Quirky vintage finds and madcap artworks collide in this illustrator’s home

Artist Rory Dobner in his studio in Hampstead NW3

Artist Rory Dobner in his studio in Hampstead NW3 - Credit: Archant

Artist Rory Dobner’s ink etchings are proving remarkably effective as idiosyncratic interior design pieces, as shown to dramatic effect in his Hampstead home

“I think a bit like an illustrator, like I’m illustrating a story, but I haven’t got the patience to write the book,” says Rory Dobner-- artist, illustrator and designer with a wild imagination.

Dobner creates intricate ink illustrations, many featuring anthropomorphic designs with a dreamy, Alice in Wonderland feel; fleeting glimpses into marvellous worlds with now iconic characters like his Monocle Cat, The Fish is Smoking and Chameleon Clutching a Cherry Cupcake.

Rory sits perched on an armchair in his Hampstead studio, sipping from a mug with one of his own designs-- a white cat in a bowler hat. The space is filled with sketches, paintings, mirrors and frames stacked up against the walls. Everywhere you look are little trinkets, rabbits with little glasses on, flags, clocks, bunches of pearl necklaces.

“There are things that I’ve collected, antiques and objects and things. Lots of the things in my drawings are actually in my studio, so you could do a treasure hunt to spot the thing that’s in the house somewhere,” he laughs. Indeed, the house looks like it was assembled with precious treasure-finds from magical adventures.

Born in 1978, Dobner grew up on Hayling Island, off the south coast of England. His collections span back as far as he remembers. “I was always finding bits of fish and crab claws and feathers from seagulls. I used to have camembert boxes and I would label them and put them all into categories and have collections like that.

“I believe if I’m looking for something too forcefully it won’t come up. Just naturally, all the time I’m looking at details of things, on the ground and above me and in the trees. I’ll notice things and then I’ll feel like drawing them.”

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The studio has been fitted with a giant glass ceiling, filling the room with light, and Dobner describes how he’ll watch cats and foxes pattering across, inspecting the depths below. Much of his inspiration comes from nature and just as real-life objects and events make it onto his page, so too do his creations take on a life of their own.

“I think of them as animated on my page, I think what would they be doing or holding, what would they be getting up to. So like the cat it’s more that it’s a white cat but there’s many of them really.”

Dobner’s ink etchings are subtle yet humourous, elegant but playful. His drawings are available in a variety of forms, from delicate canvases and prints in Victorian frames to a range of homeware items including mugs, plates, candles, tiles, trinket boxes and more.

“Because I was an artist – I wasn’t really trained as a designer – I was thinking ‘What things do I like, what things do I collect? I collect old plates, I collect paperweights, I collect certain things.’ And I thought ‘Well, I like these things myself so maybe they should be the first things I make.’ I still base the collection on things like that now.”

Dobner has since branched into interior design, completing projects for Agent Provocateur, MTV, Soho House Group, Heston Blumenthal, Nike, Christian Dior, Fortnum & Mason, Robert Downey Jr and many more. He just completed a commission for the Natural History Museum, where he drew the entire Waterhouse building to scale. The project took three months and the original drawing was two metres long. The collection, which just launched, is available at the museum.

Be it big design projects or small trinkets, Dobner’s work occupies an interesting place in the room, between homeware and art, making it incredibly approachable. The playful characters and scenes invite engagement by the beholder, luring them in and allowing them to imagine their own stories.

“I’ll occasionally meet people and they’ll say ‘Oh, I’ve got your mug and I look at it every morning and it makes me think of this or that.’” Dobner says. “You’re getting into someone’s personal space really. And that’s quite special, because art isn’t always like that. Art is sometimes a thing that is a bit more remote and not everybody buys it and owns it.”

While he takes on many high-profile projects, Dobner’s works come at affordable prices. His homewares, including those for his Fortnum & Mason collection, start at £15. “Because it’s black and white, I feel like it’s quite classic and goes with any style. It’s having that element of humour, like the fish is smoking is a bit more rock n roll, and the cat – what is he thinking? He’s dressed up – I think each drawing creates a bit of an atmosphere”

His works have a certain timelessness, a mystery that envelops them and makes you want to stare and unravel their secret stories. “I kind of see it as being about time spanning history and contemporary things,” Dobner says. “It’s like I’m in a time machine and I can travel between the times and pick things out that I find are iconic.”

“It’s that thing where you’re not sure, when you see an ink drawing on the wall, how it is,” he says. “You’re not quite sure, is it modern or is it old, and I quite like the way that slots into a collection of different things you would have in your house.”