Bonnie and Neil
Combining talents in art, floristry and textiles, furniture and set design, this Melbourne-based studio creates collections that are now sold around the world. Handmade using traditional techniques and using premium materials, each item is unique.
“Bonnie and Neil's spirited designs bring nature into your living spaces - you can't help but feel happy around them.”Nadine Bush Creative director
For someone who was once embarrassed about working as a florist, Bonnie Ashley, of Melbourne textile and homewares brand Bonnie and Neil, has made an art – and successful business – of it.
“Floristry was always a bit of a sideline for me. I got my first after-school job when I was 13 in a florist shop, in Gore, a small town on the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. I carried on there all the way through school, learning on the job.”
Even when Bonnie went to college to study textiles, floristry was the way she made ends meet. “To be honest, I was always a bit embarrassed about being a florist. It was something I did until I could make money making textiles or until I could become an artist. Textiles was always the direction I wanted to go, and even when Neil [Downie, her partner] and I were travelling together, I still did work as a florist.”
They finally settled in Melbourne “because although neither of us had been there, we really liked the ‘idea’ of it”.
It wasn’t until Bonnie and Neil started their eponymous label that she realised how much of an influence floristry was – and still is – on her work. “What’s interesting is that I’ve since discovered that there are so many textile designers who are also florists and vice versa. It’s all about pattern and colour and texture and balance.”
They had met at design school, where Neil, originally from Scotland, was studying art and design. He then went on to do his apprenticeship in furniture-making. They had always collaborated on mixed-media pieces, such as printing on timber, but it took a while to start a business together.
“I was always a little cautious about it, although Neil was really keen. I had a design job, but knew I didn’t want to do it for anyone else for long – I wanted creative freedom, and to own my work.
“For the first two years we worked seven days a week, 11 hours a day. We would do everything – printing, answering the phone, taking orders. For the first year while we were getting set up, Neil was also working another job, then he’d come home and help me in the studio.
“I remember how nerve-wracking it was doing our first trade show. Would anyone place an order? But we got such a great response from the start; it was really exciting doing our own thing.”
So, back to the flowers. “The seasons play a massive part in inspiring my designs. When a certain flower comes out, I get excited: ‘‘Oh, rhododendrons are my favourite flower’. Then the peonies come into bloom and and they’re the favourites!”
Fashion plays a big part, too. “Fashion was originally where I wanted to direct my career; not homewares. But food (I love cooking), art, textiles – particularly historical textiles – are all big influences. At the moment I’m loving the textiles of the 1930s and 40s. I’ve just got an amazing book on Russian textiles of the 1920s and they’re stunning. I have a lot of vintage pieces and clothing, which inspire me, too.”
Bonnie and Neil produce two textile collections, as well as some limited-edition artworks, tableware and a few furniture pieces. “We outsource very little. That’s the thing we love about it – we get to do every process in-house: we strip our own screens, engrave our own screens, shoot them, print and fix everything. We do have our own makers who collect the fabric and make up pieces off-site, but everything is really local, and we still do most of it ourselves.”
The furniture-making is still Neil’s department, and he now also trains the printers, working alongside them.
“They’re all guys, which I love, because they stand around, putting all the flowers in the right spots. They have a really great eye for it. Some of our cushions are just printed as is, but for pieces like our tablecloths, all the flowers, all the elements, are printed individually, so no two cloths are the same. They’re all quite considered as they’re being printed, which is quite different from a yardage printer, who’ll just print lengths and lengths of fabric. It’s all very hands-on.”
The trajectory to success since they launched seven years ago has been swift. “So many exciting things have happened to us. Getting stocked in Liberty, for instance, in 2016, was such a pinch-me moment. I’d been there while I was in London before we did a trade show in Paris, and I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing one day…’. And they arrived at our stand on the first day and said, ‘We’re so happy to find you; we love your work.’ They already knew about us. It was incredible! It’s such a beautiful store.”
Bonnie and Neil is now sold through Le Bon Marché in Paris, as well as stores in Germany, Ireland, the US, Canada and the Middle East.
“I remember we got this huge order from a store in Kuwait – two pallets of tiles, the biggest we’d ever had – and I’m afraid I thought it was a hoax. So I sent an invoice, which basically said we’d ship as soon as we received payment. And of course they paid immediately, and we said, ‘Now we have to make it all!’ It was about 1000 tiles – a ridiculous amount.
“We’ve done a bit of work on a couple of hotel projects, and it’s fantastic seeing our pieces in that sort of space. It’s great thinking of different techniques that are going to be unique for a particular space and creating bespoke artwork.”
The pair produces artworks in editions of 10, as well as others that are made to order. For the photographic pieces, Bonnie will arrange the flowers in a vase and create a setting for them, then shoot them. For others, some of the elements will be photographed, then put on a screen, with each flower being printed individually. “It’s much like composing a floral arrangement.
“All that floristry work has come full circle. I think it used to be considered daggy, which is probably why I was embarrassed about it; whereas now, it’s become an art form. I’m not really drawn to the Japanese, minimalist style of flower-arranging, though. I like things to be more abundant, wild and unrestrained – more like how things grow.”read less