The name “Bookhou” sounds vaguely French. It’s not.
Rather, Bookhou is a portmanteau of the last names of its founders, John Booth and Arounna Khounnoraj. The couple are partners in both work and life, and are the artist-designers who, save for a couple of guest ceramic pieces and terraniums from friends, make everything that is sold in their internationally-celebrated shop of handmade wares. First launched as an online business in 2002, with a brick-and-mortar iteration established at Dundas and Palmerston six years later, Bookhou’s offerings run the gamut from fashionable messenger bags to screen-printed baby onesies to furniture.
“It was before the days of Bennifer,” jokes Khounnoraj, on coming up with a name for the business when it launched in 2002. “We kind of started it first.”
But it would turn out to be a strategic choice.
“When we first started the business, we didn’t know what we were going to make,” she admits. What they did know was their desire was to combine their shared backgrounds to create and sell their wares in some capacity. The combined-surname shop moniker would prevent them from getting pigeonholed—though, occasionally, people still assume they sell books.
Khounnoraj comes from an art background and holds degrees from the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University), Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and an MFA from the University of Waterloo. Insofar as Bookhou is concerned, she works mostly on sculpture and textiles (sometimes, as a series of framed textile sculptures will attest, at the very same time). Booth on the other hand is primarily a painter and furniture maker with a background in architecture; his training came courtesy of Queens University and the University of Toronto.
“My whole life, I think the common thread is that I keep trying to formalize scribbling,” he muses.
A painter in the abstract expressionist vein, Booth’s approach to furniture design is similarly driven by a fixation on pattern and repetition. In his basement woodshop stands a work-in-progress that will eventually be a headboard on a bed. Right now, it’s a series of wooden beams—dozens of them—warped by steam and held together by firm metal clamps. Within the solid rectangular template of its frame, individual parts bend this way and that over and over again, a design conceit reinforced by redundancy.
Booth starts his pieces with a general idea of what he might like to achieve, then negotiates the details along the way. “I’m formulating it at the exact moment that I’m making it,” he says. “For me, it’s more like painting.”
Booth estimates that he spends around 20 hours per day in the shop.
“We sometimes will complain about how busy it is, and then we kind of stop ourselves because we have other friends who are in the same business and they’re struggling, having to work other jobs, plus trying to do their artwork,” says Khounnoraj as she rivets leather straps onto a series of geometrically-printed canvas bags. “So I feel like we’re really fortunate, because we’ve created this job.”
In spite of the breakneck pace, it’s a lifestyle not without its perks. For one, the duo lives and works in the same building where they raise their two small children. It allows for the store and studio to become a truly family-integrated space, and enables the kids to nurture their own budding creative pursuits. Both children’s work was featured in the inaugural children’s booth at this spring’s City of Craft fair; the younger of the two, Piper, recently asked her father for her own set of tools (“but as long as they’re pink”).
Bookhou’s family-friendly atmosphere has helped on the business front, as well, thanks in large part to Khounnoraj’s popular blog on family life and design inspiration.
“I think the blog has really helped our business, because [the readers] kind of see me as someone they want to be,” she observes. “Because [many of them are] stay-at-home moms, and I’m kind of a stay-at-home mom. I think they like that, and they want to support what I’m doing.” The blog gets around 2,000 hits per day from all over the world, and has attracted visitors from as far away as Japan.
Another, perhaps unlikely, business booster has been the economic downturn.
“People began thinking about what it was that they wanted to buy and started buying more handmade and local, and really thinking about the material choices, spending their money better,” says Khounnoraj. “They wanted their money to be stretched a little further.”
But ultimately, Khounnoraj sees the key selling point of Bookhou’s wares, from the standpoint of both the producers and potential buyers, is that she and Booth are in a position of being able to tailor their products to meet the needs of the consumer.
“We can make something, take it to market, get the market’s feedback, and then make adjustments,” she says. “That’s the great thing about making things one at a time. If you go and get things mass-produced, you can’t catch that.”