The question on the wall, in bright pink neon, that greets visitors to the Bluebellgray shop in Glasgow’s West End perfectly sums up the spirit of the brand . . .“Would you like a tassel on that?”
Bold colours and breezy patterns to liven up the dullest days are the stock in trade of the design label that has taken the world of interiors by storm since it was launched by Glasgow School of Art graduate Fi Douglas 10 years ago.
The company has come a long way in that time but still sticks firmly to its roots and twice a year produces fresh collections of joyful prints that are based on hand-painted watercolours by Fi. Her signature designs first appeared on cushion covers and have now expanded to bedding, fabric wallpaper, rugs and tableware.
After a major renovation, the company moved to new premises on Clarence Drive, transforming a former bank building into an emporium of colour and delight. Walls came down, staircases were reconfigured and light flooded into the new upstairs studio. Now the ground floor is home to the first Bluebellgray shop.
“I had always wanted to open a shop, I felt it was the right thing to do and I was always really passionate about opening in Glasgow,” explains Fi. “It happened a little bit by chance. We’d been in Park Circus and had a lovely showroom for customers but it wasn’t a shop. The landlord was selling the building and initially I was really upset, but actually it was the best thing that ever happened. We started looking for a shop, and knew we wanted it to be in the west end. The only difficulty was we were going to have the shop in one location and the studio somewhere else.”
Originally only the ground floor of the former Bank of Scotland building was available. That changed and the team moved in to take over the whole building. “It was great because it kept everyone together. The heart and soul of the business and the brand is the design studio. The fact we are creating everything upstairs and selling it downstairs, it’s this amazing connection,” says Fi.
The building’s heritage hasn’t been forgotten, there’s still a big safe in the vault, though it’s now decommissioned, and marks on the floor of the studio are visual memories of the many cabinets that contained paperwork and old cheque stubs over the years. “Outside we deliberately left in the sandstone where it used to say ‘Bank’. We didn’t want to cover it over and moved our logo further to the right so you can still see the history of the building,” adds Fi.
She describes as a game changer the room created behind the shop with perfect north-facing light that allows her to paint and work. Where Fi previously painted in the open studio, now she has her own art room. The walls are covered with photographs taken from her travels – from food and architecture to plants, where Fi takes her inspiration and turns it into her signature designs.
The day we’re chatting, we’re surrounded by images from Spain and Crete, and even on this chilly morning you can feel the warmth radiating from the photographs that will be transformed into must-have designs.
“Travel has become more and more important as time has gone on, it’s really what sparks a lot of the new collections. I love using my own photographs as inspiration because they’re true and original,” explains Fi. “I love Morocco, you can’t beat it for colour and craftsmanship. I find Europe so inspiring – the food, the colours, the culture, the history. But I always come back to Scotland – it’s the most beautiful country in the world. For every exotic collection, I do a Scottish design as well.”
The freedom to close the door and concentrate on painting has been immeasurable, says Fi. It’s a far cry from the early days of the company when she dealt with everything from finance and HR to running the website and social media. “There was a point where it was so difficult to actually find any creative time because you were so absorbed in the nitty gritty side of running the business,” Fi admits. “So the painting would be crammed into a week or two. Now because I’ve built a bigger team around me, the creative side is given more time. I still absolutely oversee everything in the business but getting back more creative time has been a really great thing.”
She reveals she can see a difference in her work since the change. “It’s amazing what time can do for you,” she laughs. “Time is ultimately the most precious thing we have in the world and I think I’ve really accepted that in the early days I put myself under so much time pressure to turn things around so quickly and do so much. As I’ve got older I’ve become more accepting of the fact a great design does take time. I can see my work has matured over the years. You get inspired by different things, I travel to different places and I see different things. Your hand matures over time as well. I always stick to the heart and soul of the business, which is these bright watercolour florals, but I love pushing it a bit further and try every season to do a few unexpected things.”
Fi’s paintings are picked up by the design team in the studio who digitise them and turn them into repeat patterns, then working with mills and factories to make the products. Two collections a year are produced and the 2019 spring collection features a whole new design based on vegetables, inspired by a visit to gardens in the Borders, and sweet peas. There are plenty of classic Bluebellgray florals too, all beautifully painted.
Fi is pregnant with her third child and about to take maternity leave. She’ll be working up until the last minute though, and still on the end of the phone when the new baby arrives but laughs that she’s better prepared. “Third time around I’ve learned my lesson that babies are hard work in the early stages and they need time. I have such a good team around me I feel very confident in how they will look after the business when I’m away.
One thing she won’t be doing on maternity leave is any more decorating at home. “Sometimes I look round and think, ‘Damn, I wish I could just put up that new wallpaper’, but I have no walls left. I’ve used every inch of space,” she laughs. “It’s a lovely mix of different patterns and colour but it’s definitely a home. The kids are used to it and think it’s all completely normal having a pink sofa with turquoise fringing!”
Fi’s Tips On Using Colour At Home
The key thing to start is to get your wall colour right and don’t be afraid of colour on your walls. Even if you have a house that doesn’t have that much light, you don’t have to paint walls white.
Pull out key colours with patterns, for example on a cushion – pull out one of the colours in the cushion and put that on your walls. Then pull out another colour from the cushion and put that on your lampshade. It will bring the whole thing together.
There’s still a lot of blush pink around but raspberry pink is definitely coming through more this year. People worry it can be too feminine but it doesn’t have to be because you can mix it with so many other colours. Pink with deep green makes it really contemporary.