This month we talk family, colour palettes and printers with Natalie Cardew, the designer behind contemporary kids wall art company, Wonder and Rah.
We begin by asking designer Natalie to pick her favourite Wonder and Rah print, ‘Big Balloon, definitely, although I also love Love Rains and Rainbow Rain. And Kissing Bunnies. It’s impossible,’ she laughs, ‘now you can see why I have such difficulty keeping the web shop streamlined! I can’t face taking any prints away.’
Not that it’s posed much of a problem; since launching Wonder and Rah in April 2016, Natalie’s designs have proven extremely popular – the wide range is clearly welcomed by customers. ‘I’m so lucky the response has been so lovely,’ Natalie says, ‘but I’m currently working on a new collection, so I’m going to have to force myself to edit the range down soon… or at least try!’
As you might expect of a designer specialising in wall art for children’s rooms, the origins of Wonder and Rah are rooted in family, or more specifically, a way of making more time for family. ‘Starting Wonder and Rah was in large part a response to the age-old story of a skewed work life balance,’ Natalie recalls, ‘I’d just had my second child and realised that there was no way I could manage a senior job in retail and have any sort of quality time with my children.’ The job, as senior merchandiser for Kurt Geiger, involved long days at the office and working weekends. ‘I had gone back to work after Leo, my eldest was born, and it was a real strain. On paper, I worked four days a week, but the reality was much longer, stressful days. When I got pregnant with my second child, I knew it wasn’t sustainable.’
So, Natalie took some time out, ‘which didn’t feel like a risk at the time, the huge cost of childcare meant that it almost didn’t matter if I worked or not,’ Natalie says, ‘it was an ideal chance to take a break, care for the children and work out what I wanted to do next.’
What came next was a return to a long-held passion; art and illustration. Natalie studied Illustration at Middlesex University, and on graduation surprised her family by going into retail. ‘That was a bit of leftfield decision. Having loved art for so long, I think the pressure of trying to make it into a job freaked me out a bit. Once I started working I found I was doing less and less creative work, but it was always in the background, as something I wanted to get back to.’
Natalie started designing and opened her Etsy shop in April 2016, with a selection of prints, some of which – like Kissing Bunnies and Rainbow Rain are still bestsellers. Not On The High Street and her own Shopify website followed soon after. ‘I was really surprised and encouraged by the response. I’d always planned to sell the prints, but I didn’t necessarily assume people would buy them, if that makes sense!’ Natalie laughs, ‘I thought it would be a hobby, something I loved to do, and a creative outlet, rather than a fully fledged business.’
The time constraints of balancing work and family life also shaped Natalie’s creative process. ‘Initially I tried to create entire designs in one go, but with childcare, I could only work in short snippets of time. I would start a watercolour design, have to leave it unfinished, and by the time I’d come back to it would be dried out and the colours set wrong. It was costing me a fortune in watercolours,’ Natalie laughs, ‘so I decided to break the design into sections, each on a different sheet, so I could work and complete an entire section at a time. Then, scan each section on to my computer and create a collage design. Even though it was an approach born of necessity, I found that I actually preferred the look. So, the Wonder and Rah style was created by happy accident, really.’
Natalie designs and produces her prints from her spare room. Each design starts as a hand drawn or hand printed design, in watercolour or ink, and is scanned on to her computer where she finalises the designs. Natalie is particular about the materials she uses. ‘It has to be the best paper – archival quality so I know it won’t fade or yellow. Depending on the design, I’ll use watercolours, acrylics or black ink.’
‘I’m really finicky about quality, and one of the high points of the year was getting my own professional printer. I had a nightmare trying to find a printing company who could deliver the quality I wanted. I had so many batches come back from the printers in the wrong colour, or incorrectly aligned or smudged. It was so frustrating. It’s such a relief to be in control of the process myself. I like the immediacy of being able to design something, sell it and get it out to the customer within a couple of days, and having that total quality control is something which is really important to me.’ So, there’s a lot of love for the printer, ‘Ha, yes! Sad but true.’
How does Natalie tackle the design process? ‘My starting point is always colour and colour combinations, then comes the design. My first collection was full of blush pinks, jade green and greys; the second monochrome with pops of colour, and I’m currently working on some designs in more muted neutral shades as well as some lovely jewel colours.’
‘I like to range plan, and to work in ‘collections’ with a similar colour palette – a throwback to my time in merchandising. It helps give me clarity.’
There’s been a boom in homeware and design for children’s rooms over recent years, how easy is it to stand out in what must be a saturated market?
‘It’s definitely a saturated market, and there’s very similar themes. There’s an awful lot of dinosaurs, bunnies, bears in hats out there already,’ Natalie laughs, ‘so you have to make sure that whatever you do you have a strong, original take on it.’
Sounds like it’s important to keep an eye on the work of other designers? ‘Yes. The last thing I want to do is design something similar to another person’s work. I’ve had to abandon work mid-design because I’ve seen something similar done elsewhere.’
Influences are wide and varied and not confined to children’s designers. Natalie keeps a visual scrapbook on her phone, a collection of inspirational and interesting images. ‘I’m influenced by so many different things,’ Natalie says, ‘from big artists like Egon Schiele and Hockney, illustrators and typography print makers like David Shrigley, CocoLapine, Playtype to fashion photography and interiors trends.’
‘For me part of the beauty of designing prints is that you can dip in and out trends. Wonder and Rah has an overall style, but I like the freedom to explore trends that resonate with me, and not have to stick to a rigid aesthetic.’
Mid-way through the year, Natalie was approached by Liberty about stocking her work, that must have been a high point? ‘Amazing and completely unexpected,’ Natalie says, ‘I’d made some custom designs for Jo of Scamp and Dude, which were featured on her Wear and Where blog and spotted by one of their buyers. I had to pinch myself when a few weeks later I found myself at Liberty presenting my designs. Even more dreamlike to actually see my work on the shelves!’
‘Collaborating with kids clothing company Lennie & Co has been another highlight. I’d been a massive fan of Amy [Lennie and Co founder] for a while, so when she got in touch via Instagram I was really pleased and up for working together. We’re hoping to do some more designs later this year.'
Any New Year resolutions for Wonder and Rah? ‘I want to start approaching stockists. The few shops that stock my work approached me, and I’m excited to see what I can achieve by expanding through wholesale.’
Wonder and Rah is a year old in April, any lessons learnt from the last year? ‘Apart from buying a printer, you mean?’ Natalie laughs, ‘It’s still a learning process. I’m still learning how to organise my time, how to work on my own – so weird after twelve years in a busy open plan office – how to work creatively.’
‘I hadn’t designed in so long, I can’t quite express what it means to me that people like my work enough to buy it. To be honest, the fact that I’m doing it as a business, and that it’s going ok, is enough really,’ she smiles, ‘to put it simply I’m just very happy with the fact that Wonder and Rah exists.’
Describe your work in three words:
Hip. Contemporary. Happy.
What are your making rituals?
I always need the radio on! I also love listening to podcasts and Desert Island Discs.
Tea or coffee?
Tea, then coffee, then tea, then coffee...
Mountains or sea?
Sea every time.
Night owl or early bird?
Early bird. I love mornings and am useless at being productive in the evenings.
I wish someone had told me...
That there really is no right or wrong way to start a business, you'll never feel ready, just start and learn as you go!