We caught up with Kelly English, founder of the company CHEERIUP and the creative dynamo behind these amazing dwellings that she hand-weaves from recycled native willow.
We are so intrigued by your magical play nests, how did you come up with the idea for them?
Thanks so much! CHEERIUP was born from a perfect storm of many factors in my life. We hear time and time again of how transformative parenthood is. Well, it was. I really felt like my entire world exploded up into the air, and when things eventually fell back down in place, they landed in a much different and much improved configuration. I decided to leave my Graphic Design and Art career to be at home with my child, but being a compulsive maker, this left me with a heap of pent-up creativity to contend with. Then came my iPhone 4s, which our then 9 month old daughter was way too into, and, coincidentally, I’d started reading Richard Louv’s amazing “Last Child in the Woods,” where he talks about “the staggering divide between children and the outdoors.” Lastly, mix in my own preexisting snobbery for natural materials (way too much plastic in kids’ lives) and finally learning to knit after decades of unsuccessfully trying, I decided I’d try to “knit” my daughter an outdoor play dwelling with found vines or saplings.
I researched Native American wigwams for basic structural ideas, then posted an offer on Facebook to clear anyone’s unwanted young saplings or brush. Some friends generously let me cut down some of their tall sumac and a Landscape Designer responded with a load of dreamy willow he’d cleared on a job. It then took me about 8 months to slowly weave the first play nest, what I call a “Thicket”, in our backyard for my daughter. Then, after about a million requests from friends to make them one, I just decided to go for it and build a product line out of it. I spent about a year planning and building the foundation, and this is my first year in business. I feel so charmed by it’s momentum, it’s been going really really well. And it feels incredible to be creating a product that users truly love and gain substantial wellness from.
Tell us about the name CHEERIUP.
I pulled from my previous decade of branding experience and spent a few months making word lists, mostly culling from elements and processes in the natural world. I knew the brand needed a sweet, peaceful, charming, inspired, and playful tone. Then there’s the millennial challenge of claiming the dot com of your choice, right? “Cheeriup” is a Robin’s call, and the word itself rose to all the aforementioned occasions. And as my friend Emily said, you just can’t say the word with out an exclamation point! It has an undeniable brightness to it.
What happens in a Thicket?
Oh boy, I hope this doesn’t sound too self-congratulatory, but photographs just don’t even come close to the experience of a Thicket in real life. The order and scale of this “room” created with sticks is frankly, kind of stunning. To be enveloped by rhythmic rings of willow wood feels both grounding and nurturing. It’s kind of womb like: immediately calming, safe, and curative. Most of us just don’t get to experience anything architecturally similar to this in our modern lives. And I think we really crave that. A Thicket is a great place to cool off in the Summer with a book or a picnic, or to curl up on a warm evening with your sweetie and a glass of wine and listen to the cicadas sing, or to bundle up on a chilly Winter day and listen to a quiet first snowfall. Babies fall asleep in them, kids lose themselves in imaginative play in them, teenagers daydream in them, adults meditate in them, but eventually everyone at some point wants to just slooooow dooooown in them.
The artistry and craftsmanship of the Thickets are amazing, tell us a little about your background?
Oh my, thank you! CHEERIUP is definitely fueled by my Art and Design background. I have a BFA in Ceramics, which I’m accessing quite a bit here. Working with a natural material involves a l-o-t of beloved process, and there’s much overlap in that regard between clay and wood. That said, I actually paved an initial career in Graphic Design/Art Direction, primarily focusing on branding and fashion retail. This led me to teaching at Minneapolis College of Art and Design for the years prior to Motherhood.
As noted above, I’m inherently a compulsive maker. I’m also a bit hung-up on function and narrative, which is probably why I’ve loved graphic design so much. And I’m much more comfortable constructing things vs. making images. So, I’ve always done a LOT of the traditional crafts: sewing and needle arts, ceramics. Even in my past design career, my work was very physical and tactile and the concepts were always presented in the form of a story.
What’s your making process–do you have a template you follow? What materials and tools do you use?
It’s an intense process! (which makes pricing my biggest challenge). I recently realized that I touch EACH stick approx 5 to 6 times during the entire process. It takes me approximately 4 weeks to produce a 4 ft x 8-9ft Thicket: 1 to 2 weeks of solid weaving, with a prior 2 to 3 weeks of willow preparation, which includes the scouting, harvesting, transporting, and final curing. So just decrease that time frame a little for smaller Thickets, and increase it for larger ones.
I don’t really follow a template, per sé. A Thicket’s design tends to be based on a mix of factors: my previous Thicket designs and prototypes, the client’s budget, how many people are going to use it, the overall scale of the Thicket, and individual site considerations. Clients usually chose a basic size, then add on features they fancy, such as windows or a green pouch/window basket or fiber work. I’ve been experimenting with various overall Thicket shapes, but they tend to prefer being a particular sweet potato-esque shape. That’s the thing about working with an inconsistent natural material, it’s got a tangible say in what it will and won’t do! Scale really factors into things too. There are elements and shapes that work really well at a small scale, but just don’t translate up as successfully. And vice versa.
Do people usually customize or accessorize their nests? What ares some of the options?
Yes, and honestly this is one of my favorite parts of the process. I’m a huge fan of collaboration, and it’s so fun working together with families on outfitting their particular Thickets. Most folks want a window or two, they’re just SO fun for little ones to play peek-a-boo with and are endlessly photogenic. The fiber fringed eyelashes on windows are also really popular, they tend to animate the Thicket and are so lovely to watch blowing in the wind on outdoor Thickets. The acorn inspired ceramic doorbell is a current favorite. And people love the green pouch baskets, they’re like little woven window boxes for flowers/plants. The other ceramic accessories, such as doorbell, beads, play hooks, are also really fun. (I’m beginning to collaborate with other makers on these). I’m also working on expanding the line of custom flags. My daughter adores her small woven play hammock for rocking her various dolls to sleep. And my personal favorite are the giant pom pons, they remind me of vintage clown costumes. The fun part of the custom accessories is how most of them can be added later, so you can keep updating your Thicket over the years.
You must have some memorable stories of constructing larger Thickets in situ, any exotic location or interesting tale of traveling to build that you’d care to share with us?
Not yet, but bring it on! I’ve got upcoming installations this Summer on opposite US coasts. I also have concepts for tree house Thickets which I can imagine in exotic locations, but need to collaborate with an architect and/or engineer to nail down the structural challenges of that. And I get many requests for pet Thickets. I haven’t actually woven one yet, but two pet Thickets are in the works. Of course, the biggest challenge with those is making sure the canine or feline inhabitant won’t be too tempted to chew their Thicket.
We want a play nest for the office–a place to take a minute or brainstorm–will we fit?
Yay for you! Yes, of course! A Thicket would be great in an office. I can make them any size, so you’d just need to determine the size footprint you’d be able to accommodate. 4 ft Thickets are the most popular indoor size–one adult can curl up inside comfortably with a laptop, sketchbook, pile of magazines, and a latte. Two very chummy adults could try, but it’d be intimate. A 6ft base (or larger) Thicket is better suited for multiple adults. The sides are very comfortable to lean on. The main challenge with the indoor Thickets is getting them to the spot, through standard doorways, walkways, and stairwells/elevators. It ends up being more feasible and economic to have me just come and install it on site. Which of course, means the Thicket could be as large as you’d want.
To learn more about Kelly and her incredible CHEERIUP Thickets, visit www.cheeriup.com