’s got a lot of emotional feelings connected to it. I got a little cottage and just went for walks and picked up stones, not pushing myself. The side-on houses, that one house with the cliff wrapped round it as if it’s hugging it, the skies and the sea, it’s just so peaceful. I’ve always looked at colour and the sky and the space, and the light up in Aberdeenshire is so different from here. And when I go up there – I’ve probably got a bit of ‘the grass is greener’ – I love it, and everything does look so green. And harvest time is one of my favourites, everything’s golden and there’s that feeling in the air – exciting.”

“Nothing happened while I was there, but when I got back to London, in the evenings when the kids were in bed I started to draw and paint again, experimenting with colour and it was REALLY nice. I thought ‘I haven’t done this for ages!’. And that’s where the new stuff came from, more abstract, more about colour and shape and form, cushions, ceramics, almost sculptures.”

As well as the abstracts, Wilson has been experimenting with making furniture, picking up a jigsaw, sander and fretsaw, courtesy of her partner Jon, a designer, mainly of furniture.

“I’m just having a play and seeing where it takes me. Let’s see what happens. Luckily I’ve not lost any fingers yet.”

As well as taking her granddaughters to Pennan – Wilson has a younger sister who also had the creative gene – Granny Wilson taught them to draw and paint.

“She was brilliant, an inspiration. She’d set up still lifes for us then get them framed and sell them at local art shows. We were like, ‘oh, you can make money from selling your work?’ That was around the age of nine or ten,” and a life-lesson that stuck.

Their grandmother also tried to teach the girls to crochet and knit, but Wilson “just found it really boring and slow, so when I went to art school and got into machine knitting, I found that so instant, fun and exciting.”

Another legacy of her rural upbringing is the financial nous of her father the farmer, whose lessons Wilson has never forgotten. When hard times hit the high street and the big name stores moved on Wilson was ready.

“When I wanted to appeal to a wider audience we did towels and bed linen for high street shops, and were in John Lewis for a long time which was great, but what happens with everybody is they decide they can do their own version, and you just have to move on. My dad had taught me the basics of business, like ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket Donna’ so when the bigger companies stopped working with us, we were fine.

“The other thing he said to me at the beginning was, ‘just make sure you’re selling your products for more than you’re making them for’. I said, ‘well, of course’ then I realised I was making this tea cosy with loads of pompoms and every time I sold it I made minus five pounds! So I stopped that one. It doesn’t matter what the business is, the basics are the same.”

Even as she moves into what she might describe as more grown up territory, Wilson’s childhood comes through and the Creatures continue, most recently in the guise of a new 40cm long stuffed sheep. “I love that part of it, but I kind of want to have this balance of the grown up stuff and the fun stuff too,” she says.

“I had a black sheep when I was growing up – her mum had died and we reared her and she followed me around. She was called Black Sheep, such an original name,” Wilson laughs. Renamed Woolma, the toy sheep is stuffed with the lambswool fibre made up from scraps left over from other products and is part of Wilson’s commitment to avoiding the use of plastics. Shunning the mass produced, she’s about creating smaller numbers of things that people collect and treasure, aware of the story and skills behind them.

“There’s definitely a resurgence towards craft and not mass-production any more,” says Wilson, “but it’s not just about the old skills, it’s about how can you look forward and create new skills. Our world is really changing and we’ve got to push the boundaries and think differently. That’s how we evolve and design our way out of problems. It’s an over-statement, but with design and creativity, you really can change the world.

“I’m not sure what’s next because it’s a bit unknown, but it will be more high end, sculptural. And it’s going to be a bit different.”

We wouldn’t expect anything else.

@JanetChristie2

Donna Wilson Pop-Up Sample Sale, Friday 28-Saturday 29 June, 10am-5pm and Sunday 30 June, 11am-4pm, Custom Lane, 1 Customs Wharf, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6AL, customlane.co

www.donnawilson.com