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Toile Print Emporium - The Artist & Artisan Interviews

This is the seventh in a series of interviews to be published monthly via my blog page, with a selection of Artists & Artisans based in the North East of England. The series is scheduled to run through to spring 2019, and we’ve already heard from Stephen Richardson of SPQR Design, Amanda and Alison of Driftworks Tidal Art, James Pocklington of Pocklington Art, Freddie Matthews of Hanging By a Fred, Helen Hardy of Helen Hardy Art and Ben Staves of StavesArt. Quite the talented bunch - Check out the interviews here.

Now, it’s the turn of Victoria Harbertson who uses her considerable range of surface printing, textile, graphic and illustration skills to run her own business - the Toile Print Emporium, whilst also working as a freelance print designer. Victoria uses her original artwork to produce wallpaper in the Toile style (more of this later…including how to pronounce ‘toile’, which during the course of the interview I managed to pronounce every-which-way but the right way!) and a range of soft home furnishings and gifts. In addition, her freelance work includes graphic illustrations for clothing, interiors and brand design. As well as having a deep-seated passion for creating her own style of print and textile, Victoria has a particular liking for travel and hers is a fascinating story that takes in a cosmopolitan spread of places from Paris to Whitley Bay; from London to New York…and right now, she's comfortably and happily situated in Newcastle’s creative hub – the Ouseburn Valley.

So, brew a cuppa, put your feet up for a few minutes and enjoy!

A selection of Victoria's Toile wallpaper designs

We meet at Kiln, a combination of a ceramic & pottery workshop and a funky café in said Ouseburn Valley – and it’s certainly well worth a visit if you’re down that way. In fact, the Ouseburn Valley in it’s entirety is worth a visit or three. Small creative businesses are packed together like sardines and sit cheek to cheek with fabulous eateries, local bars and there’s even a horse stable and a city farm! It’s where I go sometimes just to walk down by the River Tyne and then up past the Tyne Bar and the Free Trade Inn, past the Toffee Factory and Seven Stories (the national centre for children’s books) and the awesome local Brinkburn and Tyne Bank breweries and up to the Cluny – a world famous music venue. It’s a place dripping with memories of Newcastle’s industrial ship-building past and it seems fitting that in this cyclical world, this place that contributed to sustaining the communities of Newcastle’s past, now provides a platform for today’s creative businesses to thrive…and so to the Toile Print Emporium.

What’s in a name?

‘It’s T-w-a-r-l-e Matt!’ says Victoria spelling out the correct pronunciation of the word ‘Toile’, which up to this point in the interview I’ve pronounced incorrectly and variously ‘T-o-i-l’, ‘T-u-i-l-l-e’ and (one which I’m particularly proud of given how close it is to the actual pronunciation) ‘T-w-i-l-l’.

Thankfully, Victoria has the patience of a saint and in-fact enjoys the struggle that she says many of her clients and customers have in pronouncing the name of her business correctly; ‘It provides an immediate talking point and helps me to talk about the toile style which I use in my Wallpaper’s and home furnishings’. Which leads on very nicely to Victoria doing just that, because, like her customers, I too don’t have a scooby about Toile.

‘Toile is a French word which refers to linen or canvas fabric, usually for painting on, but it also refers to a type of repeated and often quite detailed and busy artistic pattern, often printed on the same fabric. That coincides almost exactly with the style of art and printing that I love and have developed a passion for over the years’.

And using this style, Victoria has created a wide range of products ranging from personalised wallpaper to lamp-shades. But – we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little, because Toile Print Emporium is a relatively recent creation and I suppose is the product of a life and career to date, which has revolved around Victoria’s passion for her craft, which started at an early age. ‘I grew up in Whitley Bay close to the coast and I was heavily influenced by my mum really. She went back to college as a mature student to do A-Level Art and that piqued my interest’.

The influence and inspiration provided by our Mums is an ongoing theme in these interviews. Nearly all of the seven artists & artisans that I’ve interviewed so far have pointed to the sparks of creativity which were lit in them at a young age by their parents. And it seems that it isn’t that our parents have to be creative or artistically talented themselves to enthuse us as their children – but providing the space, the means and the time to let our burgeoning creative juices flow would appear to be equally as important if not more so. However, Victoria’s mum went a step further in her support for her creative career!

‘I got a Diploma in Art & Design from Newcastle College and I was pretty sure I wanted to do 3D Art and graphic design, but my tutor at the time talked me out of it and so I ended up taking an International Textiles and Surface Pattern degree at Cleveland College of Art. After getting a 2:1 I was pretty keen to do a bit of travelling and build on the interests developed in my degree but ended up working in a walk in freezer in Fenwicks in Newcastle. I was a little bit fed up, and my mum could see that, so one day, she came marching into the shop, took me to the HR Department, got them to write me a cheque for the time I’d worked there and with that cheque, I paid for a flight to Paris to attend the Premier Vision annual textile trade show’.

Sometimes we need that little nudge in the right direction, and it proved highly beneficial as in Paris, Victoria met a lady by the name of Nancy who was offering an internship in her tailoring business…and the next chapter began.

Another of Victoria's vivid and vibrant wallpaper designs.

From the ‘Big River’ to the ‘Big Apple’ and beyond…

‘I’ve a keen desire to travel as much as possible, which probably comes from the fact that we weren’t able to do too much travelling as a family when I was younger. So, I've always had a sense of curiosity about the wider world’. That wish to seek far off shores knitted perfectly with the internship opportunity offered by Nancy, with the tailoring business Renfrew – which just happened to be based in New York City. So from Northumberland Street in Newcastle, to 5th Avenue in New York all in the blink of an eye!

‘I was extremely fortunate. Nancy's family essentially took me in and I lived with them whilst I was in New York. The work was largely sampling fabrics and creating patterns to go with the business-suits that Renfrew specialised in.’ But the work took something of a back-seat as the Big Apple came to the fore! ‘It was 1999. I was 21 and in New York City. It was like one long party. I don’t think I slept for weeks. It was a total eye-opener for me. I met some incredible people and developed friendships which have lasted a lifetime. In-fact I’m seeing Monique,who I met back then, next week in London for a catch up’.

This was clearly a life changing experience for Victoria and reinforced her appetite for travel and experiencing other cultures, which in turn, over the years have permeated into her art and design work. Indeed, this first sortie to Paris and New York was the beginning of 16 years of a working life which took in London, Italy, France, Germany and Russia as well as continued work in America. But she still points to that first trip to New York as whetting the appetite, providing life long friendships and also in Nancy – a strong and enduring example of what’s needed to run your own business successfully;

‘Nancy had an incredibly strong work ethic and was always very goals focused. She knew what she wanted and worked incredibly hard to get it. She provided a very good grounding for me.’ And ultimately that grounding served her well when she decided to take a break from jet-setting the globe and return home to the North East of England.

Examples of Victoria's 'Ethnics' print range

Back to Blighty and the Print Emporium

And so we’re back to where we began this interview – and the Toile (‘T-w-a-r-l-e’) Print Emporium, Victoria’s current business venture, for which she credits her friend Ross who mooted the idea over dinner one evening;

‘I came back to the North East in 2016 and was doing freelance design work (which I’m still doing) for an excellent company called Five Point Graphics, but I wanted to test myself and do more of the toile style of artwork. So, chatting with a friend (yes, you Ross) over dinner we thought about combining my textile experience with the art, and came up with the idea of fabric printing in the home; on wallpaper cushions, lamp shades – anything with fabric on’. The idea became a reality when Toile Print Emporium was set up later in 2016. The designs for Victoria’s first range of wallpapers call upon her love for the place she grew up; Whitley Bay and the wider North East.

‘I find my inspiration for the original designs from my immediate locality. I love heading out with the camera and taking photo’s as reference for new art work. So, I’ve 4 main designs which sell really well; Northumberland Garden, Whitley Bay Breeze, Fog on the Tyne, and Durham. For each design there’s a selection of sketches of recognizable places in a repetitive pattern following the Toile style. I offer these not just as wallpaper but for soft furnishings in the home and for other items like coasters and mugs’.

Victoria's 'Fog on the Tyne' Wallpaper

But the Print Emporium is just part of what Victoria does. As with so many creatives, in order to make ends meet she wears a number of different hats; ‘What I really love is my original art and design work, so the more of that I can do the better. To that end, I work for Five Point Graphics designing art work which they then transfer to a range of products and I get paid commission depending on what they sell. In addition, given my graphic design experience, I also run Photoshop workshops with a fellow creative who works alongside me at the Toffee Factory’.

It’s quite a repertoire – and added to this she also provides business branding and early concept designs for textile businesses.

And what does the future hold?

So, having been given an insight into Victoria’s world, which has taken her globe-trotting and now keeps her busy with all sorts of working ventures, I’m fascinated to see what’s coming up next?

‘Well, I know that what I want to focus on is making sure that I am always prioritizing my original artwork in whatever I do – whether that’s the wallpaper or my freelance work. I’m also keen to expand the Emporium to be able to offer customers a much more personalised experience, so that I could actually design their own wallpaper and soft furnishings for them, based on their design ideas, rather than them choosing one of the existing designs.’

With these sorts of plans comes the potential for large expenditure too, and Victoria is also pondering on the need to invest in printing machinery so that she can bring her operations in-house. But this brings our conversation onto one of Victoria’s more collective future hopes. ‘It would be great to think that in the future we could see local creatives working more closely together, sharing ideas and resources. I work together with Emily to deliver the Photoshop workshops and I love it and it makes so much sense, so why couldn’t we do more things like that?’

It’s certainly a great aspiration to work towards and, given many creatives operate on a shoe-string and close to the wire, it has potential practical, promotional and financial benefits. There is a sense in which taking a more collective view can help to accentuate the strengths of a creative but also help to remedy possible weaknesses.

For instance, Victoria doesn’t like the marketing side of her business; ‘I find it difficult to get motivated by something that just isn’t me. I don’t like selling myself at all and ideally, I’d love to outsource this side of the business’. If a creative collective was established, it's almost certain that a few who had a particular strength in marketing and publicity could be identified, who could assist Victoria. And, in the true spirit of a mutually beneficial collective arrangement, Victoria could offer say her design services by way of ‘payment’. Certainly, food for thought and by all means – any fellow creatives who have an interest in doing something like that – do get in touch.

Another of Victoria's colourful wallpaper designs

Finally, I ask Victoria what advice she would give to others considering setting up their own creative business and she’s emphatic; ‘Just give it a whirl! Give it a go! If you have a talent then why not?’

Victoria’s come a long way since her Mum’s ‘Fenwick’s intervention’. Her journey has taken in the great fashion cities of New York, Paris and London, but for now, she’s happily situated in the Ouseburn Valley just a stone’s throw from where she grew up, doing her thing with a smile on her face - and long may that continue.

You can find out more about Victoria and see more of Print Emporium if you wish in the following places:

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