A report for Arts Thread by Helen Stevens - Surface//Philia. As part of London Design Festival, Craft Central put on a ‘One Day Sale’. I caught up with Emma Jeffs, a UK award winning designer with a passion for materials and print.
Since 2000 Emma Jeffs has been running a business which experiments with printing and research of print technologies. Emma’s investigations were awarded with a UK government NESTA two year fellowship allowing her to delve further into experimentation.
Emma is most recognised for her innovative ‘window vinyl’, an idea she developed whilst travelling London buses, noticing the amount of grotty net curtains hanging in windows. The printed vinyl comes in a range of beautiful frost etchings and can be stuck to any kind of window for privacy on exterior and interiors of houses. The elegant yet functional vinyl’s can be seen in some of the most stylish housing and retail projects around the world.
Emma’s knowledge of industry has also led her into lecturing on UK undergraduate and postgraduate design and craft courses. Ten years of creative business practice also appealed to the UK Crafts Council, leading Emma to become Co-ordinator and Mentor on the Next Move scheme - Here she has supported the start up of six UK craft and design early stage makers setting up in their early stages of creative business.
You have had a very successful ten years in business since setting up in 2002, you're love of print and materials got you into what you do now, did you have any previous training or education in print before you set up business?
I set up the print studio in 2000 with the aid of a Crafts Council Setting up Grant.
Prior to this I did a BA in textiles for Fashion at UWE, Bristol and then freelanced as a print designer, but ended up working in advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi as a PA. The lure of the print room called and I went back to education and did a MA in Surface Design at BIAD, Birmingham. On completion of this I knew I wanted to try to produce my own fabrics and create products from them so I worked numerous part time jobs to get some money together and applied for the setting up grant to buy equipment for my print studio, which I set up in the east in end of London under the business name of Surface Material Design.
Most print and textile designers stay within a 'safe' area of designing because of how far education pushes practise and knowledge. What was it that pushed you that bit further and want to start experimenting and researching into print technology?
For me the most interesting part of my BA was the print and dye room. Getting my hands messy, experimenting with various print processes was a large part of where I spent my time. I began to develop my own novel Plasticized print process at the end of my BA.
When I was at college doing my BA only graphic designers designed on computers, Textile design was still very much approached and taught as a hand only design process.
My brief time at Saatchi advertising introduced me to designing on the computer and so when I went back to do an MA I began to teach myself computer aided design packages as I saw these could be another tool within my work. Alongside this I began to develop my plastic printing process and to combine this development with looking at industrial manufacture of plastics and printing.
I have always been process led in my work. For me a pattern works because it is integral to the material or surface it is applied to and the function of the product. These three elements surface, material and design are how I approach my work and what excites me as a creative practitioner. I am not purely a surface designer that wants to apply the same pattern to numerous objects. This would not fulfil me as designer. I design patterns with the material and final application in mind and part of this is how the material is made and how we are going to apply the pattern.
Your decorative window vinyls are obviously a massive success selling all over the world, how did you start about manufacturing and shipping your products?
The window film product came about via another material that I showed at 100% design in 2004 under the title “reclaim”. I had taken discarded laces and encapsulated them through an industrial laminator and given then an adhesive backing. It gained a lot of press; people loved the idea of a stick up lace curtain. This process was very cost prohibitive to most, so I began to explore the idea further and came back to the very simple application of silk screening a lace design onto a self adhesive vinyl. Initially I took it to a blind manufacturer that I had done some work for and thought they might be interested in it. But they didn’t want it so I took a punt and did Pulse which is a trade show for retailers. I gained enough initial orders to set it up in production with a UK print company and it just grew from there. It has been a steep learning curve manufacturing your products is not easy and I am passionate about producing it here in the UK. It is more expensive but it is much easier to manage production and you have to keep an eye on things. I also love the company I work with they have been very supportive of my business growth and I value this relationship I see them as integral to my business. I have licensed my window film to a US company. Under the license they print and manufacture the films in the US. I love this business module as it has less impact on our carbon emissions as we don’t have to ship the film to the US. It is a module I hope to extend to other regions.
I understand you have contracts all over the world within interiors, retail, product and material manufacturers, what has been the most exciting project for you so far?
I did a great project a few years back where I created a 5 metre high 3 dimensional structured form for a dance company with my fabrics, It was an arts council project and it brought a diverse group together who had never worked with dance before. I loved the challenge with working on this scale and working with a lighting designer to produce a piece that would engage with the dancer’s performance.
I have produced lots of one off films for private homes and it is always a delight to hear back from a customer on how much they love the film. . I have also spotted my film in various restaurants, hotels etc. I love the idea that my films are in homes all over the world. As a designer it is a huge compliment that someone is willing to part with their money for your goods. I never forget the responsibility that I have to the customer. I want my products do what they say do and be loved and used for many years.
Obviously innovation is a huge part of your development. How important is it to put time aside for experimentation within your process?
It is so important to put quality time for this aside as otherwise you become frustrated and don’t move on. I try to set aside time to explore on a regular basis. Experimentation Friday’s is something I have tried to introduce to my weekly timetable this year. I clear the decks don’t answer the phone and just explore. Every Friday is not always possible but it is something I am trying to do at least once a month.
Do you find it hard to balance innovation with commercial and viable costing production?
Yes, this is always the most challenging to any idea you hope to take to production. It is a constant struggle. It is part of the design and innovation process but it doesn’t stop me from pursing an idea I try not let it to inhibit what I want to do. Often in constraint something wonderful can happen.
What is the next step for Emma Jeffs? Do you have any other exciting plans up your sleeves?
Presently I am in talks with a manufacturing company to produce a collection of window film for a PET window vinyl, which means that it can be recycled. This is exciting development for glass manifestation as to date all the vinyls are PVC. This material was not around 5 years ago when introduced my product; finally the innovation of the materials and demand has created a material that we can work with.
I am also working with a manufacturer of a non-woven material, which again is completely recyclable. It is a cross between a paper and a fabric, but is it more fabric than paper and has UV properties. I am also working with digital roll-to-roll printing technologies of materials. In the long term I would like to offer my collection on larger sized rolls for interior designers and showrooms akin to fabric.
Having acted as an inspiring business mentor through the Crafts Council, do you have any quick words of advice for new design practitioners hoping to set up their own business within industry?
I think the main one to anyone thinking of setting up a creative practice is to really get some business experience and understanding of the market/sector you wish to enter into either through a internship or someone who could act as an unofficial mentor. See how business is conducted and use this to set up good business practice so that you are professional.
You will always be creative that is your passion but the actual reality of selling your work or services is altogether different. You can’t expect people to come to you; you have to make it happen. What is unique about your practice and how can you market yourself to the audience you want to sell to. You have to understand why will someone buy your work or hire your services.
Secondly do some business training prior to setting up and continue to train yourself whilst you are in business. Many practitioners feel they can’t take the time out once they are set up as it can be hard to find the time but it is a great investment for your business. We are very lucky in the UK there are some fantastic organisations providing a host of support and training for creative businesses. I meet practitioners from other countries who are in awe of the support we receive in the UK. Use these services.