We've loved helping you explore the many ways of expanding your business with our more practical Business Expertise and Advice for Makers posts, but what about learning from someone who's experienced and developed a successful homeware brand?
Sian Elin has managed to do just that, by capitalising on her talents as a print designer, being stocked by and collaborating with high street stores, as well as receiving national press accolades and presenting lampshades on live TV.
With so many hats to wear, we find out what it's taken to build her brand, the inspiration behind her gorgeous designs and her tips for other homewares businesses.
Hi there Sian!
You were named the ‘Print Queen’ by Katrina Burroughs in the The Sunday Times. How did you start out designing textiles prints?
Hello! I used to work in book publishing as a designer for Oxford University Press and Penguin. Part of my role was to commission illustrators and through this I discovered surface pattern design. Always with a keen interest in interiors, pairing illustration with textiles seemed the perfect combination to me. So, I left my full-time job and started up my homewares business in 2012.
Where do your creative influences come from for you bold and colourful prints??
I am inspired by so many things! I have done quite a bit of travelling, taking inspiration from the colours, architecture, nature, and prints I have seen in India, the Middle East, South America, and Southern Spain. And I love Scandinavian design for its clean graphic shapes and colours. So, my aesthetic leans towards this, taking inspiration from design greats such as Stig Lindberg, William Morris, Anni Albers, and Josef Frank.
Which part of your background or training has prepared you most for becoming a print designer?
I think working as a graphic designer has been great training in this. It teaches you how to communicate with clarity and I think a print should do this too. When design has clarity, it engages people and makes them want to have it around them.
How do you prepare when designing a signature print?
I think about what I want my print to represent or say – where would I imagine it, in what kind of house and what room? Do I want it to or joyful or restful, daring or understated? I am always aware of design trends and enjoy being a part of a larger global design context. So, I will think about where I may fit into that and relate that back to what I want the print to represent. Then I will gather primary research and set about creating quick non-fussy sketches that familiarise myself with the subject. I’ll progress to mark-making and motif drawing to explore a design language. I find that it is important to work in an iterative way and not settle on my first concept. Referring to my mood-boards and research, I’ll work towards a final collection that answers my original brief.
How many collections do you produce in a year?
This alters dependent on stock and market needs. Sometimes this can be up to 2 collections a year, and other times I’ll do mini drops consisting of 1 or 2 designs.
How did you set out to turn your talent for design into a business?
I started out by creating my first collection and exhibited at The London Design Festival. It was a fantastic experience, and I met a lot of press and trade people which really kick-started everything.
Which products came first in your homewares business ?
I started out with cushions, wallpaper, and tea-towels.
How have lampshades played a part in expanding your range?
Lampshades have proven very popular for me – customers love how they can totally change up a scheme because they can have such impact in terms of colour and pattern. They have enabled me to reach more of the homewares accessories market and they have been another way to let me create coordinating schemes with my prints. Last year I started selling lampshade-making kits with my fabrics, which was a great way to reach the craft market.
Did you start out making lampshades yourself?
I did! It was great for a bit, but I just couldn’t sustain making as well as designing and selling – there weren’t enough hours in the day, and in order to expand I needed to outsource the manufacturing.
What do you have to consider when designing for lampshades?
There is quite a bit to consider when designing on a 3-D object – it isn’t necessarily just a case of plonking an existing print on a lampshade. You need to think about the scale of the print and what looks best. Scale can affect the placement of the design – sometimes a print can look odd if it isn’t positioned correctly. You can really alter the way a design looks and feels with scale and placement. You also need to think about the seams – sometimes, print dependent, it’s important that the pattern matches seamlessly.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in homewares?
Think about how your designs are going to stand out and develop your own handwriting. What does your business or brand stand for? Think about how you want to represent that in every aspect of what you do. Figure out how you are going to manufacture or make your products and pay very close attention to the quality, as Charles Eames said, “Design is in the detail.”
As well as being a designer you’re also a communicator, teacher and writer. How do you manage your time between the different roles you play?
It can be tough! I like writing and talking about what I do because I love colour, pattern, and interiors so much. It helps me to think about how I do things myself. I think designing and communicating feed into one another nicely and help to spark ideas. It’s important to keep that balance right though, else one or the other can suffer.
What’s been the most exciting part about seeing your brand develop and grow?
I think seeing my products and photography develop has always been the most satisfying. Watching a new collection come to life and then seeing that in magazines has been very exciting.
And the most difficult part?
Trying to juggle everything! When you work for yourself, you wear so many hats and it can be hard to switch seamlessly.
You’ve been stocked in many high street retailers, such as BHS, Oliver Bonas, Heals, to name a few. How did you break into selling to larger retailers?
It came about by going to trade shows and getting my brand out there via the press. The first store to stock my products was Heals – this was such a milestone for me because they are such British design royalty. It snowballed from here, but it was a natural and steady progression.
Do you have any tips you can share with our professional lampshade makers on how to approach large retailers?
Find out who the buyers are on LinkedIn and contact them. Or attend professional trade shows. The more you get your name out there, the more people will take note. I found that success in that respect didn’t happen overnight – retailers will wait and watch for a bit and ensure that you are consistent, professional, and sticking around. I found working like this worked well because it meant I wasn’t just a print trend that a buyer needed that season.
You’ve collaborated with a number of brands. Can you explain how collaborations work and how they differ from simply suppling lampshades to a retailer?
Collaborations can vary – you can either design a collection for a store and sign over the print rights which they then take into manufacture. Or you can design a product for a store that is unique to them which you manufacture yourself with minimum order quantities. Simply supplying lampshades to a retailer would mean that you can supply that lampshade and print to any other retailer too.
Press coverage is an important part of establishing a brand. How easy has it been to get press coverage?
I love this aspect of the business as it is a form of communication, so I have always found it fun and straight-forward. In my experience it has been very important to create stand-out photography and press releases that reflect my brand. Press snowballs and increases the more visible you are. And networking has been very important to me – attending trade shows, being involved in your local creative scene, capitalising on any other related creative work you do – just taking up any opportunities that come your way and taking part in lots of different things.
Last year you appeared on Hochanda making lampshades, using your fabrics. How did you find the experience of making lampshades live on TV?
I absolutely loved it! Again, with my communications hat on, I really enjoyed the process of talking to the customer directly and showing how to be creative with my products.
Describe your favourite room in your own home.
It’s currently our guest room because we have recently moved home and are due to do a big renovation in October. Therefore, every room is currently a bit ‘make-do’, apart from the spare room which I wanted to ensure was relaxing and comfortable for guests. I’ve layered lots of cosy materials like sheepskin, rattan, and linen. I wanted the room to look a bit hotel-like, so I have layered pillows, cushions, and throws. The colour palette is warm and neutral with rusty browns, ecru, putty, blush, and grounding black for contrast.
Do you ever make lampshades for your own home?
Yes, on occasion I have! It’s really a very satisfying craft because the results look so professional yet it’s quite simple – I think many people would be surprised!
What do you have planned for Sian Elin in the future?
I have so many plans I’d like to see through over the next year. Plans to further develop the manufacturing in terms of sustainability. And lots of plans for new prints that will tie in with our house renovation. I can’t wait!=
To buy out more about Sian's stunning designs, homewares and services visit sianelin.com, or follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Check out Sian's videos on You Tube, which include how to paint repeat patterns and how to make a lampshade.
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