I love nothing more than bold colour in design so when I stumbled across the work of Belfast husband and wife duo, abigail*ryan, I was immediately smitten. Their textiles combine delicate hand-drawn florals paired with bright neons and bold colours – a nod to the nostalgic with a thoroughly modern feel.
Abigail and Ryan Bell have seen their work catapulted into the spotlight with coverage from Mollie Makes, Red, Elle Decoration and Homes & Garden as well their designs being sold in such prestigious locations as Liberty London and Fenwicks on Bond Street. Added to this is a successful collaboration with Jo Malone in Selfridges. And their star is still rising.
I had the privilege of interviewing them both recently and how they got to where they are now is an endearing story of friendship, love, sheer hard graft and a passion that you only find from people who absolutely adore what they do.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how abigail*ryan came to be.
Abigail: I was working as a jeweller in Glasgow, and Ryan was designing and making accessories in Belfast when we met on the Etsy business forums. Ryan had recently opened a shop, and was asking some questions, and we just hit it off. He commissioned a necklace from me for his Mum, and soon we were talking all day, every day, and pretty quickly were dating. We spent a year travelling back and forth between my home in Glasgow, and Ryan’s in Belfast, working in each other’s studios while we stayed at each other’s place for a few weeks at a time. We really enjoyed working together, having only previously ever worked solo, so quickly decided we would like to collaborate on a joint venture. Very soon after, abigail*ryan was born (at the end of 2009) and we launched with a range of tea towels and cushions. In the spring of 2010, I moved to Belfast full time to live with Ryan, and at the end of 2011, I retired my jewellery business to focus on a*r full time.
Oh I do love a romantic story! How would you describe your style/aesthetic and how does this influence your designs?
Abigail: I think we’re quite bold with our colour sense, both in terms of our home and how we dress. We like a really an eclectic mix of objects and design styles, so will have contemporary alongside vintage/antique and designer maker/ high end design… Old and new is a good mix for us. I think this probably has an impact on our design style, as my illustrations could easily be interpreted as very classical 18th/19th century floral motifs, but there’s that little twist there, and our colour palette gives them a real tension. That contrast, and eclecticism is probably central to our style and taste.
Who’s work inspires you?
Ryan: Back in art school (Glasgow School of Art) Abi was incredibly inspired by William Morris, so I suppose the intricacy and flow of his patterns has filtered down in to our own – we like patterns that aren’t just about the motif, but also the negative space between the motifs, and how these areas can create their own secondary pattern. A good example of this is our Cosmo pattern- a small area looks like an abundance of flowers, but when decorating a larger area, the flowers ripple across the surface like diagonal waves.
Other than that, we’re also inspired by designers, such as Orla Kiely, who play with scale – creating a pattern, but then only showing a little of it, over-sizing the motifs so that they are cropped when the pattern is applied to an object, creates a really interesting dynamism and tension.
Really, though, we’re inspired by everything around us. Abi adores flowers, so that’s what she loves to draw, in a style that she has honed and refined over years of practice. So flowers are absolutely central to what we do, but they needn’t be the most stunning blooms. There are plants and flowers everywhere, so Abi is always ready, camera in hand, to photograph whatever catches her attention- seeing beauty in overblown roses, twisted stems, or crinkled petals.
For colours, it could be an acid bright sweet wrapper on the ground, or a pile of books, a casually slung scarf on a sofa, or a jumble of clothes on a sale rail. You never know when some luscious combination will grab you!
What’s a typical work day like?
Ryan: I’m sure all designers say this, but there really isn’t a typical day for us. When you’re responsible for every aspect of your business, you have to change your hats ridiculously often! One morning we’ll be brainstorming a new product idea, that afternoon working on catching up on admin. The next morning we could be phoning manufacturers, followed by packing and sending orders. No two days are really ever the same, which is both a blessing and a curse! We are truly blessed that we can work mostly from our home studio, playing with our pups Angus and Hamish when we want to (need to!) and working to our own timetable (*whispers* usually in our pyjamas!) but having so many roles and commitments can be exhausting.
Everything is better when you are in pyjamas! What has been the highlight of your work so far?
Ryan: We are absolutely delighted with our new wallpaper and textile collection and couldn’t be happier with any aspect of it, but two real highlights of our career so far have been being stocked in Liberty so early in the life of our brand, and our collaboration with Charlotte Stockdale for Jo Malone.
It was a truly incredible experience working with the wonderful people at Jo Malone, and we produced a capsule collection that we are really proud of. Learning such a huge amount from the experience has totally changed us, and how we do business. We can’t thank them enough for the opportunity and we’re delighted with the results.
Hypothetical: You can only design in various shades of one colour. What colour would it be?
Ryan: This so difficult! So much of what we do at abigail*ryan is about vibrant, unusual colour combinations, being limited would be nearly impossible for us! If you really could use every shade and tone, I’d probably say blue – going all the way from the inkiest navy to the palest sky, and from the most velvety teal all the way to a most royal purple, would give you a lot of glorious options!
Abigail: I would probably chose green, for very similar reasons to Ryan’s choice… There is such a vast spectrum under the green umbrella, from the palest sugary mint, through to chartreuse, and olive tones (which I love decorating with) right through to teal greens, and chocolate tinged bitter greens… So much choice.
Other than your mobile, what 3 things you leave the house without?
Abigail: This is really hard, I usually carry around half the house! (I use my iPhone as my camera) But after that, money/cards, lactase tablets for Ryan (he is severely lactose intolerant!) and my makeup bag…
Who’s your current favourite up and coming British designer and why?
Abigail: We really love William Chambers work, a Glasgow based milliner. He creates wonderful bold flower forms, and actually made my wedding head-piece, which was a leather floral crown of Camellias and Orchids. He seems to be taking the fashion world by storm, and his success is very well deserved. (If you want to check out Abigail’s head piece by William Chambers, you can see it here – it’s stunning. – The Editor)
Where is your fantasy shopping location?
Abigail: New York! We’ve never been but dearly want to visit ABC Carpet & Home, amongst many others.
Describe what your brand would look like if it were an animal.
Ryan: Some amazing multicoloured swan – all gliding and graceful and elegant, while its legs kick frantically under the water. Or an octopus, swooshing and swirling and changing to all the colours of the rainbow, all eight of its arms working together, like the many different roles we have to adopt within our business to make it whole.
That is definitely a couple of creatures I’d love to see! So what’s next for abigail*ryan?
Ryan: We were recently awarded an innovation grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to develop a new product line, and intend to focus on the giftware side of our business for this launch. With this in mind, we have decided to introduce a full range of gift-able crockery.
This is a really thrilling opportunity, as we both have a deep love for ceramics, and are so excited to be bringing these products to market. With luck, we will have a full range of crockery, all decorated with our signature vibrant botanical patterns, launching just in time for Christmas.
Sounds very exciting! What advice would you give to someone else looking to start their own business?
Ryan: For someone starting out, we would say that you need to be resilient.
You will fail. And you will probably fail again. Suppliers will let you down, designs won’t work as you hoped, plans will fall through, opportunities will vanish, guaranteed orders will never materialise, etc., etc. you just need to stick at it. Be the absolute best you can be, and know it, believe it, garner more self belief than you thought possible, because you need it!
If you know you’re doing your best, if you know your work is the best it can be, the best quality it can be, the highest standard it can be, you know your pricing is researched and justifiable, you know you have done your market research and you are certain of everything else, then you can stand by your work 100%. Setting up a business is hard enough without having a slither of doubt about what you’re doing, and you need to have the belief in yourself, and what you’re offering the market, to keep you steady if the road gets bumpy. Remember, though, that the strive for perfection is the enemy of progress – usually, good enough is the best it can be.
Always, always, always have a contingency plan. We forget this one over and over again and it causes more stress and aggravation than you can imagine! Make more samples than you think you’ll need, budget far more than you think things will cost, post everything insured and recorded (and make sure you can post it again should something go wrong), make lists and check them twice, then list everything again and double check that list, too!
Finally, I would say, don’t go in blindly. You will learn a huge amount from your failures, as well as your successes, oftentimes more, so don’t be afraid of them. But don’t court them, either – do a little bit of research. Talk to people, read books, risk rejection, maybe even do an internship. Any and all preparation you can do will pay dividends.
Huge thanks to Abigail and Ryan for answering my questions! If you’d like to check out all their products, visit their website, abigail*ryan. You can follow along on their inspiration and adventures via their blog and their instagram account.