Articles - 24th May 2019

Thriving as a Designer-Maker

Words by Sophie Rees
Illustration by Jon McCormack

One thing is clear—social media is redefining how designer/makers do business. Never before has a maker had the power to get into a conversation directly with their audiences in multiple countries. Sidestepping traditional means of communication, social media allows you to speak with your followers about who you are and what you are making. Someone can inquire about a piece, and in an instant, it’s sold. With one simple “follow,” the experienced and respected ‘eyes’ of the design and craft industry can consider your work on a daily basis.

Instagram is just one tool in the belt of designers that if time allows, means they can take control of every step in their brand’s development; from the designing, production, marketing and selling of their work. When I first began my agency Designer/Makers back in 2011, pop up spaces by companies such as Meanwhile Space and Appear here were just getting off the ground and websites like Etsy, Not On The Highstreet and Culture Label were causing a stir within online selling.

Whilst these outlets are still popular, makers are sidestepping the middle man and creating their own opportunities through beautifully curated websites backed by a mix of social advertising (Instagram, Google and Facebook ad’s) and independently run events that speak to a specific audience.

Website design has come a long way in ten years and designers can now create beautiful functional websites and online shops for minimal cost through providers such as Squarespace, Wix and WordPress. The downside of sharing your work with the world – is sharing your work with the world! many designers have their collections copied by larger highstreet brands, who do not think twice about stealing the work of a smaller independent brand – what can they do about it? Big fashion brands rip off small ones all the time.

The most prolific offenders being fast-fashion companies, whose entire business model revolves around copying trends and bringing them to market quickly. Etsy and similar multinational websites have been a hotbed for copycats, from countries such as China who can produce designs quickly and cheaply.

When I began running design markets in London for independent makers (my first event was in Hackney Wick with 10 local makers), there were few other markets around offering an affordable platform for makers to sell their work alongside other like-minded people. Now London and other cities are bursting with independent markets and fairs set up by individuals and collectives to claim control of how their work is seen and bought.

The London Artisan is a quarterly event I curate, in collaboration with the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, showcasing the work of 60 makers from London and across the UK. It presents a unique selection of jewellery, ceramics, glassware, textiles, homewares, graphic design, beauty and children’s products with a focus on good design and sustainability.

The event is not only an opportunity for makers to reach new audiences but it forms a critical support group to one another – being a designer/maker can be a lonely task sometimes and so it is vital to have that connection with other like-minded people for words of encouragement and advice. There are also regular events from Independent Ceramics Market, Urban Makers and Crafty Fox market to name a few.   

Designers are increasingly exploring, experimenting and facilitating social change by developing new systems for sharing skills. Go to any borough of London and you will find makers sharing their skills and passion for their craft through workshops and master classes. This not only provides a much-needed income for the makers but it also creates a positive social impact and space for collaboration. There are also many collectives, such as Makerversity at Somerset House, pioneering conversations between designer, maker and entrepreneur.   

A key trend I have noticed with the brands taking part in events I curate is the importance of provenance and sustainability. Opportunities are emerging for designers through the application of sustainable materials and eco-processes, resulting in new design possibilities. With a growing understanding of sustainability issues combined with material advances, designer-makers are ideally placed to take a leading role in realising opportunities to create innovative, aesthetically pleasing and ultimately eco-friendly products.

If other industries could mirror the efforts of independent brands and commit to similar sustainable practices – from reduced energy consumption in production to the use of green materials, we may begin seeing some changes.

So, whilst there are many positive developments for designer-makers in the capital, there are still the same age-old problems and challenges. Lack of affordable living and working space for low-wage earners in London forces many to reconsider their future in the capital. Increasing rents underpin the common story of gentrification to areas and the challenges this presents.

This seems to have worsened considerably in the past five years; working part-time used to afford you the luxury of spending the rest of your week on your creative practice – few people in today’s climate can do this successfully with most working full time and giving their evenings to pursue their creative endeavours. Makers have to adjust their practice, space size and lifestyle to fit the ups and downs of living in such an expensive and competitive city. Albeit one that is bursting with creativity and opportunities.

An example of this is Stour Space, an organisation I co-founded in Hackney Wick in 2009 (just before the Olympic park was built) to provide studios and an exhibition space. I moved on from the organisation but the other Directors have done an incredible job to keep developing the space which now has a cafe and runs many local community initiatives.

In recent years, the space has been granted an ‘asset of community value’ but now faces imminent closure (unless £50,000 is raised) as the landlord wants to sell the building to developers who in the past 7 years have made the area unidentifiable. No longer is it a close community of creatives but a fully fledged island of modernist flats, cafes and shops.

London owes a lot to the creatives that decide to live and work there from all over the world, I hope it continues to recognise this in the face of impending change.

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