For this Designer Diaries interview, we spoke to Debby Tenquist, designer and owner of Botanica Trading.
What is your earliest memory of design? When did you first know that you wanted to become a fabric/wallpaper designer?
As children, my mother gave us a dress-up box filled with gorgeous evening dresses from her twenties including silk, embroidered, velvet and sequin dresses that she thought she would never wear again. I wish she had preserved them but it would be hard to replace the joy we all had enacting our pantomimes in such finery. There was one dress that we all wanted to wear; it was a “new look” pale aqua silk off-the-shoulder ball gown that had a bodice embroidered with midnight blue sprays of roses, the full skirt had a sparse asymmetrical design of large silk appliqué roses, folded like origami.
I have always been a textile junkie. The textile department at the V&A is a favourite haunt as is the irresistible allure of fabric shops. Whilst travelling abroad I hunt down unusual and exotic fabrics in street markets and upmarket boutiques all over the world. My mother was very aesthetically attuned and encouraged it in me, so art and design are in my DNA. It was about five years ago that I realised that with the exponential advances in the quality of digital printing and their accompanying environmental credentials, it was feasible for me to design my own fabrics in line with my commitment to preserving the environment.
Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a fabric designer? Did this start from prior experience as an Interior Designer?In my twenties, I studied decorative arts, history of art, architecture and gardens at the V&A and Japanese and Korean Works of Art at the London School of Oriental & African Studies. I also spent twelve years working at Sotheby's specialising in Asian Art and Art Nouveau & Art Deco. All this gave me a wide appreciation and solid foundation in the history and development of design in both Western and Eastern cultures.
The Reflection Pool in Spring at The Garden of St Christopher in Hyde Park, Johannesburg
I have no professional experience as an interior designer. However, in my forties, I pivoted from the Antique/Art world to designing gardens. I was blessed to have had the opportunity to develop a large privately owned garden, The Garden of St Christopher in Hyde Park Johannesburg. In the five years it took to complete, working on site gave me an unparalleled opportunity to fully explore my creative energy and indulge my passion for plants and design. On completion, I needed a change and I explored textile design.
Remarkably everything I have done in my career prepared me and lead me to this point, culminating in a new direction which has combined many of my passions. It was also exciting to transform the broad stroke creativity required for a seven-acre garden to the relatively compact canvas of textile design.
Where do you find the inspiration for your designs? What would you say are the main influences on your work?
For many of my designs, the form, colours and textures I use are inspired by nature. I also have a large archive of historical design inspiration references which I keep in categories for easy reference.
Fabric design in Serena Ikat Berry
My aesthetic universe has always been dominated by the language of Japanese, Chinese and Indian design. My stylish sister Serena Crawford has an incredible eye and I often use her as a sounding board as I trust her aesthetic judgement. The below images are from my new Silk Road range inspired by Oriental porcelain.
Image Right: Headboard upholstered in Duck & Deer Pink. Image Left: Headboard in Duck & Deer Aqua & Emerald
Where is the most surprising place that you’ve found inspiration for your designs?
I find inspiration everywhere. My creativity has been sparked by sources as divergent as Japanese Arita Porcelain, pre-historic Greek murals and the intricacy of dissected dried seed pods.
What’s your creative process? Take us through the development of a design from idea conception to the final product.In the initial design stage I often refer to my ever-growing archive of references including books, visual sources, antique fabrics and objects in my collection. I hand draw and paint my designs which preserves my hand in the design process. In the next step, I employ the latest design technology of both Adobe Photoshop Sketch and Procreate on my iPad Pro and repeatedly experiment with layout, scale and colour. The last step is finessing the printing process which is as essential as the design itself. Over a period of months, I receive numerous strike offs which I may rework and I often change the scale and refine the colours to better translate the design into the result I am seeking before final approval.
What types of materials and production processes do you prefer to use and why?
I am strongly committed to producing a sustainable product. The 100% linen base cloths I use are from Libeco in Belgium where the flax is sustainably grown. The linens are long-lasting, can be repurposed and are of course biodegradable. When harvested every part of the flax is used and nothing is discarded. I decided against cotton as it is one of the most toxically sprayed crops in the world. The textile industry as a whole is one of the biggest global polluters. It uses vast quantities of potable water to process and the resultant ink effluent is very damaging, let alone the mountains of discarded fast fashion that adds hugely to the carbon footprint of the textile industry.
I settled on the digital printing process chiefly for its environmentally friendly processes. It also allows me to print to order with a quick turn around, avoiding any wastage, and importantly customisation in both scale and colour is easy. I found a boutique printer who is as passionate as I am about preserving the environment. Her factory is partially run on solar energy and employs low water usage and low energy technology. Importantly the dyes are recycled in a circular system and not released into the waterways.
What is something that most people don’t understand or appreciate about textile design that you wish they did?
Botanica Trading is a one-person operation. I am the owner, designer, website builder, bookkeeper, promoter and social media genie all rolled into one so I am very involved and extremely hands-on, along with my very dedicated printer.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to experiment with adding more colour and pattern to their interiors with fabric/wallpaper but is scared of making the wrong choice?
As we are all spending more time working from home, a fresh take on one’s interior is as good as a holiday. My advice is to have fun and be adventurous and don’t be afraid of your choices. In my own dining room, I used a wonderful French tobacco and ivory toile linen that was professionally prepared for hanging as a wallpaper and it has resulted in my favourite room in the house and hasn’t dated in over 20 years.
"This is an image of my dining room fabric wallpaper and it adds both texture and warmth to the room"
Is there a particular design in your collection that’s your favourite and if so, why?
Serena Ikat from my Tribal range is my current favourite and is named after my sister Serena Crawford. It is a very striking and strong design that can transform a room without overpowering it. I have always adored traditional woven Ikats for their timeless designs and their vibrant use of colour. They have a unique ability to fit into almost any interior.
How has the fabric and textile industry evolved since you became a part of it and what do you see and hope for the future of it?
I am heartened to see how many boutique textile designers are flourishing in an arena that has been dominated by large textile companies in the past. It is particularly noticeable that many of these designers are women, and that there is a welcome return to celebrating traditional artisanal processes and the charm of imperfection.
My greatest hope for the future is that both the interior design and textile industry become committed to respecting the environment. Tackling and embracing true sustainability will be an issue that will continue to dominate our industry and many others for decades to come.
COVID restrictions have brought about a recognition of the critical importance of social media as a vital add-on to a traditional showroom. A quick adoption of digital platforms has been key to success. In particular, Instagram has been a powerful way to reach a wide audience, many of whom now work at home and may continue to do so going forward.
Fabric in Floral Scroll Pink