An Interview with EC (Lisa) Stewart about the Paisley Collections

Lisa Stewart is an award winning artist, illustrator and designer best known for her CalligraphyPets® line of illustrations. In 2004 she was listed as one of the up and coming artists by Giftware News and has been seen in numerous other publications and online sites including ModernCat and IndieBusiness. She is CEO and CreativeGoddess at ECStewart Designs, Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Q: Have you always known you wanted to be an artist.
Lisa Stewart: As long as I can remember, I’ve been an artist, I think I was practically born with a pencil in my hand and have been refining my artistic abilities and eye my entire life. When I was a little kid I created illustrated greeting cards for my family because I could not afford to buy them.

Q: When did you start to get formal training?
Lisa: I think it probably started with my art teachers in junior high and high school, but it really stepped up a notch when I attended Western Michigan University, majoring in both Art and Music. There I was able to explore an array of art techniques from illustration to print making. It really broadened my understanding of what’s possible – which is just about anything when it comes to being creative.

After graduating I worked in a variety of different jobs including print making, store display, accessories buyer, illustration, layout and web design. During much of this time, I supported myself working “for the man” in large companies while I continued to illustrate and design on the side.

Q: How did you come up with the calligraphic illustration style you are best known for?
Lisa: I’ve always been an illustrator, but the calligraphic technique all started with Bacchus and the Ball of Yarn. My mother in-law was visiting and she decided to do some knitting while we watched a movie. As usual I had a sketch book in my hand and when our cat Bacchus decided to chase the ball of yarn, I saw this beautiful highlighted gesture in the low light. After some refinement, the result was the illustration “Bacchus and the Ball of Yarn”. I loved the piece and the way that the simple, undulating calligraphic lines captured the elegance of the cat. As a result, I started seeing other gestures and actions of our cats that I could edit to the same simple, elegant line work and capture just the essence of the movement.

Since it was just before Christmas when I created the original Bacchus illustration, I eventually came up with seven more illustrations that simply fell into the meter of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” – Bacchus and the Ball of yarn and his friends, Pouncer, Bouncer, Chaser, Lay, Beggeth, Purreth and Runneth Away. From there I soon added a second volume of cats as well as the CalligraphyDogs.

Q: Ok, so we know you get inspiration from your cats, where else do you find your inspiration?
Lisa: The short answer is everywhere. My husband and business partner, Andrew, and I love to travel, do research and discover new and different places and things. I think the key to inspiration is to experience as much of what the world has to offer as possible and absorb the nuances of life.

In other cases, it’s from outside sources or requests. For instance, my Mankolam-Paisley design. I had a licensing client that I work with, ask me to develop a paisley pattern for one of their products. I had never thought of designing a paisley pattern before, but after a number of months of studying both ancient and modern interpretations I came up with the Mankolam-Paisley designs you see today on our totes and hobo bags as well as suede journal covers. In this case the impetus for the design was the client, and the inspiration was the research of both the ancient techniques – Mankolam – and the more modern embellishments that were added by the Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Q: Tell me a little about your art philosophy.
Lisa: I’ve always believed that artwork is not always something that should simply hang on a wall where not everyone can see it. One should be able to share their love of art with the world. With my background being in illustration and fine art, greeting cards were a natural first step in giving people a way to share my art; wearable art was the next logical step

Q: And now you’re introducing leather handbags and accessories that feature your paisley design. This is kind of a departure from your illustration background, is it not?
Lisa: It is, and it’s not. Andrew’s background is in industrial design – product design – so he’s a designer as well and very good at developing physical products. Initially we worked together to create a leather Bacchus tote – which I carried with me everywhere – to showcase my calligraphic illustration. Over time, Andrew also created a number of leather and fabric handbags that I carried around – and generally beat the crap out of – to test construction, design and durability. After about five years of creating different bags, we had a couple of all-leather designs I really liked. Our next question was whether they were something we wanted to start selling. Obviously the answer was yes.

Q: Those early one-offs featured die-cut designs, where did the paisley on suede come from?
Lisa: While we love the die-cut designs, they really only lend themselves to the calligraphic line illustrations, and I have a significant portfolio of work that integrates color into the calligraphic line work. To create products with these designs we had to find another way of applying the image. Andrew and I are both really good at R&D and so we looked at many different options ranging from finding an outside supplier to doing our own screen printing, but none of them really worked the way we wanted them to. Then Andrew hit upon a way of getting the image clearly, crisply and quite permanently applied to suede. After months of experimentation with materials, techniques and timing, we finally had a process that was repeatable and effective.

Now we are able to apply the imagery we want to the suede pieces as we make them so that each piece is both unique and beautiful.

Q: So you apply the image yourselves?
Lisa: Yes, the images are applied by hand to each piece in our studio as we are making the product. As a result, everything we make is essentially a one-of-a-kind piece.

Q: Do you also sew each piece in your studio?
Lisa: Yes, right now most of the bags and accessories are made by Andrew, since I’m very busy building the business, but we both work on every piece so our customers can be assured that they are getting something that is hand crafted by the designers and not produced in a nameless factory somewhere.

Q: You also list your Central Park Hobo and Tribeca Tote as being limited editions. Why?
Lisa: We’ve learned that our customer base is women who like to express their own personal sense of style. They are looking for accessories and items that are unique, stylish and elegant, so that they stand out rather than looking like everyone else. With this in mind, we made the conscious decision to only make a limited number of each style during the year. For instance, every Central Park Hobo has a tag inside with the year and the number (1-500).

Q: Tell me a little about the belts and wrist cuffs.
Lisa: I’m glad you asked about these since both are a really exciting addition to the Paisley Collections line-up. I’ve always been a bit of a “belt” girl and find that a great stylish belt can dress up just about any outfit. Once we mastered the technique of applying the paisley to the suede Andrew and I worked on developing a design concept that we felt would again give our customers a way of wearing my artwork to enhance their wardrobe and show off their personal style: The result is our Bleeker Belt. Similarly, the Columbus Circle Cuff came out of my love of bracelets and a desire to be able to find another way of wearing my art.

Both the belts and wrist cuffs are also embellished with Swarovski Crystals for a subtle bit of bling that does not overpower the designs, but highlights the look.

Q: What’s next?
Lisa: Right now we’re really pushing hard to get the word out about our new Paisley Collections products. Traditionally I’ve sold my artwork and cards through galleries and stationery shops, but the handbags and fashion accessories open up a whole new opportunity to sell through boutiques. Since we’re new to this marketplace, I’m spending a lot of time introducing myself and the line to shop owners and buyers and working to establish new customers. So far the response has generally been positive, but the recession is making it a bit tougher than I’d like. Many of the boutiques we traditionally would have targeted are now closed or have significantly cut back their buying this year, but I’m confident in the line and it’s still brand new so I think the introduction of the ECStewart Designs into the fashion world will be a success.

In addition, we’re working on new products that we plan to introduce for the fall/winter season so we’re very busy at the moment, but stay tuned for more exciting new products coming from ECStewart Designs.

Q: Thank you!
Lisa: Thank you!

Oh and one final plug, if you’d like to see the full ECStewart Collections line-up and purchase any of these pieces yourself, you can visit lisa-stewart.com.

If you’re a boutique owner looking to include any of these pieces for your shop, please contact Lisa (919-271-0668).

You can become a fan of ECStewart on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.