Sitting inconspicuously along a row of houses in the old neighbourhood of Taman Taynton View, Cheras, B’Nottee’s studio exudes a certain charm. A short flight of stairs leads to a terrace, where the co-founders of the stationery and handicraft brand — Edmund Low, 31, and Chew E-Jie, 36 — occasionally spend time putting the finishing touches to their latest products.
But most of the time, the duo are indoors in the quiet home-turned-workshop and weekend store, brainstorming on new designs, working on some illustrations or producing some of their journals, notebooks or pencil cases.
In many ways, the quaint and artisanal vibe of the space is a dream come true for the trained interior designers and ex-colleagues turned business partners, who wanted to get more hands-on with creative work.
“I have always loved to do crafts and make things. It is my passion,” shares Low, who spent four fast-paced years doing food and beverage-related interior design. During that time, he was strongly influenced by being a part of the process of creating new brands and it implanted a desire to strike out on his own.
But it was only after quitting his job and going on a backpacking trip to Taiwan — where he saw first-hand the thriving artisanal crafts and product design scene — that he took his first tentative steps upon his return. Roped in to help set up a crafts market here, he felt the need to take up a booth himself to sell products.
“Around that time, I met up with E-Jie to return a book she had lent me for my Taiwan trip. We chatted about my experience and what I was up to, and I recalled having seen her make her own notebooks — with Washable Kraft Paper — so, long story short, we set up the booth together and then we did another, and another. Eventually, we set up an online store before establishing a proper studio in 2016,” says Low.
The start of their brand came at an opportune time. “It was good timing. When we started, Malaysians were still lagging behind when it came to the appreciation of craft and design products — being very practical and money-conscious people. But in 2016, there was a boom, particularly when the fashion for keeping a journal hit our shores,” says Low.
A playful spin on the word “note” and the initials of their names, B’Nottee (pronounced be-no-tee) product range include anything typically found atop a desk.
The core products are journal covers and notebooks, which are particularly popular among aficionados of Bullet Journaling, an elaborate and creative style of keeping a journal that is gaining momentum in the craft community.
Low and Chew have made sure fans can get the variety of notebooks needed to keep their journals — from planners to notebooks with blank, dotted and grid pages. Some of these are available in a bundle with two styles of cover — the Elemental or the NotteeBook.
Using a system of elastic bands, customers can choose the type of notebooks they want as inserts, as well as choose from a selection of walnut wood button fasteners. The NotteeBook comes in an interchangeable folder with a flap for an extra customising element.
In an eco-friendly twist, B’Nottee’s trademark is the use of Washable Kraft Paper instead of animal skins. “When I started making my own pouches, cards and notebooks as a hobby, I would always look for new materials. Once, I was in a fabric shop and came across Washable Kraft Paper — it was originally a common material for jeans tags — and I loved the durability and the texture. It’s scratch-proof and you can draw on it, dye it and do a lot of other things with it,” Chew says.
This material has also been used for another signature product, B’Nottee pencil cases called Roti and Ikan, which have proved durable despite being made of “paper”. So much so that Low says, “We have had customers come back to tell us that they can’t buy our new designs because the cases have lasted till now. In terms of business, that’s not so good for us.”
At one point, some colourful paper cut-outs on their workspace catch our eye. Revealing the postcard illustrations with local motifs they have been painstakingly working on, Low and Chew also show us their sticker designs and the seasonal reunion dinner postcards they created earlier this year. “As interior designers, to get to this point has been a steep learning curve. We are trained to draw a certain way. So we had to work up our confidence to do more illustrations,” shares Low.
Recognising the need to strengthen their visual identity, the duo say they try to approach their creative process from a local standpoint. “I went to a talk by Nala’s Lisette Scheers last year, and the way she combines our culture with a westerner’s aesthetic … that kind of exploration is something we really need more of here. So, rather than follow trends, such as calligraphy or watercolours, for us it’s about how we translate our culture, our Malaysian slant, our aesthetic, into something new,” he says.
Chew chimes in, “I think, as a brand, we want to focus more on the daily things we Malaysians encounter, things that are part of our lives that we don’t necessarily think about. But it’s a slow process ... that’s our challenge now.”
In the end, the creators of B’Nottee hope to inspire people to take the time to appreciate the little things in life. That philosophy can be seen in how they meticulously craft their products, a process that is both physical and tangible. Low sums it up, “The word ‘note’, to notice, to take note — it’s like picking up the bits and pieces of your life, it by jotting them down into our notebooks, or just by paying attention to them. It’s how we hope people will treasure our products as well.”
This article first appeared on May 7, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.