Into the unknown

Into the unknown

Bettina Nissen couldn’t pick out Newcastle on a map before she moved there from Germany. But, she tells Brian Nicholls, she found a city that was ideal for her business.

Starting a business? Very brave...And in a foreign country? Wow! But that’s what Bettina Nissen has done enthusiastically, and Bettina Nissen Design is now almost two years old. She didn’t even know where Newcastle was on the map until her arrival five years ago with husband Jeffrey.

She’s German, he American. They met as students in Denmark. Should the German go and live in America or the American come and live in Germany? “We tried England instead,” Bettina laughs, her engaging humour clicking in.

Jeffrey, a glass artist, now stimulates creatively in the glass and ceramics department of Sunderland University. Bettina, 33, initially did various jobs to improve her English.

“It was good to see how Newcastle is and what there might be to do here,” she recalls. “Even applying for jobs differs from country to country. British CVs differ entirely from German ones and things like that. You must learn new things from the outset.” In her own time she designed and planned projects, for she too had an education with potential.

While Jeffrey had been a Fulbright scholar researching at university in Copenhagen, Bettina had been at the Danish Design School in the city, amid a five-year study for a combined degree at Burg Giebichenstein, the leafy University Of Art And Design at Halle in Germany. It’s a university empathetic towards small-scale production and hand craft tradition.

In addition, in 2008 she fulfilled an internship in New York with the notable American Boym Partners, Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym, who later moved from their studio in New York, taking son Bobby and cat Ozzy to Doha overlooking the Arabian Gulf. Constantin is now director of graduate design studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. Three months with them inspired Bettina.

“Back in Europe, I thought, ‘I’ll try to work more on my own products,’” she recalls of her first experience in a contemporary design studio. It had been interesting to see how a well-known designer works and thinks.

“I expected things to be a lot more straightforward and organised. But there were lots of maybes. I benefited also from an association with their name and it was also a confidence boost – not just getting the internship but the fact that the Boyms liked what I did. They’re very outgoing, but difficult to deal with sometimes. I’d been told they usually yell at interns, but they didn’t yell at me. So I guess I was doing good.” Last May, having opened her own business in Newcastle, Bettina returned to New York exhibiting in her own right.

There, her most profitable creation to date, Make a Wish rings, attracted a big online store, which now features her work also in catalogues entering homes across the US.

Yet Bettina’s working life might so easily have been spent totting up incomes and outlays of business not her own. She’s from Flensburg, an elegant coastal town about the size of Darlington and just seven kilometres from the Danish border.

It’s noted for Flens beer, mail-order sex firms, a nationwide data base of traffic violators, and association with Hans Christiansen, Art Nouveau’s founder.

But Bettina’s parents held no aesthetic aspirations for her when she left school unsure what she might do. They work for an equivalent of Revenue and Customs.

“They didn’t really believe in creativity as a way of making a living,” Bettina tells. “So Iwent to Berlin for two years to do an apprenticeship in book-keeping. I did this with my aunt – it was kind of a family thing. They were saying, like, ‘Why don’t you go and do this?’” She squeezed the three-year apprenticeship into two years to get it over with, while looking for something creative.

She set her sights on the University of Art and Design in Halle.

“I had to make a portfolio, which took time,” she says. “Application procedure was harsh. About 1,000 applicants went through two days of tests. After interview you might be one of 15 selected.

“This meant a lot of work but I did it while finishing off my not-so-creative apprenticeship. I was delighted to be accepted. I do my own book-keeping now – and my husband’s. Then, though, I didn’t think it useful. I think my aunt was understanding...

“I guess they all realised I might do something like this. I’d designed a lampshade and attended woodworking workshops – and a welding workshop one weekend. I think they knew mine would be a different calling.” Now benefits of her MA go into interiors, furniture, home accessories and lighting design, working in felt, plastics and metal, and fusing – as she puts it – simple, functional forms with humour. Her items to date include – besides the wish rings – “shadow” coasters, Gills bowls, a rustic bench and, most striking of all many might agree, The Victorianiser, a bookcase-cum display unit whose design marries Scandinavian minimalism with British Victorian embellishment.

In Newcastle she has homogenous company at the Mushroom Works arts factory in Ouseburn, where she shares an upstairs studio with Eva Bauer, another German artist. There they can break from creativity occasionally and watch through their upstairs window as workmen demolish Spillers’ 1930s riverside Mill where 500 people once worked. Separating a studio from their central Newcastle home has suited Jeffrey who, Bettina says, wouldn’t have been too happy about her designing in the spare bedroom or casting resin in the kitchen. Fortunately the North East, certainly when she arrived, provided lots of support and funding, enabling her to go beyond book-keeping.

“There was a lot I needed to learn,” she admits. “It took about three years to set up properly. Support and funding I got for writing a business plan and branding was invaluable. I got backing and advice from the likes of Business Link, and with about 20 other artists, designers and photographers did a course called GLEAM at Durham Business School, which included finance and marketing.” There are advantages and disadvantages to any business location, she suggests.

“Newcastle’s major advantage over London is that the creative world is fairly small, very open and friendly. London’s very competitive. Here I find it really nice having conversations without wondering if someone will steal my ideas. It’s open-to-share here. People happily discuss an idea or share their own advice or knowledge, if you’re looking for a supplier or a manufacturer, for example.” Besides the occupants of a dozen studios at Mushroom Works, there’s a growing artists’ colony in the surrounding neighbourhood. Less plentiful is the number of manufacturers she can find willing to meet a designer’s specifications and standards.

“Many are more industrial than creative – not overly keen to try something new,” she says from experience. “For my rings I have used a company in the Netherlands willing to do small objects.

Many fabricators here say costs of small runs would be too high.

Also, some don’t pay attention to detail and quality.“ To sell her goods Bettina largely takes the online highway, marketing on her own website and other online shops.

She deals through some retailers and has exhibited to advantage in Milan, Berlin, New York, the North East and London, where she recently returned from another sales thrust.

Trade fairs often lead to suitable new retailers. Online, however, looks her fastest way ahead, though she admits: “I don’t think online has reached its full potential for me yet. I don’t think I’ve enough products to give a really strong online presence.

“I’m trying to develop a collection with more choice. There are quite a few online shops in giftware and home accessories, those kinds of markets. Online selling offers a better return than conventional retail. Commission taken is usually lower than on high street stores, where there may be a 100% or more mark-up plus VAT.” Being a sole trader not VAT registered can sometimes be difficult for start-ups. Bettina isn’t yet selling enough to justify VAT registration, whereas it could benefit her.

“I’m paying VAT on what the fabricators produce for me then selling to retailers who put another batch of VAT on,” she says. “I’m losing out. Yet is it worthwhile to go through all of VAT’s hoops of admin and paperwork?” Memo to Chancellor Osborne: Please consider if the Government really does want more young entrepreneurs.

While rings are most rewarding, Bettina is now increasing her home accessory range. “There were a lot of hiccups with the rings that I didn’t anticipate in terms of ring sizes. Also shipping – jewellery isn’t insured so it’s my risk, another learning curve!” She’ll consider commissions from firms or private clients, whether for internal design or personal pieces.

She has a commission already for Joanna Feeley’s thriving Trend Bible, which tells the world from Newcastle what future consumer inclinations may be in fashions, styles and colours. Her biggest frustration, apart from that scarcity of suitable fabricators, is customers – or rather, non-customers, who look but don’t understand about small batch items and think everything should be “made in China and just cost about £1”.

Says Bettina: “At exhibitions and design events, there are always people like that. I guess that’s just not my market. But such comments are still frustrating.” Her greatest satisfaction? Happy customers, like the young man who bought a wish ring to surprise his girl friend during a trip to Paris.

“He wrote and said she really liked it and it was perfect. That makes me happy,” says Bettina, glowing too.