Tuesday, 1 September 2009

16.1 / Creating opportunities / Suzie Brown

What: Illustrator and designer-maker
Where: London, UK
Website: Urban Bird

In the beginning...
I am from Disley in Cheshire, England. It's a small village with a lot of evidence of its history – a park where the layout of the landscape has remained unchanged since medieval times, valleys that housed paper mills and mills that made materials for weaving, and woods with gravestones from as far back as the time of the plague.

As a child I liked roaming my area. In my early years my capacity for drawing equaled my capacity for writing. I enjoyed drawing figure heads from history, of kings and queens, and used to get lots of gold stars at school for them. I also enjoyed illustrating the front page of projects, involving collage with different materials – I approached more complex compositions. I also copied from photos in pencil and drew elaborate patterns with multi-coloured pens.

Love school...
I had a clear direction towards art and design at school as my favourite subject. I was also fortunate that at my secondary school my older sister and brother were remembered as being skilled and interested in drawing. I also felt very at home in the art and design department. It felt natural being there. I have an instinctive attraction and curiosity to visual material and surroundings. The work I produced then was from my head and I definitely used drawing on paper with a pencil or colour pencil as a means of expression, which was well received.


I pursued my art and design education to degree level initially, going from secondary school to a college to do my A Levels; to a new environment and a different cross section of people, which was refreshing. I didn't have any special buddies from school and was reaching out for independence.

My school had advised me against leaving and going to college but it was certainly the right move (as it is for many young people – you instantly feel more like a grown up and you can study something you've chosen, which is geared towards preparing you for a vocation). I did a PGCE in post compulsory art and design precisely so I could work with young people and adults who want to learn art or who may be facing decisions about their career or want a change of career or who want to try something new or are wondering where their talents lie or just want to find something enjoyable to do with their lives.

Working life…
I enjoy teaching screen printing and have a good relationship with the staff at Leicester Print Workshop where I contribute to their programme of seasonal workshops related to different aspects of printmaking.


I work for myself too. I develop products featuring my own designs and illustrations. I like to create work that can find application in different contexts and that people can interact with. Therefore, scale can play a part in my work and I make work that can be shared with people.

Likes and dislikes…
I would like to receive further commission work. I really enjoy being asked to produce work for other people based on what people know of my skills. I want this to happen more, as one of the most frustrating things is having talents that don't have a public outing often enough (sometimes due to a lack of funding, the limitations of other people's imaginations, their willingness to take risks or because they don't even know you exist).

When I graduated I found work in London following a work placement with a design consultancy and had a great two and half years working on trends, visiting European cities and trade fairs for research. I then took up theatre costume work as my interests career-wise following my degree were in two or three design related subject areas and I wanted to find out more about what roles I could play and what these subject areas involved.

My work from my degree was very texture based and has developed over the years to be much more image based. I always had a love for photographic images – the emotional content or the style or atmosphere and character that could be achieved. Similarly, I enjoyed the cinematography of films and had a brilliant time during the early 90's watching films from other countries that would come to our local art cinema in Nottingham, while on my degree at Loughborough.
Learning from the past…
At the end of my degree I was thinking in broad conceptual terms related to my fabric designs. I wanted the concept behind what inspired the fabrics to continue to the garments that I could make using the concept (including video). I wanted to create work that could echo the concepts and act as a presentation of the collection and themes behind them. But it was quite complex to communicate this to tutors who thought I was trying to do too many things.

I had an interview at the Royal College to do an MA following my degree but I was not accepted. My portfolio was accepted at the first stage of the application process but at my interview I was unable to say what my next move was going to be or how I would develop my work. I worked intuitively. I think I was trying to achieve then what I am trying to achieve now and that is the conception of a brand with an ethos, with routes of manufacture both industrial and hand crafted, something that is original and enjoyable for people and gives my ideas expression.

Turning point…
My interest in image-based media; cinema, photography and animation, received a year's development following about seven years working in theatre and TV costume, initially as an employee for London based companies (the RSC at the Barbican and the Royal Court Theatre) then freelance in theatre and TV working for BBC Drama, ITV and Channel 4.

This was a very successful career but did not involve me designing anything. At the end of my twenties I took stock of my interests and made an effort to change the direction of my career with a year's development at the Arts Institute in Bournemouth. I then did a PGCE so I could teach followed by an MA in Illustration part-time over two years so that I could work and add relevant ventures to my CV as an artist/designer. The MA interacted with live projects. I had the opportunity to explore and create a certain type of work during my MA that I continue to produce in my business now, which has been running a year. I produce work that is an extension of that exploration. My practice and ethos has matured in relation to design, and circumstances have had a great effect on my experience. There are far more support networks around now for people involved in art and design. The term designer-maker has been coined and artists are able to be much more business savvy. And technologies like the internet have revolutionised the number of people able to run an independent business and think as entrepreneurs.

I respond to colour, pattern and design and have immediate visual instincts wherever I am. If my imagination or senses are stimulated in a positive way I try to carry that forward and be productive with it.
Environmental living…
The visual environment is very important to me so contributing to creating pleasing habitats and surroundings for people to spend time in and supporting them as they go about their daily lives is one of my reasons for being involved in design.


Subject matter that might become involved in the work originates from my response to themes that I am sensitive to. I have a desire to balance injustices, raise awareness of vulnerabilities, speak for things that can't speak such as birds and nature, which might make me sound like a caretaker or peacemaker or as my brother used to call me Kofi Annan, although more of the political content and presentation of observations from contemporary life is reserved for my illustration work.
Lamps and bag…
The illuminating quality of the design on a shade is attractive. Many people who would look to buy a lampshade or a canvas bag from me will be looking for something pleasant, pretty, beautiful, enjoyable to complement or add to their interior so it isn't necessary for me to be over the top about the work being imbued with social critique or presentation. Elements of it may contribute to its presentation and give it an edge in the market place but may even contribute to it being overlooked for 'pretty and safe surface design', where there is less demand for a rich imagination and more demand for inventiveness with imagery, colour, materials.


I started designing canvas bags when the eco conscious trend for encouraging reusable bags over plastic ones began. Back then, all I saw on the streets were really, old souvenir bags that were all natural in colour with black or one colour print, which is the cheapest form of production. Many of the bags didn't even have a nerd or kitsch chicness. Hardened environmentalists will say 'Well, did that matter?' but I am a designer first and foremost so I wanted to produce bags that had better design content in terms of colour and pattern, featuring natural and subtle politically/environmentally conscious imagery while contributing to a better aesthetic to be seen on the street.


On the side…
I am very pleased that I can contribute to exhibitions and publications such as Images 33, an annual exhibition of selected work with an accompanying publication that the Association of Illustrators organise to show the best of contemporary British illustration. There is a place for different content in illustration work and there are various ways this can be achieved through the use of different media and ways of interpretation.
Visually uplifting...
I love illumination – the illumination of a subject or set of concerns, the illumination of colours in dark environments. The potential to light a window or building or street with something more magical than the ordinary so that people can enjoy the experience on their way home from work or on their way out.

Light in public spaces can function around the clock, I use coloured low energy bulbs and fluorescent light, which are cooler than standard electricity sources. I see my work as contributing to the regeneration that began in cities such as Manchester when former industrial areas were developed and given a new social and leisure related purpose without losing a sense of the heritage. There is huge potential for this work and the schemes one could come up with.

I design the patterns, choose the size and shape of the lampshade and have them manufactured in the UK. Being a one woman show, I prefer to leave the making to the professionals. I want my business to consist of some handmade or hand crafted items and some much more efficiently and cost effectively produced items too. The manufacturers take the work off my hands, allowing me to concentrate on commission and design development work.

Running your own design business is not that cost effective or time efficient in comparison to the large high street names and brands, which as a designer-maker is something you are up against. Being involved in my own business start-up has really made me appreciate craft and the considerably high prices that are charged for individual works of art. What you are constantly fighting is the fact that people have been educated by the media and brands to expect things for less, for the cheapest price possible. To get the cost down involves high volume and overseas production. I operate in a much more bespoke and personal way and deeply respect my customers and the choices they make.
Week in the life...
Creating illustration work and developing imagery takes up most of my time. The rest of my time is used to contact people, to let them know that I exist.
Something for the weekend...
I love the coast and walks in fields and forests with lots of open sky. I like watching interviews, the South Bank Show, topical comedy such as 'Have I Got News for You', movies at home or at the cinema and seeing my family.

My observations when I am out and about. I take notice of everything around me, research, read, go to cultural events… I also have long term interests; it was great faith to me to learn about artist groups from the past who started movements in art and design and had innovative thoughts and produced inventive work. I loved the fact that Paris was home to artists, writers and thinkers who would meet up and talk. I love the Bloomsbury Group and Charleston, the home they created decorated in their style. I love Gustav Klimt and that Egon Schiele was a student of his, the fashion created by Emilie Floge and the work of the Werner Werkstatte, William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, Francis Bacon, RB Kitaj, David Hockney, Peter Blake… I like to go to retrospective or contemporary curated art shows.

Off days…
If I am having a bad day because I can't get going it is because I am in the privileged position of having a brief. I am being faced with a challenge and need to experiment with a few things that interest me or if I don't have the inspiration to hand I need to collect something or some things that interest and stimulate me. This becomes part of my process and can be very abstract or very straightforward and can come from anything. I look for intuitive leads.

Throughout art college you are supposed to discover personal routes you can take to make your own work and if you don't go to art college but want to make art work then you collect or write down what you like, dislike or whatever your motivation is to make the work and find one or several starting points until you begin to achieve something you feel has the purpose you intended.
Great people…
One of my first employees at the Royal Court Theatre and most recently my illustration tutor, Janet Woolley. They are two strong women who are professional, and great managers of people and their work. They are not intimidated by the ambition or talent of others and don't control through anger, intimidation or ruthlessness and bias. They encourage creativity and development in people. In my early experience, both at college and in employment, particularly in TV costume there were one or two managers who used fear and intimidation. When they spoke they acted like they were threatened by us, they disrespected our youth and energy.

One of my reasons for teaching is to help people become aware of opportunities when they are looking to start a career or try something new. I want to help them recognise where their skills, talents and interests lie and what may be available to them in relation to their interests. I want to encourage them and boost their confidence.

My husband Graham has been the most recent and amazing, helpful, supportive and creative person in my life. He is an architect and an amazing draftsman. He also has an amazing capacity to take on complexity (in its many forms) when it arises and has a brilliant imagination. My family are also amazing – my parents have always been massively supportive and encouraging of my creativity and that of my sisters and brother.

Making a living from your love…
Being involved in design is definitely something I love and my strengths lie in my creativity and flexibility. I have a very rich imagination and a lot of good will. Running a business is very time-consuming and involves different roleplaying and expertise. I think you can hold down a full-time job and still have some artistic output, especially with today's facilities at everyone's disposal. To be involved in business, there is some number crunching to do and if you don't make any money, you can't develop your output of new designs or products.

I want my work to be accessible to people whatever form it takes and I want it to be affordable (although I should actually make it less of what I consider 'affordable' in order to make a profit to enable development but I am more comfortable being generous!).

It takes a couple of years to establish the identity of your brand and to understand what you want to do with it once you understand more about the market place and make sense of it all. I have been considering how I want to place my skills within the art and design framework that exists in this country, and internationally – I am interested to learn about the differences.

I prefer being a leader rather than a follower. I am not comfortable compromising my design for a trend or copying/falling in line with a trend in
an obvious way. I want the artistic and creative side of my work to develop organically and intuitively, to keep it natural. I want to design in relation to what people know to be my skills and characteristics and I want to be able to up my game every so often, for example, by being able to use new digital technologies or to work to a challenging brief, either inventively or commercially.


Pretty much all retailers do bow to trends as business comes first and successful selling lines that everyone is stocking will bring in the profit for them and help to keep them going. They are a safe bet. I am trying to marry a more unconventional approach or my individual approach to the business world with an openness to adapt and tailor it.
Important tools…
Creative research, my visual observations and how I communicate them – just doing things. The most important ingredients to my creative life are my supportive friendships and my environment.

I would like to have a really nice house near the sea where people can stay, explore the local environment and do workshops in screen printing or some aspect of art and design. I would also like there to be a shop and exhibition space, showing contemporary work from designer-makers and artists. It would be a place of inspiration and enjoyment. I also have a really good library of books and I think access to resources is important for developing inspiration. I am also hoping that Graham and I become parents in the future.
There is a great expression that I got from my sister Jackie: 'Don't let your fears stand in the way of your dreams'.
Words of wisdom…
If art and design is not your main occupation or developed skill, don't give up – keep working, save some money and start by doing a part-time short course or workshop in something that interests you. Develop a skill as a hobby in your spare time and build a portfolio and website, then start to communicate with people about what you do. Look into some of the support organisations that exist such as Craft Central, The AOI and Hidden Art. City Lit in London is also really good for courses at reasonable prices.

If you don't have something happening in your area that is suitable, look into setting up a local group yourself and invite people with the skills you need to be involved as visiting speakers or for a more involved commitment if they have time. Use the skills you know you have, contact your local council to ask for advise or for a venue to meet after considering what facilities are needed. Apply for funding to a local arts organisation, council or the Arts Council. And ask for or read their advice on making an application.

These are all steps to achieving what you would like to happen in your life and very little happens with out research, planning and commitment. Ideas always come faster than the time it takes to realise them but if it's something you want don't be put off or allow other people's negativity to stand in your way.

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