We’re firm believers in both style and substance. Just because a product is beautifully designed and well-presented, doesn’t mean it should perform any less effectively than its counterparts. This has long been integral to our ethos at Glasshouse and we are routinely delighted when we see other natural and organic brands follow a similar suit. Enter Austin Austin: our newest brand launch at Glasshouse and one very much worth getting excited about.
Austin Austin are a Norfolk-based, Soil Association certified-organic brand for hair, hands and body. The brainchild of a father-daughter duo - Bessie and Richard Austin - the brand combines Richard’s experience and know-how in the organic industry (he launched one of the UK’s first wholefood shops in the 1970s) and Bessie’s background in art and design. Together they have created a range of six products that bridge the gap between aesthetic desirability, natural ingredients and high performance. We’re thrilled to have the full range both in the salon and online.
From a bergamot and juniper fragranced sulphate-free shampoo to a rich shea body cream heady with neroli, the six products are delicately scented (by award-winning perfumers) and packaged in the original artwork of London and Madrid based artist Christian Newby. In fact, every collection will feature a different artist showcasing their work on the bottle and box of Austin Austin’s sustainable packaging. Although we do have a particular soft spot for these characterful line drawings.
We sat down with Richard and Bessie to find out more about the brand and their interesting lives. Accompanied by a shoot photographed by Agata Wolanska and an original set by Amelia Martyn, we introduce you to the products, the people and all things Austin Austin.
What is the Austin Austin brand ethos?
Bessie: I’ve scribbled this on the back of too many envelopes. The fundamentals never change but the words sometimes do. I summarise it like this: Every bottle is of exquisite quality, a canvas for artwork on the bathroom shelf and priced in a way that our products don’t become too precious to be properly enjoyed every day.
Bessie, tell us about your upbringing and how it fed into your own lifestyle as you grew up.
B: I was brought up in the Norfolk countryside in the middle of nowhere. It was a creative house - my mum used to draw, paint and sing and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of grammar, simple mathematics and Radio 4. She is a classical homeopath and was a classic hippie - no shoes, beautiful long hair and an expressive dancer.
My dad trained as a lawyer and was exceptionally good at debating over dinner, which he liked to do. He always had about 5 books on the go - a contemporary fiction, a detective, the latest musical biography and some quantum physics he’d been puzzling through for at least a year already. Dad opened one of the first wholefood shops back in 1976 and he went on to found Kingfisher Natural Toothpaste in the year I was born. So the wholefood movement and everything that came with it has always been a constant for me.
Together, my parents are unbeatable at crosswords and incredibly principled. It was a left wing house full of organic food, natural products, The Guardian and the teachings of the Dali Lama. This was the world I knew and the principles I learnt to live by.
How would you say people’s perception of organic and natural produce has changed, since launching Rainbow Wholefoods 40+ years ago to now?
Richard: The ideas and fervour of people working with wholefoods in the early seventies was invigorating and inspiring. It was only a little later that these ideas were developed more fully and NGOs like The London Food Commission, Greenpeace and The Soil Association began to grow into established organisations liaising with governments and accelerating real change. My work life has always been about these values and trying to push them forward. When it comes to the core principles, not too much has changed. Back in the mid-70s the wholefood movement was pioneering new ways of eating - well, actually quite old ways of eating - by consuming less processed food, less fatty foods and less chemicals. Looking closely at ingredients was a new thing. What has become widely accepted now was a wacky left field activity then. The growth of the Organic movement has been deeply satisfying to all of who have worked for this through these years but we are mindful that there is still quite a way to go.
What initially drove your families interest in organic food and beauty and did you always share the same mindset?
B: The wholefood movement was certainly a lifestyle choice for my parents. I didn’t ever disagree with the principles behind the food and beauty products that I was given but I did move away from natural beauty when I left home. The products just didn’t perform as well as I’d like or have enough of a contemporary feel. To a large extent, Austin Austin represents my desire for something beautifully fragranced, effective and creatively interesting, underpinned by the principles that I grew up with. I believe organic and environmentally conscious is the only way forwards but this doesn’t prohibit it from being modern and beautiful.
Why is sustainability an important factor in both of your daily lifestyles?
R: As far as we know there is just this one planet for us to live on. Notwithstanding the views of US President Trump, it is well accepted by academics in the West that the world is in a sorry state and we need to pay attention to its needs instead of ignoring them.
B: Sustainability is in many ways inextricable from the daily decisions we all take. It’s in the habits and patterns of normal life. It’s a daily attention. If I forget my bag at the shops, I stuff my pockets with ingredients to avoid the plastic. I think the word itself calls for a long term, sustainable, approach to living.
What was the creative inspiration behind the illustrative design used on your packaging?
B: I fervently believe that the objects we surround ourselves with should be beautiful. We wanted the aesthetics of Austin Austin to have as much integrity as the organic ingredients that we use. So instead of branded design work, we showcase pieces of fine art by working artists to offer people more than just an effective product, but also a beautiful object for their bathroom. For each collection, we are collaborating with a different artist. For this first collection, we have worked with London and Madrid based artist Christian Newby. His artworks span ceramic, tapestry, screen printing, collage and he is interested in both the form of the body and domestic interiors.
How is the brand looking to expand in the near future?
B: Being only a few months old - at the moment we are looking to steadily root out interesting shopkeepers and interesting customers - we are always open to ideas, collaborations and expansive roads we haven’t yet thought of. As the months go on, we’ll start thinking about our second collection, a second artist and what shape that might take.
What do you do to unwind?
Together we like to walk through cities, sit by the fireside and spend a lot of time in discussion.
R: Running, listening to the first wave of psychedelic music (that Annie, Bessie’s mum, can’t stand), an enduring and often mournful love affair with Aston Villa and lots of reading. Iris Murdoch is my favourite.
B: A very deep, painfully hot bath with salts, oils, candles. I love the mountains and properly unwind when I’m climbing up a hill with skis and skins on. I rely on yoga during busy times and always walk or cycle everywhere. I hardly draw any more but I wish I still did. The same goes for reading which I used to do avidly but now can’t seem to make it past the first hundred pages. I still spend a lot of time going to the theatre (I live close to both the Almedia and Barbican) and I still go to lectures to switch off - London always has such interesting people speaking. I find it incredibly relaxing to become completely absorbed.
Photography: Agata Wolanska for Glasshouse Journal Set design: Amelia Martyn