The Dirt: Sophie Tatlow & Bruce Slorach

Sophie Tatlow has tears running down her cheeks. Her partner in life and work, Bruce Slorach, has just alluded to his transcendental tendencies and Sophie is in hysterics. ‘Really?!’ she questions cheekily, before losing it again. We’re sitting around the dining table at Sophie and Bruce’s Sydney home talking plants, pattern and man skirts. Laughter is close by at all times.

Sophie and Bruce are the creative and business brains behind Utopia Goods, a textile and home wares brand based in Sydney. Utopia launched three years ago, with the aim of ‘turning the cultural cringe into a cultural binge’ through their range of exquisite textile designs celebrating the native flora and fauna of Australia.

Utopia Goods is a culmination of the pair’s past experience in the fashion, art and design worlds, as well as an exploration of ideas and concepts uncovered as part of their design practice, Deuce Design. At Deuce they undertake a wide range of projects from architectural and environmental graphics, to wayfinding systems, interior installations, and more. Research is a big part of their work, and it was through working on a number of heritage interpretation projects that the pair started questioning the lack of value placed on the Australian landscape in the cultural realms.

It wasn’t always this way, suggests Bruce. ‘At the time of centenary in 1888, the interest in the natural flora and fauna in the arts in Australia was incredible,’ he says. Artist Lucien Henry (1850-1896) was one of the forbearers of this movement. ‘Lucien Henry is one of my favourite people,’ he says. ‘Every thing he did in Sydney, from the Town Hall to his architectural work, showcased either firewheel tree flowers or waratahs. He used them in column heads, ceiling roses, stained glass windows and light fittings.’

‘Yes, he was a bit ADD’ suggests Sophie. ‘He was fixated by the firewheel and waratah, long before Jenny Kee.’

Interest in the native landscape of Australia as a motif in the decorative arts peaked at centenary but petered off in the interwar years. Modernism put the last nail in the coffin, suggests Bruce. From then on, Australians seem to have developed an inferiority complex when it comes to celebrating our unique flora and fauna in art and design.

If native plants and animals are used as a motif, they’re often used ironically – for a gag, a bit of kitsch, but rarely solely for their beauty. Bruce and Sophie are set on changing this.

One of the things we’re trying to do with Utopia Goods is to be irony free. We want to embrace the richness and beauty of our surroundings. The irony is apologetic, it’s a cop out, an each way bet. We don’t want, or need, to do that.

It seems Sophie and Bruce are onto something. They’ve recently returned from London Design Week where they were overwhelmed by the response to their work. ‘We were mobbed!’ says Sophie. ‘It was amazing how into it other countries were. Everyone would stop and want to know all about the plants and the flowers used in the designs. People were really excited about them.’ People understood the brand’s references to the history of botanical illustration, but also appreciated the unique Utopia spin, suggests Bruce.

Utopia has developed a strong local following too – their fabrics have drawn a wide range of fans out of the closet, from hipster girls in their 20’s to 90 year old grandmothers. ‘There’s lots people who have come out and been like ‘Thank God I found you, I’m going to do my whole living room in your fabrics’, and I’m like, ‘Wow! Really?!’ says Sophie. ‘We’ve got quite a few living rooms out there, some have done better than others…’

Bruce is the incredibly talented artist behind the Utopia patterns. Each design is hand drawn by him, then scanned, tweaked, scaled, made into screens, and then screen printed by hand onto various fabric weights including cotton drill, linen, cotton silk, and canvas. It’s a slow process – each design takes around one year from the initial drawing to finishing up as a roll of fabric.

Sophie is a dynamo – responsible for strategy, art direction and communications. It’s clear the pair are absolutely passionate about the business, and enjoy bouncing off each other. They’re also highly entertaining. Our conversation was one of the most hilarious interviews I’ve ever done. Bruce, who apparently doesn’t talk much, was on a roll, delving deep into the cultural heritage references imbued in the ethos behind Utopia Goods. Sophie was encouraging him, in no uncertain terms, to cut to the chase.

Life is not a nutshell. It’s not about sound bites,’ says Bruce, meandering towards a big statement. He soon arrives, under duress: ‘OK, in a gum nut, my purpose is actually just to excite people.’

He continues; ‘I’m really quite transcendental I suppose. One of the things…’ At this point Sophie interjects and Bruce is unable to continue his train of thought. Sophie is crying with laughter. He perseveres, the tears subside, and we end up at the man skirt. ‘Bruce designed one of the first man skirts in the 80s, and it’s on display at the NGV,’ Sophie tells me proudly.

‘It’s a tunic, it wasn’t a skirt,’ asserts Bruce. ‘But seriously, one of our ambitions is for our fabrics to have a similar longevity. We want people to pull out one of our tablecloths in 10 or 20 years time and still love it and use it.’

I have no doubt they will achieve this. Nothing about Utopia is trend based – there’s a richness and authenticity to their work that flies high above the fast fashion cycle of much of today’s products. Most importantly though, the pair are encouraging the development of a new visual language. The language of Australia. A language that speaks of the beauty and uniqueness of our place in the world. A language that celebrates, not cringes. ‘What we really want to say with Utopia is that you don’t have to look so far to find something beautiful,’ says Sophie. ‘It’s right here, it’s all around us.’