Before Sir Plus packed up our Bethnal Green studio (you’ll find the entire team on Portobello Road these days), we dropped in to visit our neighbours Earl of East. Niko Dafkos and Paul Firmin are the couple behind the brand: a multi-sensorial line of hand-poured candles and incense inspired by their travels to places like LA, Greece and Marrakesh. Along with a team of eight they also run Bonds: a bright, buzzing space in Hackney that’s home to Earl of East and a handful of carefully chosen lifestyle brands. Not content with existing as just a retail space, Bonds also serves as a studio, teaching space, event venue and generally speaking, a nice place to spend a Sunday afternoon. In any given week it can host a life drawing class, a screen printing workshop and a clay parlour (courtesy of Bonds' upstairs resident, Kana London); all while Paul and Niko pour and dispatch their latest sensory creations in their lab. Not bad for a venture that began from a simple market stall (something we know a lot about).
Niko: We always wanted to do a market stall for some odd reason. We used to live right behind this building and we would go out all the time, to markets, to coffee shops, to restaurants, but we never felt like we belonged to the local community. A few years ago Paul’s dad sadly passed away and we had this energy that we decided to channel into something productive. When we booked our first spot at Netil Market we didn’t even know what we would be selling, so we came up with three hooks: candles, curiosities and cacti. Candles represented anything independently made, cacti represented plants of course and curiosities stood for vintage ceramics that we would pick up when we visited my family in Germany. We started without any expectations, as something to have fun with and to meet people through, to tap into the local community. So we did it and our first customer bough 70 per cent of everything on the table.
Paul: We thought: “Damn, we’re really good at this. We should do it again!” We’ve often wondered how things would have went if that hadn’t happened, would we have been quite as interested had we had had a really bad first day? As it was, we went back and by the end of the year we were there every week. It felt like we were part of a community, and eventually we were asked if we’d like to take some space in a big shipping container that the market manager (who actually does photography for us now) was putting in. It would open every weekend, which meant that we could stop dragging suitcases back and forth every week.
Paul: We became really well known for candles but we weren’t making them ourselves, they were all by other brands. We were surrounded by people who were making – ceramicists, glassmakers, leather makers – and so we decided to put ourselves through a creative journey. We’ve both always been interested in fragrance, so we self-taught. We went to workshops, perfume classes, we spent a lot of time on YouTube and testing things out, and six months later we launched out first candles. It wasn’t a happy accident, but one of those things where it was a good time and a good place and it happened without us really thinking about it.
Niko: I think we were hungry for it, we wanted it to happen. We didn’t really have any expectations because we didn’t know, we hadn’t launched a product before. But within the first three months we ended up with 25 stockists – one of them being Selfridges – which was an amazing learning curve. We weren’t at all ready for it, but it made us get things in order.
Paul: What’s interesting is that we didn’t start with our own product, we started with retail which allowed us to work backwards in a sense – how much does this cost, what margin do we need to work to and so on. Then when we launched Bonds we flipped that on its head, taking what we’d learned from working with stockists. We’d always enjoyed curating and presenting a world, but it became confusing with the container and we ended up stripping that right back to just the candles. So with this space we purposefully called it something different. Bonds has many faces: we’re an event space, a studio, we have coffee, people can hire us for events. It’s multi-concept and I think that makes it more interesting.
Niko: We’re still figuring a lot out. We haven’t nailed what’s right and what’s wrong for Bonds. We’re a team of eight now, and we make sure that everybody is involved in what’s happening and has a say in it. We run a lot of external workshops, we can reach out to people and say: “We love what you do, we have a space, why don’t you come teach our crowd here?”
Paul: It’s the same idea as the market stall. Not exclusively, but about 70 per cent of the brands in here are friends of ours; we know their stories and we want to amplify them. We do Tuesday talks called Bonding Sessions with the people behind the brands, which we’re going to turn into a podcast. Some of the brands we stock, we’ve been a part of their journey. Fetch and Follow, who make dog accessories. we started off with in on the market and they’ve also collaborated with Ana [Kerin, of Kana London]. We had Maya Njie in for a talk recently, she creates fragrances based on scents from her childhood. We’ve worked with chocolate makers to create bars based on our scents, we’re collaborating with an artist called Charlotte Taylor who is really cool and has created some visuals around our newest candle [Jardine de la Lune, a smoky mix of tuberoses, cloves and cinnamon inspired by the gardens of Versailles]. We’re trying to do different things to keep it interesting.
Niko: It’s also a studio environment, we produce here during the week and on the evenings we can host talks or a workshop of our own, and then the store is open on the weekends. Combined with that is Kana; we used to be next to Ana on the market and now we share this building. The best days are when Ana has a workshop upstairs, we have one downstairs and the shop is open, it’s super noisy but in a really good way. It’s almost like being on the market again. As Paul said: it’s not just a shop that sells cute things, it’s a building that houses our neighbourhood and that they consider an extension to their own home.
Bonds Hackney can be found at 5A Gransden Ave, London E8 3QA.