If we had to slice one of ARD Bakery’s cakes, we’d probably shed a tear.
It almost seems like vandalism to eat one of these brightly coloured and graphic creations, which are made by 40-year-old fashion designer turned baker, Alison Dunlop. Formerly based in North London, Dunlop has just moved back to Glasgow, where she graduated in Sculpture at The Glasgow School of Art back in 2004, in order to grow her business in Scotland and diversify into chocolate making.
“ARD actually started while on maternity leave with my second child in 2017. I was working as an accessories designer for a fashion company, and had this idea to try and create cakes with more of a design-led aesthetic”, says Dunlop, whose business name matches her initials. “I began making cakes for friends, and then set up an Instagram account to show them, and it just grew from there. I never had a plan for this to be a business, but soon strangers were asking if they could order cakes, and it just took off from there. So when my maternity leave was finished I decided to leave my job, and start ARD Bakery officially”.
You can see the influence of her art school background and her previous job with Greek fashion designer Mary Kantrantzou in her show-stopping and gravity-defying cakes. They also look like influences could be as diverse as the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, futurist architecture, solar systems, graphs, Bertie Bassett, circuses and Beetlejuice, among many other strange and wonderful things.
“I think my training in both sculpture and design hugely influences how I approach the design of a cake”, says Dunlop, originally from the village of Temple, Midlothian. “And I love looking at how artists create 3D forms, and exploring how I can translate similar ideas into a cake. And yes, growing up just outside Edinburgh, Paolozzi was definitely a big inspiration!”
In a similar vein to a few of the contestants on this year’s Great British Bake Off, Dunlop grew up loving baking, but is largely self taught when it comes to the more advanced techniques.
“I’d never really made a cake with any kind of decoration. So I spent the first year learning techniques from YouTube videos, and there was a lot of trial and error with printed icing”, she says. “I also wanted to incorporate a 3D element, so started making chocolates to put around the side and on top, to create something more sculptural. However, chocolate work is very technical, and I found what you could learn online was quite limited, so I did a course with the chocolatier Melissa Coppel, which really changed how I thought about and made chocolates, and also gave me the confidence to start selling these as a stand alone item”.
Since then, this baker’s most elaborate and largest creation to date has been a four-tier cake for an upmarket wedding at Aynhoe Park in Oxfordshire. It was inspired by the bride’s dress, the flowers and the architecture of the venue, and cost £1400.
However, prices generally start from £110 for a single-tiered celebration cake that serves 20, based on an existing design, or £160 for something bespoke.
On her Instagram feed, recent numbers include one that was created for a furniture maker’s birthday and is topped by chocolates with a wood-grain finish.
Dunlop also made a one-year-old birthday cake for Glasgow pyjama makers, Irregular Sleep Pattern, in their signature Paradox print.
Generally, clients choose ARD for their particular aesthetic, and let this designer have free reign. They needn’t worry about style over substance, as the taste of the sponge, which is usually layered with thick icing, is as important to her as the finished look.
After all, as Dunlop says, “There is nothing worse than a beautiful looking cake that tastes bad! It's such a disappointment!”
Her flavours include orange and almond cake with bitter chocolate ganache; sticky toffee date cake with salted caramel ganache, and pistachio and lemon cake with raspberry buttercream and fresh raspberries.
As so much time goes into each cake, Dunlop works very carefully. There has only been one memorable kitchen fail.
”I recently made a cake for a BBC Radio 1 DJ, which was delivered by my courier”, says Dunlop. “As the security put it through an x-ray machine, it fell over and all the chocolates smashed! It was very stressful, but luckily I had enough spare chocolates, so I managed to get it back and fix it. That was my only real disaster so far, and in general it's always the delivery that's the most stressful part, as they are so fragile”.
If you’re not in the market for a cake, Dunlop has also just launched her Chocolate Advent Calendar, which is full of glossy bonbons to mark the run up to Christmas. These chocolates, which may contain orange and cardamom or cherry and hazelnut, were previously only available for Valentine’s Day and Christmas. However, she began making more of them during lockdown, while events and, thus, the cake work temporarily dried up.
“The support I got from my customers was amazing and I would sell out nearly every week,” she says. “It was also that which gave me the push to move back to Glasgow, as I can ship anywhere in the UK. As for the future, the plan is to try and grow the cake business more in Scotland. I am taking part in a couple of wedding fairs in the New Year. I’m really excited about that and also just really enjoying being back in the city!”