Saturday 14 December 2019

Buying into the animal trend without going the whole hog

The best in design and decoration for your home

Donna Wilson
Donna Wilson
Donna Wilson teddy
People can connect with Lorna Syson's lampshades
Donna Wilson whale throw
Donna Wilson pillow
Donna Wilson design
Claire-Anne O'Brien's series of Irish knitted animals for Makers and Brothers

Eleanor Flegg

There are many ways of responding to the trend for bird and animal-themed interiors, and the wisest of these is probably to run a mile. Leave that owl-shaped lamp in the shop where you found it, likewise the cutesy cushion that looks like a pug. Don't even consider the foxy rug or the faux taxidermy stag's head. And avoid anything beastly that has been coated with flock. It's all as kitsch as three ducks on a wall.

That's the disclaimer over. Actually there are some great animal designs out there. But the trick is to use them sparingly.

Think, for example about teddy bears. A big pile of soft toys looks sad and a little creepy in a grown-up's bedroom. A carefully curated display is even worse. But a single teddy bear can be cool - witness Alan Measles, the '50-year-old teddy bear, dictator and God of the imaginary world of artist Grayson Perry.'

The former Turner Prize-winner uses Alan Measles to poke fun at the people who might take him too seriously. And that's just the same reason that you might allow a few animals into your own decorative scheme. It's good to be stylish - but it's also ok to have a bit of fun.

"I didn't ever think that I'd be making knitted creatures for a living," says Donna Wilson, creator of the eponymous brand and a winner of Elle Deco's Designer of the Year.

"It all started when I was a student at the Royal College of Art in London. I'd been making these leggy dolls to pay my rent and my tutor suggested that I should just keep going in that direction. I did, but they got a bit weirder along the way."

The dolls evolved to become Wilson's Creatures, largish knitted animals that are not really toys and not really for children. "They're collectible objects," Wilson explains. "Most people keep them on the sofa. It's like having a pet without having a real animal that needs to be looked after. And it's something that draws your attention - if you have a little creature sitting there it becomes something that people talk about."

Wilson's creatures range from about €35 to €85, although she has some giant creatures (taller than the average adult) for around €600 from

Some are recognisable species but others are hybrid mutants - the parentage of Cyril Squirrel Fox is anybody's guess - and all of them look a bit forlorn. This is part of their appeal. "People feel sorry for them and want to adopt them," she says. And if the prices seem high, just think about the trouble and expense of taking on a real dog or cat.

Wilson also makes knitted cushions and throws, most of which are also animal-themed. In her latest range she is trying to get away from the relentless trend for woodland animals, which she admits that she may have helped to start.

"We have some new woven throws with caribou and whales but people still keep coming back to us for foxes and badgers," she says.

Ireland's answer to Donna Wilson, the Cork-born designer Claire-Anne O'Brien, has developed a series of Irish knitted animals for Makers and Brothers. Fionn the Fox (65 cm long), Liam the Hare (30 cm tall) and Brigid the Sheep (32 cm long) are all hand-knitted with certified Irish Donegal wool and cost between €62 and €68 each from

Part of the reason that people like woodland creatures is familiarity. Many of us have never seen a caribou or a whale but we've all seen squirrels and songbirds.

When Lorna Syson brought out her new range of lampshades (from €62 and cushions (from €60) inspired by common garden birds she was astonished how quickly they took off.

"I'm very lucky that I make things that people can connect with," she says. "The blue tits are the most popular. They used to nest outside my room when I was growing up and when I brought out the collection people kept coming to me with stories about the different types of bird.

"One woman bought a cushion with robins on it because she remembered her grandfather talking to a robin when he was gardening."

Like animal-inspired objects, bird patterns are often kitsch and, even when they're not, you don't want to clutter your living space with too many of them. Syson's designs work well because the patterns are stylised - she has reduced the number of colours as much as possible with clean lines running between them - and the birds are set against a minimal background.

The collection is also co-ordinated with bird patterns, geometric patterns in the corresponding colours, and patterns that combine very simple bird motifs in repeat pattern with geometrics.

"It's unusual for someone to buy all four bird patterns," she explains, "although it has happened. They're more likely to buy a robin lampshade and a geometric cushion in the pattern called Warwick because it has the same red in it.

"But the Juneberry design - that's the one with the blue tits - works with the Warwick too because the blue is the same. And I have the grey running through the whole collection."

All her patterns have white backgrounds.

"That's what people are comfortable with - it's like a white wall with something interesting on it. It means that you can make a statement without pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. It all depends on how bold you want to be."

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