Agnes Becker - We Are Stardust

By Kate Marsden

Art and science collide this week as enter the world of Agnes Becker of We Are Stardust. Agnes’ beautiful, detailed science inspired greetings cards, and gorgeous styling, have had me swooning since I first saw them a few months ago. Read on to find out about Agnes’ business and how she feels we’re on the cusp of a shopping revolution…

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Tell us a little about you. What do you do? 

I am the creator of we are stardust – a greetings card shop where art and science collide. Each card captures a fact, story or curiosity to inspire a moment of wonder for the natural world. There are four collections:

·       Anatomy - discover your inner beauty

·       Astronomy - journey through the heavens

·       Botany - step into the wilderness

·       Zoology - explore the animal kingdom

Growing up I never sat comfortably within the sciences or arts, I’ve always been somewhere in between. As a child, I used to imagine I was an explorer in a jungle gathering unusual animal specimens on mysterious tropical islands, or discovering ancient civilisations. I’d draw maps of my explorations and collect strange stones, shells and flowers. The boundaries between art and science weren’t there - it was all about exploring the world.

I studied natural sciences at university but I never stopped making and drawing. Eventually I ended up in the field of science communication, where I have the privilege of working with some of the best scientific minds and at some of the oldest research institutions in the country. I first had the idea for we are stardust when I worked at the Science Museum and looked at the products in the shop all for people who love science. I didn't want we are stardust to be a shop just for those who love science, I wanted it to be a place for everyone who loves learning about the natural world. So I opened my shop in 2013 for all sophisticated, curious minds, wild natures and loyal hearts.

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

What does a typical day involve?

I have recently gone freelance in order to spend more time on we are stardust so I have had to create a whole new routine! I get up around 7.30am, do some morning yoga, have breakfast and update Instagram. Once showered and dressed I sit down to do some painting around 9am. I research, illustrate and design each card. Ideas come from lots of different places - a conversation with a colleague; reading an interesting article; an exhibition; looking at why nature is the way it is and wanting to learn more. Once I have an idea I try to find a good photo or – if possible – find the original plant or specimen I can use to draw or paint the illustration. I try to make sure I look after myself and go out for a run around 11am and then get ready to either make up the card designs on my computer or to work on my marketing – emailing potential stockists, looking up craft fairs to take part in, and creating blogs and my regular newsletter. After lunch, I usually get any orders ready to post, then head into town to drop them off at the Post Office and work in a café for a bit – it may be creating new designs, writing blogs, interacting on social media or ordering new supplies. I try to finish around 6pm ready for dinner and quality time with my lovely man!

Where do you work? What is your studio space like? What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?

My studio is also the music room and spare bedroom in our little flat! It is a light space filled with plants, books, craft materials and interesting drawings and postcards I’ve collected from exhibitions. I try to keep it quite tidy because it’s so small.

When I’m not working, I love going for long walks or bike rides outside, meeting up with friends and family for dinner as well as playing my violin, knitting, travelling, cooking, reading and dancing. I have too many hobbies! That’s the trouble with the world being such an interesting place.

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

What do you consider to be the main challenges facing designer makers at the moment?

I haven’t been in this game for very long, but it feels to me the main challenges are around battling the big high street brands who can price their products for a lot less than a designer-maker can, and who have huge marketing power that we cannot compete with. For example, I have done some bookbinding and hope to create a few books for my shop one day but the time it takes to create a book from scratch – folding and hand stitching the pages, creating the spine, measuring and cutting out the cover boards etc. – would mean I could not compete with the £10 journal you may find in stationary shops. Similarly, on the marketing front, I have to work quite hard to find and convince customers that they want to buy their cards from me online, rather than buying greetings cards in a hurry at lunchtime in the high street shop.

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

However, one thing us designer-makers have got going for us is that our products have personality. Our personality beats both the price and the marketing. People want to buy from us because of who we are and why we create the work we do. I am also optimistic that there is a slow shift in attitudes at the moment, particularly in the middle classes, to buy less and buy better. Perhaps now is our time?

What ambitions do you have for your business over the next few years?

I have so many ambitions – it makes me get butterflies in my tummy when I think of them! I am excited to be launching the first small print run of A4 prints in April. At the moment there are just 25 or 50 of each design printed on acid free, archival quality Forestry Stewardship Council certified paper. In the future, I hope to expand into producing notebooks too. I would also love to partner with a scientific institution (I have my eye on the amazing Kielder Observatory – I love that place!) and another maker to create some of these new products.

Do you have any tips for fellow designer makers/ small business owners who are reading this and may be just starting out? 

Well, I’m not a particularly seasoned designer maker, but one thing I have found really helpful was spending a good 3-4 months thinking about my brand. By brand I don’t mean the logo and colours, although that was helpful too, it was more about what I promise my customers, what I want to be known for. It has helped me narrow down my creative energies so I have more focus. I’d really recommend using Fiona Humberstone’s “How To Style My Brand” book. I found it enormously helpful.

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Please share any favourite independent shops/galleries and tell us why you like them.

Oh dear. There are SO MANY! I’ve narrowed them down to three science-art related people and places:

Anatomy Boutique – Created by Freelance Medical Illustrator and teacher of Anatomy to medical students, Emily Evans, this shop is filled with anatomy inspired homeware and clothing, including some beautiful fine china cups and saucers I am saving up for!

Libby Ward – An exciting jeweller who uses experimental methods to mix materials you wouldn’t expect to see together, like a rehabilitated moss ring! She uses chemical processes to create biological inspired surfaces on the metal and combines it with natural objects. The tactile nature of her work aims to connect people with textures and revaluate how they perceive preciousness through materials. I am also saving up for one of her moss rings – so beautiful!

Wellcome Collection Shop – I love the Wellcome Collection Museum in Euston, London. Their exhibitions and events are always thought provoking and challenging mix of art and science. Their shop is full of interesting medicine and science themed books, cards and home wares – many by independent designer makers (and they stock we are stardust cards so I may be a little biased)!

Had you realised the Just A Card campaign message suggests cards as an example of a small purchase - we're about encouraging all sales as they keep businesses afloat?  

Yes, and I think it’s a fantastic campaign. I don’t think many people realise the costs involved in creating your own business. For example, many of my friends didn’t know I had to pay for stalls in craft fairs. All of these small purchases aren’t just about buying things, they are about buying into a different kind of materialism. Instead of fuelling the abusive consumer culture of cheap, exploitative and badly made products, buying from small businesses, who often have an ethical approach to their work, means supporting a considered and thoughtful kind of materialism. Who doesn’t want to be part of that?

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

How important is the Just A Card campaign message to you and your business?

It is hugely important – not least because we are stardust is primarily a greetings card shop! I was recently at a craft fair where many people who passed through commented how lovely it was that there were such passionate people creating beautiful things…and then walked past and didn’t buy anything. All of the stallholders at the fair had a really bad weekend selling. The trouble is, if people don’t buy, us “passionate people creating beautiful things” won’t be creating for much longer. Buying from a designer maker means you are contributing to their livelihood rather than the high street stationer’s shareholder profits. This is why I love the Just A Card campaign message – it shows what a difference we can make to real peoples’ lives if we buy from designer makers, even if it is just a card.

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Image (c) Neil James Spicer Photography

Where did you hear about the campaign and which Social Media platforms do you use most frequently? What do you think people can do to support Just A Card, and how will you be doing so?

I heard about the campaign on Twitter. I really appreciate all the hard work the Just A Card team does to spread their message. I mostly use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and aim to post every day. I think others can support the campaign by writing about it on their blogs and talking about those blogs on social media and in their newsletters, as well as supporting each other by buying small. I did this before Christmas and it had a great response. One joyful thing about being a small business designer maker is the wonderful support this community offers. In complete contrast to the high street chains where it’s all about competition, I feel our community’s strength lies in its ability to lift each other up. The Just A Card campaign is one way we can introduce others to our wonderful community.