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Serendipity and ‘sophistifun’ make Lil’ Spaces shine

Alexandra Tolmie

In April 2014 HerCanberra featured the beautiful nursery of Miss Helaina, styled by her talented mum Shah Bahpyu. Alex Tolmie caught up with Shah and her business partner Darko Andreski, to find out more about their latest adventure in kids’ interiors – Lil’ Spaces.

It all happened quite suddenly and serendipitously for designer duo Shah and Darko. They had been working on launching Lil’ Spaces for a few months when the idea of running a pop-up shop came up and it was the perfect entrée for their fledgling business. After decking out their stunning Forde house and garage for a massively successful Halloween, Shah decided to go all out with Christmas lights and thought ‘let’s do a pop-up store at the same time!’

Preferring to be ‘location independent’, pop-up stores fit in well with the pair’s aesthetic, especially for Shah for whom the real passion is in styling.

“Shah rearranged that place 10 times over before opening night!” says Darko.

Even so, during opening night Shah observed how people moved through the store and the next day spent nine hours rearranging and re-merchandising the whole store, subsequently finding that sales improved dramatically. Their inaugural pop-up store in December last year was highly successful and featured several other local sellers also.

Lil Spaces_Pop up shopBut the pop-up store was just a brief glimpse into Lil’ Spaces, which is both a design studio and an online store. Lil’ Spaces aims to design, create, source and sell high quality, stylish and sophisticated kids products that are fun.

“We like to call it ‘sophistifun‘,” says Shah of their contemporary and adult-friendly aesthetic.

And in fact many of their prints have been bought by and for adults, rather than for kids.

“Lil’ Spaces covers all ground. Anything is possible!” says Darko.

The pair of designers have an infectious energy and they’re absolutely buzzing with ideas for where Lil’ Spaces could go in the future. Shah and Darko are both passionate about finding and sharing beautiful, quality ‘sophistifun’ pieces for children. The two Taureans have a very comfortable relationship, in that even when they clash they see it as a positive because it means they get a better result. But none of this was even an idea before Helaina was born.

From the moment Shah and Darko met they clicked. Darko is Shah’s cousin by marriage and her husband (Helaina’s dad) Mitch used to change baby Darko’s nappies. There was never any question Darko would be Helaina’s godfather and in Macedonian culture the godfather is the most important person after the parents. Darko designed a beautiful ‘Helaina in Wonderland’ print for his goddaughter, which holds pride of place in her stylish nursery.

Lil Spaces_10Shah is a design director in the public service, and while she loves her day job, Shah found after having Helaina she was looking for more immediate, tangible creative experiences. In styling Helaina’s room she got in touch with her own inner child and decided to move more seriously into styling kids’ interiors.

After the HerCanberra feature on Helaina’s room, a customer contacted Shah to enquire about the ‘Helaina in Wonderland’ print. It was here that the idea of working together started to take root, although Darko claims he was ‘simply there at the right time’.

Macedonian-born Darko is a graphic designer and a Canberran through and through. He’s always been creative and quirky—Shah calls him ‘eccentric’—but Darko also has an incredible eye for detail and is, by his own admission, a total perfectionist.

Darko and Shah have four core principles underpinning each of the pieces the pair sells through Lil’ Spaces—honesty, functionality, quality and craftsmanship, and accessibility. As both retailers and designers, Shah and Darko are always looking for a balance between style and function. They’ve tested out their print ideas on other interior designers, retailers and also Canberra mums and dads. Interestingly, several of their edgier pieces are now their biggest sellers, including On The Juice and Mr Rabbit.

Lil Spaces_1Darko loves collaborating with other creatives.

“You can’t be the solo guy!” he laughs. “You need input from others to make your product the best it can be.”

He feels he’s always learning from others. Shah believes in sharing and collaborating with others too. They would both love to see their ideas featured on Pinterest.

“If you have ideas, give them away,” she says.

“For us it’s not about business and making sales,” says Darko. “That’s the last thing we want to think about. What we want to do is live our passion, share it with everyone and be happy making others happy. If we sell a print and someone appreciates it for what it is, well that’s the biggest reward.”

Shah has clearly blossomed through this process.

“Since having Helaina my creativity has gone through the roof and the more I do the more creative I become,” she enthuses. Shah loves the Confucian ‘choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life’ ethos. In fact she loves this so much that working until 4am doesn’t feel like work.

“It’s serious, but it’s play,” she says.

Lil’ Spaces currently sells prints created by Darko and Shah as well as unique local and international pieces. Their prints (and soon Shah’s own handmade dolls) are personalised and customisable. They’re also looking to stock a library of cool kids’ books that align with their notion of ‘sophistifun’.

Their current project is a cookbook, inspired by a print Darko made of a deconstructed gingerbread man. It will be a single recipe with each page featuring a single step, such as separating the eggs or pouring in the golden syrup. They’re hoping to facilitate a different kind of active quality time for parents and their kids.

At the end of the chat Shah and Darko share a few pieces of advice for anyone thinking of making the leap from hobby to business. They both agree that you need to surround yourself with positive role models who inspire and motivate you, or that you feel good around.

Darko describes Shah as gifted.

“I really respect her and trust her creative and business instincts,” he says.

They’re clearly on the same page, and they advise others to look for a similar partner. Having someone to work with and bounce ideas off helps to keep you motivated, focussed and on-track.

“Anything is possible but you do have to give it a try,” says Darko. “Think about what you really want—you’ve got to have passion that drives you. It takes a lot of hard work, so do the research and find others to learn from.”

Shah agrees. “Sometimes you’ve just got to take that leap of faith and do it, but the flip side is you can’t just go ahead unplanned and hope for the best. Think things through carefully and ask for help when you’re getting started.”

Before parting ways, she shares one of her favourite quotes.

“‘It’s impossible,’ said pride; ‘It’s risky,’ said experience; ‘It’s pointless,’ said reason; ‘Give it a try,’ whispered the heart.”

You can find out more about the inspiring Shah and Darko online at Lil Spaces or follow them on Facebook, Instagram @lilspaces and Pinterest. You can also check out Sarah Nolen’s feature piece on Helaina’s nursery.

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Alex Tolmie

Alex is the founder and co-chair of the Department of Education and Training Women's Network and a mum of two gorgeous little girls. She has overcome big challenges as a new mother and now loves to help others become confident, joyful mamas themselves. She blogs about her experience at draxela.com More about the Author