Sarah Fotheringham

New Delhi, India

Sarah Fotheringham is a British illustrator living in New Delhi, India. Along with Maninder Singh, she is one half of Safomasi, a homeware brand that brings together travel and textiles through illustrated patterns and handmade products about places, experiences, the everyday and the exotic.

Illustration by Shreyas R Krishnan

What is your earliest memory of drawing or making something?
There’s no particular memory that sticks out, but I guess it was something that I always liked doing. When I was quite young at school I loved creative writing and drawing pictures to accompany my stories.

I read that you studied illustration in the UK, and spent an exchange semester in Japan. Could you tell me more about your creative path that led to you to India and what you do now?
I studied Illustration at the University of Brighton in the UK, it’s a very open and ideas-focused course. As part of that I spent a semester on the Illustration course at the University of Nagoya in Japan. That was really interesting as it was so different from my course at Brighton — to an extent it was quite technical, and the language barrier was also a bit of a problem so I didn’t really go to classes, I just did my own projects. My work as a student was quite varied, from observational drawing (mostly simple line drawings) and illustrations in muted solid colours to making costumes, films/animation and art direction. I spent the summer after graduation on a placement at London advertising agency Kastner & Partners (owned by Red Bull) and then applied to the Wieden + Kennedy London’s W+KSide placement scheme (I met a creative team from W+K at my degree show who told me about it and encouraged me to apply). I was lucky to get into W+K and spent 4 months there as part of a team of 4 ‘W+KSiders’ — working on a mix of internal and client projects. By January 2008 my placements were over and I spent the next two years freelancing on a few illustration commissions, working my own projects and group exhibitions, assisting set designers, teaching kids in art workshops during the summer, all whilst working part time in a pub and screen print studio. I decided I wanted to go travelling to India as I had spent 4 years living in Delhi with my family from when I was 8–12 (my Dad works for the British Council). When I went to India in January 2010, [it had been] 13 years since I was last in India. I spent an amazing 4 months by myself, travelling all over and building up a sketchbook full of brightly coloured felt tip drawings (India really helped me get into colour!) Whilst there I met V Sunil and Hanif Kureishi from W+K Delhi — I’d been put in touch by someone from the Delhi office I’d met whilst on my placement with W+K London. I was lucky to get offered a job as an art director, and so moved to Delhi in July 2010. I worked at W+K for 4 years; mostly on IndiGo airlines which was great- I particularly enjoyed working on packaging. In December 2010 I met Maninder and we began dating and slowly started experimenting with screen printing the mithai drawings from my sketchbook.

The idea of being a freelance creative and working part-time in multiple places is something that’s not popular in India, although it is a pretty standard thing in other parts of the world. What were your 2 years of freelance like?
It was varied. Although it is pretty standard in the UK it can take some families a bit of time to adjust to the idea. My parents are super supportive, but I remember it did take a while for them to come round to the idea that no, I wasn’t looking for full time employment, I did just want to work part time and on freelance commissions and my own projects. Ideally of course I would have worked full time on freelance commissions and my own projects, but I wasn’t in a position to be able to do that then. One commission that I really liked was working on a book which had a lot of full page illustrations. I guess you could say the book was about traditional ‘home-making’ — recipes, cleaning tips, crafts etc. — but what I liked about it was that the illustrations were based on a personal project that I had done as a Christmas present for my family one year — a hand bound book of my Granny’s recipes. Some of the same illustrations from that project also feature in the book. They were pattern-based as well; possibly this is the first time I’d focused on illustrating patterns.

Peacocks by Sarah Fotheringham / Source: Jealous

Another project I liked working on a print for a group show, curated by Garudio Studiage, a collective based in South London. The theme for the show was ‘Fantasy Zoo’ — the idea was that you got a fantasy amount of money (I think it was $2000 or something) and you illustrated your ‘Fantasy Zoo’ — ie what you would buy with that money. I worked out you could buy 200 Peacocks with whatever that amount was — so that was what I drew — 200 peacocks and made a small edition of 10 prints which were a mix of giclee and hand finished silver ink. That print did really well; I sold all of that edition, did another edition in a smaller size and another, bigger edition in a different colour way, that also sold. Then a couple of years ago I did a screenprinted edition of 100 with Jealous, a fine art screen printing studio and gallery in London (I was a part time assistant with them before coming to India, and had also done a small group show with them, and they had been selling the previous editions) It was just really nice to establish that connection with Jealous, as they do such great work, and have that piece I created over 8 years ago now still doing really well.

13 years is a long time! Could you tell me more about your solo-travel around India? Did you draw a lot on location? 
It was great! I travelled around Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Mumbai, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi and West Bengal — so lots of different scenery and experiences. I did a mixture of drawing on location and drawing from photos I’d taken. When I was drawing on location I found there was a curious but very friendly and positive reaction — especially from kids!

Excerpt from Sarah Fotheringham’s India sketchbook / Image from Safomasi’s Instagram

You said India really helped you get into colour. It’s pretty amazing how being in a different place influences the kind of work we produce, either from being there or through nostalgia for what we left. Did travelling in India and working in Delhi change anything else about your personal and professional work or the way you approached them?
Yes definitely. I think it’s probably changed me in a couple of ways ways; firstly Delhi is not always an easy place to live in — from getting an auto to buying vegetables; everything is a negotiation and in a sense, a fight. I think in that way it has made me harder — less naïve, more questioning and more direct, especially in asking for things. I’ve also noticed it can be hard to find people who approach work professionally; so I try and make sure that I am as professional as possible in my own dealings with people — in India so many recommendations come through word of mouth — so I’ve figured that if you get a reputation as someone who communicates clearly, delivers what you say you will on time, and answers phone calls and emails — you’ll do ok.

If you get a reputation as someone who communicates clearly, delivers what you say you will on time, and answers phone calls and emails — you’ll do ok.

What were your first attempts at illustrated patterns for the home-making recipe book like? Did you work with patterns again between then and the mithai pattern?
They were in a more muted colour palette than I use now, and they were simpler and on a smaller scale — for example they would be compositions of different ingredients and then variations of that repeated. Now most of my repeats are more complicated and on a larger scale — around 20–25 inches. I don’t think I did work on any patterns between those and the mithai pattern.

Image from Safomasi

What was the conversation that led to the idea of Safomasi?
Maninder and I had started experimenting with printing my drawings onto fabric — I always had my own personal projects going on whilst I was working full time so this was one of them. We really liked the process and how it came out and decided to take it further and develop it into a range of products. We looked at homeware as I had always had an interest in Interiors and in December 2012 we released our first collection of quilts and cushion covers. I think the conversation was quite idealistic — something like we like travelling and we liked developing prints and textiles — we wanted to travel together and create collections ranges inspired by those travels… We’ve grown organically since then.

Why is documenting an experience, or its memory, important to you?
I think creatively I have always been inspired by my experiences and observations, I don’t know why — maybe because I was lucky to have a fairly well travelled childhood which exposed me to different parts of the world, giving me many interesting experiences. So perhaps it is important for me to document it as a way of preserving and processing the experience and its memory.

One thing that interests me a lot, is the idea of how everyone’s experiences — of place, culture etc — are either as an insider, outsider or a bit of both. I’m always curious to know what other people’s thoughts are on this, especially those who work at translating experiences and ideas into tangible forms. 
It’s really important, and I think the experiences that I am most interested in documenting are ones where I have an outsider view in a sense. Of course I want to have an understanding of a place but sometimes when you are too familiar with somewhere you don’t notice the things that are beautiful or interesting to others; they have become too ordinary.

Sometimes when you are too familiar with somewhere you don’t notice the things that are beautiful or interesting to others; they have become too ordinary.

You’re right, there’s a unique perception that comes with being able to balance understanding a place, and retaining the curiosity of an outsider experiencing it. All of the Safomasi collections so far are from places that you’ve experienced first hand, more than once in fact — India, Japan, England. There’s the element of ‘revisit’ and ‘return’ I think that contributes nicely to tying a memory of a place to the present and still make it personal. How do you decide what elements of your travels go into your collections? 
I think it’s twofold. Firstly I try and shortlist which experiences really stuck with me and that to me, capture the essence of that place. That’s a very personal thing. Maybe some elements I choose to include are very obvious. Maybe others are quite obscure. With each collection I try and strike a balance between the two. Secondly I think about which elements would make beautiful designs. One example is the cherry blossom design from the Kawaii collection. I arrived in Japan in the beginning of April — just as the cherry blossom was starting to bloom, so the whole city (I was in Nagoya) was filled with pink and white blossom. It was so lovely and it really is a big deal — there is a Japanese word ‘Hanami’ — literally meaning flower viewing — and everyone goes out, takes pictures of the blossom (sakura), picnics in the parks… it is quite a phenomena. So to me, that was a vivid experience and memory. And then I thought that the ring of Cherry blossom as a concept would work really well for a range of table linen — it ties in nicely to the idea of picnics that are associated with the season and would make a very pretty print.

Image from Safomasi

I love that you took something that was such a prominent part of your experience of Japan, and gave it a conceptual weight by situating it within a type of product line. Do you think a moment in time can be a shared or collective experience, especially with illustration that is not relying on the use of text to narrate? What are you hoping for people to feel when they interact with Safomasi products?
I think so, I think not everyone will make the same connection that I intended conceptually, but I think that it is possible for people to share experiences and have their own interpretation to an illustration or design. And that’s what we want with Safomasi — for people to feel a connection to the prints. So one design may remind them of some place (even if it’s not the same place we base the collection on) — and give them a sense of nostalgia. Or perhaps another design makes them long to travel to that place — maybe it feels exotic or exciting in some way.

I think that it is possible for people to share experiences and have their own interpretation to an illustration or design.

Have you ever felt this way?
Not with our designs because I have the original place in mind, but I always find it interesting when I hear other people’s interpretations — I remember someone said the Estuary Walk design reminded them of somewhere in Holland. I guess it’s something I could have felt with other artist/designers’s work — we all have interpretations that may be different from the original intention.

What prompted you start using the format of patterns to narrate for Safomasi? Was there any learning/unlearning that you had to do as your repeats became larger and more detailed?
As we wanted to print on lengths of fabric it was natural that I started to develop patterns. The first design I created was the mithai print — so that was easy to repeat as it was a grid of individual elements. Different Different Camels was simple too. It got more complicated when I tried to develop patterns which flowed without a defined edge — like the Camel traders print or any of the Alleppey or Salcombe prints. I’m not trained in surface or print design, I don’t know any of the ‘rules’ of how to design repeats, so it was a matter of trial and error, designing a pattern, testing out how it repeats… I’d be working in photoshop and just crop the repeat and copy and paste it, see how it looks and take a screenshot, try it again … I’m definitely still learning and I’m sure my methods are very crude — but I haven’t seen how anyone else does it so I don’t know any better.

Sampling process for a new collection / Images from Safomasi’s Instagram

Can you tell me about your process — what happens between the idea to the final products. How long does it take for a collection to materialise?
There are so many stages. Ideas go from initial sketches and then into final designs. Within that there is a lot of experimentation to get a cohesive set of designs that work together. Once we have the final set of designs they’re sent to the printer who creates a screen for each layer of colour of each design. Simultaneously we’ll be working out exactly what products we want to make fromwhich designs and in which fabrics. Maninder will be sourcing samples and calculating the amount of fabric we need to buy. Once that’s all decided he will order the fabric and take it for processing and dyeing. Hopefully by this stage all the screens will be ready so we’ll go to the screen printer and start sampling to make sure the screens have been made properly and that the repeat is aligning. Once we know it’s all good to go we’ll work on getting the colours right. We pick Pantones as a starting point and work from there till we’re happy with the combinations. Once we have the perfect fabric samples Maninder will work with the printers to print the full run of fabric. In the meantime he’ll be ordering zips, cotton for the quilts, sourcing and dyeing trimmings, etc. and I’ll be putting together a spec sheet with drawings of all products and the details of materials, trims etc. Once all the fabric is printed our team of tailors stitch them into products according to the spec sheet, which is also open to experimentation till we get to get the final products. The whole process takes around 6 months.

Sarah Fotheringham with the six screens and colour separations that go into making Safomasi’s Rockpool pattern, at the Design x Design Exhibition at the Alliance Française de Delhi, India / Image from Safomasi

Why choose the handmade route for Safomasi?
We love the process of hand made, hand screen printed. You can design something on the computer but it always comes out different when you actually print and make it. We like that surprise. We really feel that hand screen printing in particular has such a special quality that digital can’t produce. Digitally printed fabric can look very flat, but screen printed fabric has a different character. Plus, of course, we are in India! There are still quite a few skilled artisans and so much inspiring craft. Handmade was the natural route.

Does having Safomasi on your mind change, in any way, how you document and experience a place when you travel now?
A little maybe, I might make a mental note of little details that I notice, or I might jot some ideas down for later. Though as what I used to do just for myself has become ‘work’, if I’m not travelling with the intent of forming a collection I do try and separate it a bit more so that I’m not always ‘working’.

I’m glad you brought up having to separate ‘work’ from your travels, because I did have a question related to that. Safomasi began as a side project, as personal work. Now that you do this full time, what has changed? Do you still have other side/personal projects?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently — it has changed and I don’t really have many side/personal projects any more. But I’ve been longing to. Sometimes projects come along — like a dolls house I was asked to make for ELLE India — which technically was ‘work’ — although it could have easily been a side project, if I’d come up with the idea to do it before they asked me I would have just done it on my own. I love making things and I think that’s what I want to take time out to do for myself.

I’ve seen images of the dolls house before, it’s beautiful! What size was it, and could you tell me some more about its making?
Thank you! It’s around 70 x 80 x 40 cm and the structure is made from foamboard. ELLE approached us with an idea for a feature to create a fantasy dollhouse. It was such a dream project, I went with the idea of largely theming each room around a particular print story and started with laying out wallpapers for the different rooms, printing them and mounting it on foamboard to form the walls. It was fun to play with the scale of prints on the wall. The tiles on the ground floor were printed too — they spell out SAFOMASI! It was then a case of experimenting what we could do with our actual fabrics and sourcing things like beads to make the bases of the lamps and plant pots. It took about a week in total, with lots of trips to the local craft shop!

Have you ever felt stuck or challenged in terms of your work? How do you get around it?
Yes, all the time. I like to re-visit things a lot. So if I’m really stuck I’ll stop and come back to it fresh in a couple of days. That helps. Also, asking a second opinion — Maninder is always around to bounce ideas off.

Image from Safomasi

I have a particular weakness for process documentation and spent an embarrassing amount of time looking at the very thorough documentation of both design and production process on the Safomasi blog. What was the idea behind including this in the website?
I think it is important to show how things are made, to show how much thought and effort goes into each piece. I think when you see the making process it helps people to understand our brand, our way of working and to feel a connection to our product.

It is important to show how things are made, to show how much thought and effort goes into each piece.

Where do you most often seek out creative inspiration?
There’s no particular place, but in general ideas often come when I’m on the move or doing something else, not when I’m sitting at my desk trying to get inspired.

Do you think a creative community or cohort is important? (and how do you create one around you?)
Yes, definitely. You can inspire each other, support and help each other and sometimes collaborate together. Art school is the obvious first place to form a creative community of like-minded people. Since then I’ve made connections with peers through various ways. Sometimes we’ve worked together or been exhibiting at the same show. Sometimes attending another exhibition or event. Recently I’ve met quite a few people through social media — instagram especially — we might follow or comment on each other’s posts and then arrange to meet up when we’re in the same city.

In 2013, Safomasi won the Elle Deco International Design Awards, India.Did that change anything in anyway? Did it encourage you to work in that aspect of promoting yourself — sending your work to awards and competitions — into how Safomasi runs?
It was a great platform for us. I think it helped a lot with credibility and to establish the brand, but I wouldn’t say it changed anything about how we run. We enter work to awards when we get asked to but otherwise our promotion is limited to social media; we don’t have a marketing budget at the moment.

What’s next at Safomasi?
We’re currently working on our next collection which will be out in the Summer and showcasing at Tent London in September.


This interview with Sarah Fotheringham is an edited version of an email exchange and conversation between her and Shreyas R Krishnan, for The Illustrator as Auteur.