Now I’m all about bringing you something different on my interiors journey. Recently I had the great pleasure of meeting the very talented Charlotte Raffo of fabric design company, The Monkey Puzzle Tree, that has hit the textile industry by storm in the last year. Interiors About Town shares our conversation and gives you an insight into this innovative textile artist.
Interiors About Town – How did The Monkey Puzzle Tree get started?
Charlotte Raffo – I’ve always loved colour and pattern, and as a child designed elaborate colour schemes and friezes for my bedroom. In the mid 90’s I read an article about the Timorous Beasties’ subversive textile designs as a teenager, and felt very inspired, but never actually thought I’d be able to create something myself. Later when House of Hackney first brought out their over-the-top-florals following years of minimalism I really admired their bravery.
At University I studied Colour Chemistry, but on graduating was very lucky to get a job designing and formulating finishes on leather in a Leeds based tannery (which is sadly now closed). Whilst there I was allowed lots of creative freedom, working on patterns and finishes for brands from Camper to Louis Vuitton. In my next role as a Textile buyer at Mamas and Papas I worked with designers and product buyers, finding best way to make a beautiful product that was still functional.
What I really wanted was to be able to have complete creative freedom without sales figures and forecasts having too much of an influence. I believe this is the best way to come up with unique designs – not just ‘me too’ products. And although we do need to make money to pay the bills, that’s not the driving force behind anyone involved in the business – the design comes first.
Throughout my life I’ve met quite a few talented artists, and I thought it was such a waste of talent that they were struggling to make a living from their work. It was the artist Sarah Thornton, who I met through my children, who really gave me the idea for The Monkey Puzzle Tree in 2016. She said that she’d love to make her art into fabric but had no idea how to do it, and I thought ‘I could do that’.
IAT – So The Monkey Puzzle Tree is a collaboration of talented artists?
CR – Yes, The Monkey Puzzle Tree makes the best use of everyone’s resources. It’s very hard to be creative whilst having to run all the other aspects of a business, and this way I take that side on, along with the product development which plays to my strengths, and also means that I can pull from an amazing pool of talent without having to think up all the new ideas myself. Paying the artists a royalty works well for everyone – it means that I don’t have to invest money in the design to start with, but also, as I pay the development and stock costs, it’s very low risk for the artists.
IAT – What is the best part of what you do?
CR – I really love the variety. The best bit is finding a new artist and then coming up with a new design, imagining what technique and fabric or wallpaper will work best. An unexpected benefit has been the interesting and amazing people I’ve met, from new artists and craftspeople, to the interior designers and others setting up their own small business.
IAT – What or who inspires you?
CR – The inspiration always comes from the art. A traditional design house might set a brief, and the designer would work towards that. The way we work is by visiting the artists, looking at their work and finding something that really sparks our imagination, then finding a way to turn it into a beautiful product.
In the case of ‘Rita does Jazz’ by Sarah Thornton, the original was a very small watercolour painting, loosely sketched out onto a piece of hotel notepaper. We worked together to enlarge this and create the repeat using a colour photocopier, scissors, sellotape and a ruler. It’s an important to us that the original piece of artwork isn’t designed digitally – not to say we’re luddites, we do use technology where necessary. But I think that replicating that original craft as closely as possible gives the final designs an authentic feel. If you look carefully at the leopards in Alexis Snell’s ‘How the Leopard got his Spots’ velvet, you’ll see that there are 18 slightly different leopards, as we’re chosen to keep the irregularity in her original lino printing technique.
IAT – What are The Monkey Puzzle Tree’s values?
CR – Unique, beautiful, authentic
IAT – Where does The Monkey Puzzle Tree work take place?
CR – In my studio at Unity Business Centre in Leeds. It’s not the most glamorous location or building, but it’s a big space with enough room to have room sets, a cutting and design table and my lovely vintage desk, as well as our considerable stock of wallpapers, fabrics and cushions. The building staff are really helpful and there’s a lovely feeling of community with the other businesses which is really important when you work as a small business. Sometimes we meet for lunch or talk over problems whilst doing the washing up.
IAT – At the beginning of the year, so many creatives that I’ve spoken to fund it hard, with the dark mornings and cold weather, to find their ‘mojo’. What keeps you going throughout the year?
CR – I’m very lucky in that the way The Monkey Puzzle Tree works means that I have a never-ending supply of inspiration from the different artists I work with. In future we’d also like to be able to take on more artists (there’s a couple I have my eyes on), so we have the opposite problem – so many designs waiting to be realised, and not enough time to use them all!
IAT – Ok, give us an insight into what you think will be the next big thing in the industry
CR – We try to avoid being too trend led. For me it’s important that in the same way that a piece of good art is timeless, your interior should also be something that you love and that continues to inspire you for years to come.
This doesn’t necessarily have to mean buying into plain or ‘classic’. Personally I like to reference the design and era of the building, and be sympathetic to that rather than slavishly following a trend. People tend to think that the past was dull, but in my first house, a 1950’s semi, I discovered many of the rooms had the original wallpaper preserved under layers of Anaglypta. The toilet ceiling had been covered in a bold red paper dotted with black and white stars, with the walls in a large scale pink floral. It must have been stunning after the drabness of the 1940’s.
Using really unique designs, something completely different can mean that a look can’t be pinpointed to a specific time and therefore doesn’t date. In that sense we would like people to follow Vivienne Westwood when she said “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.”
IAT – What has been your greatest achievements?
CR – When you have your head down and are working, it can be hard to realise what you’ve achieved because you’re busy trying to fix the things that aren’t right yet. But if I think about it I’m so pleased and proud of our designs, they are like my children, I love them all as much as each other but each in completely different ways!
IAT – What’s coming next for The Monkey Puzzle Tree?
CR – This year we’re very excited to be showing at both Clerkenwell Design week and Decorex. We will be launching two new artists at Decorex, and creating a completely new look with innovative new wallpapers and fabrics.
If you like designs that are daring, innovative and certainly packs a punch, then keep a eye out for what this talented lady does next.
You can find Charlotte’s fabrics and wallpapers at https://themonkeypuzzletree.com
All photos courtesy of The Monkey Puzzle Tree.