For a vast majority of retailers, the lingering customer is a cause for irritation as much as anything else. In Bree Claffey’s world, it represents a validation.
“A girl came up here the other day and said that she felt like she just wanted to spend the day here,” she smiles. “Hanging out in the sun, patting the cat, looking at things and flipping through books.”
“That’s a pretty nice result,” she smiles again, casting an eye across the harmonious muddle of ceramics, books, jewellery, plants and textiles that fill the compact, bedroom-sized space that is Mr Kitly. “It’s definitely an aim to create a space in which people feel comfortable to come and hang out for a while.”
It would seem something of an odd overture from a woman who only just opened shop on December 2, but Mr Kitly – which was named after one of Claffey’s cats and stocks a quietly stunning range of handmade goods from Japan, the US, Europe, Korea and Australia – is far from your average retail environment.
Hidden away upstairs above Sydney Road in Brunswick, the gallery and store possesses an air of unobtrusiveness. Skylights throw natural light onto a hanging indoor garden; a scattering of paintings and sculptural installations from Mark Rodda, Antonia Sellbach, Oliver Hextall, Georgina Ward and Paul Williams adorns the gallery space; a tall window offers a vista of the bustling street below.
“I like that it’s hidden,” she offers, “that it’s not just being another shop front.”
Designed with the help of Claffey’s partner Julian Patterson, who runs his architecture practice from the adjoining room, everything from the store’s ply and hardwood shelving to its minimal fixtures and furnishing possess a refreshingly simple sense of functionality. It’s a quality that clearly finds its roots in Japan, where the 34-year-old lived for five years and has been blogging on for the last three via her widely acclaimed depository ii-ne-kore.
“It’s sort of creating my own, personal version of Japan in many ways,” she says. “One that perhaps wasn’t being explored very much in Melbourne.”
“There’s the cute, kawaii Japan, there’s the manga Japan, but there wasn’t really a lot of what I love about Japan, and that’s sort of what the genesis of the blog was, which I feel fits in pretty neatly with what we’ve created here.”
The Japan she speaks of was one found in residences in lesser known areas of Sapporo, Tokyo, Kyoto and the villages of the wider Kansai region, where Claffey found herself searching for an experience “outside of manga and crowded trains”.
Spending time in the store, it’s easy to get a feel for the sensibility to which she alludes. Indeed, the Japan Claffey hints at is one of subtlety and restraint, of a rare attention to detail. What might seem, on paper, to be an esoteric meld of products – artist books and printed matter from small press like Nieves and Utrecht, gorgeous textiles from Baltimore artisan Jessica Hans, wooden objects from Takahashi Kougei, ceramics from Keiko Matsui and Melbourne’s own Bridget Bodenham and various plants and handmade terracotta pots from Laura Fraser – is anchored by a more ephemeral, nonetheless unifying quality.
“It’s a sensibility and an aesthetic that drives it,” she says. “It is kind of my life on sale in many ways and it’s a bit uncompromising in that regard. It’s the stuff that I love rather than stuff that’s going to sell like hotcakes. I have this because I love it.”
“I had moments of panic when I was setting up the shop and realised that this was the direction I was heading in,” she laughs. “I’m well aware that that’s not the usual retail model. When I was registering the business, I couldn’t even really describe what it was.”
Nevertheless, it was the feedback and the relationships she garnered via her blog that reaffirmed her creative vision.
“In the end, the ii-ne-kore thing gave me a lot of faith, just in the sense that it was this collection of little things that I liked across a number of realms that other people seemed to respond positively to.” “I’ve had this sort of picture in my mind for a long time, but what the blog helped do was crystallise it.” Indeed, in the end, Claffey’s ambitions for Mr Kitly are unassuming enough. “I just love to create spaces that people will enjoy, whether it’s my home or the shop or whatever.”
“I’m not a big consumer myself,” she says. “I don’t just buy, buy, buy. It’s the space and what’s in it that is important to me.”