Nicola Rowlands: Fig and Sparrow Maker of the Month

Phoebe Hurst
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In the first instalment of our Maker of the Month series, we join with Manchester design shop, Fig and Sparrow to celebrate contemporary craft and shine a spotlight on local designer, Nicola Rowlands.

Five years ago, Nicola Rowlands designed and printed a batch of sixty fish-themed Christmas cards. From this unlikely starting point (although the fish cards are still a big hit), Rowlands began her journey to building a small empire, applying  her knack for strangely expressive animal drawings and witty wordplay to things that make people say “I need to buy that.” Her beret-wearing dogs, grumpy guinea pigs and  unashamedly puntastic one-liners  (a card bearing a picture of a bidet with the caption “Happy bidet”  did have us chortling) now adorn tea towels and cushions, and her “Pocket Manfriends” (a small clay stone painted with an endearing-looking man’s face) have attracted a cult following.

A handful of part time jobs later and many a lesson learned on how to run a small business, Rowlands is now “doing this thing” full time. Her creations are stocked in nearly 40 shops around the world, including the Northern Quarter’s Fig and Sparrow. The Manfriends have wasted no time in making themselves comfortable in the design shop and coffee bar, where they reside alongside an array of other contemporary craft pieces and cards from local designers. We chatted to Rowlands  about her work – and how she came to adopt Manchester as her new home city.

How did you get where you are today?

After my art foundation year, I decided to take a few years off to work and go travelling. Whilst I was away, I applied for a Design and Art Direction course at Manchester Metropolitan University. I wrote my personal statement on a beach in Thailand so it’s a good thing I got accepted, there was no plan B!   Throughout the course,  I thought I  wanted to work in magazines but  didn’t really figure out what  attracted me  to them  until I started getting a real buzz from selling my own things .  I realised that what I really wanted was  ownership of content;  from the silly illustrations on the cards to how I styled and photographed them for my Etsy shop to what I would say about them on my blog. I also found that managing stock and always planning ahead really appealed to the organisational side of my brain. I basically then just kept working at it until I found what worked and what didn’t! Trial and error… and plenty of protein.

Tell us what you make

I started out selling greeting cards, which are still the bread-and-butter product of my range and printed here in Manchester. I also design textile products such as pillows, ornaments and tote bags. My most popular product is the Pocket Manfriend. They’re made from air dry clay, sanded, primed, hand-painted and varnished before being packaged up and hand-numbered.

Where do you work from?

A small studio in our spare room!

What do you find most challenging about your work?

Finding time to do my accounts and trying to keep my studio tidy.  I have also suffered from depression and anxiety which was hard because it affected my drawing and just made me very unmotivated about the things I love doing the most. I’m doing a lot better now but it’s hard to identify what the problem is when it’s just you at the office!

Who is your favourite designer and why?

I’ve always been a fan of (hip hop artist and illustrator) KidAcne. I really like what Jody Barton does with words and what Emily Green does with colour.  Although I’m not a motorcycle rider myself, I find Sideburn magazine massively appealing, design-wise and I’m a fan of the Deus brand.

What else influences your work?

Bad shoes, overheard conversations, patterns, shapes, puns and bad moods. I also think of a lot of ideas when I’m out running – and remember about 50% of them by the time I get back home.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to start selling their work?

Be original.

Tell us about your connection to Manchester. How does the city influence your work and creativity?

Living in a leafy suburb like Didsbury is good for me because it has everything I need, primarily a post office and a handful of places where I can buy coffee. As a long distance runner, it’s a great location; I can run down by the canal or into the city centre and think through ideas, or meet someone for a bacon butty at the end.  I love Manchester and seeing as I’d never visited before I decided to move here, I think it’s worked out pretty well!

What does it mean to sell your work in Fig and Sparrow?

It’s a wonderful thing when you feel like your work fits perfectly with the look and feel of a shop. Fig and Sparrow is the perfect environment for Kenneth, Eric and Craig – the Pocket Manfriends – to lay about on the counter, attracting possible suitors. I feel my work is given respect and value in the way it is presented within the shop; this is important for a maker like me. I’m looking forward to providing the shop with lots of new treats very soon!

Culture Guides

Exhibitions in Manchester and the North

Exhibitions

Proto-feminism, the secret lives of birds, and the darkly satirical images of one of Britain’s leading political artists – we look forward to some of the top exhibition highlights coming up this month.

Theatre

Theatre

Who says summer is a quiet time for theatre? We’ve got open-air performances, free interactive family events, a ten-day summer festival and much more in our theatre guide.

Music

While this summer’s festivals – including bluedot, The Good Life Experience and Festival No. 6 – provide a welcome distraction, the likes of the RNCM and The Stoller Hall continue to provide adventurous programming.

Cinema

Salford-born actor, Albert Finney is celebrated with a career retrospective at HOME, whilst director Stanley Kubrick gets the same treatment at FACT. Elsewhere there are one off screenings of classics, both new and old.

Manchester Day

Families

It’s family festival fever. The National Trust Children’s Book Festival, University of Manchester Community Festival, Manchester Histories Festival and that’s just for starters.

Author Holly Ringland.

Literature

Despite the traditional summer break, there’s still plenty of poetry and prose to catch, book and magazine launches, birthday parties, and even an exhibition dedicated to libraries. And if you don’t like sitting still for too long, there’s even a literature trail or two to check out…