In our first ever Perth interview, we speak to the multi-talented Sonja Danilovic about everything from paying your dues in shitty first jobs to how she balances her impressive portfolio career with motherhood.
If you happen to find yourself one day wandering the back streets of Perth’s north-western ‘burb Bassendean, keep your eyes peeled for a curious sight that might behold you. On the verandah of an ordinary-looking cottage often sits a woman straddling a pottery wheel. There, she shapes slab after slab of earthenware clay into petite mugs and vases, her hands bathed in russet-toned slurry as she works.
That woman is Sonja Danilovic, someone you might describe as, well, motivated. At first glance, her numerous projects are an unrelated series of itches she made it her business to scratch. But looking at her career a little deeper, it’s apparent there’s a clear thread linking her multiple vocations—each of which is a genuine profession in its own right.
Danilovic’s main gig is as the creative director of Nude Design Studio, a graphic design business she co-founded with her partner John Durey around a decade ago. Since then, Nude has grown into one of Perth’s most interesting and innovative design studios, producing beautiful work for prestige local clients like Chicho Gelato, Twin Peaks Coffee Roasters and footwear company Half Measures.
Danilovic and Durey are also partners in Kafka Coffee Shop, a hole-in-the-wall they opened together in the quiet end of bustling Northbridge—on the same site from which Nude operates, in fact.
It’s through Kafka that the pottery comes in. Unable to find cups she liked for use in the café, Danilovic decided to make her own (as you do). In the process, she inadvertently created Sole Ceramics, which is now stocked across Perth including, yes, at Kafka.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Danilovic is also a mother to two young kids. We spoke to her over mid-morning beers (again, as you do) late last year to find out her story and how the hell she fits it all in.
Hey Sonja! Can you tell us a bit about your journey so far?
I wanted to be an artist when I was little. My dad was an artist and he was a big influence on me; I always liked drawing and making things.
We used to live on a little island in Croatia, but then the war happened so we had to move. But before we left he’d spend summers painting portraits, and during winter he’d work on big paintings. At the time he made quite a bit of money out of that, so I thought I could do it, too—not that I cared about the money then.
Once I remember when he was working in Italy he let me paint him instead of the other way around. It was fun and I really liked it—all these people gathered around to look.
Then in high school I saw graphic design at a careers day and thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds pretty good!’, because then the reality of being an artist seemed too hard. So I looked into it and I just did that. I really liked it.
So what did your career look like before you co-founded Nude?
The degree I did was good but it’s not like I came out of it with an amazing portfolio—you still needed a long time before you got any good. So I just took any job. My first job was at John Hughes (ed note: ICONIC Perth car dealership, y’all). It was a lot of cutting out cars and putting drop shadows on them and stuff.
It was fun; I didn’t even mind it! I kind of liked the mundane, boring stuff where you can still see a result at the end, like typesetting a book or whatever. When it’s not fully creative all the time, because that’s kind of hard sometimes.
After that I got a job at a creative design studio in Subiaco. That was nice; the people were all the same age—that team was great. But the boss was such a dick; he was really mean to everyone. It’s so annoying because the people were cool but he was just pretty nasty. Probably shouldn’t name them, because they’re still around!
I didn’t stay there long because I got poached by a small design and web studio, and worked there for about two years. They weren’t fully into the creative stuff; they were a bit mediocre and also very web-focused. But I got to work on a lot of start-up companies where I got to design things from the get-go, which was great.
Then they went bust; I think they grew too fast. So I took a few of the clients from there, and was freelancing from then on for a while. I really liked the lifestyle. And then me and John decided to go away for a year, in about 2008, and in that time we decided to start a design studio.
John used to be a lawyer and he quit his job because he always wanted to do something different. So he’s the other side of Nude—I do the creative side and he basically does everything else.
Did you always want to set up your own design business, or was the decision a bit more organic?
I don’t think I always wanted to set up a business; I was pretty flexible with change so I was like, 'Yeah, whatever'. But John wanted to get out of law and he wanted to start a business, so it just ended up being really good like that.
But I think if I ended up working at a really nice place I could have stayed there for a while. I did like working for myself as a freelancer, but you don’t get the same opportunities as when you start a design studio. You don’t get the big jobs and you don’t have the bigger budgets and there’s just that other level when you have something behind you.
I think we kind of went with the flow and were really optimistic. We also didn’t really care about money much at the start. We did some calculations in our first year and found we made about $24,000 between the two of us. It has improved slightly! But we managed to make it work. We didn’t have kids then so it was pretty flexible and there wasn’t that pressure.
Did you have any fears when you started Nude?
No, not really. From our point of view, we were really comfortable with the choice to start the business. Like, ‘Why not? Let’s give it a go’. We knew it was going to take a while.
But from the outside everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ Especially because John was a lawyer and everyone was like, ‘But he has a good job; why would you do that?’ Everyone had concerns. We didn’t get it, we were like, ‘Really, are you serious?’
Friends were also concerned about us working together, like, ‘You’re going to be with each other 24/7, I don’t think that’s a good idea for your relationship’. So if we’d listened to people we probably wouldn’t have done it.
What about now—do you have any fears around the business?
Now it’s a bit different, though last year was a bit slow. It’s always a bit up and down—you never feel fully comfortable. It’s a really fragile industry.
I think a lot of clients are really conservative or not really ready to take the next step, or they just have zero trust. And I don’t think we do design that’s really out there, but maybe it’s not fully mainstream so they’re just not really comfortable with it or something.
I’m also not really good at selling myself; it’s kind of fake. But you have to do it. It’s hard. I think Perth’s pretty hard. And it’s all about who you know, and the contacts you have—mingling and being with people. Both John and I are not into that. It’s still kind of tough, but we don’t really want to grow at the moment.
Do you ever experience procrastination? How do you deal with it?
I used to procrastinate a lot when I was working for myself and we didn’t have the studio. But now it’s really good; I’d recommend getting a space. I wasn’t sure about it at the start—I wasn’t sure I wanted to go nine to five or whatever—but it’s really good because you’re really productive when you’re there. And I can switch off from design to home, which is really nice.
Over time, I’ve realised when I’m not really getting anywhere I stop and do something else when I get really stuck. So I’ll just do admin or anything else, to still be productive. I know now that it always works out. You just have to let it go and it will come to you.
Do you have any insecurities around your work?
In the past, I always felt like my work didn’t have enough substance or depth. I was always trying to find meaning behind it, that conceptual meaning. I was a bit insecure about that, but now I’m not.
Now, I’m more about the feeling and the mood and what it brings, rather than the meaning—it’s not like you’re going to be explaining that to someone who sees your work. It’s definitely more about the feeling instead of the, ‘How did you get there?’.
I do get insecure with art, though. I just don’t want to do it anymore because it’s too emotional. I just feel like, ‘This is shit’. I just get disappointed so I just stopped. It takes ages to develop your own style and you have really high expectations of yourself to paint something good. That’s the worst on Instagram—you see so many good artists and they have a style and you’re like, ‘Ughhhh’.
So sometimes you compare yourself to others?
Yeah, I definitely do when I do research and you see so much good work. It’s pretty fucked. Sometimes you end up feeling like, ‘Oh, shit. You suck!’ But then you kind of get over it.
But I actually don’t really do that much with design anymore. I always knew when something was finished and when I liked it, and then I’d stop then. I never really felt comfortable presenting something I wasn’t 100 percent sure about. So I’ve never been crazy insecure. It was more so about the meaning, at the time.
Have you ever struggled to share your work?
With process, totally. I never share it. It’s just embarrassing for some reason. I don’t know why, it’s just really personal. I would never share process with a client. Some design studios show sketches and the direction and I’m just not even comfortable with that because I just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I want to get it done really well, and then show it.
So can you tell us about how the ceramics came into the picture?
A couple of years ago, we had a friend Helen [Objartel] working at Nude doing admin stuff. We had always wanted to open up a café but we were like, ‘Should we? Should we? I don’t know’. Then we thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do it’.
Helen used to be a barista, so we teamed up with her and opened Kafka so she could have a proper wage. Pretty much for her! For us, as well—we always wanted to do it. But that was kind of a risk, more so than starting the studio.
So it was because of that that I started the ceramics because I wanted some cool cups. That’s it. I had a look around and it was quite expensive to buy a bunch so I just went to this really shit craft shop at the Galleria [Ed note: a big-ass suburban mall in Perth] and got some clay and just started making them.
Then I got addicted. And with ceramics I don’t feel any of that creative block or emotional rollercoaster I get with drawing and painting. You just do it and if it’s shit you just squash it down.
The response has been really nice. I’m keeping it as a hobby at the moment but I’m selling pieces here and there. I’m definitely not trying to grow it into a business or anything.
How did having kids impact on your career?
When we just had the one, we were really flexible and decided it was going to be 50/50. So that really helped. Having a good partner makes a really big difference in that. We’re both pretty big feminists so we didn’t have any of those traditional ideas about roles.
We would do shifts—because John’s a morning person he would go to work early, and then at 12 or something I would go in and do the rest of the day, even when the baby was a baby. So it worked, but looking back it was pretty full on.
I was super stubborn and didn’t want to let go of anything, and would get pissed off if a decision was made without me. I went back to work straight away, pretty much. I still really wanted to be involved. It was hard—the lack of sleep. But I don’t regret it.
Did you consider how kids would impact your career before you had them?
No, I don’t really think that far ahead! I’m pretty optimistic. I’m not a thinker thinker, which is really good for that—‘Yeah, why not? Let’s start a business! Let’s have a baby!’
It’s fully hard but you can’t even explain the loveliness of it, as well. You can talk about the shit but you don’t really talk as much about how you wouldn’t change it for the world; you can’t really express it because it’s a real ‘feeling’ thing. But yeah—you get a bit snappy at each other because of the lack of sleep. Looking back, I think the advice I’d give about having kids is to be super nice to yourself and don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Take it easy.
With the second one, things changed a bit. We’re not as 50/50 anymore. We had a talk about it and came to a decision; I gave John the freedom to focus on growing [his ping-pong table business] Popp and I dropped a few days. We definitely negotiated it and I had to think about what I was comfortable with and if I wanted to do it. Would I enjoy it? Would it be good for him? You have to both be OK with it and really agree to it.
It’s worked out. I work three days and he does five. Which is really good because I get to spend time with the kids and work on ceramics and stuff. I recommend three days for everyone!
What are your hopes for your career in the future?
I don’t know. I’m pretty content right now. I don’t know if I want to get into the design world more. I’ve been thinking we could do a year in New York and work in a design studio there, or maybe we could go to Portugal or Spain and try to work at a lighting place or something and try to branch out a little—I’m really into furniture design.
And then I’m thinking, ‘It’s such a short life—I don’t know where my passion really is’. I definitely don’t want to climb up and be at the top of the whole design thing because I don’t really care for it.
So maybe you’ll just take it as it comes?
If I take it as it comes, nothing will happen! I have to push it a little bit, but I don’t know where. I think collaborating sounds really nice though. Maybe do more ceramic stuff. I’m not sure!
Virtual pep talk
Have good networks. Collaborate with people, especially in different industries. Don’t take shit. You need support around you—you can’t do everything on your own. Aim high straight away. Be confident in approaching people. Do it because you love it; be creative for the love of it. Push it. Be super resilient. Stay authentic. Collaborate, collaborate.