Every bit as whimsical as their name suggests, Wonderland Collective is a boutique creative studio based in Woodstock, Cape Town. It was founded in 2011 by Lexi Fontein and Graeme Lipschitz, and has since grown to consist of a team of 5 in-house designers as well. For Wonderland, “good enough is not good enough” and so, their aim is to bring wonder back through their work while creating quantifiable change in the world – quite literally, to make it a wonderland. We chatted to Lexi and Graeme about how it all began, the principles that dictate their approach, what they do to keep inspired and the wonderful things they’ve got in store for us next.
What were each of you doing in the years before and leading up to founding Wonderland Collective?
Lexi aka “Alice in Wonderland”: I graduated from Rhodes University with a BJourn in Communication Design and decided to ply my trade in London, first working for the London Design Festival (which was an incredible experience) and then Titan Entertainment Publishing. When we moved back to South Africa I did various stints at agencies including Ogilvy before deciding to go freelance.
Graeme aka “The Mad Hatter”: After leaving Rhodes with a BA and PDEM, I joined Google in London as a Maximiser before coming back to help start the Google office in Johannesburg. I left Google in 2009 to join Clicks2Customers as their Head of Business Development for South Africa and it’s at that point that I started silently (not so silently) investing in Wonderland.
How did the idea to establish your own creative studio originally come about, and what was your vision for it as the time?
We decided during our honeymoon in Bali in 2011 that we wanted to combine our talents and work together in our own business. On the way to a Buddhist temple we came up with the name “Wonderland” and it stuck because we do many creative things with a view to not only bring the wonder back, but in creating good, quantifiable change in the world – to make it a wonderland.
Tell us more about your journey so far, since launching Wonderland in 2012…
We’ve certainly had our ups and downs! We hired our first designer in 2011 as the freelance work picked up; landed 2 big retainers at the time and moved into offices in Muizenberg Surfer’s Corner in 2012. We then lost the 2 retainers overnight as both startups went bust, moved out of the office and back into our master bedroom at home and then built up again. We were at a point where we had 5 desks, 4 dogs and 1 parrot in our master bedroom at home and then decided to move into offices in the Woodstock Exchange in January 2013. Since then, Graeme has come on board full time and we’ve rocked some incredible projects including the Bacon Pop-Up Bar in Franschhoek, Danny K’s Good Look App in conjunction with Samsung, the Le Quartier Francais new bar design, and an augmented reality app with Sanlam Investments.
Who else makes up the Wonderland team, and what do each of you specialise in?
We’ve got a team of incredibly talented designers behind us, each of them with their own Wonderland character:
Luke “The Graverobber” Wingnean is a digital jedi – he pumps out amazing website designs and illustrations for breakfast. He’s currently working on a crazy vinyl toy collection for our soon-to-be-launching shop that is going to blow people away.
Ines “The White Rabbit” Soutschka is probably our most elegant designer. She’s designed the Mullineux website and, I have to admit, it’s one of our most beautiful sites yet.
Frank “The Caterpillar” Conradie is our 3d whizz – he can take almost anything and render it in 3d; he’s also got invaluable product experience and is currently designing our apparel offering which is set to launch before winter.
Eduan “The March Hare” Naude is our most junior designer and his most notable contribution so far has been his participation in the custom-built bike event we helped The Woodstock Mancave with. We created these custom biker jackets with the help of Levis that came out so sick and the proceeds of which were donated to the Al-Noor Orphanage in Woodstock.
Candice “Queen of Hearts” Laporta is our Studio and Traffic Manager, and boy does she keep us on track. Although she’s the newest member of the gang, she’s quickly bringing structure to our sometimes organized chaos.
In a manifesto of sorts, you mention that the driving force behind Wonderland is making a quantifiable change in the world. How do you endeavour to bring this about?
We do a lot of pro bono work for NGO and charity-based clients. If we had our way that would be the sole thing we do. Fortunately we have more commercial clients who love working with us, who help pay the salaries, and enable us to do the more impactful work for those clients.
We’re also at the point where we’re creating our own products to sell. Part of the profits of these will go towards making quantifiable change for charities. For example, you could buy 1 of our skateboards and R50 from each purchase could go towards the creation of a kennel for a dog. The key for us is to show people where their money is going, to create content around it that is easily shareable.
What key principles or philosophies underpin the things you do and create – whether it takes the form of branding, an experiential space, or something else entirely?
One thing that takes precedence in everything we do is Ubuntu: I am because we are. It means we share our work with, inspire and criticize each other toward greatness.
We always want our clients to respond with a sense of wonder, so that means good enough isn’t good enough anymore. It’s a case of taking what’s come before and chucking that out for something that is new.
What has been one of your favourite projects to work on recently, and why?
We’ve really enjoyed working on the Bacon Pop-Up Bar as we’ve had a long-standing relationship with the client who really respects our creative vision and lets us get on with our magic. It was also an incredible learning curve for us: conceptualising a space and getting everything fabricated specifically for it from custom pig statues of liberty to the pink origami curtain in the window.
Our augmented reality project with Sanlam Investments’s HR department is also standout as it was our first time with using the technology and the client had the faith in us to pull something incredible off.
Your studio is based in Woodstock, Cape Town. How does this environment impact or inform the work you do?
The Woodstock Exchange is sometimes described as “painfully trendy,” yet it’s great to be surrounded by such awesome creative talent. Just across from us we have awesome animators in 3rd floor, next to them are amazing wedding photographers in WeLovePictures and then next to us is our favourite ceramic artist, SootCookie.
Having these people around us is incredibly inspiring but it also helps us expand on our own offerings to clients. Just the other day we created our first animated explainer video with 3rd Floor and the results were incredible.
It also helps to have Google’s 88MPH startup accelerator upstairs and The Bandwidth Barn across from you when one of your foci is working with the startup community.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
We attend Design Indaba every year as a studio. We love being able to access some of the international speakers and what drives them as creative. We’re admittedly addicted to digital browsing: this includes checking out Behance and copious amounts of pinning on Pinterest. We’re inspired in our space – we’re building a design library and love playing music, and enjoy our studio. Lexi is also the biggest Tom Dixon fan. We’re slightly obsessed with the metallic trend and hope it continues long into the future.
The biggest inspiration for us as a studio is travel and experiences. We try to visit at least one new destination a year. In past years we have visited Vietnam, London, Rome, St Tropez – experiencing new cultures and delving into their creative trends has always shaped how we approach new projects upon our return.
Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment that we should keep an eye out for?
We’ve just launched our new website. It has been a long design journey getting us to this point. It took us approximately 6 months for the revamp. It’s always hardest treating yourself as a client. We’re thrilled about our new look, and feel that it communicates much more of what we’re capable of as a studio.
We are also gifting our supporters a free desktop wallpaper every month. We’ve started a range of bespoke illustrations themed around collective nouns. For February we’re giving away “A Flamboyance of Flamigos” which we think it’s feathery and fabulous. To download yours check out our blog.
We’re also working on so many awesome things that are just for us (and you) including our own products which include more skate decks, apparel and furniture; our own shop in which to sell our things and contribute more to charity; and a trends look-book where we can showcase incredible local talent. We’re launching our online product shop later this year too.
How do you plan to grow Wonderland in the year and years to come?
Ideally we’d like to keep the boutique, family feel to our business. We’re not in the market to become a massive full service agency like a Quirk or a Native. We believe that the best service comes from a company that needs the work to survive. We’d love to do more lucrative work and feel our augmented reality offering is the key to landing bigger clients, so that’s the main goal this year. In the future we’d like to move away from services and move more into the product space by creating and selling not only our own stuff but also that of our partners.
Wonderland’s new website
Wonderland’s new business cards