By Nicole Torres
Erin Flett is hardly your average graphic/surface/textile designer (if there is one). With a healthy DIY attitude, the belief that you create your own reality, and refreshingly soulful designs, she’s popped up on our radar as a designer to watch. She’s worked with several different agencies, won over 22 design awards in four years, gathered some impressive clients, and is now building her own unique brand of colorful and super funky throw pillows, which is gaining quite a bit of attention. Her “designs for the stylish soul” have wandered into the spotlight of the Portland, Maine design community, bringing her to a point in her career where she’s having to say “no” for the first time.
The designer took a break from her work to talk a little about her love of surface design, how paper wasn’t enough, moose sightings in Maine, and what it’s like to rebrand your own city.
How did you find your way to surface design?
After graduating from Kansas University (a competitive design school that really taught me how to think conceptually and build a portfolio that landed me a great job) with a BFA in graphic design, I spent four years at a fast-paced advertising studio, learning a lot about production, branding, and collateral. After three years working in this environment, I felt that I didn’t have a voice. I was the designer and had little interaction with the clients that came through. It became clear that to be great and give all that you can to a project, I had to be involved and connected all the way through. So I went on my own, and never looked back. That was 7 years ago.
I have always worked as a surface designer, without knowing it really until someone told me that I should sell my prints or put them on something. I started putting my personal work on cards that eventually led me to fabric. My work seemed to easily translate into surface and textile design. I work in a more graphic and strategic approach as far as developing a concept for a company or for my own line, since that is where my experience comes from. All of it came together for me.
You’ve also said that paper felt fleeting. Did that push you towards textile design?
Yes, absolutely. That was huge for me, because I felt like paper was so brief. I’d spend so many hours finessing these pieces, and they would have the lifespan of a moment. I just felt that I needed to get into something with more sustainability. That’s where the pillows come from.
You believe that good design comes from the soul, but what else inspires you?
Anything old (color palates, decorative elements, vintage advertising and type), my kids (they have an amazing sense of love of the simple process of drawing, painting and gluing, and not having it be anything at all), my garden (I have a lot of floral prints and I often photograph details of my garden which then translate into a repeat pattern somewhere), and other great designers such as Vera Neumann, who I have collected for many years and said, “Fine art should not be relegated to the walls. It should surround you.” She was the first true life style brand and the first to bring pattern in the home. I also love the original work of Marimekko.
How much of your work is inspired by Maine?
Well, you can’t help but be inspired by Maine. The nature part is so keen on my aesthetic, and I’m passionate about the environment. We live on a wooded four acres and are constantly immersed in nature, in trees, the lushness, plus the ocean’s next door. Crazy stuff happens here, like before we moved to Gorham from a more rural Maine town, there was a moose that walked by our window, and it just went black. I literally freaked out, because I had never seen a moose before. I’ve seen a black bear and all kinds of animals, so the kiddo pillow line comes from all our sightings here. With the AU line, the island edge and the sand inspired those patterns. The Aria print was inspired by my time at the University of Kansas; there were fields of sunflowers that would take your breath away. The Stacked Deco was taken from old book covers I collected. All my drawings/collages are really derived from parts of my memory, and everything is hand drawn and very natural and organic.
Right, you’re known for that imperfect quality in your work.
Yeah I tend to keep that roughness and imperfectness, because I do feel you can refine to the point where it’s lost something. Keeping the imperfectness creates a balance for me of taking something and refining it but leaving your hand in it. People can see and feel that it is real, that you touched it. And for me, I feel I need to incorporate elements of this to keep things from looking too manufactured and soulless.
What other projects, besides the pillows, are you working on now?
Right now I’ve landed a big account with the city of Portland, Maine to rebrand the city. Being a typography nut, I love doing logos and corporate identities, but branding your own city is crazy. I’m also working with ACORN, a Maine-based apparel and shoe company, on their catalogue. I’m working on surface designs for Savannah Tails, a brand new dog accessories line. They’ve also asked me to help with packaging and branding. And I’m working with AU and redesigning their website. I recently started conceptualizing a line of outdoor fabrics for a small US manufacturer that sells only to the trade, and I’m doing a million other cool smaller projects. I have two little girls that are amazing, and I spend a few days per week with them no matter how busy I am.
What is Gorham, Maine like? Is there a big design community?
I am from Colorado, so it’s a lot like that except with an ocean. (Gorham is a small town 20 minutes outside of Portland, Maine.) Life here is a great balance— a designers dream really. A lot of designers from New York get sick of the rat race and create little design shops here. They live and work here, and because of all this talent, everyone knows everyone and appreciates great design. We also have a vast number of fine artists that balance it all out, so we have an immense collection of galleries. It’s very natural and cosmopolitan in its own way. I know it’s rated repeatedly top 10 places to live. It’s not super easy here getting constant work, we all look outside of Maine as well, but I feel when you live in a place as scenic and as beautiful as this, you take the harsh long winters and become resilient and constantly recreate yourself to survive.
Can you talk more about what you’re doing to rebrand Portland?
I am working solo on this but with a research group that has collected data as far as where the brand is via online research. They developed a positioning statement for us to work with. My job is to create a new type treatment/possible icon that will rebrand the city to be more urban yet keep the natural historical roots and ultimately drive more bodies to visit Portland, Maine. I received the job after applying for the RFP that the Portland Conventions and Business Bureau put out. I asked what put me over the edge, and the committee said, “Your great design work, but more importantly, your passion and enthusiasm for the job won us over.”
Where do you want to take your work from here?
My goal and vision for myself is to grow the Erin Flett line. I’m a firm believer that we create our own reality and future. My husband and I are hand screening everything ourselves and buying and keeping it all local. We want to support others as well as grow our own company here in Maine. I think people understand the importance to keeping things made in the US. We need to stop outsourcing and build our communities one small business at a time. It’s not the cheaper route obviously, but for us it’s never been about the money, it’s about the process and creating something that is real and connected. And I do believe that the money part follows. Design is powerful, and there are so many opportunities within it. I think as a designer you find your voice eventually and when you let that be the focus, success follows.
All photos courtesy of Erin Flett.