International Women's Day: An Interview with our Founder and Creative Director Nina Tarnowski

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In honour of International Women's Day, we've delved into the mind of our very own inspirational woman; our founder and Creative Director Nina. We interviewed Nina to find out about the challenges she's faced as a woman in business, what her advice would be to other women starting out in business, and the women that have inspired her own successes...

Nina tarnowski

Pictured: Nina Tarnowski

What inspired you to start your own business?
After many years of working for one of the biggest names in interiors, I realised it was time to make a life-long dream a reality. I wanted to get my creativity back, which structured days and ridiculously long working hours had slowly taken away from me. I wanted to learn more; experiment; make mistakes and learn from them. I also wanted to find more balance between work and life and longed for more flexible working hours to allow me to walk my children to school in a morning (these years are short!), go for a run, join a yoga class, read a book, take my youngest Oscar to a cricket match or my eldest Ava to a friends house. I don't think this work/life balance can be underestimated, particularly as a woman who also has the responsibilities of the children and household on top of owning my own business. This dedicated down time that I'm now able to employ, powers my creativity and gives me more focus. As a woman, it's also so empowering to be able to do what I love and provide for my family, whilst also being there for them both physically as a result of flexible working, and mentally as I'm able to work around them without getting burnt out.

Where did Woodchip & Magnolia begin?
The story of Woodchip & Magnolia begins at our kitchen table in Edgworth, Lancashire. My husband Paul and I launched the website after taking voluntary redundancy from our previous jobs. We installed a printer in our garage and never looked back! From there, we've grown into our own design and manufacturing studio and are now based in Darwen, just down the road from our house. We've had a very exciting journey along the way, from hopping on a plane to the ICFF Furniture Show in New York with our wallpaper rolls packed in our suitcase, to launching designer collections with the likes of Pearl Lowe and Fearne Cotton.

What have been some of the challenges you've faced whilst starting your own business?
Our main concerns, particularly with young children relying on us, have always been cash flow, paying the bills, mortgage etc. We've had many sleepless nights worrying as we took such a huge risk in the beginning, leaving our jobs with bills still to pay!

Tell us a bit about your background...
I loved the outdoor learning side of primary school, then the freedom to learn at secondary school, though I found the school environment too formal and was often bored and subsequently told off for talking too much. After leaving school I did a BTEC in general art and design and then completed a degree in Surface Pattern at Leeds College of Art. As soon my toe touched the pavement after formal education however, I was off! Free and buzzing with creativity. I then went onto various placements and roles within the industry, figuring out what I loved (and didn't love) to do, before moving onto one of the biggest names in wallpaper where I worked for 17 years before taking voluntary redundancy in order to start Woodchip & Magnolia. 

Ava tarnowski

Pictured: Nina and her daughter Ava

Do you see your daughter following in your footsteps?
I can see history repeating itself with 14-year old Ava. Not everyone thrives in a formal school setting and I think there’s far too much pressure on women at this age to succeed at school, particularly in a post-pandemic world. I firmly believe that people sparkle at different ages and that you need to want to do it for yourself. Teenagers in particular won't be bossed about or lectured at! I can’t tell Ava anything at the moment; she has to and wants to find her own path and direction. As a result, we respect each other and give each other space - we all need space.

Last week I found particularly challenging. I could have raised my voice, yelled and been visibly angry and frustrated but I bit my tongue. Instead I bought her a bunch of flowers and left them on her bed. After a few days, once we'd both calmed down, we talked and I was able to listen to her point of view and support her. Having such a strong-minded daughter can be tough as a parent, but it's my job to guide her and nurture this spirit, as it will take her a long way in this tough world!

What inspires your Woodchip & Magnolia designs?
My everyday; the environment around me, my thoughts, colours, music...everything! We don’t have a signature style and I love that. I get so excited working on new designs and collections with no restrictions. I like to think we have quite a unique vibe, but always with a Woodchip & Magnolia twist.

What are your hopes and dreams for Woodchip & Magnolia?
To become the most creative boutique design house in the world, taking wallpapers into the digital age with the design skills of a bygone era.

Woodchip & Magnolia

Pictured: Nina at the beginning of Woodchip & Magnolia's journey

Who or what inspires your business mind?
My family and foundations are my main drivers. I also loving listening to lifestyle and business podcasts (I love Fearne Cotton's Happy Place podcast in particular) whilst I’m working. I read every morning and evening; it starts and ends my day. After many years reading fiction I now read non-fiction, which can be anything from business and lifestyle, to autobiographies and books about yoga and health. Basically anything that sparks my imagination! In the past I would have people saying that I did a degree or my job involved simply colouring in, but I like to prove them wrong.

Other inspirations include my dad, who was a mechanical engineer. He tells me stories of being at Le Mans and he still builds the most amazing racing cars now. He was invited to Goodwood Festival of speed a number of times! My mum was a biomedical scientist and my brother is a surveyor, so we are a family with very inspirational and unique jobs!

What do you love most about working at Woodchip & Magnolia?
I love designing and the creativity. Yes - I do 'colour in' (as many people like to describe my job...), but I’m also a total geek. I love the process of working things out. I’m involved in all aspects of the business; from designing to building the website and managing the logistics of shipping. I love the production side of things and the customer journey A-Z. I feel that to run a successful business, you need to understand all elements of it and it's the variety of it all that I truly love the most.

I also love the people! Everyone on team W&M, the women I work with, our customers, the people we meet along the way...they all make it what it is.

Nina's mum

Pictured: Nina's mum, Janis

Who are the inspirational women in your life and how do they inspire you?
My Mum, our daughter Ava and my best friend Claire. They're all unique, individual, strong yet empathetic women who are always there for me. You definitely need a support network when starting a business from scratch.

What would your advice be to other women wanting to start their own business?
1. Just remember that it takes time and nothing comes overnight. 2. Dreams remain dreams until you take that first step and though sometimes a risk, those first steps need to be taken to make the dream a reality. 3. Treat others the way you want to be treated.

What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve been given?
To take best practice and then spin it on its head - its worked for me so far! I also love the book When in Doubt, Wash Your Hair by Anya Hindmarch. A bit of self-love is so important when running your own business (and just in general actually!). You need to look after yourself because if you're stressed out, you're no good to anyone, and that’s when poor decisions are made.

Nina and Claire

Pictured: Nina and her friend Claire

How do you think we can encourage other women to pursue their own business?
My advice to other women hoping to pursue their own business is to follow your passion and don’t be afraid to fail. Learning from your mistakes is key to success.

I also think the best way we can support women in business, as a female business leader, is to share knowledge and pay it forward. I do this wherever I can I'm on the Bolton University advisory board. I'm also currently working on a live brief with final year fashion business students at Manchester Metropolitan University, where I'm sharing my knowledge and experience to help them with their dissertations and final project.

If my past mistakes or successes can help other women avoid similar mistakes or provide them with a great idea, then I've made a positive impact (and with not a whole lot of effort, really!). Too often I think business leaders keep to themselves when it comes to their companies, maybe to protect a competitive advantage, I'm not sure, but I believe transparency can be so motivational for others, and so I try to be as much as possible.

Another great way to gain business insight is to involve yourself in associations that empower women in your industry. Seek out a mentor or even just network with other women in business.

Nina at Work

Pictured: Nina at work

Is there anyone who has inspired your career?
There are a few people...Firstly, my teacher at Hob Lane Primary School in Edgworth, Mrs Bellis. If I said I couldn't do something, she'd say there's no such thing as can't, and that's always stuck with me.

Both of my parents are so inspirational to me. My Mum is an ex NHS worker but super creative.

Val Russell, my teacher at Blackburn College where I did my BTEC general in Art & Design. She was the first tutor after leaving school who understood me. She was a true inspiration and pushed me outside of my comfort zone to then secure a place at Leeds College of Arts to study a BA Hons in Surface Pattern Design. I've never looked back and have Val to thank for that.

If you could have dinner with 3 inspirational women, who would they be and why?
Both of my grandmothers; one I knew, but the other I sadly never got to meet. The third would be our daughter Ava. She loves jazz, soul and disco music, with a deep love for history. She can be shy at first, but once you get to know her she bursts with personality; I love her dry wit and humour. She's ace and would be the best dinner party guest. 

Can I go for a fourth? If so, then I also choose my mum. She's strong, nurturing and the best company.

The meeting of three generations of strong women, who also show their emotions and are empathic would be a very interesting combination and I think I'd have the best time. I'd love for us all to listen to each other and for Ava to share her experience of the last couple of years, living through a pandemic as a 12-14 year old. Hearing her daily challenges and key magic moments that we can all relate to and share would be a blessing.

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  • Val Russell

    Hello Nina!
    Sian sent me this and I simply had to tell you how much what you said meant to me. And what’s so lovely is that I would put you way up there if I had to name unforgettable students who left their mark on me. I said to Sian that you were such a joy, incredibly talented and delightfully ‘nutty’. The way you could use colour and handle paint was so mature and that, together with your willingness to experiment and design flair just made you so special. And special you remain!
    Sorry, sounds like a reference!
    Much love, Val

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