starch green

Kate Fishenden & Jonathan Mercer tell Jo Reynolds you should never turn your hobby into your job.

How long have you been in the area?

Jonathan: Since 1985. We moved here from Belsize Park, which sounds very smart but we were in an attic.
Kate: We bought a friend’s flat in Askew Mansions and then moved into this house, where our studio is, in 1988.

What do you like about the area?

Kate: We love the community. Ravenscourt Park is a big thing for us: dogs, children and all the rest.
Jonathan: I was working from home and got a dog to keep me company, so I had the excuse of going to the park. And then we started having children and you start walking in all directions rather than just back and forth to the tube. We have five children, the oldest of which is 27 and the youngest is…
Kate: 12. Freddy, Jack, Ellen, Polly and Tansy. One’s at home, two are at college and two have left.
Jonathan: Askew Road was on its knees when we first arrived. It had a fair number of pubs and off-licences and betting shops. It was a rough old road.

Kate: It was a bit poor and a bit next door to rich places but not yet there. It did have a proper butcher and green grocer but it has a proper butcher back again now.
Jonathan: After every recession Askew Road starts to get off its knees and then another recession hits, but since the last one, it’s becoming almost village-y and we’ve had some very nice shops moving in. And there are a lot of media people here. Every other person is either a journalist or an editor, which is interesting.
Kate: And the transport is fantastic.
Jonathan: The 94 bus leaves every four minutes.

And dislike?

Jonathan: We’ve fought various developments. This area used to be full of light industrial units and garages, and I liked the fact that people didn’t have to get on the tube and go and work elsewhere.
Kate: The light industry gave it some texture.
Jonathan: Gradually it’s all turning into housing, but I can see why. If you want to live in Notting Hill and can’t afford it, we’re half the price.

You collaborate as artists and designers, and your website introduces you as printmakers and “patternsmiths”. What is a patternsmith?

Jonathan: I’m a wood engraver and everything we do starts with a block of boxwood. Box is very slow growing, very hard, so you can get a lot of detail. I engrave it and then we print that on paper or ceramics, or fabric. Kate does silkscreen printing among other things.
Kate: At art school I did graphic design.
Jonathan: I did industrial design.

Kate, what drew you to graphic design?

Two things. One, I like drawing. And two, wow, doesn’t art school sound cool? Why wouldn’t everyone go to art school?
Jonathan: And spend every day just drawing.
Kate: So I did that and carried on, and yeah, it is cool. I love drawing and I love design.

Do you both still draw now?

Kate: Whenever I can. On holiday I take a sketchbook. A couple of years ago we did life drawing classes every week. I like the mark-making. I like the pencil, I like the ink, I like the smell, I like the paint. I like the process. I quite like the mistakes.

How did you meet?

Jonathan: At a design company, but I decided to give it up and become a wood engraver, which was a mad thing to do but we decided, while Kate still had a salary, we could just about afford for me to have a go at being an illustrator. A lot of wives wouldn’t have agreed, but fortunately it worked.
Kate: I thought, that’s a great idea: do it.
Even though you had five children to support? Are you optimists?
Kate: Clearly.
Jonathan: As a designer, it’s part of your training.

Kate: To solve problems. We’re problem solvers.
Jonathan: There is that rule of thumb: never turn your hobby into your job, but we did. There was a point about six or seven years ago when we decided to turn it into a more organized business, a brand for want of a better term, that would allow us to collaborate.

Your website suggests you want your work to add positively to the pattern of life. What do you mean?

Kate: We’re not religious, but we very strongly believe in the idea of family and good values and being kind and making the world a better place. If our work can do that, that’s lovely.
Jonathan: It influences the subject matter. We make teacups because tea is nice, cushions because they’re comfortable. The things we create we want to be useful. It’s not art, but it’s up to people what they think of it. We try to create useful things that we like making. Every year, Kate makes a vast amount of marmalade so she designed a jam labeling kit because it’s nice to have your own labels. We do a lot of patterns. I enjoy the technical ingenuity you can get with patterns. Patterns can be fun.

How do you decide what you’re going to develop?

Jonathan: When we’re deciding to do a collection of ceramics for example, we develop that together, discussing a theme… One of the things we like doing is, on holiday – when we get a chance to go on holiday – we’ll go to the seaside – because we like the seaside…
Kate: Like many people.
Jonathan: And we try and go to the seaside when no one’s there.
Kate: We like empty seaside.
Jonathan: (As inspiration for one collection) Evoking that feeling of wandering around on the empty seashore with your children was what we were after. We picked things like anchors and little fish and a bucket and spade… Sometimes Kate tells me, that’s not very good and I start again.

Do you ever row?

Kate: No.
Jonathan: No.

Do you only produce limited editions?

Jonathan: It’s a conceit of printmakers to do limited editions. If you’re a painter, you do one and sell it, but if you’re a printmaker, you can do a run. I love the repetition of printing lots of the same thing. This is where the question of money comes in. What are they worth? I like to print quite a large edition of 250 and not charge very much for them. I like the democracy of it, that everyone can own a bit of art: an engraving because it’s only a few quid; or a mug that’s had an artistic approach to it.
Kate: We extend the limited idea onto ceramics because we make them in small quantities and then move on to the next idea.
Jonathan: Once it turns into an enterprise where your house is full of boxes that you’ve got to shift, you become…
Kate: Rich?
Jonathan: You spend more time selling than making. The selling isn’t so much fun so we tend to invite people to our house, which is why it looks a bit like a showroom.

Do you sell more online?

Jonathan: We’re not in the compromised situation where you become a warehouse and not a studio. Fortunately, we’re not that successful.
Kate: Fortunately. Though there’s a part of me that would like to be a little more compromised.
Jonathan: But we do all right. This is one of those things that Kate and I slightly disagree on. If you had a lot of money, I’m not sure what we’d do with it.
Kate: I’d give it a go. If I win the lottery, I won’t tell him.
Jonathan: Fortunately our values have not been challenged yet and I don’t know what would happen. I’d probably cave in.

Thank you, Kate and Jonathan. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you.

Interview by Jo Reynolds (Oct 2014)

See Kate and Jonathan’s work on their website starchgreen.com

to top | home