Meet the Maker – Plum Chutney

This month on Meet the Maker I’m really pleased to be interviewing Anita Mackenzie from Plum Chutney, a design-led interiors boutique inspired by India.  Like myself, Anita gave up the corporate life to pursue a creative career and has built a brilliant brand whilst also juggling family life.  Plum Chutney is a riot of colour and pattern, with products that add vibrancy to your house balancing beautifully against the dark interiors that Anita loves so much.

What is your background and how did you get started with Plum Chutney?

Well let’s just start with my name I am Anita, Mackenzie by marriage but Kumar before that. I am Indian – I was born, grew up, studied and worked in India for the first 31 years of my life. Unbeknownst to me fate had a westward move up its sleeve. In 2005 I moved to London for an expat stint with my then employer Unilever. During my time in London I met my husband Alistair and the rest as they say is a bit of Indo-British history.

In 2009 I got married, quit my corporate career and in 2010 I set up www.PlumChutney.com, an online home decor store inspired by India.

Having quit the corporate world I decided to sign up for an interior design Diploma course with NDA Nottingham in 2010. It was researching projects for my course that actually introduced me to the world of online retail and more specifically to the world of small creative businesses that were changing the design landscape of Britain and challenging the high street with their inventiveness.

I was hooked. I formulated a plan to develop an interiors brand that would take inspiration from my home country India – all its richness of colour, craft and imagery – but would tailor this with a British design lens to deliver contemporary, beautifully crafted products that told colourful stories for your home.

I wanted to capture all the opulence, chaos and colour associated with India. And yet I wanted to build in the British love for humour and history into my brand. My whole life was a confluence of things British and Indian and this filtered in seamlessly into the way I put together my first few collections and indeed the name of my brand Plum Chutney.

I launched in late 2010 with my website and a series of very successful pop-up shops in Bristol, where we lived at the time. The brand received a fabulous response and I knew I had hit upon a winner.

How do you source your products?

Since I started Plum Chutney I have worked with a variety of designer makers and small creative brands from India to put together my collections. I came across their work on trips to India or was introduced to them by my sister, who has her own furniture brand and store in Mumbai.

This included designers/artists like Vineeta Nair, Vaishali Sinha, Satyadheer Singh and Chitra Merchant and brands like Play Clan, India Circus, Quirk Box and Pondymania. In all cases the designers shared my passion to bring alive the charm of India through contemporary craft and design.

But alongside sourcing products, that I felt sat well with the brand I was aiming to create, I also had exclusive ranges designed for Plum Chutney. This is where I was able to blend the British love for humour, history and unique design most effectively with Indian imagery. It’s been very heartening too that most of these went on to become Plum Chutney’s signature designs and biggest commercial and media successes! My Maharaja in his Darbar and Men in Turbans designs were picked to feature as trendsetting new products at Top Drawer, 2012; The Nizam’s Jewels collection was hand-picked by the British Library London to retail in their shop as part of their prominent Mughal Empire Exhibition in 2013; The screen printed Haathgadi and Ellie the Elephant ranges were featured at the Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre in 2013 and 2014.

What is different about your products?

Each and every one of our products is impeccably hand crafted, replete with colour and each of our designs tells a story! This may be a grand tale of Maharajas with their opulent palaces and entourages, told through quirky, graphic cushions or a simpler narrative of the stupendous skill that goes into weaving or embroidering the fabrics used to make our throws and bedspreads!

I believe that consumers today actively seek out unique products that reflect their personalities and interests. In my many pop-ups I found that Plum Chutney products were an instant love for people who like their homes to reflect their love of travel and fascination for diverse cultures. I think also that people who appreciate sound provenance and value the originality of hand-crafted products tend to feel right at home with Plum Chutney.

How would you describe your own interior style?

My own personal aesthetic has evolved and changed considerably over time especially given the move from India to England. But some key elements have remained the same. I love colour, I am drawn to interiors with a touch of drama and I like to surround myself with eclectic objects that have history and a story to tell.

Original art, vintage lamps and mid-century furniture are a shared vice for my husband and me. But we never buy objects or art as an investment – we buy things we are drawn to and love. In our home a £5 find from eBay gets equal prominence as a £1000 oil painting (we have very, very few of those). A battered old chair or chest of drawers will sit comfortably next to a designer piece of furniture.

More recently I have set out on a journey exploring dark decor. And it has been an absolute delight. Several rooms/walls in my home are painted in inky shades of mysterious blue greens and I absolutely adore how art, plants, honey coloured woods and anything textured stands out against them. Dark walls have an amazing ability to make rooms feel cocooning and held together. I can liberally indulge my love for intense saturated colour against the dark backdrop creating a uniquely stylish look for my home.

What are the challenges and benefits of running your own business?

Let’s start with the benefits which I think are immense.

  • You are your own master
  • The sense of pride and ownership you feel for what you have created – your designs, your products, your brand – is just the most energizing feeling to wake up to every morning.
  • The satisfaction of translating your original ideas into commercially viable opportunities is just one of the best feelings in the world. A feeling you rarely get when you work for somebody else.
  • In time working for yourself allows you to be flexible around the needs of your family and personal life. (Though in the initial years this can be harder).

The challenges equally are many

  • The most obvious of course is money. Finding money to fund your ideas and then making sufficient money to keep funding new ideas and growing your business.
  • Equally challenging are the incredibly steep learning curves on every aspect of your business and rarely having the spare hands to help with anything. At the start you will have to be willing to be everybody for your business – the accountant, the techie, the copywriter, the designer, the photographer, the postman, the cleaner – everybody!
  • If you have left a fancy corporate career then of course there is the getting used to the complete lack of privileges, creature comforts and indeed social status.

What advice would you give to others setting up their own business?

Do what you absolutely love, that is the only way to survive the lows and trust me there will be many. Define early on what aspect of setting up and running your own business energises you the most! Craft it in one sentence, frame it and put it up on the wall so you never lose sight of it.

Ask yourself everyday what is it that’s different and unique about your offering. Setting up a business to opportunistically cash in on a trend or indeed to offer popular products at a cheaper price point is great in the short run but not emotionally sustainable. You will either get bored sooner than you think or you will eventually run into a wall in terms of creative growth for your offering.

I believe that a strong sense of community is coming back into the way we are choosing to live our lives. In this new environment the human being behind the brand is going to become more and more important – as a source of authenticity and provenance. You the aspiring entrepreneur are the human being behind your brand. Never forget the power that comes with it and the responsibility.

What has been the toughest phase in your business?

In the summer of 2012 I had my first child and then my second in the Spring of 2014. Between 2014 to 2017 the bulk of my time was taken up by my two young children and in this time Plum Chutney had to be dialled down to the bare minimum.

As I waded my way through the precious but exhausting years of caring for little children – I often found myself demotivated and even depressed. A wise friend said to me around this time ‘it is a difficult time yes but it is going to end soon’. It helped me focus on the future ahead. I knew by September 2018 both of my kids would be in full time school. It was time to start prepping for that next phase of my life. In January 2017, I decided to finally sign up for a screen-printing course at a local arts school. I had wanted to do this for ages and had just never felt I could fit a 3-hour weekly commitment and prep time around two demanding children. But I knew I badly needed a diversion. I needed to do something that was 100% for me.

It was truly the best decision I ever made for me and eventually for my business. Over time my screen-printing class became my creative outlet, my energiser, my way of staying in touch with the designer within. As part of this course I ended up refining my photoshop skills and soon I started dabbling with creating original designs myself as potential collections for PlumChutney.

I also got onto Instagram in 2017 and starting posting pictures of my new home. The journey into dark decor and planning new collections for Plum Chutney went completely hand in hand. It was like a massive creative reboot! One fed off the other and I think both have come out much richer as a result. Instagram was a very rich source of inspiration and ideas in this journey.

2018 as a result has been a year of resurrection and reinvention. Early in the year I got Plum Chutney onto Instagram and started using it to advertise again. I made a conscious decision to change direction on my product photography aligning it with my love for dark décor. This helped energise my existing collections, present them in a fresh light and crucially gave me ideas for new products inspired by the dark décor trend. I started selling my own Art online (that was a big milestone).  Using this new approach, I also completely revamped my website.

I also started shooting my products as styled edits – of cushions, throws, baskets, art etc together. This helped demonstrate how they may look in your home and how they can be mixed and matched. The two edits available to view and buy online currently are

  • ‘The Indigo Edit’ a gorgeous collection of throws, cushions and rugs inspired by the king of dyes ‘Indigo’. You will find references to hand block prints, shibori, ikat and other craft traditions that create magic with blue and white patterns.
  • ‘Boho Accents’printed and embroidered in a monochrome palette with pops of bright colour. Baskets, cushions, table runners and art with patterns and pom-poms galore.

What do you have planned for the future?

My latest edit “Maximalist Maharaja” is going online very soon. At the heart of this edit is a collection of cushions sourced from a fabulous company called India Circus. The cushions have palaces and maharajas and peacocks galore in saturated intense colours digitally printed on silk and velvet. I have mixed this up with a gorgeous fuchsia velvet lampshade with an intricate gold foil print, a stunning velvet throw in midnight blue with fuchsia pompoms and an original print I designed to complete the edit. Maximalist magic at its best – this is going to be my big launch for Diwali in November and the festive season more generally.

Also, in the pipeline is another collection of Velvet Lampshades – adorned with stunning art deco motifs in gold foil. These are my own original designs inspired by a series of Art Deco screen prints I did earlier in the year and decorative patterns I have used in my own home. The first collection I have designed entirely by myself. The lampshades will sit alongside gorgeous velvet planters, cushions and velvet throws. I mustn’t give it all away just yet – but let’s just say the future at Plum Chutney is looking pretty darn decadent.

To find out more about Plum Chutney visit Anita’s website at www.plumchutney.com and catch her on Instagram at @plumchutneydotcom and @anita.mackenzie.

If you would like to feature your brand on Meet the Maker in 2019 please get in touch at emma@livedin365.co.uk.