When did you realise you wanted to design products for a living?
I pretty much fell into this profession. When I graduated I was really unsure what to do, but I was painting a lot (which I love) and as a quick money spinner I did some illustrations and put them on filofax sheets. I only sold one set to a very nice boutique! However, when Anthropologie saw them they asked if I did cards and I said yes. I had a week to get samples to them in America and had no idea what I was doing, but I somehow managed to produce a good product. They then ordered $6,000 worth and that was the beginning of Anzu!
What is your design concept and how do you negotiate the concept when given a brief?
Anzu produces luxury stationery and gift featuring hand-painted illustrations and also offers a design service for other brands producing for example menus, website illustration, you name it! I wouldn’t say our work necessarily revolves around a design concept as such, rather more embracing lots of new ideas whilst always ensuring that the product is hand-done in some way. When cleaning images for example we deliberately leave pencil marks – it is part of the beauty and excessively computer generated imagery is definitely not Anzu.
Product that you’re most proud of by Anzu?
With Anzu the main reason I do the job is to produce great products that I love, so it’s quite hard to choose! However, if I had to pick I would say the jewellery cards and prints we do that are hand-decorated with Swarovski crystals. They look beautiful, are unique, are hand-done and people often email us to say how happy they were to receive one, which is lovely.
How to evolve into a fantastic product designer?
I have very strong opinions on this! We have had a number of interns and applicants for Anzu over the years, and so often there is so much design talent but zero knowledge about production. I don’t think you can be a truly great designer without knowledge of production, because you don’t know all the things you can achieve. It actually hinders your design, and I don’t understand why universities that teach for example textile design, which is essentially a vocational degree, are not teaching more practical knowledge. It is not a separate thing! I think for example if you are a graphic designer specialising in print rather than digital, you should spend time at a printers and keep talking to printers so you know all the processes, as this will enable you to create something really unique. I also think there should be an awareness of cost and practicality – know where to spend your money in the process and where to save. Of course, many beautiful things are expensive but great design and knowledge of production can turn even a piece of plain manilla paper into something beautiful.
You seem to travel to Japan quite a bit what’s the connection with Japan?
I was inspired to paint after a visit to Japan (the Geisha kimono, the wonderful packaging) and when I came to choose a company name I wanted something Japanese to reflect this inspiration so Anzu means apricot in Japanese. The great thing is that the attraction has been mutual, and we now stock many shops in Japan. Recently I was invited by Mitsukoshi, a large department store in Tokyo to stage an exhibition of Anzu work and to paint live in the store! It was an exciting but daunting prospect, but turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life and I met a lot of really lovely, enthusiastic and gracious people.
Advice to new designers wanting to set up a business?
Work hard, don’t be shy – just go for opportunities, produce what you are proud of, be open to advice, trust your gut instinct (particularly with people), keep positive and accept that there will be hard times, and don’t allow yourself self doubt. Make sure you are aware of what is out there but don’t worry too much about your competitors, it is what you do that matters. Just generally go for it – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!
I think you must also be willing to get your hands dirty and at the beginning be willing to do every bit of the job if necessary, however mundane. When I started Anzu I packed all the cards myself and at times felt like I was working in a sweatshop! However, later that stood me in good stead as I knew what I could and couldn’t ask of people working for me and I have an understanding of how everything fits together.
In terms of practical details I would say find the trade association for your field. When you begin they can help you a lot. Also look around for networking groups – often when I have started on the line of producing a new product, I have just mentioned it to everyone I know and sooner or later I have found good contacts. Also make sure you get all the government reading guides for starting a new business – VAT guides etc. It is a lot simpler than you might think!
How to live a good life?
This might sound cheesy but I would say eat great food, worry less, work at your job with passion, enthusiasm and pride, travel and experience new things, and surround yourself with people you love.
Visit Anzu to see Ellen McGrath’s works