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Alison Hardcastle

By Kate Marsden

We’re off to Yorkshire this week to meet Alison Hardcastle. I for one love Alison’s style, and I’m certainly not alone, as her work is stocked in some of my favourite places including the wonderful Papersmiths. Oh and she’s recently collaborated with a little brand called Tatty Devine…. Read on and prepare to be inspired!

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

My name is Alison Hardcastle and I run a design, print and illustration studio under the same name in the Yorkshire Wolds. We specialise in contemporary illustrated stationery and in particular greetings cards. All the products feature my own designs and they’re all printed and finished/packed in the UK and distributed from our studio.

I started my career in quite a roundabout way by todays standards. After completing a BA in Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art followed by an MA in Sequential Design and Illustration at The University of Brighton, I continued on the path of screen printed limited edition hand made artists books as that was what I’d explored as part of my studies. I exhibited and sold at small artists’ book events around the country (while simultaneously holding down a full time job as a shop assistant and Visual Merchandiser at Habitat) and fortunately that opened quite a few doors in shops and galleries and I gained a few stockists. I left Habitat to work an independent design shop called Snowhome in York where I worked as a shop assistant again but this time part time - affording me the time to work on my own designs. I showed at my first trade show in 2008 at Pulse in London. It was a hugely daunting experience at the time, but I gained a lot of stockists and everything grew from that point. 

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What does a typical day involve?

We have two children - a 9 year old and a 2 year old - so the start of the day is often a very hectic one as they’re distributed to school and nursery/grandparents. After that I get back to my studio and make coffee! It’s needed after the hectic start! Mornings are spent checking emails, dealing with orders, requests for images, invoicing and admin based things. If my studio assistant Rachel is in, then we discuss orders which need processing and catch up on what’s happening that week. She then works on picking, packing and sending orders.

My afternoons are generally design-focused as much as possible. At the moment I’m working on two new collaborative ranges which will be very exciting but are in the initial design stages so I’m trying to concentrate on those as they’ll be launching in October and January. 

The school day is gone in the blink of an eye, and I can usually be found back in the studio for the evening shift from 8pm onwards. This is when I can get stuck into some ideas and designing without such a time constraint, and I do sometimes relish working while everyone else is asleep (especially if the ideas are flowing!)

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

I work from a studio in the garden. When we moved 6 years ago we looked for somewhere with a brick building independent of the house as the business was growing and it had gone beyond being able to store the stock in the spare room! Unfortunately, despite finding somewhere with a brick built building perfect for a studio we still seem to be bursting at the seams as the number of designs and amount of stock increases!! I do feel very lucky to be a stones throw from home as regards commuting and it’s been the perfect place to work with two children around. 

When I’m not working I love to run (the Yorkshire hills are challenging but a fantastic place to run), get outside, spend time with my family, visit galleries (the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Wakefield is my absolute favourite), read and swim. 

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

It’s quite a challenging market place at the moment. The customer is very design savvy and they’re faced with a huge amount of choice and design based products from all areas of the high street. It’s great that people are much more design conscious and know that they want something different and with more of a ‘designed’ look to it, but as this has become much more widely available from supermarkets and the larger stores, they’re less likely to perhaps seek out the actual designers and small independents as they can click and collect a bit of design from any online high street store. I think this has been to the detriment of the designers who are working on a smaller scale with integrity and ingenuity, as it’s a struggle to keep up while faced with so much retail choice. 

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

It’s vital that what I do stays as relevant yet true to my own style as possible. It’s a delicate balance to be creatively pushing the boundaries and moving forward, while still remaining true to a style and ethos which got me here in the first place. It’s easy to look around at trends but I don’t like to be trend driven, and hope that I can stay intuitive and honest to what I love creating. 

I’ve really enjoyed working with some other companies over the last year and working with companies which I admire like Tatty Devine has been an absolute privilege. I’d like to continue to work with others and try to find other avenues for my designs. I’d also love to get into my print studio more as I don’t get in there as often as I’d like and I miss the chance to do more exploratory and less commercial work (the two should be able to go hand in hand but rarely do it seems.) I had a small exhibition of prints at The Red Door Gallery in Edinburgh back in 2008 before I had our first daughter and I’d love to have a bigger exhibition space to fill one day and really work on a body of work for it. I would also really love to grow the retail side of our website. I permanently have a long list of things I’d like to do/work on!!

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

Be prepared to work hard. If you’re in it for the long term then stay true to your own style. Develop your own niche and don’t try to be all things to all people. 

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

Favourites include:

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I love the mix of fantastic gallery spaces, outdoors, an amazing design-led shop and an excellent cafe. For me it’s the perfect day out and both our girls have been brought up visiting frequently.

The Hepworth Wakefield

As well as being a great gallery The Hepworth hold some amazing fairs, workshops and events. We’ve been lucky enough to take part in a few in recent years and we’ll be at their Summer Fair in August as well as the Christmas Market in November.

Snowhome in York

Having been located in York for nearly 17 years Angus has created a go-to destination for design in York. He has a great eye for design, knows how to evolve in a changing and challenging market and knows how to run business effectively and efficiently (both of which I was lucky enough to have an insight into when I worked there).

Form in Hull

This shop opened in 2017 when Hull was City of Culture and I love it (even if I haven’t had chance to visit as often as I’d have liked). It stands for everything Hull has done over the past 12 months and I hope that the evolution of Hull continues as it well and truly deserves a bit of a design re-incarnation. I studied at Hull College when doing my Art Foundation Course and it was a brilliant year. Hull takes a bit of a beating in general, but last year the city had a definite buzz about it and I hope that continues.

Magma - London and Manchester

I’ve loved visiting Magma whenever I get chance for more than 10 years. They’ve always stocked the best books and have been a constant source of inspiration for me over the years. 

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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 it’s a brilliant message to be shouting about!! Having worked in an independent I know how frustrating it can be if people use the shop as a gallery or somewhere to just have a little ‘mooch’ around. The shop is there to make a living and they usually believe passionately in what they’re selling. The customer needs to know that just one purchase no matter how small is well worth it. And it goes beyond being about just the purchase (although obviously this helps). It’s also about supporting that business and making the social transaction other than just the monetary one. We need to hang on to all those wonderful independent shops out there. 

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

Very important indeed. Having a creative business brings huge pressures and challenges and this highlights how important it is to support small businesses. 

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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 Instagram. I’m time-poor when it comes to social media (time is so precious I can’t let myself get sucked into the social media void very often!) but I do use Instagram quite a lot as I think it’s important to show people what I’m working on, new products, shows I’m attending etc.. I also use Twitter and Facebook but not as often. 

I’ll keep talking about the #justacard campaign on Instagram as it’s such an important message if we’re to keep the breadth of creativity which we have. The campaign has really gained momentum over the past year from what I can see and I think this will continue. If it just challenges peoples buying habits and makes them very aware that every single purchase can make a difference, then I think it really can help people to keep doing what they love to do. 

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Kate MarsdenComment