Scandinavia. Just the word itself is enough to make a design lover dream about names like Panton, Aalto, Jacobsen and Wegner. Like any other design
geek blogger, I too can spot a Panton chair a few miles away, and yet (maybe because I’m not that into mid-century modern design) there are other things and people associated with the region that make me far happier, like The Moomins, gorgeous design blogs, Dagny’s Scandi-Chic and my Isra-Swede friend Elinor. All of the above are some of my favorite things, Scandinavian or not, and so are the colorful geometric wallpaper designs from Isak.
I first heard of Isak via my decorator friend Tiferet Lifshitz (who has impeccable taste) and soon after I got the news KAS was starting to sell Isak products here in Israel. Isak is actually short for Isaksson, designer and founder Sandra’s surname. Sandra is a graphic designer and illustrated who founded Isak almost by chance while juggling maternity (and then a baby), MA studies in Demark and moving to the UK. No doubt the perfect timing to launch a new brand from scratch, right? But that’s exactly one of the details that are so endearing about Isak and its founder – this very process is so familiar to me, looking at myself and other women and what happens to us and to our careers when we become mothers. This week I was lucky to get to interview Sandra (thanks, Miki and Paz for arranging this!). Scroll to read on and see more photos:
Chedva (Rooms and Words): Tell me a little about starting Isak – was it a dream of yours or did you just decide to do it one day? How did it happen – did you start designing wallpaper first, or maybe the other products? And was it clear to you from the beginning what you wish Isak to be?
Sandra: I was newly graduated and had set up a freelance design studio from home, working on book covers and visual identity work for British and Scandinavian companies. I had done freelance work during my time at Uni, somehow I just had to transfer those jobs over from Denmark to England. I worked from home when Theo was sleeping. The jobs I had were not the kind of jobs I wanted to have. I didn’t know how to establish myself in my new country. I had absolutely no contacts. Or friends. And my partner spend a lot of time abroad with his job. Theo needed things, toys, baby plates, clothes. They were all so ugly. I looked for nice things to buy for him but I couldn’t find them. I wanted to find jobs that were more product design related that would allow me to have an input on the end product, I didn’t just want to supply an illustration. My partner was away for a 2 months long period and I felt that I was going insane. The idea of starting Isak was born. If I couldn’t find those jobs that I wanted – I would create that job for myself! And as a bonus I would have nice designs for my son and by keeping busy doing all this – I wouldn’t have to go insane! I could eat the cake and have it! The first products were items that I wanted for Theo. Nice art prints for his walls. Educational posters to help him learning the alphabet and counting. Nice kiddy friendly cups and plates and trays.
Chedva: And that was it? You just started a brand?
Sandra: I don’t think I had any fears setting up. It was simply something I had to do. I kept my freelance jobs and let them pay for setting up Isak. But if I had known how hard it was going to be I might not have dared, so I’m glad that I didn’t have any idea of what it was going to be like. I had to learn as I went along and I am still learning. I launched Isak at a trade show in Stockholm, it seemed like a nice thing to do, Sweden is where I’m from and where a lot of our products are made. At Formex I spoke to a journalist for Elle Deco UK and she liked what we were doing. She wrote an article on the brand that came out at the same time as our first show in London. That was very good timing. The business was growing and I couldn’t do it on my own so my partner was also working for Isak at this time. We had another baby, Eden. I was breastfeeding so he went with me wherever I went. If we did a trade show he came too. He was 4 months when he did his first show. We decorated the stand as a nursery and when he didn’t eat he was happily sleeping in his cot. We had another baby. By this time the business had grown considerably and so had my freelance design business. I had a meeting at a trade show with an American agent and the memory of bringing Eden with me to trade shows I took my new baby. We were not let in. They were not insured for babies. I was furious. I found this so discriminating. Here I was, trying to prove everyone wrong, someone else isn’t going to tell me I can’t eat the cake and have it! Me and my agent kicked up a fuss and we were let in to the organizers office and we had our meeting there. I think even he was shocked when I hiked up my dress to feed Nova mid meeting and I think he offered to leave me alone for a while but I declined. I’m multi-tasking here, give me some credit!
Chedva: So Isak grew as your family grew – was it very difficult?
Sandra: I am a strong believer that if I’m happy my children are happy. I am happier if I get to work. And I would like them to have a strong role model and strong work ethics. I want my children to be proud of me and to see that I achieved something. At the same time I don’t want to miss their childhood and I don’t! I work from home. A lot of effort goes towards juggling, moving things around, slotting in and planning. I’m not a natural planner so I find this frustrating. And the truth is that it is bloody hard. My partner is working away a lot and when he’s away it’s even harder but then when he’s home it’s easier for all of us. We were lucky to have a lot of good press early on, just after we launched Isak. The business grew on it’s own, quite organically. We haven’t had any help. We didn’t know anyone in the industry. I would never go back, I love doing both the freelance work and now I can choose the jobs I want to do. I love working with Isak and be in control of my job and how I organize the day.
Chedva: I love the Isak motto “beautiful happy things” – what does it mean to you and how is it interpreted into the design process?
Sandra: The first thoughts when I had decided to set up was that it was going to be simple, functional, design lead, straight forward, fun and happy. In short, beautiful happy things. The strap line was born. Almost before the name I think. The name Isak is taken from my surname, Isaksson. I wanted something masculine as the designs are quite feminine. It’s about taking everyday objects and making them a little bit better and a little bit more fun. Quality, function and fun is at the very heart of the company ethos and that has always been there.
Chedva: Even from just looking at your lovely products, it’s clear that each has it’s own fascinating story and inner world, and visiting your website – with the stories and recipes and video – it’s even clearer that a big part of Isak is story telling. What comes first for you – the story or the design? Do you always have a story in mind while designing?
Sandra: Sometimes the story comes first and other times the design comes first. I puzzle them together. I love adding that extra dimension to a product. It’s not just a cup. It’s a cup with a design on. It’s not just a cup with a design on. It’s a cup with a design that has a story and is beautifully packaged with the story printed on the gift box. It’s all part of the product.
Chedva: Something I love about Isak is how Scandinavian it is, but not in a cliché way. Can you tell me what else inspires you? And has living in England inspired your design aesthetic differently?
Sandra: I often say that through Isak I’m creating my own Sweden here in England – because I miss it so much! I’m inspired by people and our quirky ways. Colors and travels. My children. The Scandinavia that I grew up in. The forests where I lived. The people I have left behind.
Chedva: Please tell me about your new collection – what products does it include? And what new designs?
Sandra: Well, I’m trying something new – illustrating other peoples texts! Well, old fairy tales and legends. The SS14 collection had 4 new fairy tale themes. Hiawatha, Ali Baba, Goldilocks and an old Russian folk tale called the Fox and the Hare. These designs feature on posters and trays. There will also be more wallpapers and tea towels followed by lots of other beautiful happy things! I have done a collaboration project with a Korean company and some of these products will also be available through Isak. There is a range of kids lunch boxes, flasks and water bottles among other things. There is also a another bedding collaboration with a company called Nara.
Chedva: Following Isak’s Facebook page I saw you’re very involved in charity, currently doing an auction on eBay. Can you tell me a little about it?
Sandra: We always do an advent calendar on the FB page and this year we had the idea to tie it in with the charity we are working with. It’s a local charity called Children on the Edge. We want to give something back and this is a good thing to do. And we are setting a good example for our children. This charity was started by Anita Roddick, late founder of The Body Shop. She set up Body Shop just around the corner from us and then when it was sold to Loreal some years ago, the charity became independently run.
It’s a small but super efficient charity and we know the people working there personally and know that money does reach the children, it just doesn’t get lost in administration. So we do different products all the time, the profit goes to the charity. And for the calendar this year we donate 4 boxes of Isak and other collaboration products ( each box worth £150 – 300) and people can bid for the box through eBay. 100% goes straight to the charity! Every advent Sunday there is a new box of goodies to bid for.
Thank you so much, Sandra!