I first encountered Sian Zeng‘s sew your own bespectacled bears a couple of years ago at a craft fair, and am the proud owner of one such bear which I made with my own fair hands. But soft toys are not the only product this multi-disciplinary interiors designer makes; her offering includes high tech magnetic wallpapers adorned with whimsical movable designs such as the plethora of cacti, dinosaurs and ‘flycopters’ which feature in her new S/S 2014 collection, guaranteed to appeal to adults as much as children. Here she shares her journey and some sage advice about the value of looking at the numbers when you run a small business.
You’ve had a very multi-cultural upbringing, how did your family come to live in Hungary and what brought you to London?
In ‘90s China, it was a popular choice to move to the West to look for better economic opportunities. After the fall of communism, Hungary’s visa requirements to Chinese citizens were very relaxed and so my parents decided to move Budapest. I first came to England to study in secondary school so that I would have better chances of going to a British university; my parents felt a British degree would open more doors for me in the future.
What are the best things that have fed into your design work from your time in China and Hungary?
In my first year of Hungarian primary school, I loved looking at the beautifully drawn pictures in Hungarian folk tale books. I obsessively copied and altered the images so that they would become stories to tell to my classmates: my interest in visual storytelling has continued in the products I design. One summer, during the holidays, I went back to China to study painting and drawing. It was one of the most intensive periods of training I’ve ever had, but I came out with a deeper understanding of how Chinese art schools dealt with colour and composition. I still use many of the techniques in my work today.
Where did the idea of creating magnetic wallpapers come from?
During my final year, I was interested in how fairy tales were told and how they had changed through time. It occurred to me that creating a magnetic wallpaper for my degree show would let visitors act out their own stories using a cast of magnetic characters, creating an interactive display that was constantly changing.
What was the process of producing them, from your initial ideas as a student, to commercial production under your own brand?
The first sample I created for my degree show was made using magnetic paint on thick paper. I realised later it was too expensive to produce and not very practical, so I began to look at alternative methods. While I was still in my research stage, Hilary Duff’s interior designer contacted me and asked me to send a sample over to her. I told her I only had the prototype and that the end product may look different: at that stage, I was still cutting out the magnets by hand. It was really low-tech! Based on my prototype, Hilary Duff placed a large order and the lead time was very tight as it had to be completed before her son was born. I was on the phone to my manufacturers every day, asking questions and pleading for a faster turnaround. Thankfully, in a very short period of time I had my first batch of wallpapers manufactured and sent out. It was so rewarding!
What kind of narrative tales most often influence your choice of imagery?
I enjoy depicting stories that are removed from reality, giving you the freedom to play with the imagery and create alternate endings and moods.
How did you secure a place with Cockpit Arts and how has being with them helped you grow your business?
I filled in an online application and was invited to an interview with my portfolio. Being part of Cockpit has been so helpful; it’s such a collaborative space and I have other designers as my neighbours. It’s so easy to knock on someone’s door and ask for help or advice.
What is an average day in the life of Sian Zeng like?
I wake up around 7.30am and the first thing I do is look at my emails and social network posts on my phone so I can start to plan my day. If there is anything urgent I put it down on my morning to-do list; I find myself most productive in the mornings so I try to work on important big projects first and answer e-mails and work on smaller tasks after 3pm. I live very close to work so I can walk to my studio. I’m usually in by 9am and finish work around 7pm. On a good day I go to the gym after work and then head home. My husband comes home around 9pm and we have a very late dinner while watching a movie together. We go to bed around 11pm.
Do you have any little ones in your life to help test your projects and if so who are they?
I often think of myself as the little one! I also have friends with children so I sometimes give some of my products to them for a test drive. Open studio days are also a good place to see how children react to my products.
What is your best selling product and why do you think it is so popular?
My magnetic wallpapers are my best-selling product. I think it’s because they offer something totally different and customers love the interactive, playful element of them – they’re not just for kids!
What was the best bit about studying at Central Saint Martins, and do you have any tips for anyone who would like to follow in your footsteps?
The best part of studying at Central Saint Martins was learning how to research and create collections based on creative concepts. My advice may sound boring to a creative person, but I think it’s essential to record expenses and sales figures well so that you are able to understand your own market and product range better. When you take care of the admin elements of a creative business, it makes it so much easier to see what improvements need to be made and focus on what makes the most profits. Saying that, I don’t always take my own advice and sometimes I just have to create things that are most exciting to me at the time!
Do you have any new cutting edge ideas for interiors up your sleeve for 2014? if so can we have a sneak peak?
I’m developing a conceptual fabric range for 2014 and I can’t wait to share the results later in the year. It’s in that exciting stage right now where I’m experimenting with colours and patterns: keep your eyes peeled!
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