Native Swinson: Bringing the Bush to Bondi

Designer and artist Kate Swinson had an enviable rural childhood roaming untethered on her family’s small farm in southern NSW. She and her siblings spent much of their time rocketing down dirt laneways on home-made billy-carts, border collie dogs by their side. No helicopter parents back then, just a pack of wild country kids doing their own thing.

Kate Swinson and her tribe

“I am a maker at heart and am anchored by process”, says Kate. It’s clear her country upbringing nurtured these qualities in her.

As a child I used to knit my own jumpers. I was obsessed with knitting and the process of spinning wool, seeing the sheep shorn and sorting the fleece”, Kate shares. “That’s my nerdy secret”.

As is often the case, it was a university education that eventually took her away from the farm to the city of Melbourne. “University, and an art education at RMIT, gave me a structure in which to contextualise my thoughts and feelings for the landscape and also eventually to long for it,” she describes. “I hankered for natural space. I don’t think this is unusual for those who have grown up with an expanse of land around them. For me the sensation is very similar to looking out on to the ocean. The experience of peaceful calm is the same.”

Kate majored in painting at university, and for the first time was able to think of creativity as a legitimate career. With her fine art and design background as well as a Masters in drawing from the University of New South Wales, Kate began painting – and was a finalist in a number of major art prizes such as Salon des Refusés, with a portrait of Charlie Waterstreet, the infamous Sydney barrister and writer of ABC Television’s series, Rake.

Painting, though, wasn’t enough for Kate. “I wanted to do something more accessible with my drawing, and wallpaper and fabric design is the perfect juxtaposition,” she says. So, earlier this year, fueled by her nostalgia for the Australian bush, Kate launched Native Swinson, a contemporary wallpaper and fabric company.

Detail from one of Kate's wallpaper designs

Native Swinson designs transpire from her childhood, but also her experience with her own children, watching them naturally do very similar things to what she did as a child. Now based in the Sydney beachside suburb of Bondi, she can see her rural childhood in the child-friendly wallpapers she creates – and that of her offspring.

“As part of the design process I have documented my children and their friends playing outside, roaming freely, climbing, swinging on our tyre swing hanging high in a tree. As a result, all the characters in the designs are very close to me, and they all have a little story of their own,” Kate describes. “It may be my eldest daughter inside the hybrid Koala or one of her great friends sitting on the roof of our ‘Treehouse’ mural masquerading as a friendly kookaburra. The children and their friends and consequently their relationship with the outdoors filter through all of the designs”.

Nature is not just a rural landscape but also as a character of memory, a main player in my experience”.

An example Kate draws on is her banksia design, which originated from watching a group of rosellas dancing madly in a banksia tree. “They were hanging upside down and twirling about, totally oblivious to their audience of my children and I laughing at their antics,” she recalls.  “I thought, how wonderful would it be to have the interior aesthetic of one of those trees flowing across the walls of a home, like a bird in a tree? This is how my banksia design emerged.”

Seeing drawing as a process-driven medium, where the trace of the maker remains within the work, Kate likes the ‘human touch’ obvious in her range, especially in a time of mass production and consumerism. “The presence of the maker in the product forms a sense of connection, community, and uniqueness. Everything we do is ultimately its own – nothing is exactly the same,” says Kate.

It’s been very important to Kate that Native Swinson products are as eco-friendly as possible.  “All of our printing inks are water-based and toxin free, and our papers are either 100% organic or made from certified green forestry combined with recycled plastic.”

Native Swinson is an antithesis to the throw-away society. We’re focused on making a high quality product that is timeless rather than fashion based,” Kate stresses.

Kate now describes her relationship to plants as an emotional one. “I love to see an enormous tree, especially those big old trees that have been here much longer than us. At the same time I treasure a kitchen garden and adore growing herbs to freshly throw into our cooking”, she says. “I am a big fan of community gardens, and we’re fortunate to have a gorgeous one a few houses down the street growing in what once was a deserted alley.  The space is invigorated by garden beds and fruit trees. My children love it”.

Inspiration-wise, Kate admits her phone is filled with many photos of random leaves and flowers. “At the moment I seem to have an enormous amount of imagery of tiny wax flowers that have caught my eye”. Stay tuned – as it’s likely those little flowers will be making an appearance in her upcoming wallpaper designs!

Check out Native Swinson’s WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM