This month we chat to Mike Watt and Nia Wood of Rural Kind about the importance of country walks, thoughtful design and the joy of collaboration.
Visit the home of Rural Kind, deep in rural Wales, and the inspiration behind their work quickly becomes clear; their workshop sits surrounded by stunning countryside and it’s easy to see the connection between the beautiful, simple lines and muted, natural colours of their designs and the landscape beyond the workshop’s windows.
‘We do spend a lot of our time outdoors,’ says Rural Kind co-founder, Mike, ‘and we get so much of inspiration from the countryside. Our first bag design was basically inspired by being outdoors and wanting something tough and durable to use in that environment. When Nia and I are out walking the dogs we’ll use the time to chat about work - we get some of our best ideas in the middle of a field!’
Sounds like the ultimate brain-storming space…? ‘Yes, it can be,’ Mike continues, ‘we often find solutions to design problems when we’re out tramping the fields. It’s a lovely environment to be in.’
The pair first met as students at Cardiff University - and have been together ever since - but their Rural Kind partnership is a more recent development, and, in Mike’s words, the culmination of a ten year ‘meander’.
‘After graduating, we were both city-based, something we wanted to change. Eventually we decided to move back to Nia’s home village in Carmarthenshire. I set up my own little architecture practice and Nia was running a small home-baking business. We’d always talked about doing something together, one way or another, and after a little while I just got to point where I knew I wanted to use my hands to make things, rather than just designing and drawing.’
‘It was always an aim to set up something working together,’ Nia agrees, ‘but for a while we weren’t quite sure what shape that would take.’
The answer eventually came in the form of a sketch and an old industrial sewing machine. Nia explains: ‘We had started to think about possibly making some bags. One evening, Mike was just doodling (pretending to do some architecture work!) and started to sketch some bags. We thought they looked pretty workable, so we decided to have a go at making them. My Mum, who has a background in sewing, still had an old industrial sewing machine, so we sat down at that and started to play around with the design.’
Was it a ‘eureka’ moment for them? ‘Not at all,’ laughs Mike, ‘we didn’t think straight away, oh this is it.’ There followed a year of refining the design, and researching materials before Rural Kind was established in 2014, with a website and just one product – the Utility bag. ‘Which was fine with us,’ Nia says, 'It felt important to take our time, to make sure that the design was right, rather than rushing, or having a ‘that’ll do’ approach.'
The ethos of Rural Kind remains firmly rooted in careful, thoughtful design. Sustainability is also a key principle behind their work. ‘Sustainability is really important to us,’ Nia continues, ‘we don’t want to make disposable goods. We try to make as little impact as possible in terms of packaging, waste and so on. We want to create things which are incredibly durable, things that will just keep going, or can be fixed if necessary.’
No surprise then, that they use the tough materials like canvas and leather in their products and wherever possible, they source their materials from small, like-minded British manufacturers.
Their leather comes from a small tannery in Devon, which uses locally sourced oak to tan their leather, while their canvas comes from a factory in Scotland which has been producing waxed fabrics for over 150 years. ‘We want to work with people who share a similar ethos, and with materials which wear well over time,’ says Mike. ‘We love the depth that the marks, creases and scuffs canvas and leather develop over time, it adds a layer of real character to the work.’
Working with companies they admire and like is something of a theme in Rural Kind's work, culminating in a number of collaborations with like-minded creatives, as Mike explains: ‘We decided earlier this year not to chase wholesale orders, but to focus our energies on collaborations. We’ve been lucky to create products with The Future Kept, Charlott Fletcher and Another Escape. It’s great to have their input on a design. I think we enjoy the collaborative process as much as the end product.’
So, how do they go about connecting with potential collaborators? ‘There definitely has to be a shared outlook for it to work, I think,’ Nia says, ‘we’ve had a couple of approaches which we had to turn down as we didn’t feel was the right fit for us. When we started out it hadn’t occurred to us that collaboration was something we could do. Charlott Fletcher was the first person to approach us with the idea of working together and we jumped at the chance!’
‘The same goes for our work on the camera bag with Dean and Jeska at the Future Kept and journal sleeve with Rachel and Jody at Another Escape. We all have a similar outlook and core values, so it’s a real pleasure to work with them.’
The creative process starts with a design sketched by Mike, which they then work on together at the sewing machine to create a protoype. ‘It’s been a learning process,’ Nia says, ‘even though I knew how to use the industrial sewing machine, each item throws up different challenges and there’s a definite sense of trial and error before we get to a finished piece.’
The Rural Kind range has expanded since the first bag back in 2014, to include a range of good from lunch bags and rucksacks, to key holders and folios. It’s safe to assume then that the ideas just keep coming?
‘So far, yes,’ says Mike, ‘even if we did run out of designs, there are always things we could do to the existing range to keep us busy! We often make little changes once we’ve had time to sit with a design, so we might think, a small tweak here, or this needs a bit of refining.'
‘That’s one of the lovely things about making to order,’ Nia continues, ‘we don’t have mounds of stock hanging around, so if we want to tweak about a design we can just go ahead and do it. It’s great to have that flexibility.’
Nature aside, where else do they turn to for inspiration? ‘It varies,’ says Mike, ‘we get ideas from design in general, or architecture. We love the work of architects like Alvar Aalto, and Tadao Ando, for example. One of us might notice a detail on a building, for example or in a piece of design unrelated to our bags, and that would spark an idea for a design.’
As with many makers, Instagram has played an important role in growth of their business, and in Rural Kind’s case a sense of community. 'We've found a great creative community through Instagram,' says Mike. 'From very early on we ‘met’ and started chatting with other makers – like Jono Smart and Max and Abigail of Forest + Found. People who are going through the same process, and you’re able to chat through your experiences and what you’re up to… it’s great.’
When asked about the biggest challenge of being an independent maker, the response is unanimous: marketing.
‘Neither of us are very good at pushing ourselves and Rural Kind,’ says Nia, ‘so the promotion side of the running this sort of business is quite challenging. Having said that, Instagram has been brilliant, it’s a great way of sharing our work without feeling overtly pushy about it all.’
The aim of the coming year is to build up the business, so they can both work on it full time. ‘We’re both still taking bits and pieces of other work alongside Rural Kind at the moment,' says Mike, 'so the goal is to get to a position where we can work full time on the business.’
'We also have a couple of new collaborations in the pipeline, which is exciting.' Nia says. 'What we really want above all else, is to keep enjoying our work and to carry on producing goods which we’re proud of - well designed, well made and built to last.'
Describe your work in three words:
Simple, functional, durable.
What are your making rituals?
Podcast on, a clean workbench, plenty of tea and coffee breaks, and always an afternoon dog walking break.
Tea or coffee?
Both! Tea with breakfast, coffee later on in the morning, tea in the afternoon!
Mountains or sea?
Mountains, but the sea's a close second.
Night owl or early bird?
I wish someone had told me….
The meaning of life? ......still waiting!
Rural Kind: www.ruralkind.com