Bronwyn Nesbitt
Bronwyn Nesbitt

Blogging the road to international design success

Blogging has opened up a remarkable new vista of opportunity for designers, artists and crafters to tap into overseas trends and market their work internationally, but it seems that few South Africans are taking notice.

One exception is Heather Moore, a self-taught illustrator and fabric designer. Working out of her studio in Long Street, Cape Town, she produces a stylish range of Scandinavian-inspired patterned tea towels and cushion covers. Starting with small craft and sewing projects at home, she gradually spread her wings and began experimenting with fabric design in December last year.

Her natural talent, and sharp eye for striking pattern design aside, Heather’s success, particularly in the international market, has largely been due to two very interesting factors. Firstly, her fabric designs have tapped into one of the biggest and seemingly most enduring international decor trends of recent years. This is mid-century modern, a decor style with a strong retro Sixties and Seventies ethos, and a love for classic Scandinavian colour and design.

Heather's Scandinavian inspired tea towels

Secondly, success happened fast, in a way that Heather never expected or imagined, and this came as a result of blogging and the internet. She started her blog, Skinny laMinx, in June 2006 as an easy way to get her illustration work online, and intended to use it as an easy-to-update portfolio. It also proved to be a fun way to keep a record of how her work was progressing. As more people started reading her blog and leaving positive comments, she was encouraged to continue.

Heather says: “Reading other peoples’ blogs was really inspiring too. I loved to see that people were making things just because they wanted to. I found it exciting that people were making things in small quantities for sale too, because I’d always found the idea of mass production a bit dreary. Other people gave me a lot of courage to start the projects I’d been dreaming of doing; suddenly it seemed a lot more possible.”

It was during her online travels that Heather discovered Etsy, an American-based website and the biggest online store to date, specialising solely in selling handmade products. Less than a year after starting her blog, Heather decided to open an online shop at Etsy, selling tea towels, one-off screen-printed cushions, baby T-shirts and hand-cut fridge magnets. By then her blog had a fairly large readership, and she immediately had people visiting the shop and then publicising it through their own blogs.

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. “What can being mentioned on few blogs really do to boost sales?” The answer is that it is a big deal. The big, popular, overseas decor and design blogs such as Design*Sponge, Print & Pattern, Bloesem, Poppy Talk and Decor8 get well over 25 000 hits a day. They have become the new arbiters of style and good taste, and are extremely influential.

A mention on one of these blogs can literally be the key to overnight success. Heather says: “I think Print & Pattern was the first big blog to do a little feature on my work, which was a massive thrill, and not something I dreamed could happen. Then Irene from Bloesem also featured me. Since then, I’ve seen my work on a range of blogs including Design*Sponge, Poppy Talk, Decor8, Chow … and lots of other blogs with less massive readerships too. I feel very fortunate because all this brilliant publicity took very little effort on my part. But over time I have learned a lot about getting my work noticed, and I’m definitely getting better at it, and more active in promoting it.”

Heather's tea towels featured on Chow

Ironically, internet coverage on the blog Print & Pattern lead to Heather getting coverage in the international print media. She was included in a feature in the London Financial Times, and her work is about to be mentioned in a style feature in a newspaper in Tennessee.

There is a downside to all of this, if it can be called that. Although Heather has had phenomenal success overseas, particularly in the American market, she has not been quite as successful in getting her products noticed locally. One factor might be that her mid-century style has not caught on in South Africa to the extent that it has overseas; as a country we still tend to lag behind in keeping up with international decor trends.

Also, South African shoppers seem to be much more conservative than their American counterparts, especially when it comes to buying over the internet. The high cost of broadband locally could be a reason for this, as well as a lack of trust in internet security. Heather observes: “Mostly based on my experience selling at the Biscuit Mill Market in Salt River, where I can watch people’s shopping behaviour, I’d say that locals are more conservative shoppers, taking ages to decide to buy something, whereas the Americans just leap right in there, clicking that ‘Buy now’ button with marvellous abandon!”

So, what’s next for this talented designer? Since her online launch in April this year, she’s released five more tea-towel designs in her Etsy shop, and says she has many more up her sleeve. With her business picking up momentum in such a short space of time, Heather has been on a steep learning curve and is still trying to catch up with the nitty-gritty housekeeping side of the business. She’s also still juggling her regular job doing magazine illustrations and scriptwriting, but plans to devote more time to her own business in the new year.

Summer Day, one of Heather's new designs

Her short-term plans include the printing of running metres of fabric with her own designs and expanding her range to include additional items such as bags and baby clothes. Heather would love to eventually have her designs licensed by a large company like Ikea, and she hopes that the future will see her opening her own Skinny laMinx shop where she can continue to grow her range of home accessories.

To my knowledge, Heather is possibly one of the only South African designers to have so successfully broken into the design blogosphere, where her talent has been noticed by international consumers with an appetite for retro decor and who are comfortable with internet shopping regarding the globe as their market place. It’s strange that more South Africans don’t seem to be taking note of the opportunities the internet offers. Heather has learned that the internet really does make a massive difference. She would love to see more local designers improve their web presence, and promotes local blogs and designers that she likes both on Skinny laMinx and in her capacity as editor of the Elle Decoration South Africa blog.