Sarah Hamilton on taking chances, supporting independents and the secrets to survival
Sarah Hamilton is a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she a successful artist and maker, selling cards, prints and home accessories in her joyful Scandinavian style to brands.
She's worked with the likes of Heal's, The Conran Shop and Designers Guild and also launched a national campaign called Just A Card to encourage more people to buy from and support independents. We caught up with the London-based Central St Martins graduate to find out more about what she's up to.
Before anything else, can you tell us how you came to sell your work for brands as big as Heal's?
People always need cards. When I left art college I struck on the idea of making handprinted cards. I was desperate to keep screen-printing, but there was the small matter of bills to pay, so I sent them to buyers at The Conran Shop, Designers Guild and Paperchase. Fortunately they loved them and all placed orders, which gave me an insight into the retail world.
I then developed a process of printing my designs onto wood. One thing led to another and I began making mirrors for Heal’s and other retailers and was commissioned by architects, interior designers, galleries and private clients. Nowadays, I make and sell a wide range of artwork via my annual Open House event, through shows, and from my website.
Can you tell us more about your style, your techniques?
Composition and colour relationships are central to my designs, which have a Mid-Century, Scandinavian aesthetic with a British twist. My work has been described as fresh, contemporary and deceptively simple, which suits me fine.
What's your inspiration?
Nature, music, folk art, travel, fifties designs, Japanese packaging, architecture, books – the usual suspects. I gravitate to art, architecture, and design from the 'less is more’ school of thought. Clean lines, the union between materials, colour, and imagery.
In terms of marketing yourself, what do you find works well for you?
Social media is integral, but for me, it’s about establishing lasting relationships with like-minded people to learn from and collaborate with – not simply showcasing my designs.
You're based in south London and work from home. Does it matter where you are? Does it help being in the capital?
My house/studio is set in woods overlooking the city, so I’ve the best of both worlds. It’s not vital to be in London, and it’s especially hard for new artists. It’s easier than ever to live outside, but with everything, there are pros and cons. I’ve built a client base here, so for me it’s vital, but as I love the buzz of the city I’m where I want to be.
There are rumours going around that exhibitions are on their way out. Would you agree?
To an extent yes. They’re not cheap for exhibitors – taking part isn’t a passport to instant success, which people sometimes expect them to be. There’s definitely a place for larger shows, they’re fun and can attract large audiences. However, there are so many now, with only a finite number of customers, so potential exhibitors need to do their homework and set realistic expectations.
Have you found support dwindling for independents in recent years? If so, why do you think that is?
You’d think not. People make all the right noises. They say independents are inspiring, they value the provenance, the attention to detail. They then question why something is a couple of pounds more expensive, or wonder why it takes a bit longer to order.
Often things aren’t less expensive – handmade cards are often the same price, or even less than chain bought ones. So why buy something mass-produced instead of those made with love and care? If people say they value artwork, independent shops and galleries then they need to support them by buying from them. It’s that simple.
Is this why you've launched Just A Card? What's it all about?
Absolutely. Artists, designers, independent shops, and galleries are seeing overheads rise and sales fall, which puts a huge strain on their lives. Consequently, our high streets are being overtaken by bland chains and creative people have fewer outlets. I’d been wondering how to spread word that sales, however small, make a huge difference to small businesses. When I read the quote, by gallery owners who’d recently closed, ‘If everyone who’d complimented our beautiful gallery had bought just a card we’d still be open’, I had a lightbulb moment.
People often say they’re embarrassed to make a small purchase as it could appear to mean. This is crazy. People wouldn’t feel that in big chain stores, so the little guys lose out. Small sales add up! Compliments are wonderful, and hugely appreciated, but if people can manage even a small purchase it really makes or break for that artist or gallery.
"If people say they value artwork, independent shops and galleries then they need to support them by buying from them. It’s that simple."
The campaign is building momentum. Who is supporting you so far?
The response has been overwhelming and I’ve been joined by a small, but perfectly formed, volunteer team helping spread the word. Thousands of designers, makers, artists and independent galleries and shops are supporting us, as well as magazines including Mollie Makes, and other creative industry businesses such as The Design Trust, Folksy, and Crafty Fox Market.
So how can people get involved and support the campaign?
Clicking and signing the Thunderclap would be a fantastic start. We’re aiming for 1,000 signups so we can present a united voice in celebration of our creative community this Christmas.
Following that, they can add our logo on their websites, download the posters/postcards and display them at events. The campaign works best for people when they actively engage with it. Share it with customers. Help them understand just how valuable their support is. The aim is that our logo becomes so instantly recognisable that people are prompted to act. Compliments make the world a sunnier place but understanding that purchases, however small, are so important makes customers feel valued and appreciated.
Can buying a card really make a difference?
Yes, yes and yes – a thousand times! Since we started the campaign so many people have reported they've bought from designer-makers, or small galleries as a result of our simple message. Small sales add up. They often make or break. Ask anyone in this business.
What tips can you offer to designers and makers who are struggling to make a name for themselves?
Apply my 50/50 rule. Spend fifty per cent of your time making your artwork and fifty per cent marketing it. I appreciate artists aren’t natural sales folk, but unless people know you exist they can’t support you work. Again – it’s as simple as that.
What could the government do to make life easier for independents?
It’s obviously a complex issue, but ideally they need to address why so many shops are allowed to remain empty when so many people could put them to good use, either as selling or working premises.
Christmas is coming up. Can you recommend any independents that people should buy gifts from?
Sarah Cowan, a graphic designer who’s part of the ‘Just A Card’ has created a Christmas Gift Guide full of splendid gifts – on our website now. Check it out – she’s done a fantastic job.
Where can people find and discover designers and makers?
Start by visiting The Design Trust website. They list most of the larger design events. Twitter and Instagram are great for finding individual designers and many, like me, have open house/studio events. Around Christmas there’s lots of local events too – why not make it your mission to buy from independents this year? It'd be a great voyage of discovery.
Finally, what would you say to anyone out there thinking of launching their own business?
Be confident – engage with your customers. People love to hear how and why you do what you do. It’s not sales talk; it’s sharing your passion.
Find out more about Sarah Hamilton at www.sarahhamiltonprints.com. Or visit www.justacard.org to support independents. You can also follow Just A Card on Twitter @Justacard1 and show further support via Thunderclap.