If you knew me well, you would know that my absolutely favorite thing to do in life is to travel. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my beloved Brooklyn. But anytime vacation time rolls around, I’m the first one to hail a taxi straight to JFK –wide eyed, bushy tailed, and passport in hand. There’s nothing better than experiencing a new city, a new language, new food, and a new culture. My most recent destination of choice was London. (Okay, I wouldn’t exactly be experiencing a new language in London, but beautiful British accents have to count for something, right?) As I was planning out my itinerary — London Bridge. Get lost in the tube. Brick Lane thrift shopping. Enjoy a cuppa. Big Ben. Borough Market. Run into Kate and William. — I realized I still had a couple of free days to burn. I was traveling alone, so why not take advantage of the situation? I decided to do my second favorite thing ever: meet creative people.
I sent out an email to our buying team asking if we worked with any interesting artists living in London in hopes of setting up a studio tour. When I received responses, I couldn’t ignore the fact that we worked with two different graphic designers who place their designs on tea towels and lived in London. The blog team brainstormed the idea that I should meet with both versus just meeting with one. One seven hour plane ride, two near-death experiences because I didn’t know which way to look while crossing the street, three “you’re on the wrong bus” moments, and one tightly squeezed tube ride later — I was finally sitting in a cafe with the two designers: Stuart Gardiner of Stuart Gardiner Design and Lahla Smart of The Food Guide.
This was the first time they met each other, and given the fact that they produce similar products, I do have to admit I was a bit nervous about how awkwardly this coffee rendezvous could have unfolded. Yet, with our lovely stroll near Walthamstow Central Station and chatting in-between our sips of coffee inside a quaint cafe, I would have to say it was such a success that I was this close in creating the hashtag #BritishTeaTowelDesignersUnite! A bit after our coffee and chat, I visited Stuart’s studio first, and then ended my afternoon at Lahla’s. Lucky for me, their studios weren’t too far apart from each other — I promise I only had to ask for directions once.
Read what each artist believes sets their graphic designs apart from the next, their takes on switching roles from a graphic designer to a product developer, and their thoughts about living and running a business in London.
What’s the biggest challenge you had to conquer with your business running in London while UncommonGoods is located in Brooklyn?
Stuart: It’s not been a big challenge at all really, just that there’s larger order volumes (which is great!), and the boxes travel further. I’m not a very numerate person, so fluctuating exchange rates confuse the hell out of me when I’m working out costings. Also the American way of writing the date (month/day/year) as opposed to the UK’s (day/month/year) causes mild confusion on purchase orders. Other than that, it’s no big deal.
Lahla: Working with UncommonGoods has been surprisingly easy, considering we are 4000 miles apart! I guess the hardest thing has been making sure I use the right grammar in my designs. Us Brits eat ‘yoghurt’, whilst Brooklyn folk eat ‘yogurt’.
One of my favorite things about Stuart’s studio is that it’s tucked away inside a garden-esque courtyard, only welcoming those who are lucky enough to know about it.
From a designer’s perspective, what are the advantages of living in London?
S: Inspiration is everywhere. It has so much history, culture, and ethnic diversity that just walking around gets ideas flowing. Even though I’ve lived here 15 years, I’m still discovering surprises all the time. If I ever need to recharge creativity, then some of the world’s best galleries and museums are on my doorstep. Not that I ever get time to.
L: In my opinion it’s the best city in the world! (Sorry NY, a close second). London is always changing, areas can morph surprising quickly – which means fresh faces and new ventures are always popping up. It’s an inspiring place for a designer – everything seems accessible, on a very practical level. London is so much smaller than NY, I can cycle to just about everywhere I want to visit. If there is a new exhibition going on it’s ‘just down the road’ !
Are there any other cities that you feel can give you more creative freedom?
S: Having never lived in any other cities I can’t really say, though I love visiting NYC, and would imagine it would be just as inspiring as London.
L: Umm yes, NY would be a great place to live and work for a while. I’ve visited a couple of times over the past few years and love the buzz of the city. Like bits of London, but scaled up! As a self-confessed foodie, I was in complete heaven in Brooklyn. The US has such a love for ‘good’ food and ingredients in a way that you just don’t see so much in the UK. I had a seriously good time at the taco competition at Smorgasburg last month!
Stuart, your studio is great! What’s your favorite aspect about it?
S: The fact that it’s a 3 minute walk from my home, it’s light, spacious, airy and has character – it was once a stone mason’s workshop. There’s also some very talented other creatives I share [the space]with, an architect, two silversmiths, and a fine artist.
If there was one thing you could change about it, what would it be?
S: A table tennis table or skate park within. It would be bad for business though.
Not only are you graphic designers, but you work heavily on placing your designs on everyday, convenient products. Do you mind speaking about switching roles from a graphic designer to a product developer?
S: It’s been a very liberating experience. My background was that of a client-facing graphic designer. In that role you are constantly compromising your work in one way or another to the client’s whim – just ask any graphic designer and they’ll emphatically concur. This is all just part of the job, but can be frustrating as your initial concept gets watered-down, tampered with and often designed by committee. Now I get to design my own products, just as I want them. They either sell well, or not so well, so I learn from my mistakes.
L: Having the freedom to do several roles is what I love most about running my own business. I have always been really interested in the geekier side of business (AKA: spreadsheet queen.) as well as hands on making and the creative process. I’ve spent the last 5 years , since graduating, working with other small businesses, picking up marketing skills, and learning the ins and outs of actually running a business and getting products made. I try to use a different material or manufacturing process in each product I make, this way I learn a little more each time.
Stuart, one of your favorite quotes is “Design is thinking made visual.” What does this quote mean to you?
S: It’s by Saul Bass – one of my all-time favorite designers – so that’s reason alone. Also it’s quite a broad and vague statement which is similar to the way I go about my work. I have a very organic unstructured approach to design: the opposite of methodical. I design visually as I think, working with color, type, image, and form in no particular order, until I’m happy with a final design. Or tired of looking at it, and need to move on.
Lahla, how did the birth of The Food Guide come about?
L: I still blame (thank) my housemates for the birth of The Food Guide. I love to cook and they would always ask me questions about nutrition so, one day, I put together the Vitamins & Minerals design to hang in our kitchen. After that friends and family asked for copies so I put caution to the wind and ordered 100 printed towels – that was 14 months ago. Last week I sold my 2000th towel. Hurray!
Compared to many of the home studios I’m used to seeing in Brooklyn, Lahla’s space was spacious, airy, and very much a creative haven for any artist to walk into and be immediately inspired.
You’re living in an apartment that is also your studio. What’s the biggest setback about this?
L: Space is the biggest problem. The lounge is usually full of overflowing boxes, especially before Christmas. Luckily my boyfriend is forever understanding (so far)! We live in an old print warehouse so the rooms are large and bright, it’s a nice place to work and there is always tea on tap. We were recently given a rather large and fancy looking coffee machine too – a massive highlight in my day. I have several friends that also run their own businesses, so we often meet to work or chat in a local coffee shop. This holds off the cabin fever!
What sets your graphic designs apart from other designs?
L: Am I the right person the answer that!? I hope that my designs inspire people to take an active interest in the foods they eat and where their food comes from – everything I make has to carry information or encourage playfulness, not just look good. My degree in Sustainable Product Design made me realize that the key to a lot of good designs, products and services is communication. As a designer, I try to tell a good story – to make complicated things appear simple. Hopefully my designs embody a little of this thinking.
S: In terms of my commercial info graphic pieces, I think that the depth of research and detail involved in creating them makes them stand out from other products on the shelf. They just simply aren’t be economically viable for a high street brand or chain to churn out for their quarterly collection, as the hours of work put into them would be too much for a profit-driven business plan. I also believe that people enjoy the fact that they’re gaining knowledge and insight on a subject matter that they’re passionate about on product that looks appealing.
Lahla, are there any big projects or ideas you want to speak about?
L: There have been a lot of new developments this year – I’m very excited about the launch of my new ceramic collection. The Pot & Shovel collection includes three unique pieces. Pot & Shovel is flowerpot shaped bowl perfect for summer desserts or serving up an impressive soufflé, Eggpot & Shovel is to delight egg-lovers, and our Salt ‘n’ Pepper Pots are for table-proud friends. I started hand making the miniature shovel teaspoons for the collection in my bathroom last November, borrowing my friends kiln and spending many sleepless nights getting up to check the temperature was right (at 4am). Since then (and for an easier life) I now work with a family-run pottery in Stoke-On-Trent, the town where traditional English bone china is made. As you can imagine, they are experts in what they do!
What’s always at an arm’s reach while you’re working?
L: A cup of tea and my wonderful Apple Magic Mouse.
S: My visual reference books. I’ve been collecting them since art school – nearly 20 years. They’re rather neglected these days though, what with the internet at hand.
Lahla, One of your favorite quotes is “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” What does this quote mean to you?
L: A few years ago, I was pondering what to do next, I couldn’t decided whether to start up The Food Guide now or wait, find a ‘proper’ job in the city or study first. A friend then told me to ‘just get started’ – she said I should start small and just see what happens, but just start. The Food Guide was born a week later. For any designer, it’s the ago old problem, nothing is ever finished or quite ready. The advice I’d give to anyone with the same dilemma is start, and learn the rest as you go.
A big thank you to Stuart and Lahla for meeting with me and making my London trip that much more special! I hope I’m able to see you sooner than later, knowing that New York is your second city of choice. Cheers!