Any way you look at it, Fanny Shorter is an intriguing person. As she says herself, “I was the only girl at an all-boys boarding school. It explains a lot.”
She works as an illustrator and surface designer, with a range of repeats worked in the classical style of William Morris et al, but instead of flowers, vines and leaves, her designs are based on visceral, anatomical themes – brains, hearts and kidneys.
Apart from that, she’s quite ordinary. Except for the fact that she also works along the themes of botany, ornithology, zoology and children’s books, her illustrations are fabulous, and her clients have included Twinings, the Cutty Sark and the Wellcome Collection.
Fanny’s work is inspired by her upbringing. The daughter of school teachers, she grew up in the old cathedral city of Winchester, surrounded by history. She remembers frequent trips to London with her parents to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as numerous National Trust properties, and went on long walks in the Lake District every summer. It was all very English. “We didn’t really ever go abroad or do anything extravagant. I appreciate it so much now but at the time I think I just wanted to go snowboarding or ride on a camel. It did mean, that without really realizing it, I developed a real love for England and its countryside, architecture and history.”
Combined with her appreciation for all things English is a true love for pattern, evident in so many of her drawings and screen prints. The inventiveness of Timorous Beasties consistently delight her, and her philosophy on artistic production is driven by William Morris, who advocated the importance of hand craftsmanship as opposed to mass-production.
She trained as an illustrator, and always wanted to run her own business when she left university 7 years ago. However, her plans were put on hold when her mother contracted cancer, and Fanny moved home to take care of her. “When she died three years ago I’d completely lost direction with my work but she had been so unswerving in her belief that I would make it happen that I felt I owed it to her to go ahead and do it. I used the money she was able to leave me to start the business and feel now like it’s something she’s given me.”
In 2011 she moved to London and got a place at a studio that is specifically set up as a business incubator for designer-makers, and this has been wonderful in many ways. “When I started out I had a couple of issues with contracts or sometimes lack thereof. I had no practical knowledge of how to be self-employed, what to expect and what was reasonable. I learnt the hard way. The studio I’m at now offer seminars and advice on everything from PR to pricing. I just wish I had had a little more of that earlier on in my career.”
“I work in a studio in the Bloomsbury area of London. It overlooks the back of row of Georgian houses. The studio itself is pretty rough and ready. Everything is made of reclaimed wood: shelving, darkroom, screen racks, even my washout booth (with an old bath mounted in it). It’s stuffed to the ceiling with ink and material. I love it!”
Despite the beautifully balanced and detailed designs, Fanny describes her working method as “reasonably chaotic” – perhaps as a result of the multiple tasks required to get a design from idea to final product. She usually starts by taking the function of the product as a starting point of the design, then sketches out a range of ideas, before working up a final design. Currently doing all her own screen printing and binding at the moment, she says that this is starting to get impractical. “I’d rather focus on the printing and out-source sewing and binding and I think that’s the way things will be going in the near future.”
And her best piece of advice? “Oh God, probably something really predictable like ‘be yourself’. It’s so hard when you’re surrounded by trends and fashions, let alone the need to make a living but ultimately it’s your biggest selling point in this industry. Everyone’s after an original product and I guess the best way to try and achieve it is to dip into the upbringing and experiences you’ve had rather than parody someone else’s.”