November 01, 2019

THE Story of a Creative Life bookhou - Issue 17

amirisu featured @bookhou
amirisu featured @bookhou

bookhou's silk-screen printed bags and pouches have been one of the most sought-after items in the knitting community, until their punch-needlework, small patchwork items, and a line of fabric appeared on the scene. Their creativity is boundless, creating a ripple of inspiration across the textile art community.

Based in Toronto, Canada, the husband and wife team bookhou (the name is a combination of their surnames - Booth and Khounnoraj), has a spacious studio/shop that produces a wide range of products. The synergy between the two artists makes their work a standout..

Earlier this year, amirisu had the pleasure of hosting Arounna Khounnoraj of bookhou for punch-needle workshops during their visit to Japan, and had the opportunity to spend time with the family.  Seeing how creativity is so spontaneous and organic in the family, we were intrigued to learn more about the rhythm of their days.  This conversation with Arounna reveals her secrets.

amirisu: Can you tell us about your background? Did you go to an art school?

Arounna:  I went to three art schools and have a Masters Degree in Fine Arts. The work that I had initially done in school was more sculptural work using found and natural objects and clay. It was not like what I am doing today but in some ways it shared a sense of craft, exploring the nature of materials, and occasionally, techniques like stitching  as a means of construction. After graduation I was invited to apply for an art residency in the textile department at the Harbourfront Craft Studios in Toronto. I had not really worked with textiles until that point but during this period of time my work shifted to screen printed fabrics and other textile-based work.

amirisu: What part of screen printing was so appealing that you gave up on sculptural work?

Arounna:  Screen printing appealed to me because of the immediacy with which I could transfer an image onto any material. I didn’t necessarily give up on sculpture; my art just took on a different form. I believe my thought process is still sculptural in nature.

amirisu: bookhou is a creative collaboration between you and your husband. How did it start? 

Arounna:  John and I met while working in the school at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was a painter and architect who decided to make furniture. I really admired his work and his perspective on being an artist. We both had art backgrounds and wanted to make goods that combined our interests in art and craft with a utilitarian nature.  

amirisu: What does your typical day look like? How do you start your morning?

Arounna:  We live and work in the same building so our commute is pretty short, but our days can be busy and varied. We have a brick and mortar shop within our work studio, but most of our orders come from our online shops. After the shop is open and stocked, I typically spend some time at the computer looking at orders and seeing which items need to be made, and what we might need for inventory, wholesale or upcoming craft shows.   After that my day is a mixture of cutting fabric, printing and sewing and all the other tasks that need to be done. On most days I am accompanied by my mother, who sews for us, and a studio assistant. In between all of that production work I try to squeeze in other, less demanding work like painting, embroidery and punch needle.

amirisu: Speaking of punch needle, your punch needle work has gone viral and has taken you to a whole new place, it seems. How did you start, and what do you like about it?

Arounna:  I'm always looking for new ways of expression, and new forms of products. The punch needle work started from a conversation with a friend about how cool it would be to see our designs in rug form. With this in mind, she returned from a trip to New York with an Amy Oxford punch needle tool as a gift for me, and told me to "go make a rug." I looked up Amy's on-line videos and when I started I was immediately hooked! It quickly became a daily activity and another way to present my work in a different form. What I like about the process is that it is less structured than other activities I am engaged in, and is very direct -  I was able to create images freely as if I were drawing with yarn.

amirisu: Since your punch needle work has become so famous, has anything changed for you? Has it affected your daily work? 

Arounna:  I was already working a very busy schedule with the production work so it did add more work.  But I feel the punch needle work has also made me less fearful of using colour, and because the process takes longer than my other work, it has also helped me to manage my time very well.

amirisu: You told me a little bit about your schedule - it was really crazy! But you still seem to have a lot of playfulness about your work. What are the favorite aspects of your business / work / process? 

Arounna:  There are many things I enjoy, but one of the great things at this point in my life is that I have enough resources and experience to fully realize many of the interests that I have. I can imagine an idea in the morning and by afternoon have a prototype in front of me. The ability to create and explore in a focused way is something I am very grateful for. Ultimately my favourite aspect of our business is that I get to create with my hands everyday and spend time with my family while doing it.

amirisu: Did you grow up in a creative environment? Please tell us about your childhood.

Arounna:  Both my parents made things but it was out of need. My family came to Canada from a refugee camp in Thailand having left Laos in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. My dad would make furniture pieces for our home and my mom would sew and crochet all of our clothes probably in the same way they would have in Laos.  We hardly ever ate out but my mom is an amazing cook so we always had meals made from scratch.  I think growing up in this environment made me feel that making was a natural part of everyday life. The reasons why I make things may be different then my parents, but still, it's an important part of who I am. 

amirisu: I think that's the keyword for the direction we are heading, making as "a natural part of everyday life", not something people only do professionally as a form of art.

Like you mentioned, you spend a lot of time with your family, and your children also enjoy crafts. Can you tell us your thoughts about raising children in such a creative environment? 

Arounna:  We always believed that a creative environment and an arts education should be a part everybody's life, young and old. Keeping our studios at home has allowed us to blur the lines between work and the rest of life, so my kids and I actually spend a lot of time together. I work on my projects and they work on their activities, some of which are creative, and some not so much. But sharing the studio spaces helps them not only be more creative but also more independent. It's nice to be spending time with them with each of us working on our own things, but it's especially nice when we get to share work on something together. It allows us all to have a sense of well-being and shows our  kids firsthand the value of making. The ability to make an idea come to life from conception to finish is one of the most important things to nurture.

amirisu: It is my dream to create an environment like that for my child, too.  It must be such an incredible influence for your kids to see how your work evolves in so many ways. In terms of a new challenge, did you enjoy designing fabrics? What was the experience like?

Arounna:  Designing fabrics came with a new set of challenges that I hadn't experienced before.  There were so many things that were very different from my normal practice where my process is quite controlled, and I can rely on my preference for hand-drawn imagery. When I first set out to design fabrics it was hard to wrap my head around the idea of a repeat.  While a lot of my work did incorporate repeating patterns, they tended to be on a smaller scale with an emphasis on simpler gestural mark-making.  Scaling it up was hard to imagine, especially when the patterns used more complicated overlays which, in turn, allowed for multiple colours and different colour schemes. But all and all I feel that I have learned so much and it has allowed me to think about patterns in a different way. I feel that overcoming these challenges and pushing me in new directions makes me a better designer.

amirisu: Sounds like it opened another door to your work.  (We cannot wait to have it in our shops in Japan!) What can we expect from you in the near future? What are you excited about at the moment?

Arounna:  To start, I am truly excited about my upcoming punch needle book, it is my first book and has been an enormous amount of work but to see all that effort in printed form will truly be rewarding.  I am also looking forward to doing more travelling. Teaching workshops in so many different place has allowed me to meet amazing new people and see places that I've never been before - something I definitely want to continue. Closer to home, I look forward to new projects and I would love to work on some quilted wall pieces that incorporate my printed patterns with naturally dyed fabrics.


Text by Meri

All photos courtesy of bookhou.