After a whirlwind six weeks spent setting up their first Australian store next to Dagmar Rousset on Collingwood’s Easey Street, Rebecca Dowie seems unable to stop smiling. Especially when she sees curious customers wander into the studio show room and admire the pieces. Her 70-year-old father, Doug Snelling, is busy in the workshop upstairs, which is coated in a thin film of fresh sawdust. He leaves the customers to Rebecca and the store manager – for him, there is just too much work to be done.
Douglas and Bec is an unusual spin on the family business. Comprising the father and daughter duo, along with Rebecca’s husband Paul Dowie, the handcrafted furniture design company from New Zealand first began in 2006 under the name Workroom. They soon realised their father-daughter project was too unusual to gloss over with a name that didn’t reflect it exactly. Once they moved out of their small motor-garage workshop and opened their first retail store in Ponsonby, Auckland, their designs started going by the more honest moniker of Douglas and Bec.
The unlikely partnership started when the pair each arrived at personal crossroads. Always a self-taught man with hands itching for something to do, Douglas had finished building a beach house in the north of Auckland and was at a loose end. Rebecca was nearing the end of a fine arts degree and had quiet doubts about her future. As their personal quiescence aligned, they teamed up and built their first lamp together from laminated plywood, the same model which still sits in the shop today.
Contrary to what people may tell you about the value of a fine arts degree, Rebecca thinks there’s more to it than just becoming an oil painter. “You learn all about formal arrangements and what works,” she says. “You gain an appreciation and understanding of balance, tone, light and colour, and you can apply that to something else.”
Growing up on a sheep and beef farm on the north island of New Zealand, Rebecca and her dad have a history of working alongside one another. “I’d always get up early with him,” Rebecca says. “I was always a bit of a daddy’s girl. We’ve always had a really lovely relationship where I’m the nurse and he’s the doctor. I’ll pass him what he needs.”
Continuing over the whirring and banging from upstairs, Rebecca says, “[Dad] is the most inspiring, hard worker you will ever meet. That farming mentality of getting up at 4am – and always getting the job done – it drives all of us,” she says.
“He gives [the staff] grief sometimes, just telling them ‘you did it wrong!’” she laughs. “But he’s right … he runs rings around all these cabinet-makers.”
The Easey Street showroom is a warm, mixed palette of peach leather, pale oak, linen and reflective glass, punctuated by notes of raw brass and copper. Not just an assembly of Douglas and Bec’s own creations, the studio space also contains an edit of their favourite brands. From Eric Bonnins’ grainy ceramics to handcrafted Japanese brass by Futagami, chunky, glazed jewellery by Jujumade and timeless fishing jackets for any occasion by Mavis & Osborn, the items work so naturally as a collection, it seems morbid to separate one item from the rest.
“I love that there’s a movement towards independents and supporting people who are doing the same kind of thing as us,” Rebecca says. “I love that people are becoming more conscious of their purchase, and I think if we can rally together to help that, then I’ll support it.”
Looking around the studio, the sleek, minimalist designs that are so coveted right now aren’t something you’d expect to come from the hands of a septuagenarian. But when Rebecca explains it, it makes a whole lot of sense.
“There’s simplicity when you build cattle yards and things on the farm. They’re all quite straight and simple,” she says. Perhaps due to the pale tones, many assume Douglas and Bec follows a Scandinavian design tradition. But Rebecca has always thought the straight lines and square edges are more Japanese.
“(The Japanese) live beautifully and simply, and that’s desirable,” Rebecca reflects. “I like that idea of slow living: that you will carry a piece with you through your life.” Rebecca explains that Douglas and Bec’s pieces have a life of their own, with the raw leather and unfinished brass designed to age gracefully over decades, “like wine”.
Upstairs, Doug is on one knee, running a power tool over a wooden plank that’s on its way to becoming a daybed. As he stops to talk, his eyes shift around the workroom. He taps the tool in his hands, sporadically squeezing the trigger and whirring the machine. You’d think he’s not used to standing still.
“I’ve been starting at three o’clock in the morning,” he says. “On a one-man farm, if you don’t do the work yourself, it doesn’t get done. I start about three hours before the other guys in the morning, at least. Then you’re organised in your mind, there’s no telephone to interrupt you. With this work, you’ve got to concentrate. Measure twice and cut once, not the other way around,” he says with a gruff laugh.
Downstairs, Rebecca is finalising as much as she can before she, Doug and Paul return to their property south of Auckland. “We’re pretty proud of where it started and where it is,” she says. “I think you reap what you sow, and nothing ever comes easy. It’s like dad’s famous saying: “It’s better to wear out than rust out.”
Douglas and Bec
30–32 Easey Street, Collingwood
Mon to Fri 10am–6pm Sat 11am–4pm