I first discovered the work of Bert Fowler earlier this year, when his company was featured in Mollie Makes magazine. His uniquely minimal style of nautical homewares and mathematical prints instantly caught my eye – and I’ve been obsessed ever since! I just knew I had to feature Bert on my blog to talk about his business, Bert & Buoy.
Fast forward a few months and I’m excited to share an recent interview I had with Bert. Join us as we chat about his business, some cool collaborations and top tips for other creative business owners…
Interview with Bert & Buoy
Hi Bert! Before we talk about your business, tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m 39 and I grew up in the midlands, entirely land locked, but surrounded by the wilds of nature. After years up North, the love of a woman brought me to Devon. We got engaged in Dartmouth and the rest, as they say, is history!
We now live in South Devon with our two kids under 4. We’re currently renovating our seaside home – with a leaky roof, howling windows, no central heating, dodgy electrics, damp, crumbling walls and asbestos. It probably would have been easier to knock it down and start again! But a few years on and our contemporary coastal retreat is nearly finished.
My passion for interiors started young. My brother and I used to redesign our bedroom every other month, carefully selecting posters and shifting furniture around. Much to my mother’s delight! Later, at University in Leeds, I made art for the walls at my student digs. Soon after leaving University, I set up a creative agency working as the Creative Director. I designed and illustrated for events across the UK for the last 15+ years. My work became recognised for modern twists on classic styles, bold compositions and distinctive illustration. This led me down a path to create my very own brand – Bert & Buoy.
Outside of work I like to run along the stunning South West coast. Weekends and holidays are packed full of foraging, walks and BBQs on the beach and hanging out with family and friends in Torbay, Totnes and Dartmouth.
How did Bert & Buoy first come about?
Bert & Buoy was established in summer 2015. I pondered creating a fresh, modern take on nautical for a long time. I decided that if I was going to do it, there’d be no procrastination. So I set myself the challenge of creating the brand and producing the first collection within six weeks!
Bert & Buoy launched with a pop up store at Dartmouth Royal Regatta. The reaction was incredible. The store was buzzing and we immediately attracted interest from art lovers, interior designers and homeware buyers wanting to take home a cool, creative slice of the British coast. I immediately knew this was something special.
What followed was a flurry of activity to create a wider collection, build an online store and develop relationships with gallery owners and independent retailers across the UK.
You describe your work as “a new, authentic take on nautical”. Can you tell me a little more about this?
Every part of the collection starts off as an original work of art inspired by life on the British Coast. This shifts nautical homeware from twee clichés to a new, fresh, contemporary direction. We call it Nautical Niceness.
I’ve always seen that elements such as nautical stripes are a mainstay for big department stores etc. For example, a striped dress is a consistent product that is on the shelves year in year out. I felt that there was some white space in the market to become that ‘go to brand’ for that authentic and clever take on nautical, or a contemporary take on coastal wildlife.
Bert & Buoy is full of fresh, bright colours and geometric patterns. I’m a bit obsessed! How did you go about developing this unique aesthetic style?
I’ve always liked strong structural designs and tessellating surface patterns. I like looking at nature and seeing how I can pair down something like a bird or a fish into its most basic form. And I love working with black line and complementing it with simple accents of colour.
Although my designs look ultra clean and simple, you will often find that it’s a complicated process. I need to pull back the detail when illustrating, but still know how much detail is needed – for example, to distinguish between a Gull and an Oystercatcher.
You recently collaborated with celebrity potter Keith Brymer-Jones on a range of nautical-themed mugs. How did this partnership come about?
Earlier last year, I started to think about developing a partnership with someone who could offer both a national and international platform for Bert & Buoy. This is when I came across the work of MAKE and Keith Brymer Jones.
I’d tested the market for ceramics previously, and feedback told me that it could be a huge growth area for Bert & Buoy. My designs were unique, one-of-a-kind, but I wasn’t happy with the a bog standard mug. When I met with Keith, he captured my imagination with the brilliant idea to throw an entirely unique shape for Bert & Buoy – and to finish it with a distinctive twist.
Keith’s passion for nurturing British design and focus on truly special products immediately resonated with me. I knew that together we could make a classic collection for modern everyday life. Keith really appreciated the brand that I had set up and the vision I had for it.
What I love about Keith is his unrivalled talent in ceramics, and his motivation to make this happen. I love his belief in me as a designer and the vision for Bert & Buoy. And the way he calls everyone “lovie” – ha!
Tell me about your work space; where do you design your work and what is the process involved?
All of the pieces in the collection start off as original sketches and artworks by me. I have a studio in South Devon overlooking the shoreline and hand sketch at my 1950s drawing board (I’m a sucker for mid century furniture!). I then consider how the sketches might work with materials and on products; digitally working-up the final illustrations and surface patterns.
Some of my tessellating surface patterns (like Great Gulls or So Shrimp) have a real mathematical structure at the foundations. This is an area that I really enjoy – seeing how something I’ve illustrated can be brought together to form a seamless surface pattern on a broad array of products.
Your work spans a lot of product types – ceramics, wall art, textiles and more! Do you have a favourite product amongst this?
I’ve really enjoyed the work on the ceramics range with Keith and we are just in process of working up new designs for 2019. I’ve also recently finished a collection of lamp and ceiling shades which will be available in the next few weeks. A favourite for this new range has to be the ‘So Shrimp’ shade.
I’ve heard that you’re about to open your first bricks and mortar store for Bert & Buoy. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little more about this?
Yes! I’ve just been overseeing the fit-out of the first physical Bert & Buoy store. It will be located in the centre of Dartmouth, where this whole journey started. We open on Saturday 17th November with Keith Brymer-Jones officially opening the store for me.
It’s very exciting for me and the team as it’s our first opportunity to pull together our full product lines and collate them into a physical experience. We feel it will really showcase the overall ethos of our look and approach in style and production values.
What advice can you offer any readers who are hoping to start their own creative business?
Be focused on what you have set out to achieve. For instance, I’ve always been sure where I feel the Bert & Buoy audience is and have gone after them. I made sure that the products and brand are accessible to this audience – rather than expecting for it to all fall at my feet and work itself out.
It’s sometimes really hard to stand out these days – now we live in such an instant world, where everything is pushed on social media within seconds of it happening or being created. But hard work does pay off!
And finally, let’s end on something fun – tell us one interesting fact about yourself or your shop!
I’m a bit obsessed by foraging for rusty gold at flea markets and little independents tucked away in the depths of Devon. I collect everything from vintage shop letters and hand painted signs, to mid-century chairs and textiles, to old fishing rope and buoys. I regularly come back with a boot full of treasure to add to my growing collection of curiosities!
Thanks so much to Bert for taking the time to chat. I really enjoyed getting to learn more about his creative process – and I hope you did too! If you want to check out more of Bert’s work, be sure to visit his website.
Until next time! – Mike.