In the East End of London, behind a shabby, worn out wooden door, hidden in a railway arch lies an undiscovered Potteresque world. Leather is steamed, stitched and stamped into fantastical beasts, papier-mâché is pummelled into props, and precious metals chiselled into covetable ornaments. It is the magic of the muggle world.
A tentative push of the doorbell sets off a shrill ring. Inside, a voice shouts: “I got it” and the door creaks open. I step into a narrow brickwork corridor, lined with white doors and murky glass windows. I was there to meet Rob Jones, of Romor Designs. He waves me in and leads me past a staircase going one way, up another, rising in a different direction, to his first-floor workshop. A giant molded head is wedged below the arch of the ceiling and the bannister. Diagon Alley or Hogwarts, it was hard to decide.
In Rob’s studio, buckets and pans of marinating fabrics rest on one table, and piles of dyed remnants and strips of fabric, ready to turn into lampshades, on another. An ironing board fills the small gap between the two.
“I’ve only been here four months”, explains Rob. “It is good to share the space with other talented designers and artists. There is some incredible work being done here. And it is nice to move my work out of the house.”
Rob’s journey to his shared studio began over twenty years ago. He was in his mid-thirties and wanted an outlet for his creativity. The first choice was jewellery making which he studied on various short courses over a number of years, gradually expanding into related skills such as glass bead making. One day, while browsing the course brochure for the renowned West Dean College, Chichester, he spotted a course on Shibori dying.
“I had always been fascinated with Japan, so I took the course and was hooked,” smiled Rob. “I bought some books and started practising at home, gradually getting better. In 2014, I decided to sell my flat and had a little money spare. My plan was to do a ‘life trip’, a special trip that I had always wanted to do. Through Pinterest, I found Bryan Whitehead, a Canadian guy who runs a ten day shibori and indigo dyeing course in Fujino, just outside Tokyo. So, I went on a three week trip, travelling around Japan and taking Bryan’s course.”
Throughout this time, Rob was head of e-commerce for various retail companies. In 2015, shortly after turning 50 and following a corporate re-structure, he had the opportunity to take redundancy.
“I don’t know if it was a mid-life crisis, but it felt like the right time to do something different,” continues Rob. “I was tired of the office politics and commuting, and generally disillusioned with the rat race.”
We break off from our conversation and I watch as he pulls fabric from the buckets of dye. First out is a scrunched up cashmere scarf, unevenly dyed in shades of murky green. As Rob unravels the fabric, the colour evolves into a pale blue. Next out is a stitched handkerchief. Rob unpicks the stitches and unravels it to show a stunning deep indigo pattern. Meanwhile, the scarf has continued to develop into rich blue marble pattern. It is beautiful.
In the months following his redundancy, Rob set up an Etsy shop and started teaching. He also joined Muswell Hill Creatives, a network of artists and designers living in the north London suburb. The collective has attended a number of fairs and hosted a pop-up shop with Craft Central.
At one event, someone pointed out how well Rob’s lampshades suited ceramics made by fellow member, Isabella Lepri. The two embarked on a project to make complementary shades and bases. The results have been a huge success, gaining wide spread recognition and sales.
“It’s been fun working with Isabella. People can buy the shade and base together, or each element separately,” concludes Rob. “Going forward, I want to offer more customization and secure more commissions. The studio means I can set up fermented indigo vats for richer colours. I also did a natural dye course in Cornwall with respected dyer, Michel Garcia.
The plan is to develop the natural dyes side and expand the teaching side with workshops for beginners and advanced student. Some of the techniques I learnt in Japan aren’t being taught here.
Of course, the big ambition is to go back to Japan on a buying trip for fabrics and kimono silks. There is always so much to do!”