The art world is one of the most difficult markets to get established in. Today we chat to Sarah Evans from Oscar Francis about her own journey into setting up and building an art business she’s passionate about while being a mum.
What has been your journey so far? How did you get the idea for Oscar Francis?
I am an architect by training and the idea for Oscar Francis grew over a period of time and was born out of a series of events, which prompted me to strike out on my own. The London office that I had worked in for six-years closed due to the loss of a very large project and we all found ourselves out of a job. I was pregnant with twins and about to go on maternity leave so I knew then that I would need to find a new job in a new office and cover the childcare costs for two.
I will be honest it wasn’t an inviting prospect. The long hours and deadline driven environment seemed entirely incompatible, plus the cost of nursery fees for two.
So, I began to consider the idea of building a business of my own that I could grow slowly and (for the first few years) work around my children. My parents had always worked for themselves and so that had been my model from a young age. When I started working on a business plan. I knew early on that I wanted to create an art label inspired by my love of architecture. It made total sense to me to use my knowledge and skills from my profession and channel them into this new venture, but I had to figure out the how.
What is different about Oscar Francis?
Modern and mid-century design is almost the norm or at least aspirational for many. However, modernist and brutalist architecture itself still has a relatively small fan base and this is an area I find interesting possibly as an unexplored thread during my training. I am an architect drawing, not an artist drawing architecture.
I produce hand rendered drawings and digital artwork inspired by buildings from this period that interest or inspire me. I will often only focus on one small element of a facade and create a pattern from it. I am often told by clients that they haven’t seen anything like my work before, which is good and bad from a business point of view, if you think about it. So I don’t think I can tell you what is it about my work that is different to anyone else’s, you will have to judge that for yourself.
How did you get Oscar Francis off the ground?
I self funded the set up of the Oscar Francis business so it started slowly. It took 18 months from early conception to the initial launch of the website. I planned every single page before I began work on the online gallery and when it launched in 2013, I had a small collection of paper products and about nine print designs for sale.
In these early days, I felt it was important to build up the collection of designs and add more products to the site so I began talking to manufacturers about a line of textile products. At the same time I was also reaching out to design bloggers and online magazines to get some press for Oscar Francis.
Once I had found a manufacturer for the textile products, I began selling through the Oscar Francis online shop and sending them out as samples to retailers with the intention of wholesale. I managed to get my products into a good selection of London boutiques and established museum gallery shops and slowly repeat orders began to come in. After a year and half of wholesale it was clear that I needed more investment to grow the range or find a distributor who could help develop the brand.
At the time I was represented by an art licence agent who identified a potential collaboration with the distributor – My Gifts Trade – and in 2015, we began working on a collection based on my initial smaller range. My Gifts Trade now manufacture and distribute the Oscar Francis Pattern Architecture collection throughout the UK.
I gained additional exposure for Oscar Francis from this new line of products, appearing in more shops and also began to receive attention from design bloggers and established magazines like Elle Deco and Living Etc. My online shop and gallery was running fairly smoothly with a growing audience and I was keen to look for collaborations and commissions to add another string to my bow. I wanted to work with different clients and find new and interesting projects.
The Tate Modern shop had already commissioned me to design an exclusive poster for the shop. The poster was a celebration of the Tate Modern building and I was later commissioned to re–design the poster when the Herzog and de Meuron extension was added. In 2016, London Art Wallpaper approached me to produce a selection of my designs as wallpapers. The new designs were launched at Salone del Mobile in Milan and I was flown out to the launch and interviewed by Sky Arts about the range. These were great learning experiences and gave me more confidence to reach out to more potential clients.
Since then, I have produced editorial work for Wallpaper Magazine and had a poster book of my work published by Prestel publishing house. Most recently, I worked with the Jealous London Gallery as part of their annual Jealous Needs You exhibition, exhibited in their Shoreditch gallery and in the Saatchi London. I am always looking for new and interesting collaborations.
What is your biggest lesson so far while building Oscar Francis as a business?
Starting again in another industry, there have been many practical lessons and I have had to learn them very quickly. However, the most important lesson I have learned is to reach out to others within the industry. I spent the first two years running and growing my company in a self imposed bubble. When I began to talk to other artists and go to events that I began to feel more confident about what I was doing.
Most of my decisions and instincts about my work actually turned out to be on the right track, but I spent a lot of time worrying and second-guessing myself in the process. Now, when I am considering a new venture or collaboration for Oscar Francis, I talk to other artists, who have been through a similar experience. I am also a member of the AOI (Association of Illustrators) and have found them very helpful when it comes to contracts, guidance on fees or even advice on my portfolio.
What are your 3 tips for any new artist?
If you are planning on setting up your own business give yourself a realistic time frame and budget to develop your website, especially if you are working a day job.
Artist agents can be a good way to find work when you don’t have those client connections initially. If you are looking for an agent to represent you, you will need a portfolio of work that shows your style and the various mediums you work in. A digital portfolio with a selection of work that can be emailed out is handy. It’s also worth doing your research to find out which agents might be better suited to you. Some agents will mainly deal with art licensing, others editorial work and so on.
Finally, the one piece of advice that I find myself offering others again and again is not to give up or feel disheartened when you hear no or don’t get a response to your work straight away when you submit it to a prospective client. An immediate response is very rare and in some cases you may not get a response at all and this can be frustrating. But the lesson I have learned from this is to not let it dampen your enthusiasm or passion for what you do.
Keep working and putting yourself out there and the opportunities will come. In the words of a very dear friend of mine if you don’t give up, you can’t fail.
From innovative social retail, disruptive beauty brands to natural luxe interiors and maximalist art, this edition is a must-read for any creative.
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