A Design for Life
13th August 2019
Inspired by a passion for interiors and a huge desire to work for themselves, Abigail and Chris Willis decided to launch their Willis Bloom fabric and wallpaper business earlier this year – two years after meeting, getting married and having a baby. Abigail tells us all about their whirlwind, life-changing journey
My husband Chris and I first tiptoed around the idea of creating our fabric and wallpaper design in 2016. Chris’s background was in engineering and mine in marketing but I’d always been a creative person, happy to be drawing and painting when I had the time.
Then I had a milestone birthday – and an epiphany. I realised I wanted to give up my job in marketing, working long hours and trying to juggle childcare (we have five children aged two to 20 between us) and build a creative business of my own.
Designing fabric and wallpaper patterns seemed like an obvious route to go down given my ability to draw and natural love for interiors. In the early days a supplier we once had a meeting with said to me: “You’re a bit long in the tooth to be getting into interiors.”
I sat there in front of him eight months pregnant having just quit my old job and gave him a steely glare: you’re wrong, I thought to myself. Some life experience under one’s belt actually gives you confidence, key business skills and the maturity to make things happen. So his rather rude comment actually turned out to be the catalyst which spurred Chris and I on to pursue our dream.
During 2017-18 we completed our first collection and also moved house, got married, had a baby and built a website in preparation for our launch of Willis Bloom. So quite a busy time for us!
We also had to learn how to develop our designs into something tangible. Firstly we learned how to transform them into pattern repeats after some Illustrator and Photoshop training. We also visited specialised printers to understand the manufacturing process and did a lot of online research. We weren’t afraid to ask lots and lots of questions to find out everything we needed to know. The bottom line was that we knew we had a lot to learn.
We tested our designs on different fabrics and wallpapers, asked more questions, did more research and once we were happy with the results and fabric selections, we set about getting some really beautiful photography commissioned to show our designs in a room setting and to fuel our website and social media.
Having the photography done and our website going live made it all become very real. We never compromised on our original vision of using high quality materials in order to showcase our designs and the desire to have our environmental impact at the forefront of all our decision making.
‘Our daily commute is literally climbing two flights of stairs.We love that. Sometimes it’s just a step into the garden’
We digitally print all of our fabric, which uses much less water than traditional printing, so we are being kinder on the planet too.
We went live with our website at the end of December 2018 and quickly discovered it was a terrible time to launch an interiors business! We were aiming for September but a delay with the initial printing meant that everything, including the photography, got set back. The reality was this gave us time over Christmas to test the website live, get feedback and be really ready for relaunching in early 2019.
So much of this is new to us and takes far more brain power and energy than our previous jobs ever did! Financially too, it’s a massive shock losing decent salaries; and so holding your nerve until sales come in is incredibly difficult. People often talk about launching a new business being a ‘roller-coaster’ experience and there really is no better way to describe it. Sometimes it feels amazing, and at other times you’re dusting off your old CV just in case . . .
What you need more than anything is unfailing confidence in yourself and your products. Because we are a husband and wife team that helps too, as when one of us has a confidence wobble the other one is always there to bolster and cajole back into ‘we can do this’ mode. Working alone when you first become self-employed can feel really isolating if you’re used to working in a big team as in our previous careers so having someone to work closely with is brilliant.
Like so many people we’re now on our second careers and the more we talk to people the more we find others just like us. People who have worked crazily hard all through their twenties and thirties on a frantic career that takes everything and then they think ‘whoah! That’s enough’. We wanted to claim our lives back and put us and our family as the top priority. So we ditched the life-sapping careers (and proper salaries) and did just that. And you know what, it’s worth it. You need less ‘stuff’ than you think if you have a great family around you.
All our designs start off hand drawn by me and then we use a computer to create the pattern repeats and to develop additional colour ways. Drawing by hand is one of our core design principles. We like the charm and gentleness of something that is created by a person and not a pixel. We design and print all our collections here in the UK, so you also get the benefit of knowing that you are supporting local.
The fabric we use is gorgeous; we have selected high quality luxury linens, velvet and cotton fabrics designed to last so people know that their choices can be enjoyed in their homes for years to come.
We don’t want to fuel design fads, we want to help people create real homes with timeless prints which stand the test of time.
We now have nine fabric designs and four wallpaper collections in a number of colour ways. We print to order so everything can be carefully managed and checked. We can also colour-match a design to a customer’s existing colour scheme (think sofa, walls etc).
We aim to bring six more collections out every year and to gradually introduce cushions, lampshades and homewares, ceramics and affordable artwork too.
We have the flexibility to offer bespoke solutions, including three different wallpaper widths, alternative base fabric options and customised designs to match clients’ existing colour themes to make them fit in their home perfectly.
Given we are still a very new company people will know that if they buy our collections then they are choosing something that not many people have, and that’s a nice feeling too.
In the pipeline we will be announcing the launch of our own ceramics ranges, home wares including readymade cushions, lampshades and gifts featuring our designs too. Willis Bloom is blooming!
How to be social media savvy:
How useful is social media for you?
Essential. As a start-up without any significant marketing budgets for advertising this is our primary tool for increasing awareness both with direct customers and our trade audience. It’s a brilliant way of us testing different messages and strategies to see what works and what doesn’t.
Which platforms do you use most and why?
Instagram helps us share our images frequently and reach new people and raise awareness. Facebook offers us the ability to say more, link to our blog, highlight particular products and share to trade and consumer groups that we are part of.
When did you start posting and what has it taught you?
We started posting on day one and we’re still learning. Some things that we think will really be popular aren’t at all and others really surprise us. Our most liked image is just the two of us, no product in sight, just smiley faces from our wedding day. It just goes to show that people like people. We probably average three to five posts a week on both platforms and that can also include a blog post or two.
Do you collaborate with any other influencers?
This is the next stage for us but it won’t be just with interiors bloggers, we’d also like to collaborate with other local businesses that make beautiful, well-crafted and original products. Supporting other small businesses and helping them to succeed in tandem with us is something we feel really passionately about.
Why we love Tunbridge Wells
Where’s your favourite place to shop?
For a gentle browse you can’t go far wrong with Chapel Place, the old High Street and The Pantiles. Trevor Mottram is my go-to favourite for any kitchen ware paraphernalia. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of household temptation. Castle Fine Art gallery (just off the High Street) has some wonderful art and is always worth a browse. Oh and Le Petit Jardin in Chapel Place is my favourite place for buying unique gifts.
And to eat out?
Gosh this is a bit like choosing your favourite child! We love a Thai meal and a cosy atmosphere, and Sucheera in Calverley Road does both. We may have a cheeky drink beforehand in
The Town House.
In the summer we just love The Vineyard at Lamberhurst for a glass of something cool and sparkling sitting in a deck chair while the children have a play. Or for tapas Sopranos is a must as the food never disappoints.
And for coffee or cocktails?
We’re not coffee drinkers but happy to indulge in a cocktail or three. Our most regular cocktail haunt is probably our sofa or garden nowadays to be honest. It’s remarkably good value for money and the measures are generous! Chris is a gin fan and I simply adore a good old Martini; retro and proud.
Finally, where’s the best place to go locally in order to get away from it all?
With the children Bedgebury Pinetum takes some beating for us. It’s our go-to local place for letting off steam and it’s brilliant all year round. The little ones can run wild, the bikes get an airing and the cakes in the café are delicious!
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
We wanted to create a brand that would be able to grow beyond just fabric and wallpaper. We also wanted a tie into our family and so Willis was a good start, with Bloom being a link to the blossoming future ahead of us and our shared love of flowers.
It comes to me when I am walking, running, pottering in the garden, at a gallery, show, on the school run or in bed. I visualise every detail in my head and commit it to paper once
it’s ready. I also think about what I would like to have in my own home and if I like it I hope other people will do too.
Art Direction: Lee Smith | Photography: Craig Matthews