Inspiring : Elizabeth Halpern {surface design}

One of the biggest struggles for freelancers, as designer Elizabeth Halpern and her freelance photographer husband know well, is the financial uncertainty of being independent artists. As she says, it can be “incredibly stressful at times.” But she’s been working at it for more than 18 years, and she’s still going strong.


elizabeth halpern - cocktail flowers - reds

elizabeth halpern – cocktail flowers – reds


elizabeth halpern - cocktail plaid - pinks 1

elizabeth halpern – cocktail plaid – pinks 1


elizabeth halpern - cocktail dots - pinks 2

elizabeth halpern – cocktail dots – pinks 2


Elizabeth’s work is a mix of translucent layers in muted rich hues, influenced by drawings, collage, papercuts and more. She uses several methods to work around a central theme, before moving into Photoshop or Illustrator to create the collection, “and inevitably I get ideas that don’t really fit that group or collection and I will save them or start another group of prints at the same time. Then things get complicated as finishing and finalizing multiple prints at a time can get tedious. I get restless and impatient for everything to be done so I can move on!” All within her workspace, which she describes as “controlled chaos rather than super organized.”


elizabeth halpern - paisley block print pinks

elizabeth halpern – paisley block print pinks


Elizabeth originally studied architecture in college, thinking at the time that design school would be a good mix for her creative and technical interests and abilities. “I loved it and it was a great design education, but I realized towards the end of my program that architecture specifically wasn’t really my passion. After graduation, I switched gears and pursued work in fashion, knowing somehow that I could find my way towards a creative career in design that was right for me.”


It was her first job out of college that she counts as the gamechanger for her.  


It was while working in NYC at J.Crew as a design assistant, that her boss encouraged her to move into textile design. “This was right at the beginning of when digital design technology was being implemented in fashion companies. Up to that point textile designs were painted by hand, either in-house or using studios, and I found the whole process fascinating. I made the move into textile design, learning traditional and digital techniques and also went back to school, taking courses specific to textiles and fashion.”

A few more jobs, and a move to freelancing around her area gave her a ton of experience over the next few years with styles, techniques, and how to deal with clients. However, it was when she and her husband decided to move out of NYC and start a family that things started to get tougher. “Most existing clients weren’t interested in working with me remotely. I needed to find new clients and a new way to work, but I definitely didn’t have a plan on how to do it.” Modern Print Craft started around 2010, with a new-found focus on marketing her creative output.


elizabeth halpern - oceana whirligigs

elizabeth halpern – oceana whirligigs


elizabeth halpern - paisley feather medallion

elizabeth halpern – paisley feather medallion


Getting your online presentation right is a vital part of marketing. And living with a photographer, Elizabeth knows this one too well – she says “it’s harder than it looks to get great images.” She uses lots of images on her own blog, so when it comes to photography, she advises two things – don’t be afraid to seek help, and don’t forget to self-edit. “Multiple images of essentially the same thing are a waste. Each photo should serve a purpose and add to the story.” Clarity is something she aims for always. “When styling and creating my website, I always aim to keep it simple, clean and uncluttered with clear and easy to use navigation.”

Another important thing for Elizabeth was to ensure the business was a separate identity. “I have created designs for so many other brands and their products that using a distinct business name has been helpful for me and makes it easy when I am creating new prints to think in terms of the Modern Print Craft “brand”.”

Time management is always a struggle. One of the hardest things is “simply knowing how to juggle the different aspects of running my business; freelance work, original art and design, marketing, technical support and the financial management are all done “in house” by me. If I have a deadline or work for a specific client or a specific project, I’m fine.  When I don’t have that, prioritizing which aspect of my business to focus on at any one time is a challenge – there is no playbook to go by and no way to know I’m working my business in the best way.

Being able to share skills with others has been a useful strategy. “Since my husband is also self-employed as a photographer, we do have each other as sounding boards and can share resources. He donates his photography skills to my business, as well as teaching me some techniques so I can use my own camera and not need him for every single photograph! I designed and built his website and have begun to help him out with social media and some marketing strategies as well.”


elizabeth halpern - vintageoceana

elizabeth halpern – vintageoceana


elizabeth halpern - woodcut 2

elizabeth halpern – woodcut 2


“I’ve been lucky to learn a lot from others throughout my life, my education and career, but there isn’t one piece of advice that jumps out at me as being the best ever. It’s a little quirky, but I like to collect quotes that I find humorous, wise or simply inspiring, and I have a Pinterest board for new finds. A recent favorite, especially for when things get a little overwhelming, is from the poet, T.S. Eliot.


“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” – T.S.Eliot


You can find more of Elizabeth’s work in her Spoonflower shop, modernprintcraft, and on her site,


Inspiring : Sarah York {surface design}

“Hand painted florals are my favorite, as well as research and coming up with new color palettes. Isn’t that the most fun part!?” I’m inclined to agree with San Francisco-based surface designer Sarah York on this – looking at pics for hours (aka research ;D ) and playing with colour is definitely very, very fun!!


sarah york


Sarah’s work is flavoured with soft vintage colours and styles, sparked occasionally with a pop of vibrant red or magenta. She fills her canvases with watercolour flowers and foliage, creating a lovely loose and painterly style that is always relaxed and feminine.


sarah york


Her career path has woven in and out of several fields, including studying as a art major and several years working in interior design, before taking an apprenticeship in surface design and then working as a project coordinator and part-time designer for a home decor fabric company. But it was when she had her first daughter and wanted more flexibility with her work, that she decided to take the plunge and try freelancing.


“I’ve been freelancing for about a year and the biggest challenge is finding enough time for all my ideas! I have had so many jobs in the past, but this is by far my favorite.”


It’s been a while coming – Sarah says it was something she always loved to do as a child. “I was very imaginative and had a lot of unstructured time when I was small, so I was always drawing, crafting and decorating my room.  I still have a few of my drawings and it’s interesting that there are funny little patterns in them even back then!”


sarah york


Being in business for herself provides its own challenges, but she’s rising to (most of) it. “I have a natural tendency to figure things out myself (google is great!), but I do get help for the financial side, which can be so complicated and costly to make a mistake. Thankfully, my husband is an accountant, so he helps out. I got lucky!”

Branding is something that she is also challenged by. “I’m still working on this! I feel like my branding is a work in progress. Heading in the right direction, but not quite “there” yet.” But I think Sarah is doing OK – with any branding, there are always changes and progressions to be made, but a well-presented, cohesive portfolio and colour palette go a long way towards it. And Sarah has certainly got that!


sarah york


You can check more of Sarah’s work on her site,, and some of her designs are available as phone cases through





a collection of sarah's work

a collection of sarah’s work

Her best piece of advice?

“Keep creating, even if you feel like you have nothing left or the days you feel uninspired. It’s the process that will lead you to the best work.”






Inspiring : Lewis Mark Grimes {surface design}

After a high flying career in publishing and launching his own agency, it was not until he was struck down by illness and a prolonged recovery that Lewis Mark Grimes came to surface design.


feather rishi - a tisket a tasket

feather rishi – a tisket a tasket


Working solely with molted feathers and designing in digital kaleidoscopes, much of his work is reminiscent of shibori with its undulating tones, but retains its own distinctive textures. And although he occasionally dabbles in neon brights and altered colour schemes, his most sensuous designs use the natural (and sometimes surprising) hues of the feathers themselves.


feather rishi - golden ripple

feather rishi – golden ripple


Residing in San Diego, California, he is currently undertaking Honours at college. “I reside in a small place where the rooms are multi-purpose. So my workspace is layered with the textures and patterns of school, work, play and prayer. Mostly I pray for a larger workspace.”


feather rishi - pompeiian mosaic

feather rishi – pompeiian mosaic


“It was a great surprise to me that I was a surface artist. I went back to college in ’08 and assessment tests pointed me to art. Skepticism was my initial response – as a boy, my family had told me I was a horrible artist and they discouraged me. But I dutifully signed up for some art and graphic design classes. My painting and drawing professors were generous and they gave me high grades I ill-deserved but graphic design was another matter. Although my introductory course was something like swimming in quicksand (I only got a B) I sensed I was home at last. After that it was all A’s and I found my lifelong fascination with art, style, fashion and design was something I could enjoy and master.”

“I guess the quintessential, best thing that’s happened to me as a designer is keeping rare birds and making friends with parrots. It was part of my recovery. I kept all their molted feathers which I was able to utilize as models for my school art projects. Then my professors said what I was doing was unique. Pretty soon I was calling my work a new genre.”


feather rishi - native drums

feather rishi – native drums


Like most creatives, he has struggled with finding enough time to do everything he wanted. But he reckons he’s got that sorted. “I have two inventions, patent-pending: the 48 month calendar and the 48 hour clock. I don’t know why I’m the first to come up with these breakthroughs, but they have given me a new lease on life.”


feather rishi - sepia sparkle 16up

feather rishi – sepia sparkle 16up


feather rishi - starry night

feather rishi – starry night


His early years were not filled with inspiring memories of art and design. “During my childhood my stepfather was extremely ambitious. He wanted our house to win the annual competition for best decorated. We lived in Anchorage, Alaska. I remember one bitterly cold winter. There was no snow. We had mannequins dressed like elves and Santa, the sleigh and the whole team of reindeer to exhibit. I was tasked with gluing cotton to the display to create the illusion of snow. My mittens would freeze and I cursed the day. Well, I won’t go into that. That was my earliest memory of craft and I swore I would never, ever, ever go into anything like that.”

Lewis started his career in publishing, working with some great names. “I worked at ICM for Lynn Nesbit, one of the top literary agents in the business, and I worked with such authors as Jimmy Carter, Carol Burnett, Hunter S. Thompson and Anne Rice. I stayed with her when she joined the top commercial agent in the world, Dr. Morton Janklow and worked with an expanded roster of authors including Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, Harold Bloom and Danielle Steel. I was a cockie young man and so went off to start my own agency after years of launching the careers of many new authors. Then, I had a devastating illness, lost that agency and was brought low. After years of rehab, I was thrilled to have had the experiences and grateful for the opportunities. Yet I knew there was something more and I’m especially lucky to have found my way to design.”


feather rishi - thor

feather rishi – thor


This year will be an especially important one for him – he has been accepted to exhibit at the Licensing Expo in Las Vegas. “This will be the fourth year I’ve attempted to go to the show. It’s happening this time. I’ve engaged a fabulous model, designed two dresses for her. I just ordered the fabric printing on Spoonflower!”

We wish you all the best, Lewis!

You can find more of Lewis’ work on Spoonflower at feather_rishi.

Inspiration : Ashley Lotecki – surface design

After working as an in-house designer for many years, Ashley Lotecki felt that while it had been great experience and creatively challenging, her identity as an artist was completely anonymous. So when a couple of major clients closed down and the company she was working for laid off the creative department, it was a hard but ultimately perfect opportunity.


ashley lotecki - sew my darling

ashley lotecki – sew my darling


“I had already been considering starting my own business for a while so at that time it seemed like a natural transition. In 2013, I became a registered business and have been working hard on it ever since! When I made the decision, it was a huge thing for me to register the business under my own name – Ashley Lotecki Design.



“But it is a wonderful feeling to be able to have my name joined with my identity as an artist now, and for people to recognize my style and associate that with my business.”


Her style is fluid, asymmetrical and whimsical. It conjures thoughts of simpler times, a childhood filled with playful kittens, puppies and dolphins, of watching your mother at her sewing machine, and being utterly besotted with the antique clocks on your grandparent’s mantelpiece.


ashley lotecki - measuring time

ashley lotecki – measuring time


ashley lotecki - everything but the sink

ashley lotecki – everything but the sink


The Canadian designer explains that digging back into her childhood is a wonderful source of ideas. “Some of my favorite places to pull inspiration from are my memories of growing up in the Canadian Prairies and adventures exploring my grandparents’ farm. The temperamental extremes of weather encouraged excessive amounts of make believe, art creation, and dress-up for entertainment! If I think back to a specific memory involving craft or design that stands out, it would be of adventures at my family cabin. Between my siblings, cousins, and friends, the cabin was always full of kids (frequently at least ten of us) so we were always coming up with art projects and crafts. We used to dig up clay on the beach, which was fairly deep underneath the sand, take it back to the cabin and sculpt all kinds of things out of it. After letting it air dry, we’d paint our creations in bright primary colors. Some of those relics still exist to this day!”

In translating her ideas to screen, she always endeavours to keep the original organic, fluid lines of the original drawing. “I generally start with loose pencil sketches and sketch until I get to a point where I’m happy with the visual direction. After that, I scan the pages in and reference them when I start working digitally in Adobe Illustrator, sometimes adding in additional textures in Photoshop. This method helps me translate the asymmetric, hand-drawn aspects of my style more organically even though I am working primarily in vector.”


 ashley lotecki - underwater pool party

ashley lotecki – underwater pool party


ashley lotecki - warm paws

ashley lotecki – warm paws


Although most of her time is spent illustrating and creating surface patterns, Ashley also teaches digital illustration to university students and is a guest artist with an elementary school district, working with teachers and students on collaborative illustration projects.

She also spends a fair proportion of her time sewing, and has worked as a costume designer on a regular basis for many projects, including live shows, films, and web series – creating and constructing original characters and pieces, including clients such as Mattel. The combination of digital and tactile creative projects strike a good balance for her – “I love to sew and try to create original projects whenever I can.”


Sewing is kind of like my break time, I find it relaxing and a nice tactile change if I’ve been working on the computer a lot.


“I am also a tutorial contributor for the lovely sewing website Sew Mama Sew and as well as that have been working on a few collaborative sewing projects that I hopefully get to share sometime soon.”

“I have a multi-purpose workspace containing my computer work station, (fairly substantial) storage for fabric and art supplies, and desks/tables for sewing, cutting, and silk-screening on. I like order and simplicity in my workspace, so areas like my desk and projects table are usually pretty bare unless I am working on something at that moment. That being said, the walls of my studio are covered with printed squares of surface patterns I have been working on. I love the visual evidence of what I’ve been doing and accomplished, but along with that I find it very helpful for developing and expanding on my collections of patterns so I can see what I’ve done and how the patterns look with one another. I also have large white boards up so I can write myself temporary notes and to do lists. I am a chronic list writer, it helps me stay organized. Also, physically crossing things off a list is a seriously great feeling!”

In her old designing job working with outside clients, Ashley gained great experience in what it meant to create a brand, and this has helped her a great deal in creating her own.  “Consistency is important in every aspect of your branding, so make sure anything visually accessible relates back to your brand identity – fonts, colors, sizing, layouts, etc. If you are posting photographs of work or products for sale online, they should look as professional as possible. Creating a small light box out of foam core can be very helpful for taking better photographs of products, also allowing you to keep the scale and directionality of the objects the same. Additionally, I highly recommend learning a program like Photoshop so you can make any modifications necessary and format your images properly.


“I have years of experience working on licensed artwork, developing new brands, and creating style guides, so I know what can define the success of a brand and how to manage it.”


“That being said, it is a little different when you are deciding how to brand yourself and your business identity versus a client, so I spent a long time considering what I wanted my brand to represent and how to visually convey that.

“My current branding is intentionally simple, but fully representative of me. The logo is my own signature, originally done by hand and then referenced to create a digital version, the lines of which are quirky and asymmetric just as my artwork is. My standard branding is white and black, without extra icons or embellishments – This allows my artwork and patterns, commonly full of bright colors, patterns, and characters, to be a strong focal point that is separate, but complimentary to my logo.”
ashley lotecki at surtex

ashley lotecki at surtex

“This year my focus has been more on creating illustrated artwork for my portfolio in preparation for upcoming tradeshows such as Surtex which my work will be debuting at May 17-19, 2015 in New York.
Her best piece of advice? “Simply – “You can do this.” “
 You can find more of Ashley’s work on Spoonflower at smashworks, and on her own website,

Inspiring : Claudia Owen surface design (revisited)

I first came across Claudia Owen’s work about this time last year (I featured her here), and was attracted to her elegant geometrics with their vivid, clashy colours. Just recently she contacted me again because she has just launched a new shop selling accessories and stationery featuring her new designs.

And what a change! Dense, painterly textures, layered abstracts in jewel colours. The geometrics still aren’t very far away, but they’re bolder and simpler, and their crispness makes a great contrast. But that’s not all – there’s another direction too – feminine, drawn florals over soft textures in pastel brights.


claudia owen - gemstone silk scarf

claudia owen – gemstone silk scarf


claudia owen - alchemy - document folders

claudia owen – alchemy – document folders


AND! Not content just with the patterns, Claudia has been busy getting them onto a range of accessories – silk scarves, leggings, phone cases, stationery and more, that she’s now selling in her brand new Etsy shop. A very busy girl indeed! She told me that the product line started with scarves, but it just kind of grew. “Once my scarf designs were done I thought that many of these designs could also quite easily translate into other products and so I turned them into journals, throw pillows, pencil cases, clipboards and other products. So this is how my brand new Claudia Owen Etsy shop came about.”

I asked Claudia about the new directions in pattern, and asked her if there had been something in particular that had been a gamechanger for her. “I’ve actually been doing this type of abstract/layered work for a while now but I haven’t openly shown this type of work very much. Last year when I started working on my silk scarf collection I felt that this layered style would suit that medium quite well. I still included some geometric elements to the designs (I guess I can’t help myself) as I think that the layered style can get quite visually heavy and it needed to be broken into sections so that is why I felt it needed those elements.”


claudia owen - floral bloom

claudia owen – floral bloom


claudia owen - fruity dreams

claudia owen – fruity dreams


“The tray designs are also a completely different style to what you’ve seen from me before. I see emerging three different styles – the purely geometric, the layered style with some hints of geometric elements and the more feminine/hand drawn look. I’ve heard many times how is important to find your style and it appears that I might have found three styles so far!

“I think this is because my background is in graphic design so I’m used to seeing projects from the customer’s point of view; I’m used to looking at a style guide and doing work for the client that fits their look. So when I started working on the tray designs I felt that a feminine look would suit this medium best so that is how this work emerged.”


claudia owen - baby flowers

claudia owen – baby flowers


Opening up a new shop is fresh avenue and certainly has lots of possibilities; but I was interested to hear what she thought about the benefits of being on Etsy when the competition is so fierce, and what strategies she had for getting her work in front of people’s faces?

“What I like about Etsy is that there is an existing customer base. And yes, I agree competition is fierce on Etsy (but competition is fierce everywhere else too) and it is increasingly hard to be seen on Etsy as well. Despite all this, I thought opening an Etsy shop was the easiest, fastest and most cost effective way to get an online shop up and running. If it all goes well I can always look into a major upgrade and move the online shop elsewhere…but until then, I’m staying here on Etsy.

One of the other reasons I was reluctant to set up my own online shop elsewhere, is because if you don’t have a large following or you don’t have a significant amount of traffic to your website, NO ONE will see your work. I still haven’t quite worked out how I’m going to get my work seen in an endless sea of product listings on Etsy, but I guess featuring on tractorgirl is a great starting point!” * { 😀 }

Presentation is especially important in Etsy, as it’s another way to stand out from the crowd. For Claudia with her new shop, it’s a work in progress. “I do feel that at the moment my Etsy shop lacks the human touch. I think that at the moment in my shop I have a collection of product photos that show what the product looks like which is very useful, but they are not inspiring. They don’t show you what it feels like when you use them or wear those products. I need photos that are styled nicely so that products are shown in context and also show a beautiful lifestyle that people can aspire to live. For instance, she recently styled up the floral trays. “I styled them very simply but I think the shots ended up looking much better than if I had just simply taken product photos of the trays on their own.

I also feel like I must have done a good enough job that these trays were also featured on the Print and Pattern blog last week, which as you probably know, every designer wants to be featured there!


claudia owen - crystalline - phone cover

claudia owen – crystalline – phone cover


* And while I think being featured on tractorgirl is great of course, it pales in comparison to Surtex , where Claudia will be showing her work for the first time this year. “Right now I’m focusing on preparing work for my first Surtex show in May which is one of the largest art licensing shows in the world. I’ll be represented by Cultivate Art Agency and I have tons of work to complete before then. This is a show that I’ve always dreamt of having my work at and this year I will finally be able to achieve this goal!”

You can find more of Claudia’s latest work in her Etsy shop, claudiaowen, and on her own website,

Inspiring: LEMONNI {Annie Chen – surface design}

Annie Chen aka LEMONNI is about to exhibit at her first Surtex – and she’s a bit excited about it. If you’re a surface designer, Surtex is an enormous opportunity to get your work in front of the people that matter to your business – licencing executives, interior designers, advertising agencies, and much more.


lemonni - tulip

lemonni – tulip


Based in Vancouver with her husband photographer and their two fluffy ‘children’ (a rabbit called Waffles and a puppy called Sammy), Annie only made the transition to surface design about two years ago, from her original background in graphic design. She’s always been interested in patterns, especially the work of Marimekko and Orla Kiely. Her style is crisp and graphic, sweet, and reminiscent of 80s style, featuring a range of simple motifs including clouds, flowers and flamingos in a subdued retro palette.


lemonni - paint the clouds

lemonni – paint the clouds


lemonni - lighthouse

lemonni – lighthouse


Even though “Lemonni” is just a made-up name with no real meaning, it still encapsulates a sense of freshness and fun. “I didn’t want to use my real name because there are too many “Annie Chen’s” in the world, so I had to come up with something different.” But Lemonni has served her well; after keeping a low profile on Etsy for many years, around the beginning of 2013 she started feeding her shop with pattern-filled calendars, aprons and teatowels. She hasn’t looked back; she extended into a few local craft shows later in the year, and in 2014 participated in two major shows.

She makes most of the papergoods herself, except for those that need special printing methods, such as stickers and gold-foiled cards. She also makes a lot of her textiles – the tea towels, pouches, and tote bags – although she does outsource those that require more advanced sewing techniques.


Having a background in graphic design is definitely a bonus,
especially for branding and marketing.


“I have designed my logo, business card, website, and promotional material such as postcards, press kits, and catalogues. My experience dealing with clients as a graphic designer has also helped my relationship with clients in the retail business. I have learned to be comfortable charging for my service/products, and negotiating for business deals. It’s an ongoing learning process!”


lemonni - bahama flamingo

lemonni – bahama flamingo


lemonni - bahama

lemonni – bahama


She feels fortunate that there are several strengths in her current life that she can build on, but there’s always more to learn. “I feel that I’m really lucky because my husband is a commercial photographer. That alone has helped my business a lot because I need photos taken for my products quite frequently. I still learned the basics on how to take a good photo and how to adjust a photo in Photoshop myself. These skills are handy when I need some images in a timely manner. In terms of technical stuff, I usually approach it myself first by lots of reading and researching, unless I feel that it’s not worth my time figuring it out myself, and that my time is better off spent on design rather than production.”


“At the end of the day, time is money. You either save time or save money.”


“Developing a solid brand identity is important. It makes your product/service more credible and presentable compared to your competitors who don’t have one. It needs to all work together, for instance establishing your photography style, which has to correspond to your brand image. For me, this means that every time before I have a photoshoot for my products, I make a moodboard of art direction for my photos. The moodboard helps communicating my ideas to the photographer (and stylist, if you’re hiring one).

“If you’re not sure about the art direction you want, just observe more in your surroundings to figure out what you like. Pay attention to the catalogues you received; the window displays when you go shopping; the production set design in movies; well designed magazines and books, etc. Just remember that no matter what you do, your presentation needs to reflect your brand personality.”


lemonni - aqua fish

lemonni – aqua fish


Despite her obvious love of all things creative, her childhood was relatively constrained. “I spent the first 15 years of my life in Taiwan, where kids don’t have much freedom in school pursuing what they want (or even finding out what they want). Most kids only know that they need to study and get good grades in school, and unfortunately I was one of them. However, since my mom was a graphic designer, she taught me drawing and colour theory when I was little. I learned to appreciate art and design through her. I guess that’s part of the reason why I chose a creative career later on.”


lemonni - cushions and baskets

lemonni – cushions and baskets


Annie says the best thing about working for yourself is the flexibility. “Having the freedom to work from anywhere and having the flexibility for vacations (although I’ve spent many weekends working as well and there’s never clear-cut off-time for me, haha!).


lemonni - wallpaper mockup

lemonni – wallpaper mockup


And her best piece of advice?


“Try to be different, not better. You can spend all your energy trying to be the best, but it is ‘easier’ to be different. I can’t say that I’ve figured out how to be different, but I always keep it in mind whenever I can.”


You can find more of Annie’s work in her Etsy shop, and on her website,

lemonni - totes

lemonni – totes