Who: Leah Duncan
What: Textile artist and illustrator
Launched: On Etsy in 2008
Lives in: Austin, TX
One look at her striking prints and folksy textiles and it's no surprise that nature is what inspires Leah Duncan more than anything else. The Austin-based artist just moved back with her husband and dog after a two year stint in Fort Greene, BK, and is so excited about her upcoming fall bedding collection with Schoolhouse Electric and to be reunited with her beloved hiking trails and taco joints.
Not everyone can say that Etsy launched their career. How did you stand out?
When I joined in 2008, it wasn't too crowded, and my aesthetic was new for that time, which in turn helped me get noticed by bloggers and magazine editors. I worked hard to try to have a voice that was all me and unique, and I had a blog, which I've since shut down.
Too time consuming?
Yeah, I couldn't keep up. Having the blog was great, because I could connect to people and get feedback and test things out and find my way, but I recently switched over to Instagram and Twitter because I can take a picture and post it within a minute rather than writing a long blog post. I've seen a lot of people grow their businesses on Instagram, so I'm trying to make it a priority to post more frequently.
How did you get into textile design?
Growing up, I was always drawing and painting and taking art classes. When it was time to go to college, I didn't see art as a logical thing to do, so I ended up getting a B.S. in commercial printing, which was kind of a weird choice, since I would've been in charge of a printing department rather than actually printmaking. But we got to design our projects, and that's when I fell in love with design. After college, I got a job as a graphic designer. I worked for an advertising firm for a few years and a screen printing company for a few years after that, and then we moved to Austin. That's when I started drawing more.
Your success happened relatively quickly. What are you proudest of?
Definitely my collaborations. Being able to work with Urban Outfitters, Land of Nod, and Schoolhouse Electric has made me feel like I've accomplished something. They help me get my work out in front of people who maybe haven't seen it before, plus larger companies can produce goods that I can't afford to make on my own, like bedding.
How do the collaborations come about? Do they contact you or vice versa?
I did Surtex (an art licensing show) in 2011, which is how I met The Land of Nod. I don't know how Urban found me; maybe through Etsy. I've been lucky that people have reached out to me, but I'm trying to be more proactive. I'd love to have a line in Target. That would be a dream come true. Anthropologie would be great, and so would West Elm.
I'm interested in the process. Do you meet in person initially?
It's normally just a phone or email conversation. I met with Schoolhouse and Land of Nod in New York because we were all there for the trade show, but I've worked with a lot of companies where we've never met. We go back and forth and do some revisions and they decide which artwork they want to use and then they take it from there to production.
Do you brainstorm ideas together?
Sometimes I'll have work that they're interested in licensing, so it's already complete. Other times, they'll have an idea in mind and I'll sketch it out for them. I have some bedding coming out with Schoolhouse Electric in the fall. They loved the sketches and decided to move forward.
How long do they give you to complete your work?
It depends. Sometimes I'm really busy, so I need two months, but I try to get it done within a few weeks.
What's the style of the bedding coming out?
It's a woodlands theme. The previous bedding I did for them (shown above) was simpler and more their aesthetic, but this one is more complicated, so I'm excited to see how it does. I also can't wait to start working on my next fabric collection which will debut in Pittsburgh in the fall.
Where do you do your work?
When we were in Brooklyn, I had a studio in the Clinton Hill Navy Yard, but now that we're back in Austin, I have a designated area in our house. I think I'll keep it that way for a little while.
What inspires you the most?
Nature. I walked around the Wildflower Center a couple of weekends ago, which is about 10-15 minutes outside of Austin, and there were dots of color everywhere.
Your ability to translate nature into your work is such a gift. Your succulent print is one of my favorites. It's so striking.
Thank you. My prints are my bread and butter. They do so well for me. The succulents were a collaboration with Jeanee Ledoux of Finely Crafted. She approached me and we were going back and forth with a black background versus light blue, and I'm so glad we went with black. It really makes the colors pop.
Do you ever get into a creative rut?
Absolutely, and they can be really difficult to get through, but now I see it as part of the process. Normally when I'm working on a project, I have a lot of anxiety over whether it will look the way i want it to, or if it's going to turn out the way I had envisioned. That can really stall me.
How do you get through it?
I used to try to hammer through, but I've found that that doesn't work well for me. I usually step away and do something relaxing, like a walk or yoga or I'll go out to dinner.
Where is everything manufactured?
I have a cut and sew that does some of my tea towels. When I was in Brooklyn, I had a couple of screen printers working for me, and I did some of it myself at Gowanus Print Lab. I try to keep it as local as possible, which isn't always easy to do.
Do you have anyone helping you?
Right now, I'm doing everything by myself. I had two interns before we moved to Brooklyn, but in New York, our expenses were so much higher. I'm exhausted and in recovery mode right now. Hopefully I'll hire someone in July so we can get ready for the Christmas season. Fall is an absolute whirlwind, and then all of a sudden it's January and I have time to breathe again.
Can you share a few words of advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
With any small business, it's the love you have for it that will help you grow and get you through the challenges you'll face each day. Also, it's important to have a clear voice and aesthetic. The more people recognize your work and your brand, the more likely they are to come back to it.
Thank you so much, Leah! x
Leah Duncan's favorite things:
A few of your favorite artists and designers:
Vera Neumann, Lucienne Day, and Frida Kahlo always stick with me as creative women who did inspirational work during a time when women didn't do such things.
Best U.S. trip:
It's hard to beat Disney World when you're young, isn't it? I remember thinking I'd been transported to another, much more magical world. I thought I was super fancy.
Favorite Austin spots:
Barton Springs is a place that everybody has to go. And I'm really happy to have our Mexican place, Taqueria Chapala, back. It's a hole in the wall, but we can walk to it, and it's really good and cheap and authentic.
Favorite thing about Austin?
Aside from the beautiful weather and Mexican? Everyone is so laid back. I'm outdoorsy, so I love to canoe and run on the hike and bike trails. I kind of need that on a weekly basis, and it's something you can do here very easily. There are trails 10 minutes from our house and we're a block from the town lake.
One or two of your favorite American-made brands:
Martha McQuade and Hartland Brooklyn
One or two American-made products that you own and love:
I have several pieces from Fail Jewelry that I love. Christine's aesthetic is classic and her products are so well made. I can see myself mixing and matching them into my wardrobe forever.
Five things that make you happiest:
My family, color, nature, sunshine, and tacos.
Most treasured possession:
My grandmother's quilts.