We’re back with another addition to the Creative Q&A series, and I am so bloody thrilled to say that we have been speaking to the exceptionally brilliant Bert, of Bert & Buoy – illustrative art and homeware brand based in Devon.
I’ve always personally had a soft spot for the British coast, and the wildlife that lives there – I think endless days wandering the shores rock pooling and paddling throughout life have done it. So when I stumbled upon Bert & Buoy, I was instantly sucked into the playful, graphic style depicting all of our favourite coastal critters!
Let’s get stuck right in…
JANEY: So Bert! Who? What? Why?
BERT: I’m Bert Fowler, the Founder of Bert & Buoy. I’m an artist, designer and illustrator based on the South Devon coast. I’m obsessed with using minimal realism, graphic lines and tessellating patterns to create charming characters, original scenes and playful repeat patterns.
As a commercial illustrator, over the last 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to work on the most incredible projects with brands I love dearly: the kind of organisations that do good for people and the planet. Yet, I’d always craved developing my own art, homeware and lifestyle brand.
I had this idea of creating an original twist on nautical, so I started sketching ideas by the seaside and then leapt onto the iMac in my studio to bring it all together. It’s crucial for the tessellations to be mathematically correct, so that they will transfer onto the different materials and products. Just 8 weeks later – and a few sleepless nights – I was able to launch Bert & Buoy with a pop up stall at the Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta. The feedback and love blew me away! I then gradually built this small yet mighty independent business. I illustrated my heart out to develop different collections; worked tirelessly to create original products, collaborating with makers I’d always admired; and developed my first online store at bertandbuoy.com
When it came to scouting out locations for a physical store, I knew that Dartmouth had to be the place to start! It’s here that I happened upon the old fishmongers at 24 Fairfax Place in Dartmouth. It was pretty much a blank canvas and we worked with locally reclaimed materials and re-purposed boat parts to create interesting new counters and displays. It is a uniquely nautical store experience. We opened the store in November 2018 and have welcomed people through our doors from all over the world.
J: I cannot believe you managed to draw up a whole business model AND a full repertoire of prints and designs in just 8 weeks!? But clearly the feedback at that first event said it all – there was very obviously something there and I for one am very glad that it has continued to bloom into the business that you are running today! It is evident that a huge amount of hard work and enthusiasm has been put into Bert & Buoy in order to get to this point, and long may it continue!
Combine all of that hard work and determination with a clear passion for the subject matter, and some hefty graphic and creative skills, and the outcome is absolutely glorious.
Your work obviously has huge nautical inspirations, is the coast something that has always been close to your heart?
B: It’s the place where I feel most at home. It’s the place that inspires me to make new things every day and to dream big for the future. I can’t imagine living and working anywhere else – especially now that I have a couple of kids – it’s such a joyful life being able to explore the coast with them. I think more people need to reconnect with the British coast – the rare light, vivid colours, prevalent wildlife and iconic places – it’s the stuff of dreams and for me, offers an unrivalled way of life and daily inspiration as a creative person. Of all the places in all the world, it’s Devon for me… and who knows where it will take me next!
J: If you absolutely had to choose, what is your favourite coastal creature?
B: Not fair, there’s just no way I can pick one! I love everything about sea birds. Spotting them is one of the joys of living by the coast. They inspire much of my illustration and repeat pattern work. My latest muse is the Puffin and I’m pretty much head over heels for this sea bird. We are so fortunate here in the UK to have a species of Puffin call our shores home, as there are only four species in the world.
The Atlantic Puffin is the inspiration behind my latest Petite Puffin collection. It’s the smallest of them all, measuring a mere 18 cm tall, yet they can plunge themselves into the water up to sixty metres. Pretty impressive stuff! It goes without saying that with such uniquely identifiable characteristics, Puffins are one of the world’s most loved birds. I knew that adding them to the Bert & Buoy range would receive a very warm welcome. The Puffin has been interpreted artistically for centuries and I was keen to tackle this widely recognised bird with my minimal realism.
What’s unique about the Petite Puffin illustration is that it can fit within a pure circle whilst its main line, I call this the hero line, cuts straight through the back of the Puffin. This strong line gives the Puffin definition whilst also keeping the illustration within a more graphical realm. And ultimately, it’s this combination of cutting lines and spherical shapes which also lends the Puffin to tessellate so remarkably well in this collection.
J: Fab choice! My favourite has to be an oyster catcher! As you say, we are so so lucky to have these birds, and such a variety of species too. It would be the dream to have them on my doorstep like you do!
What would you say is your biggest achievement as a business owner so far?
B: Just starting something and getting here. I was so nervous to take those first few steps and now I look back and think… yep, I should have done that sooner. As an individual and small business owner, every day is an adventure and every day is your biggest achievement. Sometimes a tiny comment from a customer can also put the biggest smile on my face!
Right now, there’s one thing that I’m mighty excited about and that is the opening of a new hotel. I’m collaborating with urban regenerators – THAT Group – on a huge project by the sea. I’ve made large scale art installations, sweeping murals and room art for the new Hampton by Hilton hotel in Torquay. Hotels tend to acquire art that is aesthetic yet as neutral as possible. By contrast, THAT Group enriches the destinations they develop. This commission is ludicrously joyous. It seeks to both reflect and celebrate the icons and quirks of life on the Devon coast. Opening in spring 2021, it will also feature my first concession store with even more original art and homeware from Bert & Buoy!
J: What an exciting project! Can’t wait for the opening of that, I’d love to visit!
‘Keith & Bert’ is a creative match made in heaven, please can you tell us a little more about your work with the ceramicist?
B: I’m very proud of the collaboration with Keith Brymer Jones and his company MAKE International. It’s just a beautiful pairing when you take my original surface design and combine it with Keith’s expert knowledge in ceramic shape and form. We worked together at Keith’s Whitstable studio to thrash out ideas and even made a little film of the process (see https://youtu.be/TPnfmyvYdFY). The new nautical mug was born in 2018 and since then we’ve created 10 different mugs together.
The mugs are meticulously crafted from light grey stained porcelain to mimic a beach pebble. Each mug features a quirky, unglazed base with a stylish, exposed glaze line and brand stamp. They really are mini masterpieces for your home – a new take on nautical, blended with the incredible skill of one of the world’s top potters. Watch out for exclusive new designs in 2021… follow @bertandbuoy on Instagram to see when they drop!
J: Alongside running Bert & Buoy, Bert is also continuing his commercial illustration work (follow along over on Insta: @bertillustrates), and has just launched 2 new greetings card ranges with the award winning Redback Cards! So we asked Bert to tell us more:
B: I love printed things and given the opportunity to create new characters with bold colours and foiled finishing details, I leapt at the opportunity! There are two ranges right now and more to come. Cats in Hats is as the name suggests, a series of cats wearing different hats with different phrases. There’s a superhero, cowboy, princess, rockstar and sailor of course! Then Fur Friends are uniquely die cut cat cards with six original dapper cats.
They’re available from Redback Cards for wholesalers everywhere and on my Bert & Buoy website too, so that fans of my work can order them direct to their door. It’s been a pretty purr-fect partnership… sorry, ha ha, couldn’t resist!
J: A cat pun?! Are you kitten me?
So for now, and once the shops open later in the year, where can we get our hands on your beautiful work?
B: Right now, you can shop 24/7 at bertandbuoy.com. Once lockdown is done (hopefully for good!) you can also head to 24 Fairfax Place, Dartmouth and the Hampton by Hilton, Torquay. As an independent, it means so much more when people buy from us. It’s not just supporting me and my family, but all of the makers and people we collaborate with. Brands like ours make towns and villages much more interesting places to live, visit and enjoy!
J: 100% agree on that front!!
So there you have it – Bert’s fabby shop in Dartmouth will hopefully be back open super soon, and I cannot wait to visit. I love to take a souvenir home with me from new places, particularly if I can find something much more quirky than the usual ‘touristy’ tat, that I will actually take joy from displaying in my home! Bert & Buoy’s products offer just that, and therefore popular with locals and tourists alike!
But for now, do check out their online shop at bertandbuoy.com, and give them a follow on Insta @bertandbuoy to keep up to date!
You’ll find me dreaming of a chilly, windy stroll down a shingly beach for the foreseeable future after that – I cannot wait to get back down to the coast once restrictions ease a little!
I hope you enjoyed reading our chat with brilliant Bert as much as I loved writing it, and thank you to Bert for taking the time to answer those questions!
Have a wonderful week – see you next Friday!