Clevedon Craft Centre has always been one of my favourite places to visit – it’s such a calm, picturesque setting and there is so much phenomenal work on display – jewellers, woodturners, artists, potters, florists and a leathersmith.
On this one particular visit, as we passed through the gates, I spotted a newcomer, ‘Doghead Designs’. As I stepped gingerly into this new studio, what I saw before me took my breath away – it was the most beautiful, stylish space, filled with some fabulously decorated furniture and an eclectic mix of unusual, edgy, contemporary homeware and gifts. I stood for a while just trying to take it all in and was so pleased to see the work of some of my favourite local designers, all of whom complement what I now recognise as the very distinguishable ‘Doghead’ furniture.
I was greeted by someone I recognised and had met before on a number of occasions but in a very different setting – it threw me at first but once I realised where we knew each other from, the conversation flowed.
Our shared background was of course education. Tristan became a head teacher at the age of thirty after teaching for six years – his new role was all consuming and came with a huge sense of responsibility and pressure, but it was a job he loved, perhaps too much, feeling at times that his own health and happiness were secondary to his work. Maintaining a work/life balance was challenging and so he started to consider a change of direction.
Exactly what this change of direction looked like required a lot of soul searching, but Tristan knew he needed to escape the nine to five feel of the job (in reality it was more like twenty-four seven). He spent a long time thinking about what he could do and googling ‘careers after headship’ and, ‘jobs after teaching.’ It was through this process that he identified some key features of the sort of work he was looking for. He wanted to be able to express himself creatively, he wanted to choose his own hours and he wanted to be his own boss and strive for his own success. This much he knew, but he had no money behind him (I tell a lie – he did have the grand sum of £400 to invest) and no immediate thoughts of the sort of career he wanted to carve out for himself.
So what happened? I was intrigued to know what had started Tristan off on such a very different career path, albeit with the essential features he was craving.
Tristan explained that it had all started with his attendance at an Annie Sloan workshop in Bath. For those of you who have never heard of Annie Sloan ‘the queen of paint’ she is the creator of the very famous Chalk Paint which she launched in 1990. Since that date she has been at the forefront of what can only be described as a decorative painting revolution. In 2000, Annie set up a shop in Oxford to showcase Chalk Paint, host workshops, and offer interior design services. She now boasts 1500 stockists, all independent stores showcasing Chalk Paint and running workshops – just as Annie herself once did in the very early stages of her career.
“Annie Sloan has been a household name in interior design since 1990” – Elle Decoration
“Annie Sloan is one of “Britain’s most influential female designers.” The Telegraph
If you’d like to know more about Annie and Chalk Paint, you can check it out here: https://www.anniesloan.com
Tristan was in his element and immediately fell in love with the paint and felt happier than he had in a long time because it opened up this world of possibilities. Prior to this workshop his wife had suggested that he might consider painting furniture for a living… and he remembers very clearly telling her what he thought of that idea!
“Absolutely no way! Paint furniture? Where’s the creativity in that?”
After attending the workshop, Tristan knew that his wife had been right! What had previously sounded mundane, verging on boring, he found exciting, and a tsunami of ideas about how he could use the paint for creating something special, quickly emerged. A pivotal moment!
Using some of the knowledge he had acquired on the course, Tristan painted a wooden tray and put it on Instagram tagging Annie Sloan. To his utter amazement, she shared it! Tristan continued to learn about the world of Chalk Paint and furniture art and started painting a range of furniture and building up his skills as well as a small portfolio of photographs.
Annie has remained a constant source of inspiration to Tristan not least because he shares her values relating to the community, independent businesses’ and the need to be conscious of the environment and our impact upon it. He rallies against:
“a world completely obsessed by consumerism so often seduced by, ‘out with the old and in with the new”.
He also loves the paint, as a product and a brand it just gels with him, and he feels very proud to represent it.
Tristan knew that he was contractually ‘free’ from his employment on 31st August so began working towards an official launch on 1st September.
It was at this point that the doubt started creeping in! Was he really about to walk away from a successful, stable and relatively lucrative career to paint furniture?! Ultimately, he knew that he was prepared to take the risk and do something that felt totally right for him. The timing was far from ideal; after taking on a new mortgage and cutting one household salary, the risk soon felt very real!
Knowing little about Tristan’s background I was curious to know if he did have any formal art or business qualifications because the path he had chosen was just so different to the one he had been following! He did in fact do Art A-Level and loved it, developing this passion into his university degree by doing a lot of set design in Theatre Studies. After university, he worked as an interior designer for Laura Ashley for a couple of years, but aside from these experiences, he has no formal art qualification. With the benefit of hindsight, he would have loved to have studied Fine Art at university.
I commented that it must have been an immense learning curve both in terms of running a business, and in terms of his creativity – he agreed and described it as ‘a massive step into the unknown.’ However, aside from fleeting moments of panic, he felt very comfortable in terms of his own artistry, but there was still so much else he needed to learn in terms of bookkeeping, advertising, marketing, social media, website design…the list was endless!
Having said all that, he never felt daunted – he knew that he wanted it to work, that it had to work and was determined to give it his all, believing that if you have the determination, there is very little that you cannot achieve. He knows that he still has a lot to learn and will undoubtedly make many mistakes, but is a firm believer in this being the only way to grow as a person and as a professional.
In terms of painting techniques, Tristan is constantly learning! Prior to launching Doghead Designs, Annie Sloan advised him to ‘paint every day’ which he commented is valuable advice that can be transferred into any skill, hobby or career. In brief, you put in, you get out! He feels as though he has improved in many ways but doesn’t think he has even touched the surface of where he wants to be or of what he wants to learn.
So exactly what does Tristan’s business comprise? Essentially, Doghead Designs is about celebrating creativity through the medium of furniture. At its heart and soul, it focuses on interior design and styling by creating pieces of furniture with character. Tristan works uniquely with reclaimed and up-cycled quality furniture and in a world where it is out with the old and in with the new he is a most welcome addition to the local and national designer scene.
From that the business extends to education – giving people the knowledge to paint their own pieces through workshops – it’s an aspect of the business that Tristan loves and has ideas for creating a series of workshops for children in the near future. If bespoke is the key feature of the furniture it most certainly extends to the workshops, Tristan does half days, full days, one to one, small groups, large groups, in your home, in his home………he also has the ‘Teaching Workshop’ located above the studio.
Since opening the studio at the Clevedon Craft Centre in September 2020 (the one year anniversary of Doghead Designs) the business has grown in a way that Tristan had not initially thought it would. It now encompasses a much broader spectrum of interiors. It is about building a creative, handmade home where each item is carefully curated.
Commissions are another fantastic way of Tristan meeting new people and working with them to transform existing pieces of furniture, home accessories and ornaments. This process can involve as much or as little support from him as required; often clients have a strong vision of what they want to create but there are many occasions when his support and creative guidance is welcomed.
All of this links and intertwines! Essentially, Tristan likes to think of Doghead Designs as a brand whereby anything under the umbrella of his work and that of his suppliers feels unique, authentic and recognisable and evokes emotion through the artistry.
I noticed some of my favourite designers amongst the many that he features in the shop and wondered how he went about choosing who to feature. He explained that first and foremost he was very keen to celebrate and champion local talent and provide something for the community from the community. He believes that there is so much more soul in something that has been made by a real person doing something they are passionate about. He had never come across a shop that only sells handmade products and wanted this to be his unique selling point from day one.
On that note, Tristan is always on the lookout for new suppliers and interesting work so there will always be plenty of new work for customers to engage with but he is very loyal to his suppliers so he certainly won’t be losing any…just adding to the team! The only issue is of course space, he could do with an extension to help accommodate all their beautiful pieces!
Tristan is very keen to find young local talent that he can support so if anyone reading this know of any children or young people who have a unique skill or product then get in touch with him. I’ve put all his contact details at the end of the post.
I asked Tristan about the biggest challenge he has had to face since opening, and yes you guessed it: Covid! Unable to sell, teach or host workshops, the pandemic has wreaked havoc with his business. Added to which due to it’s infancy he has been unable to apply for the standard government loans. Needless to say, the lack of financial security has been very tough and although he remains undaunted, he is understandably anxious about the future of retail.
It will be very interesting to see how shopping habits change in the post pandemic world; will the growth in spending on ‘essentials’, which leaves little for ‘non-essentials’, decrease; will online shopping habits triggered by the pandemic become permanent; will shoppers who have been so well served by local businesses remain loyal? What will the new normal shopping patterns be?
Speaking personally, I feel a tremendous debt of loyalty to these individuals who have invested so much of their time and energy into our community and have made lockdown bearable, not just in terms of the goods and services they have provided but in terms of the tremendous resilience and positivity that they have modelled.
I’ve also got to know them better, I’m much more aware of their ‘stories’, either through writing about them or through their social media channels. They are ‘real’ people and I love reading about their passion for what they are selling and I truly value their knowledge and their expertise. I also want that human connection, so no, for me there will be no big change in where I shop, although what I shop for is a whole other story!
We went on to chat about greatest successes and disappointments of which there have happily been few of the latter. His most recent, exciting success was being invited to host on @mycolourfulupcycle – an account on Instagram that celebrates upcycling from professional painters to enthusiastic novices. To be recognised in the field was a wonderful confidence boost for Tristan and has given him the opportunity to share his skills and encourage others in their own projects. If you are a keen upcycler and share work on Instagram then use the hashtag #mycolourfulupcycle for a chance of being featured.
Given the enormity of the decision to leave education and embark on such a different career I was interested to know how much Tristan’s family had been involved in the decision, whether or not they were supportive and whether they were in any way involved in the business. Not surprisingly, it was much talked about at length but in a nutshell his family trusted his vision and ambition and knew that he would work hard to make it a financial success. As we were discussing this, I remembered that it was actually Tristan’s wife who made the original suggestion about the furniture painting as a career, a sure sign of the faith she had in him. I think it would be fair to say that as a family they recognised the need for change and supported his actions.
His friends also played a big part in supporting him and were on hand to give much needed encouragement and words of wisdom. None of his family are involved in the business but never say never! He has two children (and one on the way) who he can train up, and a wife who would happily step aboard if the opportunity ever presented itself. Given that Tristan’s long term vision is to focus more on workshops and collaborations with his suppliers and to make Doghead Designs a hub for creativity as well as a shop, this may well happen sooner rather than later.
However, at the moment it is very much a one man band and a dog! Gatsby! How could I have forgotten about gorgeous Gatsby!
At the age of 8 weeks Gatsby started going to school every single day and very quickly became part of the school family. As you can imagine he was hugely popular and brought great benefits to the children. If you’re a teacher and you’d like to know more about these benefits and how such a scheme might work in your school, then check it out here: https://www.learnwithdogstrust.org.uk/school-dogs/
As Gatsby had played such a strong part in Tristan’s school life, Tristan knew that he wanted him to be involved in this next chapter. Choosing the name Doghead Designs seemed natural; ex-head+dog=Doghead. Gatsby became accustomed to life as a full-time model very quickly and took to life behind the camera VERY well. Having a cute little mascot was an idea to make the furniture more memorable and stand out a little which is most certainly does.
Tristan’s only disappointment about the whole venture is that his father never got to see it. His father was an artist for most of his life until he died at 92 years of age. He was always (and still is) such an enormous inspiration for him. He always maintained that Tristan would end up doing something artistic in his life. He was of course extremely proud of his career in education and knew that he injected as much creativity into this role as was humanly possible but it was as if he had a sixth sense and knew that this wouldn’t be quite enough and that there would be a more creative journey ahead. Tristan hopes that on some level his father can see what he’s doing now; he certainly believes that his father’s guiding hand has been there in a lot of his decision making. His father created a life for himself and his family that was totally unique and bohemian and for Tristan, knowing that he is doing the same is one of the most exciting, special aspects of his new venture.
It was so interesting talking to Tristan and I wish him all the very best for the continued success and growth of Doghead Designs – his longer term plan is to develop Doghead Designs across different locations within the South West and produce more branded products. Having survived a global pandemic at such a critical stage in the business and given Tristan’s tremendous passion and drive to succeed I would be in no doubt as to him achieving this. All the very best Tristan.
If you’d like to know more about Doghead Designs, you can check it out here: https://www.dogheaddesigns.com and these are his contact details: Tristan Merriam, Doghead Designs, Clevedon Craft Centre, Studio 9a, Clevedon, BS21 6TD Telephone: 07870505542 E mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The opening hours of Tristan’s studio are:
Monday: CLOSED Tuesday: 10am-5.00pm Wednesday: 10am-2.00p Thursday: 10am-5.00pm Friday: 10am-5.00pm Saturday: 10am-4.00pm Sunday: 11am-3.00pm