Meet the Maker: Charlotte Raffo, The Monkey Puzzle Tree

Meet the Maker: Charlotte Raffo, The Monkey Puzzle Tree

Welcome to Hope and Story's Meet the Maker Series, where we chat to some of the people behind our favourite independent British brands. 

 

Charlotte Raffo

Established in 2017, The Monkey Puzzle Tree has carved out a new way to harness creative ideas to produce one-of-a-kind designs.

Run by founder Charlotte Raffo, their carefully selected Yorkshire artists celebrate the best of the North of England's creativity, eccentricity and innovation.

What's different about them is that every single one of their designs starts with an original piece of art. Meaning that when you buy one of their luxury fabrics or wallpapers, you're bringing a unique artwork into your home. And for The Monkey Puzzle Tree artists, this means their creativity is supported via the generous royalty they pay. 

I chatted to the the lovely Charlotte over a cuppa and got to understand a bit more about why this business is going from strength to strength. 

Charlotte, thanks for joining us. Where does your inspiration come from? 

'I suppose the inspiration comes from the art rather than trends. I don't spend a lot of time looking at what other people are doing.

I spend my time trying to find the most unique artist I can possibly find who has done something I've never seen before and then transposing that into something new and different.

By doing that, I really hope that it doesn't date in the same way a current trend would look great this year but in five years time it might have gone out of date. So it's about creating that longevity. I renovated my own home fifteen years ago and I still love what's in it. I want to create that with Monkey Puzzle Tree. From an environmental point of view it's better if we have beautiful things we will keep them for a long time and have a real connection with them and they will stay with us forever. ' 

And are all the artists that you find local?

'Yes, it's just so happened that all the artists are from Yorkshire. Now it's happened that way, I'm going to keep it like that. It's nice because in Yorkshire there's not so many creative opportunities as there are in London, for example.'

We were reading your website bio and loved the description 'We create distinctive fabrics and wallpapers with a quiet sense of rebellion, bringing art, story and character to your interior. The word rebellion interests us, how would you define that when choosing an artist to work with? 

'I suppose it's just that being different and not just following the crowd. It's interesting recently when I've done call-outs for artists a lot of the work that has come in has been great but all of it very similar. Last time I got six different people who had drawn Lemurs! It's nice, but it's not different. It's about having that strength of conviction in your style that no matter what else is going on on the outside, that you won't follow and change with the times. It can also be about the work itself. Drew's Hit The North wallpaper for example has skulls hidden in it. Sarah Jane Palmer's lace has got naked people doing things that's a bit hidden in the fabric.'

 

The Hit The North wallpaper has recently been awarded a Design Guild Mark Award for recognising excellence in the furniture industry, congratulations. Tell us a bit more about that particular design and how you landed on cork as a material to work with.

'I worked with Drew Millward on that and he was fantastic, most of the credit has to go to him really but the cork thing is interesting. I saw Drew's art and thought 'this is amazing, but I'm not sure how it's going to translate into a textile. It kind of feels like it has quite a masculine feel and I couldn't imagine it as a fabric but I really want to work with it somehow'. I was actually at a trade fair and opposite a Portuguese cork stand and it kind of permeated. I was looking at this cork stand for five days and thinking 'wow, that's a really great material'. I then visited a cork factory in Portugal and some cork forests. It's such an incredible, ancient process where the trees grow without any chemicals for thirty years in protected forests before they are harvested for cork. That's how I came about the wallpaper and I really feel like it suits Drew's style and brings a unique sense of character to a home.'

It's a shame we are doing this virtually because I would love to feel the texture of the cork wallpaper...

'Yeah it's got a real soft, silky feel. It's definitely better in real life than virtually!'

Take us back a little bit to how you started up. How far from your initial concept are you now, five years down the line? 

'Err, yeah not that far actually. If anything, I'd say it's got more focused. Sarah, my artist friend, kind of partially came up with the idea. I was working in textiles and had a lot of experience working with manufacturing. I always wanted to push the boundaries but wasn't able to do that in my previous roles in development and buying. Sarah said 'I'd love to do fabric' and I thought 'I can help you with that' so she suggested I do it and fund it, then pay her back a royalty when the textiles sold. That's how it started. Sarah's fabric which is Rita Does Jazz was our first creation. I always knew I wanted to produce in Britain which hasn't changed.

I have become more focused on the North of England over time, both with the artists I work with and manufacturing. Everything is now produced within one hundred miles of Leeds' 

It must have been tempting to look elsewhere where it could have potentially been cheaper for you. What was the reason you stayed in and around Leeds?

'Well, my first job was in a Tannery who supplied Louis Vuitton and Mulberry bags - it was such an amazing job. There were three hundred people and some real characters there. I'd been there six years and in 2006 it closed down.

Everyone lost their jobs. It was really sad, people who had worked their whole lives there and built up these amazing craftsmanship skills, that was all lost. It made me think, we are loosing these skills, I want to do something to prevent that from happening.

Supporting local Mills is something I am super passionate about because I have been through it myself.' 

That's amazing. And you are making your products in such a sustainable way and environmentally friendly way...

'Well, all products have some impact on the environment. I can't run a product business and say I have no impact, obviously it has. I try to lessen that as much as possible by creating products that last a really long time. Everything is made locally except the things we cannot source. The inks are coming from Yorkshire. Our next fabric is going to be woven thirty miles away and printed sixty miles away with Yorkshire inks, so that's pretty local!'

How has the past twelve months of COVID restrictions affected your business? 

'The biggest negative has been not being able to go to trade fairs and have spontaneous chance meetings - some of my best customers have come from those. On the positive side of things, virtual meetings have been great for me, especially as I am not from central London. You can sometimes feel like that puts you at a disadvantage but it's a level playing field now. Launching new products has been really difficult. Working in a close, creative way just doesn't work well virtually. Not being able to physically visit factories has been really hard too especially for new products. What you get shown on Zoom is a bit sanitised, people show me the products they think I will want to see.' 

Tell us a bit about your personal interior style.

'I suppose super eclectic and quite sentimental. If I love something, I tend to keep it. For my 21st birthday my parents bought me a bespoke 1930's style red velvet sofa, I still have it and it looks great twenty years on. The carpet in my living room is one my parents had growing up. I buy quite high end things and some have been found in junk shops or inherited, it's a real mixture which I think helps your house not date and feel homely because everything in it has a story.' 

What's in store for you over the next twelve months?

'So, I am working on three new designs. One with Alexis Snell which will come out in the next four months, I am heading to the Mill next week to see it being woven which is exciting. We have two new artists, one doing a wallpaper and one doing a fabric which I am really excited about.'

To shop The Monkey Puzzle Tree products, click here.