Donna Wilson's homely textiles
Her knitted animals and patterned cushions enjoy international recognition, but Scottish textile designer Donna Wilson is keen to keep her homespun ethos intact.
Welcome to the curious, woolly world of designer Donna Wilson, creator of these, and many more, whimsical knitted Creatures. Unlike conventional cuddly toys, these are misshapen, oddly coloured and occasionally grotesque, inspired by watching the way children draw: with no preconceived ideas, but plenty of skewed scale and perspective.
'It doesn't matter if they have five legs or eight pairs of eyes, it just adds to their charm. I wanted to capture the joy and humour of that naivety. I think people find them refreshing,' she says. Wilson's creations are all individually handmade, which makes each one unique; some are happy, some grumpy, some mischievous.
In similar vein, she produces a range of cushions for John Lewis that are every bit as quirky as her signature Creatures, with a Scandinavian, folksy feel. There's a racoon, a snail, a fox, monkey and bird, each with their own inimitable personality. 'I'm working on a new Creature, too, exclusively for John Lewis, which is really exciting,' she reveals.
Although Wilson's products now sell in 25 countries, she is determined not to turn to the Far East for manufacture. 'Keeping production in the UK allows me to have more control over what I do, and also feel like I'm doing my tiny bit to support our economy.'
She hails from a farm in the rural north east of Scotland, which, she says, was 'a bit drafty, but my mother was always decorating it and she had a very good colour sense'. She studied at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen and then at the Royal College of Art in London. From the start, she knew she wanted to run her own business, and while still a student, started selling knitted dolls to a London design shop. 'I walked in with six – part of a college project – and they bought all of them on the spot. After that they ordered 20 a month and they cost £20 each, which basically paid my rent through college.'
Her big break came when she took part in a design show in Japan after graduating in 2003. By the time she got home, orders – particularly for the weirder characters – had started to pour in.
Aside from her own imagination and the drawings of the under-fives, Wilson cites the Italian-American textile designer Alexander Girard as an early influence. 'I like his colours and prints, and the fact that he, too, worked in different media,' she says. Scandinavian design is another passion, and Scotland has also left its mark. '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.' But Wilson says her biggest inspiration was her grandma. 'She taught me to draw and paint, and showed me how to really look at things.'
Wilson's work was officially recognised late last year when she won the Elle Decoration British Designer of the Year award. It will doubtless be the first of many gongs to adorn her mantelpiece. But while her success continues to follow a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory, Wilson admits her ultimate ambition is to be able to live back in her homeland. 'That would be my goal – to have a little studio in Scotland, somewhere overlooking the sea.'
This feature originally appeared in the summer 2011 issue of Edition magazine.