Watching the boats sail through Torquay harbour on the South Devon coast, with gulls taking off and ever-changing cloud formations above, Bert Fowler begins his day in his second-floor studio. With the light flooding in from a floor-to-ceiling window, his studio is a place of calm and inspiration, with a 1950s drawing board and ideas chalkboard at its heart. Pen and paper in front of him, he sketches a new oystercatcher design inspired by the seabirds he spotted recently a few miles away at Slapton.
‘I consider how a bird breaks down into its most simple form – long legs, a dark body and a strong red-orange beak – and create clean block lines that look quite mathematical,’ Bert explains. ‘My drawing board allows me to scribble and make mistakes on paper without getting bogged down in the detail.’ Once he’s happy with his new sketch, he’ll do a ‘scamp’ and create a simple digital version with slabs of colour – perhaps two circles for a seabird and a triangle for a boat – before refining it for his seaside-themed homewares and interiors brand, Bert & Buoy, where it might appear on anything from an oven glove to a mug to a cushion.
SETTLING BY THE SEA
Three years ago, Bert moved to Torquay with his wife Lisa – she’s the business head while he’s the crayon-lover – and their four-year-old daughter Mia, who
has been recently joined by one-year-old Jack. They got to know Dartmouth because Lisa’s parents live there and the couple regularly visited to escape city life, before making a permanent move. ‘Sometimes when you haven’t lived by the sea, you appreciate it all the more and I could punch the air a little bit when I think “Yeah, I’m bringing my kids up by the coast”,’ says Bert, who spent the previous 18 years in Manchester working as an art director and illustrator for the music industry and cultural attractions across the UK.
Bert believes that nautical style appeals to people no matter where they live or how landlocked they might be. ‘Whether you remember childhood beach holidays or live near the sea, everyone can appreciate the coast,’ he points out. And since founding the Bert & Buoy brand in summer 2015, his aim has been to create a look that’s fresh and new. ‘I soon realised that nautical stripes have become the new black,’ says Bert, whose cheekily named designs include ‘Mighty Mackerel’, ‘Rise and Shine Fish’, ‘Great Gulls’ and ‘So Shrimp’. ‘I always knew that my designs would be stripy, but there are so many different looks. I’ve chosen a core palette of muted colours and pops of colour – rose pink, copper metallic or a bright blue fish set over pale grey stripes.’
He’s inspired by the simplicity of classic 1950s and ’60s design, and less is more in his eyes. ‘I always have to justify adding an extra colour, I never want to over-complicate it, or make it look chintzy,’ he explains. ‘I’m excited about that Midcentury feel, it was an era when design was clear and minimalist, and the blocky patterns have a timelessness about them.’
Bert has collaborated with renowned ceramicist and BBC2’s Great Pottery Throw Down judge, Keith Brymer Jones, to launch a bespoke ceramics range, and the duo are about to launch their second collection together, which will include seahorse, crab and lapwing mug designs. ‘We wanted our mugs to look like a beach pebble, with a smooth, rounded shape, and a dipped glaze look, using a wax reveal on the base to give that texture,’ explains Bert, who worked alongside Keith in his Whitstable studio on the North Kent coast.
As the first Bert & Buoy store opens in Dartmouth, it looks like there’s no stopping this wave of nautical inspiration. The products look strong in combination – that’s ultimately why Bert is braving the move into bricks and mortar. ‘Even though we are based in a tiny seaside town, I still want high production values and clever marketing campaigns,’ he says. ‘If we have the creativity, why can’t we look like a shop window in London’s Mayfair? I’m pushing myself now, just like I have done for my clients over the past 15 years.’ Movement is something that is also key to Bert’s brand – his team create short, eye-catching animations, perfect for online. ‘Some of this industry is quite standardised, but for us social media is integrated into everything we do and that adds to the slickness of our brand,’ he adds.
Bert is always on the lookout for scenes or details that might inspire him to create a new design for his collection of ceramics, textiles, stationery and wall art, and he has created screen prints of many of his favourite places. ‘I use accents of colour and drop-outs so the layers never quite align and the colour is offset from the graphic outlines,’ says Bert who produces cushion covers, tea towels, aprons and mugs featuring Dartmouth, Plymouth with the iconic Smeaton’s Tower, and his soon-to-be-launched Salcombe surface pattern.
As well as designing homeware with a fresh coastal vibe, Bert obsessively collects clinker-built boats, old wooden oars, rowlocks, fenders and other nautical props. ‘Just yesterday I was at a marine bazaar in Plymouth and I was in heaven,’ he says. ‘I picked up some reclaimed wood and a dozen wooden bobbins with inscribed numbers for £2 each, which actually turned out to be bungs for old boats. I’m always looking for authentic props for photo shoots or displays. All these things have a use to me.’
There are plenty of vintage bits and bobs in his Edwardian Torquay house too. ‘I do love the post-modern style and collect certain classic chairs – Herman Miller chairs by Charles & Ray Eames are my favourite right now, and one of my biggest design inspirations is Saul Bass, who designed all of the Hitchcock movie posters. He invented moving image film title sequences so I collect his film posters, and I collect haberdashery units, trunks and wooden furniture.’ Bert admits to hoarding certain things, but knows his shop windows can’t look like a junk shop.
‘There is skill involved in putting a display together and doing it tastefully,’ and that’s something he has been practising since he was a boy. ‘I shared
a room with my older brother – who is now a creative director in London – until we were 15 or so,’ he says. ‘It’s a family joke that every couple of weeks we’d be moving our furniture round and reshuffling things. Interiors always excited us and
we just wanted to experiment with what made our room more stylish. Most kids would Blu-Tac their posters to the walls but we would buy Habitat frames and hang them all up properly. So, this stems from an early age!’
Perhaps his passions are already going full circle. He recently spent a day screen printing a dozen Dartmouth prints on expensive GF Smith paper, left them on the side ready to sign and, when he got back home later, the kids had coloured them all in with felt tips. ‘I couldn’t tell them off. It was quite sweet really, and I kept a few sheets,’ he says, laughing. ‘Maybe Mia and Jack will share my love for creative design.’
Find out more about Bert Fowler’s designs at bertandbuoy.com or visit his new shop at 24 Fairfax Place, Dartmouth, Devon TQ6 9AB.
BOX – BERT’S FAVOURITE COASTAL SPOTS
- Best coastal garden: ‘The National Trust’s Coleton Fishacre (nationaltrust.org.uk/coleton-fishacre) because I love the journey down through the garden to the sea.’
- Best family-friendly beach: ‘Hands down, it’s Blackpool Sands on the South Devon coast – it’s so beautiful and a great place to do some sketching too.’
- Best spot for crabbing: ‘We love the River Shack at Stoke Gabriel, between the mill pond and the River Dart (therivershack
- Best place to watch the sailing boats pass by: ‘There’s nothing better than an early morning coffee then walking along Dartmouth’s waterfront, especially during the Royal Regatta.’
- Best place to eat takeaway fish and chips: ‘Most Fridays we eat Rockfish chips (rockfish.co.uk) on the bench at Bayard’s Cove looking out to sea in Dartmouth with the whole family. For me, this is when the weekend starts.’