Rachel Copley McQuillan may have taken a circuitous route to co-founding Bureau Bonanza, but her passion for aesthetics, concept and culture was always there. Here, she shares with us some of her journey so far and describes the synergistic, creative partnership that shapes the studio’s values and practice.
I haven’t been in the studio much at all over the last eight months, but I’m okay with it. I have a little space set up in my kitchen and even in normal times, I would from work here a few days a week. I do miss our jungle studio though, which is full of plants and light. And I miss the creative flow that occurs when Stina and I can work in the same room.
I am co-founder and co-director of Bureau Bonanza, a design agency/studio that is me and my pal (and designer extraordinaire) Stina Sandström. Our work spans print, digital and environmental and is mostly for the arts sector. We are a two-woman operation, so we do everything ourselves; from strategy and creative direction to project management, general admin and art-working. We both wear many hats… sometimes all at once, but frequently swapping around and changing roles as we go about our day.
We check in with each other several times a day, exchanging files, drawing on top of each other's drawings. It’s a great challenge to release control over the work, but we know from experience to trust the process and each other. The result is always much more interesting than if we just settled on our individual, initial vision.
Growing up in the 90s, I think I had the stereotypical ‘graphic designer’ influences and interests; music, rave culture, flyers, clubbing, fashion, film and production design and as a result spent a lot of time glued to pirate radio, MTV and The Word and reading magazines like The Face.
Visual culture in all its forms was (and still is) my thing. As a kid, I collected flyers and my bedroom walls were plastered with them. My uncle, who was into Jungle, used to send them over to me from London along with mixtapes. I was obsessed. I found a landline number on a flyer once and called up asking for work experience — they politely declined. I must have been 14, so it was understandable really.
Even though I always knew that I wanted to be a designer, it took a really long time to get around to it. I worked for several years in fashion retail and did a lot of travelling. I had been living in Berlin for five years when I decided it was time to come home and pursue a degree. In 2011, I began a HND in Graphic Design at Coláiste Dhúlaigh and from there went on via advanced entry to the Visual Communications course at IADT.
Even then, I continued to take the long way round. It took me six years to finish my studies, including taking a full year out because I got very, very ill.
Getting sick was a pretty life-changing experience for me on many levels. I was completely out of action for a year but felt lucky to be alive and grateful for a second chance at things. The whole thing really galvanised my determination and ambition to become a designer, not only because I realised I should be doing something I loved, but also from a practical point of view. I had to find a way of working that would allow me to manage my condition. Working for myself gives me the freedom to work from home or rest when necessary.
IADT really upped the ante for me. I learnt to think about design more critically and theoretically and fully immersed myself in it. It’s also where I met Stina. We collaborated on a project and discovered a special synergy between us. We pretty much decided there and then that we should work together after college. We went on holiday to Mexico and Belize and spent a lot of time just walking around and looking at really vibrant shop signs, hilariously tacky menus and a certain kind of tropical abundance that we both really liked. The trip helped us articulate our shared aesthetic values that still inform what Bureau Bonanza stands for.
Our studio practice can be defined through our name. We appreciate and adore ‘Bureau’: the dry, dogmatic, rigour and order of design — and in equal parts — ‘Bonanza’: absolute creative abundance, release, decadence, indulgence and freedom. The conversation and ultimately the balance between these two principles is what our practice is all about. It is the convergence of all of our many and combined experiences, influences and interests.
, Branding for wine in a can (for Canauvin), Arts Publication and Print (for Project Arts Centre — I used to work there in a previous life, so it’s great to create design work for them now))
Our work is heavily concept-driven with an artistic approach and a strong critical awareness of design and art history. We conduct thorough research into every project we take on, making sure that we get to the crux of things which enables us to place a strong focus on concept. We aim to make work that transcends genres and trends, and that isn’t defined or confined to any prescribed notions of what design is or can be (but let’s be honest, it’s still pretty trendy).
I love how design creates and conflates narratives and worlds. Production design that is highly stylised (with an elaborate set and costume design and colour palettes to match) has had a big influence on my work. For example, a side project of mine is a set of limited-edition silk scarves called The Lotos Eaters and their design was heavily influenced by one of my favourite TV shows: Tales of the Unexpected. It started as a college project in Coláiste Dhúlaigh and evolved over time into its current incarnation. I suppose this harps back to my days in fashion retail — selling my wares will undoubtedly be something that I continue to do as my practice evolves.
We’ve got a lot of things on the go at the moment and 2021 is looking good for us which we’re grateful for. In the new year, we’ll be moving into a studio with illustrators Fuchsia MacAree and Ruan Van Vliet, and costume designer Sal O’Halloran. Hopefully, we’ll manage to multiply the energy we get from Bureau Bonanza times three by being in a communal space with shared experience, skills, enthusiasm, and craic.
Bureau Bonanza is both my biggest challenge and opportunity. I often feel like I am just winging it, but the rest of the time, I think we’re really onto something — harnessing exponential potential and riding that wave. Maybe this comes from never having worked in a studio, at least not in any greater capacity than as an intern, but maybe this is how everyone feels all the time? I am constantly learning and figuring out how and why, but I believe this keeps things fresh and me on my toes and ultimately, it is what motivates me.
I want Bureau Bonanza to grow and evolve into whatever it can be. I’d love to work on larger-scale projects, so that could mean expanding as a studio and hiring or collaborating with others whose expertise and skillsets can add to our own. Moving into a shared space with practitioners of other disciplines will be the impetus to collaborate more and expand what we do. An integral part of any design practice is to give something back, keep things fresh and maintaining the flow and exchange of ideas, so teaching is definitely on the cards also. Maybe I can get into production design too and live out my Tales of the Unexpected dreams... I just hope the world doesn’t end before I get to do all the things I want do!