Better working in small spaces: Hannah Bass, needlepoint designer

hannah stitching

London’s well known as being one of the world’s great Design Cities, and while it’s synonymous with the kinds of brands and labels that are truly international in scope, increasingly it’s also a great place to find up and coming designers, many of whom create incredibly innovative and unique things, often quite literally from their bedrooms.

Hannah Bass is an interior designer-turned needlepoint designer who designs and runs her eponymous company selling needlepoint kits featuring stylized city maps on cushion covers from her home. We were obviously intrigued to chat about being your own boss, working from home and keeping a good work/ life balance.

Making a living out of designing and selling cushion cover kits is pretty unusual. Tell us about how this all came about.

Well, I worked as an interior designer and had been doing so for about 10 years, and while I really enjoyed my job it was – like many jobs in the design world – quite stressful. I remember I was looking for something to do to relax away from work and came across the designer, Emily Peacock, in an interiors magazine one day. I’m not sure if you know of her or her work, but she produces cushion cover kits that have this really modern, interesting look to them. There were two – one saying ‘love’ and the other ‘hugs’, and they were done in this eye-catching circus-style font and I bought them both on the spot.

I’d never stitched before – I mean, I had done some when I was seven or eight – but I went on holiday and stitched by the pool for a fortnight and was completely absorbed. Back then, I’m not sure my technique would have stood up to scrutiny, but I didn’t care. I just loved doing it and found it really relaxing.

Once I’d finished those and went back to look for something else to stitch, I found that I’d exhausted the supply. The rest of the kits available in the needlepoint world seemed to be very much what you might imagine needlepoint to look like, and I had no interest in spending so much of my time working on tapestries of flowers in vases.

London grey tube cushion

Talk about a gap in the market!

Exactly! I just didn’t think at the time that I would be the one to fill it. I certainly toyed with the idea, but even the notion of becoming a needlepoint designer seemed ridiculous. Firstly, I’d only ever stitched two needlepoints in my life, and secondly, nobody around me seemed to think it was a realistic way to make a living.

What changed?

I think it was just that I got to the point where I wanted to go back to basics. I wanted to try designing a finished project and at one point or another you just have to decide to make a change. My first design was of a London map, and I did it just for me as a hobby, but it worked out nicely so I thought I’d carry on and design a few more.

What drew you to maps as a design motif?

Tapestry is quite tricky to design because you’re constrained by the fact that the fabric you’re stitching onto is divided up into little squares. I had several design concepts, but I found that the maps translated the best in this medium. You get a fantastic graphic vibe, whereas some of the other things I designed suffered from looking a bit pixelated. The linear nature of the maps works really well on canvas and, of course, so does the fact that I’m fascinated by maps in the first place.

cushions on chairs

London is quite an interesting city from a cartographical point of view, both with the organic way it has grown, but also with the iconic Underground map as well. Did those things influence the way you designed it?

There aren’t many European cities which don’t have an organic feel to them – it’s just the way they’ve been built up over the centuries – and something you notice when you go to a city in the States that has been much more planned is that the streets are very linear. Somewhere like Barcelona is really interesting because you get the combination of the old, organically-built part of the city and the newer, planned element sitting side by side. But London is London.

The map is instantly recognisable, maybe partly because of the Thames. What about the colours though?

Exactly. With London it took me a while to get the concept right. The first design I did – which was just for me – was great, but the colours didn’t feel authentically ‘London’ somehow, so I’ve changed it since then.

Obviously the starting point is the red that we associate with London buses and post boxes – it seems very London, doesn’t it?

And grey…

Of course! Actually it’s interesting because I tend to work with a concept, and I had this idea for Moscow which was all greys with that Soviet red in. It’s a really striking design, but it wasn’t really resonating so well with people.

Whenever I do fairs – and I love going to exhibitions – you get to speak to your customers and you get some feedback, and what people kept saying was that they loved Moscow and they loved the colour scheme, but they had no connection with the city, so they tended not to buy it. So I thought I’d take the Moscow colours, which are obviously good for London too because it’s so smoggy and smoky, and use those greys in a London design. So that’s how the Underground design came about.

There definitely seems to have been a renewed interest in handmade over the past few years. How do you account for this?

I think it’s got a lot to do with technology. We’re all so connected that it becomes exhausting and really hard to switch off. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who’s found themselves checking Instagram in the bath and then really berating themselves for not just simply enjoying some relaxing downtime. For me, stitching is a kind of meditation. I just completely switch off when I’m doing it and that’s such a nice counter to the craziness of the world.

It also feels good making something – to be creative. It’s so easy to go to a high street shop and spend pounds on something, only to throw it away a few weeks later. I think that if you invest your own time and labour into something it means something more – it’s more of a considered acquisition.

Hannah Bass designer interview

How have you found setting up and running your business from home? What challenges do you face working in a small space?

There are some wonderful benefits! I get to lie in bed for an extra hour rather than commute for a start. There are some great time-saving benefits, like getting the washing done and the general house chores ticked off while working, or delving into the stocked up fridge for a decent lunch. I would say I am more productive working from home as I have greater options available to me. When I’m feeling super productive I can work away, and when I’m lacking the motivation, I can put a film on and make up my needlepoint kits rather than having to engage my brain. Part of this luxury is due to being my own boss.
But there are negatives as well. You tend to muddle home and work life together, and not get the balance right. Sometimes I just need to escape work and have some decent time out, but you can’t just leave the office and come back the next day, as it is your home, too. It can be very difficult to switch off. My answer to this is to go on more holidays – it’s cheaper than renting office space!
Now that sounds like the kind of advice worth heeding. As you’re in the business of creating a product rather than a service, is there an issue with storage and space?
Yes. There’s no getting away from that. Part of my work is very messy. I deal with a lot of wool when I am kit making. My daily challenge is trying to keep the house tidy and wool free. This involves a lot of organising and stackable Ikea storage boxes. Quite a lot of hoovering too.
What advice can you give for anyone working from home?
I think the key to working from home is creating a good balance between work and home life, as work can take over, especially when you are trying to pay the bills. I found it all too easy to have a very productive day, but realise that at 4pm I was still in my pyjamas and hadn’t left the house. That’s not a healthy way to live long term. For me, joining a gym was key. I swim every day, followed by sauna and steam. I come out feeling refreshed and healthy, and ready to go back to work.
Secondly, if you live in a house with others, remember it is their home too. Be considerate, don’t let your work mess take over their house, however hard you are working. Above all, it helps to love what you do!
You can see Hannah’s work and get further information via her website, hannahbass.com. Her next events and exhibitions are Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line at the British Library, Friday 10 Feb (7.30-10.30pm) and The Spring Knitting & Stitching Show in Olympia 2-5 March.

If you’re just starting out in your own freelance endeavour and need a little extra space whilst you’re setting things up, Boxman could help. For just £5 per month we’ll deliver the empty boxes direct to your door, leave you to pack them up and return to whisk them away when it’s convenient for you. You’ll never have to set foot inside a storage facility and can instead focus on doing the stuff that really matters – whether it’s building your business, indulging in a hobby or just clearing the decks. Give us a call or drop us an email. We like to chat.

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