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  • Sophie Harpley

My creative career

It surprises me now to think that when I was growing up, I didn't really know there was such a thing as a Designer. I knew I lived to create. I was always drawing and writing, filling up hundreds of sketchbooks and beginning a lifetime love of stationery hoarding. Family and teachers were always saying 'here's a little artist in the making'. But the only other thing I picked up about being an artist was that they were often poor and only seemed to be lauded long after death! I had no idea of the huge variety of creative careers and different stories there really are.

It was not until my twenties when working for the V&A Museum, that my childhood love of art was rekindled and in among the William Morris I decided I could and would forge a creative career. By 2012 I had gained a master’s degree in Graphic Arts and begun my own story as designer and artist. I've since worked for many home and lifestyle brands, helping to define their aesthetic and on my own collections of hand-painted homewares and stationery. I've worked with some incredible people and regularly pinch myself that I get to do the work I love.

But that's not to say it's always been an obvious path to get here. When I left school I thought art was best kept as a hobby and I studied my BA in Sociology with Psychology. I enjoyed it - I like writing and I like pondering all it is to be human - but on graduating I knew I wanted a creative career. So my next thought was perhaps I would write about my love of design since I didn't feel qualified to actually do it. I volunteered for a couple of homes magazines, my favourite of which was The World of Interiors. The office in Vogue House felt like a homely sort of studio and everything was pleasingly analogue. Swatches were pinned up everywhere, piles of magazines, stacks of fabrics, wobbly furniture and pin-boards galore. But it was expenses-only and so with rent to pay I soon took a job at a little-known shop in Wimbledon village, called Cath Kidston. This was 2008 and there were only a couple of CK stores at that time. I was pretty content to be surrounded by colour and pattern and styling the displays but too quiet to be much of a saleswoman. Before long I was offered a job at an illustrated children's publisher and so off I went again, still rather unsure where all this was going but following my interest in creative companies.

I write this really in case it helps anyone else young and just starting out. It's not always at all clear what sort of career might suit you, until you get stuck in and try a few. It was a colleague at that children's publisher who, knowing my love of design and antiques, suggested to me I might enjoy Picture Research for museums. I would never have know of a niche role like that if not for him. But I quickly looked into it and found the opening at the Victoria and Albert that became very influential on my future. Not only was I learning new creative skills on the job (hello early Photoshop!) I was absorbing art history knowledge every day too. When it takes a little time to find your happy place you'll certainly know it when it manifests. I really adored that job, met the loveliest people and spent every lunch-break walking the galleries in a kind of dream, drinking in the vast halls art and antiques in with my eyes.

I certainly won't be the first person to be filled with awe and perhaps galvanised to action after spending time at the V&A. But what I learned about myself there was how much I wanted to actually create things. I just had to be a hands-on maker. It wasn't enough to work on the fringes, gazing in at beautiful creations. I longed to get my hands dirty. So that's when I joined an MA course in Graphic Arts and the rest, as they say, is history. I went on to design for a number of creative companies and to set up my own art practice.

I hope this has been interesting and would be more than happy to answer any creative-career questions.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The World of Interiors magazines.

The World of Interiors magazine (image from Pentreath & Hall)


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