Stationery That Brings Vibrant Cultures To Life

Bonita Ivie Prints is a stationery brand that celebrates West African culture. Founder Bonita Ebuehi is a self-taught graphic designer, with a background in architecture. She saw a gap in the market for diverse stationery, and Bonita Ivie Prints was born in January 2017.

How did you start your business journey? I studied architecture at university, but when I graduated I knew I didn’t want to do that. Through my degree, I had good design and technical skills, so I decided I wanted to go into graphic design. I did some freelance work and taught myself basic graphic design skills, but I found it dissatisfying – when you work with clients, it ends up being more what they want. I wanted to create something that I was passionate about that I could share with other people. At the same time, I used to spend a lot of time in Paperchase as I like stationery shops and love journaling. I always tried to find notebooks I liked – but they all had polka dots or butterflies on them and I didn’t find anything that I could relate to. With greetings cards, I didn’t see myself or my culture represented in these. I’m British and Nigerian and I wanted to celebrate my culture too. So, when I saw this gap in the market, it all came together quite naturally.

What are some milestone moments of your business journey? Weirdly, right off the bat the response was great! At the time there were a few people doing cards and notebooks, but the notebooks were more printed and fabric and put on existing notebooks. Mine were unique because I created my own prints. Events were great exposure for me, for people that hadn’t interacted with my brand before. I went to Africa Utopia in London, Afropunk in Paris (a big music festival they do across the world).

A great moment for me was to have my work sold in Somerset House for an exhibition celebrating Black culture called Get Up, Stand Up Now. It was great for me that my work was appreciated. I want to work towards seeing my stuff in high street stores, so that people like me can see my stuff and purchase it on the street. I have some stuff in the works, watch this space…

Tell us about learnings and mistakes? There have been so many learnings. One is to be confident in what you are producing, which is huge. Especially in the stationery industry, there are a lot of people who have a certain aesthetic which is what sells, sometimes I’m tempted to go in this direction but this goes away from the ethos of celebrating my culture. I’ve learnt to stick to my guns.

It’s so important to have peers in the same industry as you. Learning that not everyone is competition and there is space for everyone to exist. Even if someone is doing something similar to you, there is room for everyone. Having peers has been so useful, we can help each other. Don’t do it alone, there are a lot of people who are one-woman bands like myself. It’s important to have that business community who can support you.

How do you keep in touch with that business community? These are people I’ve met at events or connected with through Instagram – there is no specific hub that I use. People who I’ve met in person that I’ve just developed relationships with. We’ll form our own Whatsapp groups or meet in person or chat over the phone, so it's very organic, which I like.

Talking about mentorship or networks, what's the best advice you’ve been given? I’ve never really had a business mentor, that sounds bizarre but there hasn’t been anything I’ve engaged with. This advice was too late for me to take, but for anyone starting a business – set it up properly and outsource what you need to outsource. For things that aren’t your strength or things you don’t enjoy, outsource it. I’ve learnt this for product photography, I’ve just hired someone to do it. It’s something a lot of small business owners think ‘is this something I should invest in’, but it is worth it for your mental health. Whether it’s product photography or accounting, this is something that will aid your business. Make sure you aren’t running yourself to the ground and that it’ll benefit you in the long run.

Bonita Ivie Prints uses bold colour and patterns synonymous with traditional West African prints, also known as ‘ankara’. Bonita is passionate about creating products that make both celebratory and everyday moments special. We asked about her inspirations and production process.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your Ankara-style prints? The origin of those prints is Dutch and somehow they have worked their way into West African culture. They are bold, a little bit garish with a bright neon background. They have an illustrated, patterned background and an object that is replicated and layered. They mainly feature a random household object – they are bizarre but synonymous with our culture. We’d wear them around the house or use them to create clothes. That's what I essentially wanted to replicate in my designs.

How do you make your products? When I started Bonita Ivie, the way I used to produce patterns was with pen and ink. I’d use pen and ink then scan in my computer and manipulate with Photoshop. Then I learned more software and started doing it digitally. Now, I follow two steps: designing the prints and then, sourcing suppliers to help print them. In the future I’d like to have the equipment to do the printing myself. I’ve done a lot of work in marketing so I have a good handle on card stock and print quality. Ordering samples is also important, especially with new collections. 

Tell us about your product shots? I’ve recently hired a product photographer as it’s a tricky thing. If you want images of your products in context, and you don’t have the right props – that’s hard. I’ve got a prop box but they’re not great and I don’t have that eye! It’s not just point and shoot, it’s about how can I really sell this product and how do I show the way people will use this product?

What are some hopes and dreams for the future? I’m hoping to launch a little homeware collection, which is veering away from stationery. During lockdown, I did the 100 Day Project which is about doing something creative each day. I started doing more drawing and dedicated 2 hours to drawing freely. I thought I needed to work on my pattern library. I started to do a food series, and people thought it would be good to have on a tea towel and homewares.

Other future plans – this has been on my list for ages! It would be nice to have a pop-up stationery shop for other Black-owned brands. Not just Bonite Ivie Prints, other brands as well. The tangible element is important in stationery - I love physical shopping. There is room for online shopping but for stationery I think it’s important to also have physical stores!

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