Like every other Sydneysider, I spent many months in an exclusive relationship with my four walls over the past couple of years . It has been enough to drive even the most stubborn homebody crazy, and as far as hermits go, I can give most a run for their money. As one lockdown day melted into another, I found a welcome escape — the colourful online world of interiors inspiration.
One such destination is the Instagram account of Rachel Castle and her eponymous homewares brand CASTLE. Not only are Rachel’s designs, with their smacks of colour and abstract prints, ridiculously Instagrammable (something that delights her 172,000 followers), but they also depict the sort of uplifting witticisms we all need to hear right now; “I get lockdown but I get up again” and “Let’s just be really nice to one another” are personal favourites.
The embodiment of her Instagram page, Rachel is everything you might expect her to be: vibrant, thoroughly optimistic and just a little bit mad. She’s also dedicated to a tee.
Rachel began her career in the marketing department of Country Road, before working for London’s renowned The Conran Shop and later joining a multidisciplinary branding agency. She made the move into design sort of by accident, after her crafting hobby evolved into selling her artworks. “When my children went to school, it was finally time for me to just make stuff that I liked; to use my hands to sew and print stuff that I felt compelled to create,” she says. “I started cutting up big felt spots and hand-sewing them onto canvases. I would trace them out from the little of a teacup — damn useful things teacups — and never looked back.”
Twelve years on, those felt spots have grown into a cult lifestyle brand. Rachel now creates beautiful printed bed linen, embroidered artworks, paintings, sweaters and all sorts of vibrant, wonderful “stuff” for homes. Her team work out of a lovely studio in Sydney, which, apparently, doesn’t have a centimetre of wall space that hasn’t got something stuck to it (what else would you expect from a creative workaholic). “We actually need to move — we’ve run out of walls,” says Rachel. “It’s not beautiful, but it’s full to the rafters with all the tools we need to make a ton of fun stuff!”
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What does your morning routine look like?
Mornings are early rising, quick to work, drink coffee and then work, work, work, work like the devil. I try to have some quiet time in the studio before all the girls arrive at 9am, because when we’re all here, it’s a lot! Lots of work talk, meetings and designs to sign off and samples to sift through and ranges to be finalised and products to be approved and shoots to be organised, and suddenly it’s 6pm and you wonder where the hell the day went!
What does your work space look like?
It’s hectic. The girls are pretty good, they keep their spaces neat and tidy. I’m afraid, though, I start 4000 things before 9.15am and there is junk everywhere. The girls do tidy up once a day, but there is a lot of stuff everywhere. We have lots of pretty light and we like our indoor plants, and usually there is a cute sausage dog running around when she’s not hiding under a blanket sleeping. And there is not a centimetre of wall space that hasn’t got something stuck to it. We actually need to move — we’ve run out of walls.
Your Instagram is a joy to look at. Where do you find your inspiration?
Everything for me starts with a visual. Remember at school when you were shown a picture and you had to write on the lines underneath what was in it? That’s Instagram for me. I have a suite of different shots that I can select at any given time, and I just go with the feels. I hopefully don’t sugarcoat anything — I like to keep it as real as I can, but I am a really hopeful person. There is always something joyful around the corner, even if you can’t see it, and hopefully this comes across.
Tell us about the rest of your creative process — from the seed of an idea to the final piece or product.
It depends on the product. If we’re talking about the bedding range, I start with colour. These are the colours I really want to use, and then we go from there, layer after layer. I’ll do sketches of patterns, maybe paint textures, or paint a pillowcase design, and Simone (my right-hand woman) will start working up blankets and cushions and sheeting, and then rolling out all the elements for sampling. If it was as easy as that little sentence then OMG life would be a dream!
For the sweaters, we all sit around squealing and laughing at all the things we really shouldn’t put on a sweater! The embroideries come from words that I like the sound of. And for the paintings, my love, I sketch these out first, colour them digitally, then when I get around to painting them, I change the colours all over again.
What is the production process like behind your homewares? Tell me about your textile suppliers, factories and makers.
Production is the hardest thing we do. It’s dead easy to design anything at all, its super-hard to get it made. We spend a lot of time liaising with our truly amazing suppliers. Most have been with us for over a decade. Without great suppliers, and great relationships with them, we have nothing. We think long and hard before committing to working with a new supplier. We need to see firsthand how their factories work and have developed some really beautiful friendships with them all. They are the backbone of our business. We tried for a very long time to keep production in Australia, but our manufacturing industry is sadly not set up to make cotton and linen bedding. We still print our tea towel artworks locally, our printers are around the corner, so absolutely anything at all we can make here, we do. Only this afternoon we received a new tea towel sample from one of our suppliers who rode it here on his bike! He’s a bit easy on the eye, so that was really nice!
How important is sustainability to you?
Last year we replaced our poly packaging with fabric bags, which was lovely to finally be able to do. Sustainability is everything — it is a focus behind the scenes at every decision-making point, and our suppliers have been amazing to work with. They are as keen as we are to ensure our waste and our footprint are as small as possible.
What does successful collaboration look like to you?
Successful collaboration to me is about sharing and learning. It’s about like minds creating a shared vision and having a ton of fun along the way.
How do you manage the so-called work-life balance?
It’s a myth. Running your own business really does take over your life, well mine anyway. I haven’t mastered the balance! I was lucky enough to be able to not work when my children were young and for this I am eternally grateful. With every year that passes I look back with more fondness on those precious times. Now my children are grown and out of home so I’m free to work as many hours in the day that I choose, but this definitely has its pitfalls because the work/life balance is minimal.
I religiously take two big holidays a year where I leave the building and don’t look back. These are really crucial for me to keep sane and rested. And on the weekends I never get out of bed before midday, like literally ever.
What do you wish you had more time for?
Reading, reading, reading and more reading. I have so many books beside my bed that I cannot wait to get to.
What would be your advice for any creative or small business owner at the beginning of their journey?
Follow your heart. If you want to resonate with your audience you have to be authentic. You need to find the sweet spot between making things you love and making them affordable to your market. You have to work really, really, really, really hard and be prepared for the ups and downs, the tos and fros.
You get better at it along the way, but for every success there is an equal failure and this can be hard yakka. You need to toughen up and be nimble and roll with your challenges, be prepared to find a solution to many problems along the way that you didn’t foresee. And always: the customer is king. Treat your customers like your family; every single time they add to cart, be grateful and mindful.
What do you do to blow off steam?
Talk to my friends on the phone. Every morning and every night on my way to and from work, I’m talking to my dear friends. And watch trash television, that helps.