Photography: Cho Fang Yu
Tobby Wu is a Brockley based ceramicist who turned her love of the gothic and flowers into a new business during the first lockdown. With a sculptural and striking aesthetic, Bleak House has been quickly embraced by the local community, stocked by 57 Handmade and Salthouse Bottles. We caught up with Tobby to find out about her inspirations, how her interest in floristry started and how she’s been connecting with the local community to grow her new business.
Can you tell us a little bit about you and your background?
I’m from Taiwan originally, I came to London in 2010 to study Fine Art. Floristry was quite a late awakening for me. I didn’t pursue a career in Art, but I miss how I used to make things out of my hands. I enrolled in a pottery course and thought… umm, I need to fill some flowers into these vases I made, I should become a florist. Ha, just joking!
I did a floristry course when I moved back to London in 2015 to be together again with my boyfriend now husband, and decided this is probably the job that I think I can do for the rest of my life. And I’m still making vases.
Can you tell us the story behind Bleak House? We’re assuming the name is inspired by Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, with flowers symbolic for the character Esther.
It is after Charles Dickens’ Bleak House; however, I’ve only heard about the book from my husband reading it before bed when I was doing my floristry course. This word just stuck with me and I thought how great Bleak House sounds. It’s so Victorian and it’s gothic. I adore both.
What inspired you to take the plunge and start Bleak House?
I decided to start Bleak House during the first lockdown. It was a time to reset for everybody. It’s probably not the best time to start a small business, but I thought there’s no better time, either. If I was so fortunate to get to pause for three months and just think about what I want to do next, I may as well do it.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I like weird things, I like unusual combinations. I collect a lot of stuff and I get inspiration from them. I actually found a perfect comment from Graham Greene on Barbara Comyns’s novels, he said, “The strange off-beat talent of Barbara Comyns whose innocent eye observes with child-like simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurrence.” I stole it, I thought this is brilliant! This is how I look at flowers.
Your work is very sculptural. Who or what is your top design inspiration?
Everything is my inspiration, floristry wise, I try to bear in mind the Asian philosophy that negative space is equally important with filled space when arranging flowers.
You’re based in Brockley. Does this influence the way you create?
Not about the way I create, but more about how I’m trying to collaborate with local shops and getting to know all the local makers, families and shops, which is very exciting for a start up business and again, that sense of community.
Coronavirus has changed so much of the world around us. How are you coping as a small business and personally?
I realised that it has made people buy from their local shops which is good to bring back almost a community feeling. I have, because of Covid, decided to do something locally. I had a great time during the first lockdown! I darned my sofa that I was wanting to do for 2 years. I’m not a person that gets bored very easily, the only thing I worry about is that I can’t travel back to Taiwan to see my family due to extremely strict travel rules.
Sustainability has become a key focus across all industries. Is it an important factor for Bleak House?
Yes, it is. In floristry, there’s quite a lot that can be improved. I personally really dislike meaningless or one off packaging, and usually florists use lots of them ie, cellophane, wrapping paper, tissue paper, gift bag …etc I know sometimes it’s unavoidable but I’m trying to be very minimal with it. Most of the packaging can be recycled, but i just don’t believe this over-producing in the first place.
One other thing is that I want to bring more English flowers into people’s homes. Winter time is a little harder, but Spring and Summer is going to be a lovely season for English blooms. People are getting better at knowing where their food is from, but not necessarily about flowers. The UK used to produce quite a lot of cut flowers but this has died down because 80% of people buy unbeatable cheap flowers from supermarkets that most likely come from Africa. Seasonality and locality are two good things when considering buying flowers.
What’s next for you?
I’m gonna grow my own flowers. I’m taking a horticulture course, and if I find a piece of land somewhere and get my driving licence, sorted!