Reflections on design

In this exclusive interview, Jennifer Bradley reveals how her hunt for a mirror was the start of her brand Damn Good Looking.

When she couldn’t find a mirror she wanted in the shops, 2015 Emerging Creative Jennifer Bradley’s life as a designer began. She made herself a round mirror, laser-cutting pieces of wood to build the frame by hand. Bradley then learnt how to silk-screen material bags for her mirrors and that led to a range of patterned fabrics and paper. Her design brand, Damn Good Looking, also makes table runners, wrapping paper and bags.

As Design Indaba Expo 2015 draws closer, we talk to Bradley about how she started Damn Good Looking and why the name refers to you, fella.

How have your studies in architecture influenced your aesthetic?

While I have always been creative, studying architecture taught me about the process of design and even though I am no longer doing very much architecture, I would not be where I am without that background and the people I met along the way.

Did you work as an architect for a while after you graduated?

Yes, I have done close to three years work in architecture in various stints between and after studying.

What made you move away from it?

I got to a point in my job where I wasn't learning anymore. Then an opportunity arose to work on a freelance project so I took a deep breath and left my job. Of course the freelance job never materialised and I just started doing other things...

Early on in your journey as an entrepreneur, did anyone offer you any really great advice?

I have learnt a lot from many people and no one single pearl of wisdom comes to mind… but right from the start I have had the full support of all the people in my life that matter and that has been crucial to my perseverance. While it isn't direct advice, it has been incredibly valuable and has given me the reassurance I needed when I doubted myself.

Have you ever found it hard working for yourself?

At least once a week I find myself wondering what on earth I am doing. This whole thing can be terrifying but at the same time it is incredibly exciting and I love how steep the learning curve is.

Do you find the creative environment in SA inspiring or frustrating?

The design industry in SA is definitely inspiring.

Aside from the ever-increasing appreciation for local work, I have found all the people I have encountered to be generous with their time and expertise and genuinely supportive of each other.

Where are you based? Do you have a studio?

I am a bit of a nomad at the moment. I grew-up in Pretoria but I am in the process of moving to the Vaal Triangle. So my studio, as such, is either my fiancé’s or my parents’ garage, depending on where I am.

Who is the “trusty side kick” you mention on the Damn Good Looking website?

This sidekick is made up of a few people: my mother does all my sewing and a lot of my admin when I lose track of things (she is my hero), but there are also some of my friends I studied with who I rely on for design input. It is essential to have a soundboard or 12.

What made you decide to start with a mirror?

I wanted a round mirror and I couldn't find anything that I liked; or, if I liked it, it was well beyond what my resources would allow and so it [making one] began.

Is the reflective glass also laser cut? Or just the wood?

The glass is computer numerical control cut and machine polished. To achieve the clean minimal look, the frames don't have a rebate and so the glass has to have a perfect finish because it is not hidden behind the frame.

In the beginning were you just playing around or did you have a definite intention for what you wanted your final product to look like?

I had an idea but design is a process. I can't know exactly what I am trying to achieve before I have started – otherwise I would just be making something, not designing. As Bruce Mau states in his Incomplete Manifesto: “Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.”

Are they hand-held mirrors or wall mounted?

All my mirrors are wall mounted but the smallest one also has wooden legs, so it’s great on a dressing table, or such, as the legs are adjustable and allow you to change the angle the mirror stands at.

Where do you sell them?

I started out selling them at the Kamers Vol Geskenke market and a brilliant shop in Pretoria called Wonen, but now most of my sales are direct to my customer list that I have built up and word of mouth.

Is the name of your design brand referring to your designs or to everyone looking at themselves in one of them?

It is definitely not supposed to refer to my designs. It originated from the idea of someone looking at himself or herself in the mirror. It is supposed to make people laugh and so far it seems to be working. I just wanted to have fun with it. 

How did you get into screen-printing? Who taught you how to do it?

Once I had made the mirrors, I decided that I needed to package them. I wanted to make reusable cotton bags and so I approached a family friend who has a printing studio to make them for me, and amazingly she offered to teach me instead of doing them for me. That was the beginning of the pattern design and textile side of Damn Good Looking. She is one of those incredibly generous people I mentioned earlier.

What textiles do you work with?

I work with natural textiles: 100% cotton and linen.

Do you design on paper with pencil or on a screen with software?

Everything starts and evolves on paper and then I revert to my architecture training for the technical resolution and scale drawings using computer-aided design. Except for my patterns: those are 100% hand-drawn, right from the initial doodle to the stencil I use for printing.

What will you be exhibiting at Design Indaba Expo 2015?

I will be exhibiting my mirrors and a range of hand-printed textile products, including table runners, serviettes, bags and scarves.

What’s next for you?

These are exciting times and the list of things is long but I may be working on a really exciting collaboration… and I also just want to have more hours in the day so that I can send some more of my ideas and doodles out into the real-world.