Conversations // Donna Wilson

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Do you like cute things with stories, do you like happy odddity, and do you like to smile? If you do then you will love Donna Wilson’s creative cuddly creatures. The wildly successful personalities have been stamped onto homewares, furnishings, jewellery and toys and even life-sized Giant Creatures that recently took a tour of Singapore as part of the K+ Donna Wilson exhibition. K+ is an exhibition platform at Scotts Square on until end-August, curated by local design studio Kinetic and featuring “artists that peddle the extraordinary, tickle the imaginations, brands that stand out from the bland.”

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Donna Wilson’s fascinating world is the latest and current exhibition. Also on display are brooches from the Donna Wilson x The little dröm store collaboration (the pretty little art and design store in the underbelly of the School of the Arts). Donna was kind enough to answer some questions about building her brand, motherhood and her dreams for little son—just in time for Mother’s Day!

Donna Wilson by Carmel King January 2014 2_edited

Photo credit: Carmel King

Hi Donna, can you share some favourite memories from your childhood that were important to you in shaping your current career?

Since quite a young age, I knew I wanted to spend my days doing something in art/design. I was always drawing and making things, and was always most happy with a pencil in my hand, and I was very much influenced by my granny. She was very inspiring and always encouraged my sister and I to draw and look at things really closely. She taught me how to draw and paint, and she tried to teach me to knit and crochet when I was really young. In fact, my granny was a bit of an amateur artist herself, so she would get our little doodles and drawings framed and then would sell them in local art shows in the nearest town. So from quite an early age I realised that you could sell your work and make money from it.

 How big is your team and can you share more about the kinds of people that you work with? Do you do all the illustrations and designs or do you have help for that? What are the biggest challenges about creating your products?

It’s taken over 10 years and now we have built up to a team of seven. We are a pretty creative bunch of women! I still remember working on my own when I first started out, and I did everything from designing, making, packing orders, press, and going to the post office. It was more of a lifestyle than a job. I loved those days but I wouldn’t want to go back to that now. I really love our team, and everyone has different skills to offer so that we run an efficient working studio. I still do the designing, and it’s the hardest thing to communicate what I want, as most of the work is done by trying things out and seeing what works. I don’t want to lose the signature personality of our style.

Where does ‘cute’ and ‘whimsical’ stand in the world of contemporary design where cool and cultured often takes the attention?

I never see my work as too cute, but a sense of humour and whimsy is definitely there. It’s important to me that people can relate to the creatures, and that the creatures evoke emotion—maybe a feeling of nostalgia, sentimentality, or happiness. Even if they just induce a smile, I feel I have done my job. We see so much design now; I try to make my products stand out with their warmth and distinctive personality.

 Your products definitely have an endearing quality! You are from Scotland but are now based in London. What peculiarities about each of these two cities that you are fond of and would like your child to experience?

I still feel very Scottish even though I’ve been in London for the last 15 years. I think my heart will always be there. I love the light, the countryside and I really want my children to get a bit of that in their lives. I’m constantly encouraging my son to go outside in the garden so nature becomes a part of his life. The city, especially London, is so rich in culture with exciting things to see, people, places, shows, etc. so I’m happy he’s getting the best of both worlds…it’s so different from where I grew up. I spent so much time playing outside making mud pies and potions in the garden; I hope that he does things like that too. But at the same time, I think the thing I like best about London is the openness to creative ideas, and people doing their own thing.

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 As part of the K+ Donna Wilson exhibition, your Giant Creatures had a tour of town. In the photographs, they looked like they had fun in Singapore.

The photos were taken by the team at Kinetic / K+ Singapore. I was so impressed by their photos, and they made me laugh so much. They definitely have come to life and had a really great time. You start to believe that they are real people on holiday! 

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How did your collaboration with The little dröm store come about? Which is your favourite brooch?

Since they are Donna Wilson stockists, it came about quite naturally…they make so many fun things and I like their playful curatorial approach to their shop. We’ve worked with them a long time so it was a continuation of our collaboration, just in a different way. My favourite is the weird pink bear-man; I always like the less commercial ones!

 From your collection, do you have a favourite creature?

It’s hard to have favourites as they are all like my children! I still love some of the first ones I ever made. They were a bit stranger, like Edd Red Head, who had a huge red head and tiny body, and was super intelligent but disliked sports. Now my favourite would be Cyril as he has become a kind of icon and has so much personality. He’s even appeared on television.


Cyril the squirrel fox; photo credits of above images: Playground

Cyril the squirrel fox; photo credits of above images: Playground

 How has becoming a mother influenced your design, if it has?

Since becoming a mother a couple years ago, I have been asked to design a buggy for Mamas & Papas and children’s clothing for John Lewis. As a mother now I do feel like I have first-hand experience shopping with a mother’s perspective and I can design knowing what mothers might look for when shopping for their children. Naturally I do pay more attention to children’s clothing and toys as I consider what I would want for my own little boy and have found myself making jumpers and toys that I know my son would like. When it comes to products for our own brand I like to try to offer something different from what’s in the shops already, like keeping the odd colour combinations and playful narrative.

How have your daily rituals changed as a full-time designer and a mother? Can you share what a typical day for you is like?

It’s changed dramatically as I was a bit of a workaholic before having my son. Now my time to work is so limited, but I feel that as a result I have managed to step back a bit from the daily routine and see where I want things to go more clearly. Also it’s made me delegate and let go of more, which I think has been a good thing. I really enjoy the balance of being a working mum, and now work four days a week in the studio and have weekends, evenings and Tuesdays with my son.

What are your passions and how do you aspire to share them with your child?

My love for nature and animals, being creative and pushing things on, making things with my hands, colour and pattern, and working with small factories and manufacturers in the UK. My partner and I are always really encouraging my son to play and make things, be outside and the not to watch too much TV! But I guess he will make his own way, and that’s fine!

Lastly, please continue this sentence: play to me is:

Using your imagination and not sticking to any rules; play should be free and fun and you should never stop playing!

 Thanks Donna, and Happy Mother’s Day! 

The K+ Donna Wilson exhibition will be on at Scotts Square, #03-14/15 until 31 May 2015. 

+ images courtesy of K+/Kinetic unless otherwise stated.




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