Columns / Insights

Patterns in the Wild

Leah Goren
How did you start designing patterns? I moved to New York in 2009 to study illustration at Parsons School of Design and started designing patterns while I was in school there. The program was very editorial heavy, and I just wasn’t that interested in working that way at the time. I was still experimenting with different mediums and trying to find my style, and assignments where I had to settle on a concept and then fit that composition into a rectangle felt very limiting. Drawing patterns allowed me to do whatever I wanted in any arrangement and then arrange my patterns into a very practical format that had many real-world applications.

You ran a successful Etsy store while you were still a student. How has starting out in an Internet community like Etsy influenced your work and how you create? Selling work through Etsy beginning in 2010 gave me a head start on how we all use the Internet now—to show and solicit work. Instagram launched that same year, and I started my account the following summer—after buying my first iPhone at the mall! At the time, “handmade goods” were incredibly popular, as well as the design and fashion blogs that showcased products. I was finding ways to make real things with my work—digitally printed silk scarves, block-printed dresses, screen-printed tote bags—and bloggers picked up on it. Over time, my popularity led to real commissions, which was my goal. My first big job was released in summer 2012, a collection of ten dresses and sweaters for Anthropologie using patterns I’d designed and posted online. It sounds pretty obvious, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that clients will hire you for exactly what they see you’ve done. When I’ve wanted to shift the direction of my work, it has always been self-initiated through personal projects; eventually, that led to commissions.

I tell myself that if my work is being copied, it’s probably time to move on and have fresh ideas.”

How does something like your Halloween candy or naked ladies pattern get made? All of my drawings are drawn with gouache on paper, and then scanned into Photoshop to finish. I set up a pattern as a repeating tile, and usually, I just nudge pieces around and test out tiling it until it looks balanced. There’s no formula for adjusting color, texture and other visual elements. I know what I like and how I want a piece to look.

Tell us about moving your hand to book covers and newspaper pages. What have you found challenging about adapting your style to editorial and publishing projects? I found editorial work challenging when I was in school. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how I want my work to look and how I can make it happen. I’ve used my sketchbook to experiment and tackle compositions I previously thought impossible for me. I was always intimidated to draw a full scene with a background, opting instead for subjects on their own or clusters of objects. I broke through this by drawing detailed scenes from life—I love drawing my friends and family in busy rooms. Now I draw far more scenes and spots and fewer patterns and decorative pieces than I used to.

For your illustrated book Besties, written with Hallie Bateman, how did you find the experience of writing? Did the process of writing, in any way, inform how you made the images? For most of the personal narrative pieces I’ve done, I have an idea of what I want to say and what I want it to look like simultaneously, but working on Besties required a different process because it couldn’t be as fluid as my personal work. First everything had to be written and edited before I could move onto sketches—and then finals. Seeing the whole picture all at once just through writing was a challenge to me, which is one of the reasons why I worked with Hallie. By the time the writing was completed, I whipped out sketches in a day. The writing was so thought out for so long, I had a very clear idea of what the illustrations would look like by the time it was finished.

You sell pottery, silk blouses, pins and more. How has having an independent online store impacted your career so far and how you feel about it? Selling on Etsy, and from there moving over to an independent online shop, has led to the kinds of commissions I want to be doing. Beyond that, it allowed me more financial independence. I don’t have to be constantly worried about what my next job is because I’m always running the shop in the background.

You host Ladies Drawing Night with fellow illustrators Julia Rothman and Rachael Cole. For your next Drawing Night, if you could host anyone, who would it be? One of my favorite artists who is no longer living is Niki de Saint Phalle. I love that her work is decorative and illustrative at once, and it was always the driving force in her life that she put before everything else. It would have been amazing to learn from her.

You’ve written about one of your past experiences with copyright infringement—companies were using one of your early prints of black cats without your permission. Did the experience teach you anything about how you as a freelance illustrator can protect your work? Seeing a large company steal your idea for the first time is shocking and infuriating, but I’ve concluded that this is just the way the world works. Nothing can be done to prevent it, and little can be done after the fact. You can throw a fit on social media to solicit sympathy, or you can spend a lot of money on legal fees, but ultimately, it’s a waste of energy. Instead, I tell myself that if my work is being copied, it’s probably time to move on and have fresh ideas. I make things because the process makes me feel good, and I try not to dwell on the negative.

Leah Goren is an illustrator and surface pattern designer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Parsons School of Design in 2012 with a BFA in illustration. Her clients include Anthropologie,, Chronicle Books, The Land of Nod, Lenny Letter, Loeffler Randall, Penguin Random House and Revlon. She is the author of Besties and coauthor of Ladies Drawing Night.



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