Climbing up into Tamara Watts’ retrofit mezzanine workshop located inside Brunswick’s Little Gold Studios can feel a little surreal. A folding wooden screen showcases an explosion of salvaged patterns and colours from the ’60s and ’70s. Euphoric green offcuts and floral motifs socialise with bold, monotone geometric patterns - as each textile fights for centrestage. We are greeted by a relaxed Watts, who couldn’t appear to fit in any better amongst the historic assemblages of Retro Print Revival.
Laura Clauscen: Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to starting Retro Print Revival.
Tamara Watts: I grew up in the country and moved to Melbourne to study visual merchandising at RMIT, and that was quite a broad course. I started loving vintage fabrics, vintage clothes, retro music, furniture, textiles, everything… so I started collecting vintage fabrics from markets and didn’t know what I was going to do with them. Then one day I made a wall hanging and people loved it, so I made a matching lamp and people loved that too – and that’s when I decided I would start making retro lamps.
Do you think your passion for vintage textiles and patterns came from your country upbringing or were you only exposed to vintage culture when you moved to the city?
I think it was when I moved to the city. You don’t really get a lot of that cool ’60s and ’70s style in the country, so I guess when I moved to Melbourne and became exposed to it, I was like ‘wow, this is really great and I love it’.
What is it about the 1960s and 1970s that inspire you so much?
I guess I love the boldness of the era; the clashing colours, the bright colours… I think the design of that time is like no other time and it can never be properly replicated because it was just so amazing and simple. There was really beautiful workmanship as well.
Where do you source your great textiles from?
All over the place. I go to secret warehouses around Melbourne and flea markets. I also get lots of old couples calling me up saying that they used to be in the rag trade when they were young during the ’60s and they’ve got a cupboard full of vintage fabrics, so in that case I go to their house and buy off them direct. Sourcing like that is really nice because they all have stories behind their fabrics.
And you probably share these personal stories with your customers?
Exactly. Yeah, when I sell on a lamp I can say that this fabric came from my friend’s grandma and she bought it in Indonesia during the ’70s.
Who are some textile and homeware designers and furniture makers that inspire you the most?
Florence Broadhurst and Marimekko would be my favourite textile designers. I might sound a bit nerdy but there’s this Australian company called Rathjen, they made lamp bases in the ’60s and ’70s, and they had this really unique glaze on their lamps that nobody else used. There’s also another Australian lamp base company called Alice, and then there are Bitossi lamp bases, and West German lamp bases that I also admire.
If you could teleport back to the ’60s or the ’70s, would you give up everything now to live in that era?
I think so [laughs]… I would, yes I would! Maybe the ’60s mod era.
So tell me about your plans for the future, and any upcoming projects you will be working on.
I’ve recently met a ceramicist, and he used to cast lamp bases, so I’m going to start designing my own bases and he’ll cast them for me. That’s really exciting, and will probably happen mid next year. I’d like to create some different styles of rocket lamps, and then hopefully design and print my own fabrics.
Are there any other factors such as travel, or international exhibitions that have inspired you recently?
I recently went to Mexico and Cuba. I make Frida Kahlo lamps, and they’re a massive hit for my business, so I went to Mexico and visited Frida’s house. It was quite emotional for me. When she got really sick, she was bedbound for years and she had a mirror installed above her bed - that’s when she started doing self-portraits. The whole house was still set up with her wheelchair, paints and an easel, so it was really powerful. I guess that trip meant a lot to me as I’ve been making these Frida Kahlo lamps and churning them out over and over - but then visiting her house made me step back and think; wow, she was an exceptional woman who had an incredible life but a sad life as well.