"People think 'how on earth can a brother and sister work together?'", says Bethan John of Decorator's Notebook the blog and webshop she runs with her younger sibling. "We have a really strong shared vision of where we want it to go, but we have very different roles. It's always clear whose job it is and it's easy to hand the trust over". With her brother Joe she set up a blog three years ago and last October an online shop selling dreamy country living from Somerset - well she's based in Somerset, he's in Newcastle, but let's not dwell on that.
It's all about provenance and authenticity. If you're an interiors fan [guessing you are if you're reading this] then you want to surround yourself with things which mean a lot to you and when buying for your home the internet can seem a cold place. But the rise of the lifestyle blog plus shop fills that gap: you trust the source, you like the way they write - this is a thoughtfully written blog with beautiful photography - they introduce you to new things, it makes buying much more personal. And, I don't know about you, but I'm converted to laptop shopping in my PJs.
Decorator's Notebook can exist online without the crippling overheads of a bricks and mortar shop and in a way their creativity is less compromised - they don't have to sell certain things just to cover their costs. They can spend ages, as Bethan did, searching for the perfect beeswax candles or really investigate the ethics behind the kantha bedspreads.
Bethan is delighted that people really engage with what they are doing and notes that most of their webshop traffic comes via the blog, as well as social media and in the press: "If you launched a shop out of nowhere I don’t know how you’d get anyone to visit it. We haven’t spent any money at all on marketing; it's all been through word of mouth."
Who are you? Joe and Bethan John, the brother and sister team behind Decorator’s Notebook.
Describe your store in five words: Beautiful homewares with interesting origins.
What makes you different? Online shopping can sometimes be bit of a cold and clinical experience so with Decorator’s Notebook we wanted to help people reconnect with the products they choose by sharing the stories of the people, places and processes behind them. You’ll find workshop tours and interviews with makers on our blog and we have plenty of styled photographs and in-depth information on our product pages so people can learn how things are made and where they come from. Of course we still offer simple ordering and speedy shipping - the things that make online shopping brilliant - but with a more personal touch.
How you decide what makes the cut? With a very big knife! Our collection is intentionally small and tightly curated so every product has to be really special to earn its place. We look for pieces with an effortless beauty that have been made with love and care. Our suppliers include British designer-makers, charities, social enterprises and fairtrade groups and we like to promote traditional crafts and the use of sustainable and recycled materials where we can, from foraged local wood to discarded saris.
What were you doing before you did this? Bethan worked for a number of years as a writer for interiors magazines in London and started the Decorator’s Notebook blog about three years ago. Joe has a background in finance and webstore management. Together we make a pretty useful team.
If you were starting again what advice would you give yourself? We only launched the shop in October last year, so it seems a little early to be offering words of advice – we’re still working through new challenges each day and learning as we go along. However in the run-up to launching we enrolled on School for Creative Startups, a course in entrepreneurship and practical business advice designed for creative thinkers by ex-Dragon Doug Richard. We gained so much from it and it saved us from making a lot of beginner’s mistakes – we’d recommend it to anyone thinking of starting a creative business.
What are you most proud of? That despite the doubters, we’ve made a sibling business partnership work! People usually find it really surprising that a brother and sister can work together but we think we owe a lot of our success to our close-knit family. Saying that, we each have quite different skills which is really important too. Bethan is the interiors geek who sources the products for our collection and uses her journalism background to handle our PR and social media, while Joe keeps tabs on our finances and keeps the shop running smoothly and looking good.
Do you have a favourite thing in the store right now? Our exclusive Campfire Screen Print is a personal favourite of both of ours. We commissioned it from Merrick Angle (Double Merrick), a British illustrator living in France. He gets lots of his inspiration from old schoolroom wall charts and the design shows different ways to build a campfire. It captures a lot of the spirit of Decorator’s Notebook – our love of nature combined with the home comforts of a warming fire and cosy surroundings at the end of the day. It says a lot about us and our childhood memories… we love sending them out to fellow explorers young and old.
What’s hot for 2014? We started selling kantha bedspreads made from vintage saris just before Christmas and they’ve proved really popular, so we think our new designs in fresh spring colours will be a real hit. Bethan actually shed a tear when she was unpacking the first box because they were so beautiful and we have no doubt the new ones will be just as lovely. They’re made in Bangladesh by Basha, a social enterprise that helps women escape sex trafficking and start afresh with training, stable employment, free childcare and daily education classes. Each bedspread is hand-sewn by just one woman and finished with a label embroidered with her name and a link to her personal story.
Every Wednesday 'Indie of the week' celebrates the best independent stores around. These places sell interesting and varied collections of design-related things you don't see everywhere else. They may support young or local designers or be great at finding unique things from around the world. By thinking a little more creatively about what they stock they are fighting the bland homogenisation of so much of the high street. And since I'm down with the realities of modern life, online only stores count too, because a beautiful and easy to use website is just as delightful an encounter in cyberspace.
Do you you have a favourite store? I'd love to hear from you.