The Woolly Wonderland of Donna Wilson
Donna Wilson's imagination runs wild. In her studio in East London, the textile and product designer, who has been named "Designer of the Year" at Elle Decoration’s British Design Awards, creates cuddly cashmere creatures and designer objects from richly textured sofas and plush cushions to hip-cute bowls and plates to the planet's most darling socks.
The artist and craftswoman's continuous outpour of creativity began very early in her life, on her parents’ farm in the beautiful countryside of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Encouraged and inspired by her grandmother, young Donna soon found her happy place in an old hen-house that became a cabin of crafts.
Her unbounded passion for making things with her hands and her love for art and design impelled Wilson to attend the Royal College of Art in London. It was there she knitted her first creatures and began selling them to local shops in the city.
These days, she greatly enjoys turning a 1860 cottage into a home for her little boys, Eli and Logie, and her partner, Jon. And she is busy designing a new collection of woolly woodland creatures, furniture, homewares, clothing, and so many more designer goods she now sells all over the world, with help from her team of craftspeople.
A conversation with Donna Wilson
What is your vision for your brand?
To create a wooly wonderland where patterns and color collide and imagination is free to run wild. It’s important to me that people can relate to the creatures and products, and that they evoke emotion — maybe a feeling of nostalgia, sentimentality, or happiness. Even if they just induce a smile, I feel I have done my job.
Where did the inspiration for your woolly wonderland come from?
I grew up on a farm, so I'm very familiar with natural landscapes. In my work, I find it very exciting to be able to replicate textures found in nature using wool and to try to mimic textures like moss, bark, and stone. It still amazes me that you can create a fabric from a bit of yarn.
"I find it very exciting to be able to replicate textures found in nature using wool and to try to mimic textures like moss, bark and stone."
My inspirations do come from all over the place — the landscape, music, dreams, magazines, ceramics, people, Scandinavian design. Sometimes, I just see a tiny snippet of something, which triggers an idea that is then developed into a product.
How would you describe your design style?
I try not to look at trends too much and try to keep focused on creating original designs that are distinctively colorful, graphic, and figurative, with a nod to traditional crafts and a pinch of whimsy.
What does quiet design mean to you?
It’s a reaction to the bombardment of images, products, and design we see on social media. Quiet design is more of a classic, true, folksy take on design.
What is your legacy (for now)?
It’s very important to me to promote local manufacturing and to help keep British craftsmanship alive. There’s too much disposability in products and consumer goods nowadays, and it’s environmentally irresponsible. I believe that if you have something that is handmade and is somehow more special than something made carelessly or mass-produced, you’re more likely to keep it for years, instead of throwing it away. I want to make things that people use, keep, and treasure for years.
"It’s very important to me to promote local manufacturing and to help keep British craftsmanship alive."
"I want to make things that people use, keep, and treasure for years."
What’s your favorite place in the world?
A few years ago, I was invited to design some furniture and wallpaper for a boutique inn that was being build on Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. We went as a small group of designers and stayed in an original Fogo Island house together. It was winter, and the snow was so deep it covered the cars. We drank gin-and-tonics with ice from 10,000 year old icebergs! We saw caribou and took a skidoo to remote places. The whole experience has really stuck with me and inspired my work.
"We drank gin-and-tonics with ice from 10,000 year old icebergs! We saw caribou and took a skidoo to remote places. The whole experience has really stuck with me and inspired my work."
Describe your dream home...
Amazingly, we live in a detached cottage with gardens and allotments surrounding it, which is pretty rare in London. It's an old building, built in 1860, and we are taking out time getting it the way we want, gradually. I'm really enjoying making this house our home. It's a lovely little house.
What does “home” mean to you?
Home is a place to have fun, make memories, play, make things, and relax. We have recently moved into our new house, so I am so aware of how much my home means to me, now more than ever. As I am finding places for my belongings, it feels like it is becoming our home more and more. A person’s home is so unique to them. We shouldn’t be afraid to express ourselves through our own decor and style. It might not be as obvious as what we wear — it’s more of a personal thing, and only our close friends get to see our homes.
"We shouldn’t be afraid to express ourselves through our own decor and style."
What’s more important to you in life?
My boys. Before having children, I could never have imagined how much these little people would mean to me. It has changed everything, and strangely, I am less stressed than I used to be. I think, I put things in proportion in life.
When are you happiest?
When I’m being creative. There’s noting better than having a day just to play, make, design, and produce lots of ideas, then finally you get something you like. It’s the best feeling in the world.
"There’s noting better than having a day just to play, make, design, and produce lots of ideas, then finally you get something you like. It’s the best feeling in the world."
Who is your design icon?
I like Alexander Girard, Stig Lindberg... and my grandma! Another designer I admire is Hella Jongerius. I love the sofa she did for Vitra a long time ago, with odd buttons. I’d never seen anything like this, and I love the way she uses textiles and color a lot in her work. Her designs are clever and thoughtful and have that human element.
Who inspired you to be the person you are?
My grandmother. She encouraged me to be creative and work with my hands, She was always trying to teach me things, like how to knit and crochet. I started being creative at quite a young age. I was always drawing and making things and was always happiest with a pencil in my hand. As a child, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grow up, but I knew it was going to be something to do with art and design. Now that I’m a mother, I’m inspired to encourage creativity in my kids and love seeing them getting all messy and using their imaginations.
"I started being creative at quite a young age. I was always drawing and making things and was always happiest with a pencil in my hand."
What is your life philosophy?
Do what you love and love what you do.
What are you working on right now?
We are working on the new collection for spring and summer 2017. We’re developing some new designs for ceramics and glassware. We are just about to launch our autumn/winter collection at the trade shows this month. I’m really happy with it, and there are lots of fresh, new products, like odd cashmere creatures and bamboo fiber picnic ware. We also have some special creative projects in the pipeline. △