Joanna of Bellwheel is a strong advocate of work/life balance, choosing to work part-time so she can pursue a range of creative endeavours, including making laser-cut jewellery and other products featuring her signature clean aesthetic. She lives in Wellington.
The name Bellwheel was inspired by the kind of timeless and elegant design she most admires; things that are classic, unfussy and functional, like bells and wheels.
What do you make?
I make wooden laser cut jewellery – mostly brooches – as well as making other products including bags, necklaces, clocks and retro wallpaper magnets.
How did you get into your craft?
I’ve always been a maker and creator of various things but I also enjoy the challenges and camaraderie of a workplace. I’ve learned that I’m at my happiest and healthiest when I have a balance between my own creative projects and more traditional employment. A couple of years ago I took the step of reducing my hours at my job in international aid and development so that I could focus more seriously on creative projects, and began the process of working out what that would look like.
A turning point was discovering Ponoko, a Wellington-based company who make it simple for anyone to get their designs laser cut. They have a catalogue of great materials and are very maker-friendly so it was easy for me to try out lots of my ideas. I started with bamboo bags before deciding that jewellery would be my main focus.
I knew that the market for laser cut jewellery was quite crowded though, so I worked to make distinctive designs and material combinations that I wasn’t seeing anywhere else.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Sort of. I originally focused my interest in design on urban design, and got a degree in town planning. In the end I could see that it wasn’t the career for me so I went on to do a graduate diploma in publishing and graphic design. I now use the software skills I learned for graphic design to design my jewellery and to set up the files that enable the designs to be laser cut. The design training also helped me to refine the clean, simple style that ties my various design projects together.
Other than that I mostly learned practical skills from growing up in a family where creativity was encouraged. In addition to their day jobs, Mum is an accomplished textile artist and Dad is a talented photographer. My siblings are also creatively inclined in work and in life, which I think reflects that we spent a lot of time as kids making things and building things out of Lego!
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
My tools are mostly my Mac and my sketchbook. The ideas tend to arrive early in the morning when I’m just waking up so I make sure to always have pencil and paper close by.
My favourite materials are the various woods that I use in my jewellery, particularly for the way the grain can be incorporated into the design. Right now I’m also exploring the possibilities of other materials, including wool and concrete.
What inspires you?
Architecture is my main inspiration. There’s a bit of a ‘house’ theme that pops up in a lot of things I design. Style-wise I’m a big fan of art deco and mid-century modern; anything with clean, simple lines.
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
I make it a rule to only design things that I would buy – either for myself or as a gift. Even if I think something would sell a lot, if it is not really my style or isn’t something that I would admire then I won’t make it. I hear this over and over from other designers too – to be successful (and happy) you’ve got to stick with what you like yourself.
When I was studying graphic design we were taught to keep taking things away from a design until it looked right, and I still follow that approach. Less is definitely more.
A favourite quote:
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or Life in the Woods
Thoreau is my reliable source of inspiration about the importance of making deliberate choices and the value of solitude. This quote reminded me to turn my ideas into action and also inspired my popular “castle in the sky” brooch design.
Describe your workspace:
I’m either sitting at the computer or taking over the dining table with sandpaper, paint, glue and beeswax polish. I have a lovely sunny view out over the city with the sounds of the city coming in through the window.
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
“Growing up we had a tree with a swing exactly like the one in your beautiful brooch. [My sister] is going to love it and it is such a special memory for us”.
Your favourite childhood book?
I mostly remember reading Lego catalogues – I was making a plan to work at Legoland when I grew up.
What are you reading now?
I’ve just finished One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson.
Who is your hero/heroine?
I have to choose two: my grandmothers Cathie and Mary. They were very different in a lot of ways but they were both independent, adventurous and resourceful, and had the courage to make unconventional choices.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
It might not quite qualify as handmade (hand powered at least!) but I recently bought a 1963 Olivetti typewriter. It is beautiful, elegant and functional, in the perfect shade of green.
You can see more of Joanna’s stunning jewellery, accessory and homeware designs in her Felt shop here.
Joanna has generously offered one of her lovely Villa brooches (above) to one lucky Felt blog prizewinner. This brooch pictures a typical New Zealand villa beside a cabbage tree, and is made from oak and laser cut white acrylic. It measures 4.5cm wide x 3.2cm high x 1cm thick and is finished with a 100% natural beeswax and manuka oil polish. If you’d like to be in the prize draw, just leave a comment below telling us what inspires you about Bellwheel and Joanna’s story and products. The draw will be made on Friday 12 September and is open to New Zealand residents only.