Meet Jane Foster

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lisa Brown talks to screen printer and fabric designer, Jane Foster.

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What is it about Scandinavian design that is so admired? There seems to be two perennially loved styles. The earlier Swedish influenced look incorporates calm shades of grey, white and duck egg blue with flecks of gold which when enhanced by northern light, seductively lulls you into a sense of calm. The later, more modern movement of the 1950s to 1970s is known for its minimalist furniture and crisp colourful graphics situated against stark white backgrounds, which evoke both joy and energy. Strangely they are not as far apart as they seem; both were cutting edge in their time and their design qualities have never really gone out of fashion, rather they have endured and gained popularity since their conception.

There is no doubt that British designer/maker Jane Foster is inspired by the later school of Scandinavian design. However, her range of colourful screen printed products, from posters to cushions, although heavily influenced by this style also have a quirky nostalgic feel reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century combined with her own contemporary take. Work by textile designer Lucienne Day and author and artist Dick Bruna are amongst the designers Jane admires.  

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Born in the early seventies, Jane comes from an era of cloth kits, brightly painted furniture and good bold design. Her parents were an important influence. “My mother had great taste and was quite courageous with her choices. I remember her painting my bedroom bright yellow and using early Marimekko fabrics for curtains. They were very discerning about the furniture they bought and would rather save up and buy quality designs from places like Heal’s and Habitat.” Consequently this decade has had a lasting impression and influence on how Jane lives now, admitting she feels comfortable around this look “When I worked with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) in Cambodia in my twenties I very sadly took my own cushion covers with me because they made me feel at home!” 

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Cushion covers are what started Jane in business. Alongside working as a music teacher she had a sideline in making cushions from collectable vintage fabrics, which she sold during the early days of eBay. “I was amazed by how popular these were. In good vintage fabrics they fetched top prices but when fabric companies started to reproduce similar retro fabrics from their archives they became increasingly difficult to sell. I had always wanted to design my own fabrics so this was quite timely and pushed me to take the next step.”  Testing the water by selling products online and finding it to her liking gave Jane confidence to start her own business.  

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This decision was also influenced by Jane and her partner Jim’s plans to start a family but having failed with attempts at IVF they decided to adopt and along came Polly at 4 months old. Jane was determined to carve out a career that would include her daughter. Her teaching commitments had been full time and she was aware that it would be hard to continue at this pace as well as look after Polly so she took the brave decision to give up teaching and launch her new business. “I knew it would be hard work but felt that I would be more in control of my time and could include Polly when possible. I made the right decision and consider myself really privileged not to have missed out on her childhood so far.” Polly is now five and a very helpful stuffer of toys and market research contributor, particularly when it comes to children’s products; “I did give in to her suggestion of adding arms and legs to one of my rag doll designs!”

Jane’s screen printed collection comprises easy to make up soft toy kits, ready made cushions, cats, rabbits and sausage dogs, bags and purses, posters and cards as well as seasonally inspired pieces. Part of the collection is produced in striking black and white while the rest is made up in either one pure, vivid colour or a mix of colours, predominantly in a choice of red, apple green, turquoise, blue and orange. I ask if she struggles over her colour choices but she explains that her use of colour is instinctive and she does not experiment too much, feeling that if her choice is too diverse it will complicate the simplicity of the range. This vision or clarity of her style also comes through when she is designing; “I’m not someone that will sketch hundreds of ideas. A design often comes out in the first take.” She explains. All Jane’s designs are hand drawn and she finds that she has no time to master the art of design software and is loath to use it anyway as somehow she fears it will take away the essence of her style “but to be honest the main reason I don’t learn Photoshop and Illustrator is that it doesn’t interest me – I like working the way I do.” However Jane is not a complete technophobe. She confesses that she has managed to master the art of social networking, recognising that this is an important tool for promoting her business, particularly via Facebook and Pinterest, and has commissioned a local company to design her slick website incorporating her black and white graphics to illustrate it.

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The black and white Joe and Jen dolls were designed for Polly and could be said to be autobiographical. Although Jane laughingly explains that they are probably “slimmer and prettier” versions of herself and Jim, she does concede that their clothes do reflect her personal style. She loves to wear spots and stripes and occasionally makes simple shift dresses for herself if she can’t find what she wants. This is topped with her signature glossy black bob and red glasses. 

Jane and Jim’s home and workplace reflect her penchant for bright colours and crisp clean design. They moved from Brighton to Totnes in 2010 and were immediately tempted with
a new build eco home, “I knew I wouldn’t have time to do up a house, cope with a new baby and start a business.” The house is a perfect foil for Jane’s style. A blank canvas, which lends itself to bright colours and the couple’s collection of mid-century birch ply furniture. Importantly the house is flooded with light, something that Jane values but she reflects, has spoiled her for going back to living in a period cottage. Now that they have a bigger space Jane is able to work from a studio at home, she employs local women to help sew and stuff if she gets a big order. Jim also helps out with the business and has become an expert at exposing screen prints. 

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Self-motivation is not really an issue and Jane attributes this to the fact that although she studied art to A level she then continued with a music degree. She values her music education which she felt was tough but provided her with a good grounding in discipline, “I was doing six hours practice
a day while my fellow students were enjoying the other side of Uni life; it was tough at the time but I really appreciate what it taught me.” She feels that discipline is an important quality to have when it comes to being self-employed as it is very easy to be side tracked and focus is key to success.

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Jane has achieved success at her own pace. She is currently in the process of putting together a second book to follow on from Fun With Fabric – the first book (published October 2013) of a three book deal to be published by Collins and Brown and is looking into a future that might incorporate ceramics, fabric and wallpaper. It is possibly no coincidence that Jane Foster switched careers from music teacher to designer. Where musicians look to achieve the ideals of balance, proportion and disciplined expression it seems that Jane seeks to achieve the same things in her clear, colourful designs behind whose simplicity lie
a steely determination to make a success of her business on her own terms.

Take a look at Jane’s work on her website www.janefoster.co.uk and keep and eye out for her book, Fun With Fabric, £12.99, Collins & Brown, ISBN 9781908449900

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