In Conversation with bookhou

by Abby Ho [Non-Fiction]

Earlier this year, I was able to chat over the phone with Arounna Khounnaraj of bookhou to learn about her process and practice. Tucked away on Dundas West, bookhou is a multidisciplinary studio run by Arounna and her husband, John Booth, producing handmade pieces. 

Now well into their 16th year of operations, bookhou is a familiar Torontonian brand that pops up across Canada and also in the States.

I’ve long since admired bookhou’s cozy pieces with their simple designs and earthy colour palettes. Read on to learn how Arounna’s creative outlook lends itself to running the company, and how it all comes together with what she makes.

How did bookhou start?

When we started our business, it was almost 16 years ago. My husband and I thought, “Let’s just start a business!” We weren’t even thinking about how to create or run a business. None of those things were in the forefront. We just thought we like to make things and because we love these things, people will probably like and purchase them too. It was naïve, and I’m surprised that we are where we are today.

Part of the reason why I think we have success today is that when we first started, there was no online anything. With the young internet, we were able to have that experience of working almost within a bubble. The market wasn’t so saturated, and I didn’t have that fear of not having an original idea – that I would just be adding to the pool of other artists. Now, I try to maintain that mindset, where I’m not thinking so much about creating for other people’s consumption.

How did bookhou gain traction? Was it online or vending locally?

Working online came early to me in the business. We started the company in 2002, and it consisted mostly of doing wholesale and craft shows, but we didn’t sell online that much. However, when I started blogging in 2005, my audience came from all over the world. One question I kept getting was, “I want to buy your work but how do I do it?” I decided to create my website from scratch (which was painful and expensive), and that helped grow our business immensely from early on.

Tell me about your space which is both your shop, studio and home. How do you set boundaries for each of these spaces?

Our brick and mortar came about because we decided we need a space that could act as a showroom but also be a studio space. We liked the concept that when people came in, they would immediately know that we physically made the things they purchased from the store.

For us, we have a good work-life balance because we live where we work. Being able to live in the same building made a big difference for how we work every day and how our two kids interact with us. You’re not separated, and they get to see what you’re doing, and they do the same thing.

This current space will probably be our forever home because we worked into making it work for all our needs and everything we do.

Is it tricky to manage being present but also needing to continually produce?

Yes, definitely. One of the things I did to help me be more present with my kids is that I got rid of my phone. What I realized after not having a phone for 10+ years, is that you don’t need it as much as you think you do. It was a big relief to get rid of it because I get a lot of calls and emails and I’m working all day in the studio. I have a landline in the shop, so it doesn’t make sense to take that work with me when I’m out.

What helps me as a maker though, is that I’m also interested in making. It’s not just about making to run a business. It’s about the enjoyment in what I’m making. I think that is evident when you see how I post things on social media.  

How did you get into punch needle and how did it become part of your repertoire of work?

I started punch needle a little over a year ago, and it was entirely by accident. Ness Lee and I were having this conversation one day about how our images would be so cool if they were on rugs. After our chat, when she was in New York, she went to a shop called, Purl Soho that sells a lot of textiles and yarn. She bought Amy Oxford’s Punch Needle as a gift and left it at our shop with a little note inside that said, “Go make a rug.” I looked up Amy’s YouTube videos and tried it. After that, I was hooked (pun intended.)

I tried rug hooking when I was younger, probably at my daughter’s age, I disliked it because it was really hard. You have to have a lot of manual dexterity, and I thought I was too young. Every image I saw was of cows, sheep, or farms and that didn’t appeal to me. It didn’t have a modern, updated twist like weaving or macramé.

Then I started getting into punch needle and found it so much easier than rug hooking. You use a tool, it’s faster, and you don’t have to use two hands. I also like the fact you can use yarn, and it was drawing with yarn. What fueled punch needle’s popularity was that no one saw what I saw. So, when I started doing punch needle with my imagery, people were drawn to the contemporary take. I started a trend of people interested in using the tool and also people purchasing it.

How has working with punch needle helped you personally as a maker?

I have this awful fear of colour because I don’t think I’m good at it. Even though it’s something I’m consistently working with, when I draw patterns, everything is in black and white. Punch needle has slowly helped me get over that fear. There’s something about the textures of yarn that help me become more aware of colours and how colours interact with each other.

Just recently, I had all this excess yarn that I didn’t know what to do with because it wasn’t enough for a project. I started just making these pillows based on this idea of working with remnant yarn, and the design was dictated from the colours of the materials.

That process was the most freeing experience because there was no plan and it was so intuitive. It was almost like taking the yarn and painting with it. It was a different kind of fun from working on a commercial project because parts of my mind were activated, and I didn’t have to think about the end product.

Why is it important for you to create art and design that is utilitarian? That serves a purpose?

John and I both have an art background, so I think the way we approach design is from an artist’s point of view. The idea of utilitarian is encompassed in our work because art is so essential in the everyday. For me, it goes back to that idea of spreading your love for art and design to anyone.

Especially with handmade items, different decisions are made in comparison to mass-produced items. Often, those decisions will make that product be better quality. When people walk into our store, they can understand and support because they see where the item came and the evidence of the makers’ hand.

Hearing you talk, it sounds as though your work as a maker and a business owner has been very fluid and natural. Is there any invisible labour that is tricky for you in your practice, things we wouldn’t necessarily be able to see from an outsider’s perspective?

I call it busy work, there’s a lot of busy work that I don’t show on social media, and that can encompass: designing, preparing materials, making items, answering emails, etc. All those things are completely mundane but are essential to the business and you have to do it.

But because a lot of my work in my art practice is so labour intensive, the process of doing something over a long period of time is not like work for me. It’s a different type of mindset, and I enjoy it.

There’s a real balance, but I’m good at walking away from something if it gets too much. That’s what’s so great about my space. I can move from thing to thing. Since my work is so diverse, I can go from hand stitching to printing to paintings – there are so many elements that keep me entertained and I never feel that running a business overall is overly challenging. I don’t feel that. I think it’s just fun.

What is the community you’re building like?

The community is very supportive and loving because they see me as a mom, a maker, and they connect with me as a friend rather than just this person who runs a company. 

This idea of creating friendships virtually really connects people to your work because that’s what you do on social media. You’re creating a story about you through your work, and they start to get to know you through those stories and begin having this connection to you and therefore your work. It becomes full circle. 

When people do purchase something, it just makes it more special because it’s part of you! It’s not just this item that is abstract; it’s very much an extension of you, who you are, and the things you like, your creativity. I think that’s what has sustained us for this long. We’ve never changed the process of connecting to another person.

bookhou was co-founded by John Booth and Arounna Khounnoraj in 2002 to showcase their individual and collaborative work. They are a multidisciplinary studio that emphasizes natural handmade materials and small production pieces.
John Booth received his education from Queens University and his architecture degree from the University of Toronto. He is currently working with form and structure in both painting and furniture. Arounna Khounnoraj received her education from the Ontario College of Art, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and an MFA from the University of Waterloo. She is currently exploring pattern and image in her textiles and sculptures. In the fall of 2008, they opened their brick and mortar shop located on Dundas Street West in Toronto.