Maja Djordjic and Karyn Johnstone

Shades Of Things To Come

23rd May 2014

Jill Glenn meets Maja Djordjic and Karyn Johnstone: the creative brains behind a small business with some very bright ideas

Together, Maja and Karyn are The Bespoke Boutique, a north London company that specialises in luxury bespoke lampshades: handmade, hand-stitched and utterly lovely. Along with shared creative flair, they also have something that many a small business partnership would envy: absolute faith in each other, and absolute clarity of intent.

They don’t finish each other’s sentences – yet – but they pick up the train of each other’s thoughts and the conversation flows seamlessly. They refuse to say that the business vision of either of them is more important than that of the other. “We always agree.”

They’re of an age – one nearly 43, one 44 – and met at the school gate ten years ago. “School playgrounds are good places to meet like-minded people,” says Maja, who has a great knack of connecting with people, and she and Karyn hit it off at once, though their backgrounds are remarkably different. Maja was born Serbian, and had come to this country at the age of 20 to improve her English. “It was just before the war,” she explains, and so she stayed, marrying and becoming “a stay-at-home Mum” until her elder child, a daughter now 15 (there’s also a son of 13), went to school and Maja went back into the workplace as a Practice Manager at a local GP’s surgery. She stayed there for ten years, leaving last summer to concentrate on The Bespoke Boutique. That must have been, I suggest, a scary decision, but Maja shakes her head. It was a leap of faith, she admits, but her job was stressful… she had stopped enjoying it, and was no longer convinced that she was doing it well. Her husband supported her decision. She was, unlike many who find themselves in a similar position, lucky, in that what she wanted to do next – make lampshades – was entirely obvious, and that Karyn was already on board, although at that stage The Bespoke Boutique was little more than a hobby for them both.

Karyn grew up in West Sussex, but came to London, also at 20, and has been here ever since. She studied graphic design, which she still loves, and worked in the industry for many years before going freelance to accommodate her growing family (three daughters now aged 15, 13 and seven). She also makes jewellery, illustrates and paints – there are some of her beguiling pictures on the wall of Maja’s living room, currently doubling as a studio, in which we meet. “I’m a frustrated artist,” Karyn laughs. She still keeps her hand in by doing all the Bespoke Boutique’s graphic stuff, and their website – and, of course, their silk screen prints, of which more later.

Maja had come upon her new career quite by accident. Around eight years ago she and a friend went on a short course in lampshade making. It was planned as nothing more than a weekend break, a couple of days away from home and work, to relax and try their hand at something crafty… but she “fell in love” (her words) with the process and the experience and the end result. She came away buzzing, and eager to put into practice the skills she’d learned. She made a few pieces for friends, for herself, but she wanted to take it further, so she continued studying, and taking private lessons from established lampshade makers, particularly in the traditional techniques that can present such a challenge.

A modern lampshade has a rigid structure, made of two rings – one at the top and one at the bottom – bound to each other with pvc or similar, which is then covered with the desired fabric and trimmed. A traditional shade, by contrast, has a fixed frame that includes upright struts to give the shape, and no glue is used in the process. The material is stretched and pinned – and then restretched… and restretched… and restretched… to ensure it doesn’t crinkle or give in use. There are many ways to complete a traditional frame, including pleating and ruching, but they all involve stitching. Maja makes it sound both easy and complicated at the same time.

Currently she’s restoring a traditionally-made shade of a type unfamiliar to her. “The one I have in the workshop at the moment… I’ve never seen one done like it before,” she explains. It’s definitely been a challenge. “We’ve taken photos, been undoing it bit by bit and slowly remaking it.” Overall there will be perhaps ten or twelve hours work involved.

What the business offers, essentially, is “an interior design service just for lampshades”. They’ll visit a client’s home in order to design for a specific space, with swatch books (“more colours than you can possibly imagine,” enthuses Karyn) and different types of fabric, and talk about shape and size and height and style. They prefer to work with silks – “the light is better… the sheen is lovely… it can be more durable… it’s far superior… ” – but will use any fabric that the customer chooses or supplies. I admire their indomitable attitude. Maja laughs. “It’s a case of ‘all’s well that ends well,” she says. When you’re doing it, it can be very challenging, but when it’s done… that’s a good feeling.

It’s niche, of course, but it has so much potential for even the most modest of homes, and Bespoke Boutique’s prices are not off-the-wall. The traditional pieces are more expensive, naturally, because of the amount of work that is involved, but the contemporary style is comparable with prices on the high street – and the results are infinitely more personal.

I’m already seeing lampshades in a new light (sorry…), and appreciating them as a great way of refreshing a tired interior. You can get a ‘statement piece’ for reasonable outlay and with the added bonus of flexibility; you can move a lamp from room to room, or change a shade on a seasonal basis, even.

Most of their clients don’t want what others already have, explains Maja “They enjoy being part of the design process; they enjoy buying old shades on eBay or off vintage stalls and passing them on to us and saying ‘let’s do something wow with this’.” It’s clear that Maja and Karyn enjoy it too.

“We like the same things, we have very similar tastes,” says Karyn, “but I give Maja confidence, because I have the design background and she doesn’t.” Even so, Maja tells me, ideas grow and develop organically. Indeed, I see that myself.

In additional to the bespoke pieces, either made from scratch or re-covered, they also offer a limited edition range of ready made shades, with silk-screened patterns designed and printed by Karyn. There are cushions to match, and they can also arrange for the printing of wallpaper or lengths of fabric, too. Maja and Karyn’s tendency is to muted or metallic colours, although they are also working towards digitally printing their Flora collection (teasels, thistles, honesty) onto light linens for a soft, organic, natural feel. This leads us on to a conversation about the plethora of fabrics that can be used – and it appears that there really are no limits. Karyn has recycled her grandma’s old curtains, for example; Maja has even knitted a lampshade, and they have also bought vintage kimonos from Japan and upcycled them into beautiful contemporary shades.

These made a powerful impact at the Bespoke Boutique’s official launch last June at the northandsouthideasgallery in Highgate. It’s an interesting venue, that reflects the thin line between art and business. Guests were coming up to them saying “we have never seen lampshades done this way before… this is a work of art.”

I can believe it. The double length room we’re sitting in is a shrine to shades. One end is stacked high with the ready made range, including the contemporary Kimono pieces that have such fascinating provenance; on the table opposite me, by contrast, is a tall slender base topped with a shade in wool and feathers. It’s very funky, and I covet it quite a lot.

They wanted “to show what’s possible with lampshades” and their photographs from the launch prove that they took the idea of an exhibition to their heart. It’s all very dramatic. “We like playing with all sorts of frames and materials, we like experimenting, like being as quirky as possible.”

I try to get them to give me definitive rules for the relationship between shade and base (something that I’m never convinced I’ve got right) – but they won’t. It’s all down to your personal preference. There are some ideals, Karyn concedes, but it really is up to you. “Our job is to suggest,” Maja says, “but we are led by the client in achieving their creative vision…”

With an eye to future growth, as well as attending to the day-to-day demands of a young, dynamic business in which many of the practical processes can’t be hurried, and raising their children, both are also studying. Maja is taking an online course with KLC in interior design, while Karyn is doing courses in textiles and surface pattern, so that she can expand their range of prints.

They’re still working from home, though, when the time is right, they’d like to move into a dedicated studio environment. “But for now it’s easier like this,” Maja says, and Karyn agrees. “I had kids because I wanted to be with them.” They each have their specific skills, but they can step in to each other’s roles with ease. “That’s the beauty of a partnership,” Maja stresses, adding that they know each other’s families well, that both husbands are on-side, that everything balances out. “Karyn sometimes needs to be with her youngest daughter who’s only seven, and I’m fine with that – and she covers for me when I go abroad to see family.”

I’m impressed by Karyn and Maja’s ambition and vision (and their time-management…). They’re constantly planning and expanding and imagining and achieving… And what you get is definitely not a standard lamp…

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