Jennifer Hillhouse

As a self-confessed homebody I often wonder how I manage to meet so many new and interesting people. Following a creative path can sometimes keep us isolated, but now, thanks to social media platforms like Instagram one can connect with like-minded creatives from around the world. At the same time, I have also encountered a veritable host of charming people in REAL LIFE, especially since learning the unforgivable art of pottery. This quest was cemented when I attended a ceramic school in West End in the inner city of Brisbane. But it wasn’t just clay that brought me to the ceramic school; it was my strong desire to meet other creative folk who love ceramics as much as I do.

I am now fortunate to call some of these remarkably generous makers my friends. One of those potters is Jennifer Hillhouse. She and her husband JC own and operate one of Brisbane’s most beautiful establishments Vieille Branche which, loosely translated, is French for ‘old friend’. Vieille Branche is like a little slice of France nestled amongst the warehouses in Albion. It is an ever-evolving space which juggles the retail of old wares with creative workshops, makers markets and social gatherings. I recently chatted to Jen about the evolution of her business and how the creative environment she and JC have formed has influenced her personal journey and her love for all things ceramic.

Portrait of Jen by Britt Spring

Can you share a little about your story so far and how Vieille Branche came to be?

Vieille Branche began as an idea that my husband JC and I had just before he took me for the first time to France to meet his family and friends. We were walking through the Paddington Antique Centre and JC was astounded by the prices of old antique tables and other similar items. We had a chat about it and thought about maybe bringing a few pieces back from France to see how it went. So, a one month holiday to France ended up being five months of figuring out how to import a container load of French furniture!

You and your husband J.C have created a wonderfully warm and inviting space with an ever evolving mix of makers , antique wares, French inspired fare and artisan markets. Was it always your original intention to open up the space to new ventures or has this happened more organically over time?

All the different aspects of Vieille Branche happened very organically. After setting up the antique shop and primarily working with this concept we started to meet other creative people who would come here looking for all sorts of things. This prompted the idea of having a market day as well as holding workshops in the space. One of our very first customers was Andrea Fitzpatrick who now runs the garden nursery Botanick, next to Vieille Branche.

The café began around the same time because customers wanted to come in to have a chat which gave us the idea of becoming a coffee shop. This then grew over a few years from just offering coffee and croissants to having a fully staffed kitchen and restaurant.

Another customer wanted to get married in the space so again we said, why not?! Let’s see how it goes! We’ve always been keen to give everything a go but very quickly realised the logistics of organising such a variety of events. However, once we had these ideas in place a little more we developed systems for each element of the business.

Pinch Pot Workshop by Creina Moore

Vieille Branche seems to adapt and flow with the seasons by letting go of ventures that may have run their course and then embracing fresh ideas. Does this constant evolution and fluctuation within your permanent space keep things interesting and dynamic as a business owner and creative?

It definitely keeps things interesting and both of us on our toes. JC and I both come from creative backgrounds. I am a designer originally and JC is more of a jack of all trades but studied photography & film in France. Vieille Branche has always been an experimentation for us in a way and when you are navigating your way through a new business you have to make considered decisions when things are not going exactly as planned.

The best example of this is the café. It was always our dream to have a café selling very good quality French farmhouse style food and wine for people to enjoy like they do in France. We put everything into starting this side of the company and it’s been a LONG road! We changed the use of the building through City Council which took a year or so and spent a considerable amount of money and applied for liquor licenses, food licenses, etc, etc. In the end everything was running beautifully and we have had excellent staff and customer reviews, however we found at the end of 2017 it wasn’t making us very happy. JC was working 6/7 days a week, he was exhausted and we weren’t spending much time together as a family.

We felt like we were a part of a big machine and didn’t have any time to think or really assess what was happening in our lives. So, about a week before Christmas, we had a few difficult discussions and ultimately decided that we needed to stop this part of the business. A very good friend of mine told me at the time, that it’s so much harder to stop something than it is to start, and it has been in so many ways. Ultimately I feel we will be much happier moving forward.

Photo by Yan Chen

You’ve managed to create an inclusive business that encompasses family and friends. Has this work-life balance created a sense of harmony between different aspects of your life?

I think ultimately it’s taught me that you can make a business out of any idea you have as long as you work hard at it. You are always drawn towards people of a similar nature to you. For us it’s makers and creative people. It has been very exciting to think of ways to include these people in our business and life. Vieille Branche has always felt like a brand for the two of us. The term means ‘old friend’ in French, and has worked perfectly for every element we’ve added to the business over time. So many of the people we work with have become part of the Vieille Branche family and will be ‘old friends’ in the future.

Spoon Carving Workshop by Carol Russell

Has working alongside your partner in life and business allowed you to focus on your own strengths and interests within Vieille Branche? Do you both have aspects within the business that you prefer to specialise in separately and other areas where you unite for a common goal?

It took us a while to figure out that we each had different strengths and weaknesses. In the beginning we were both doing everything and would get irritated that the other wasn’t doing it the right way. But, water finds it’s level and I moved more into the communications/marketing creative/accounting side of the business (i.e. on the computer) and JC ran the café, staff, wedding bookings and events. Again once we realised that each part of the business had its own set of systems and if we stuck to the plan there were minimal hiccups/silent evening meals.

Photo by Peppermint Photography

You’ve been making beautiful organic ceramic tableware recently; can you share how this came about? Has surrounding yourself with other makers and artisans stimulated your own creativity?

After having our baby Manou I felt like I had lost my sense of self a little. I had just totally become a mum, which was a bit of a shock to me. At work, I was doing all the back end running of Vieille Branche and found that I wasn’t spending any time designing or creating something new. My brain felt a little flat.

I did the pottery class that we hold at Vieille Branche with Creina Moore and decided that I really enjoyed this medium. It was always something I had been interested in earlier however just felt that there was WAY too much to learn and it seemed a little impossible to start. Then JC bought me a wheel for my birthday and shortly after Creina introduce me to Ray Cavill at Clayschool and there was no turning back! In hindsight I realise that working on something creatively is completely the thing that makes me tick. Having time to learn a new skill, concentrate on a design and bringing it to life is really starting to change the direction of my work and life.

My mum recently said to me “There are never failures, only life lessons”. By surrounding ourselves with loved ones, in work and in life, we can gain a resilience in ourselves and our abilities. Would you say that working alongside your family has given you the strength to know that most obstacles can be overcome? If so, can you explain?

I agree with your mum. You can never regret any decisions you’ve made, you just collect them and understand a little more about how to deal with that problem in the future. You always make decisions for a reason and I hope to ultimately move positively towards where I want to be in my life. Having your family around you when you make hard decisions means that on the days you are feeling like a complete failure, usually someone else is feeling totally fine so they tend to support you. I take my hat off to anyone who has started a business by themselves. Really there are some days where you feel like it’s all for nothing and having family around you (to make you a gin and tonic) means that you keep moving forward.

Photo by Flashbulb Moments

You work in an extremely social environment, how do you manage to devote time to yourself? Do you have any daily or weekly rituals that you just can’t live without?

I need a day to do pottery by myself at home. It’s a day where I put on some music and don’t communicate with anyone for the entire time, I feel GREAT afterwards. I also wake up quite early for a morning walk to think about how everything is going or what I’ll do for the day. If this routine starts to go a little out of wack I feel like everything starts to fall apart a bit. I think a lot of creative folk need space to think and feel their way to the next idea.

What’s coming up next that’s inspiring you?

I’m loving pottery and trying to figure out how to spend more time on this. I just bought a kiln so that’s a WHOLE other world I’ll have to try to figure out. I love that there are production challenges with this art form that you have to overcome constantly.

For Vieille Branche we will be concentrating on the more creative elements of the business. We are renting out the space for photo shoots, weddings, events, as well as holding more artist market days and workshops. Sunday Hot Club is also a favourite of ours and we both can’t wait to get the musical side of Vieille Branche happening again in the cooler months. Also ideas of musical gypsy dinner parties , cheese and wine events and hopefully a ceramics market as the year rolls on. It’s ALWAYS changing and keeping us both on our toes!

You can find Vieille Branche here

You can find Jennifer Hillhouse here

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