I’m not a cool cat. Never have been. If I like something (or someone for that matter) I find it really hard to not be a total geek about it and wear my heart on my sleeve. This trait showed itself in all its glory when I made a certain discovery only last week.
No doubt you will be familiar with Deborah Bowness’ “Genuine fake bookshelf” wall coverings (if not, you can see the full range of products on her website here). It’s been in myriad interiors magazines, graced the walls of high-profile Designer Abigail Ahern’s London home, and has been imitated numerous times over. It (amongst the rest of Deb’s collection) is one of my most favourite and aspirational interior products. So, I hear you ask, what was my discovery? Just this: all Deb’s wallpapers are handmade in a small factory workshop just 8 miles from my home. My design heroine, Deb, is now officially a Local Treasure too. Gasp.
Naturally, being a blogger and design enthusiast I couldn’t just leave it there. I had to see if they were open to visitors. You can imagine my excitement when I got the all clear to pay a visit and write it up. Deep breaths. Here it is:
Bowness & Bowness’ workshop is tucked away down a quiet country lane just outside of York. Housed in an unassuming tin warehouse, the only thing letting me know I was heading in the right direction was a bunch of silk screens propped against the outside wall, and one of Deb’s “Utility Lamps” hung just inside the door. No sign, no fanfare. This is business.
I was greeted by Leigh. Leigh is the “other” Bowness; Deb’s sister. With a background in PR & Marketing, Leigh is just the balance the business needs to get the product “out there” and put meals on the table: “Deb would happily create all day long, but she knows we all need to earn a living” says Leigh. For seven years Deb ran the show on her own; designing, producing, marketing (exhibiting, travelling, accounting… sounds exhausting to me). Five years ago Leigh came on board and moved the production back to Yorkshire where the sisters grew up. “We’ve grown the business totally organically, never taking more people on board than we could afford, and never borrowing any money.” As I toured the workshop (read: snooped about) it became clear that this model has worked for them – evidenced by the number of samples and rolls about to head out the door to eager clients.
But more than that; this place is littered with personal touches. Second hand furniture picked up along the years, a series of canvasses produced for a friend’s wedding adorns the walls; the obligatory staff shed (every creative studio needs a shed). This place could only ever have grown organically, out of a passion and love for design. It’s about as far from corporate as you could get; it’s a real cottage industry, a craft.
As I got the low down on the production process, I realised these papers are more like mini works of art than your standard wall covering. It all became very clear why they don’t come at your standard high street price; each trompe l’oeil design is personally photographed by Deborah, then digitally printed in monochrome tones. After that, blocks of colour are added through screen printing, and the final touches are painstakingly added by hand with watercolours.
Even the equipment used throughout the process right down to the lightbox used to expose the silk screens has been purpose-built in situ. “We used to have certain parts of the process done externally”, says Leigh “then realised that we could get a better result bringing it in-house. We get to experiment more without worrying too much about the cost, and of course, we get to control the whole process more closely. Deb is a stickler for quality and detail!” I’m becoming more and more of a fan with every step.
With all the personal touches along the way, this is not something that is easily copied. Put it this way; you can spot an imitation a mile off. But what does it feel like to have your work ripped-off? “It is frustrating, but it’s not something that we can control. On the other hand, if nobody was copying it, that kinda sends a few signals. At least we know we’re doing something right!” Touché.
Shop the Deborah Bowness collection here
Even with Leigh’s input in the business, it can’t be easy balancing the creative side with selling the stuff. I wondered, had they ever been tempted to go down the high street route and get their products sold by a big brand? “Well”, says Leigh “I can’t say too much right now. We know that we have a vast following of people who really love the product, but who aren’t buying it because of the price.” [*ahem, that’s me she’s talking about.] “Let’s just say that we’re keen to make something more accessible and affordable. There are a few irons in the fire.” This is music to my ears. All I can say now is “watch this space”.