The Route I Took

Someone asked me a question this week which I couldn’t answer. Well, I could but it would have taken too long. It was a good question and the answer might be useful to some.

So I was telling her about a travel grant I was awarded last month by Cultural Enterprise Office  (CEO) to visit three Paris Trade Shows. It was a modest grant, just enough for a budget air fair, metro ticket and the entry cost for the shows. The question she asked was, ‘how did you get this grant?’


Premiere Classe and Who’s Next Trade Shows


Tranoi Trade Show, Paris.

Warning…it’s a long answer… it’s taken 51 years i.e my lifetime (!) My career has grown organically because I’ve squished it, dropped it and reformed it to wrap around my own circumstances. So this post outlines my long way round route to the grant. I hope it doesn’t read like a cv, that’s not the intention, but it may be helpful to see the steps I took as I know a lot of people are either having or wanting to have a refreshing late career.

I’ve always been (and have written previous posts about this) of the belief that the very early years are extremely influential in later life. I think the toys we constantly handled as toddlers, the prints our parents wore, the textures of wall coverings, blankets and textiles that surrounded us all seep into our souls. I’m also certain the obsession British childrens TV had in the late ’60’s early ’70’s on visiting the insides of factories (remember the milk bottling one….) laid the foundations of my utter fascination with manufacturing…and to my absolute joy took me to a paint factory, Tikkurila in Helsinki with my job decades later.


Mum in a bold print and our house mid 1960’s

Mum had been working in The Denmark Room, a place in central Edinburgh which served smørrebrøds, Carlsberg and sold Danish homewares while Dad although a genetic scientist, enjoyed making things and the copper light (top right) is something I still love decades later. Their friends mainly consisted of Edinburgh College of Art graduates so the house always had pictures hanging. Looking at the photos now I can say firstly that Mum still has, and uses virtually everything in them and secondly, I know the things so intimately I could describe them in great detail with my eyes shut. I would like to say my current designs have been influenced by this environment and believe that is Part One of the long journey towards the travel grant.

Part Two, fast track to university. I studied geography. Whats that got to do with design you may ask? Quite a lot in an odd way. Geography is observation, people, process and  pattern and that’s exactly what I’m doing now, making patterns from observations.

Part Three – jobs. For many years I worked for Inhouse, a company with inspiring showrooms in Edinburgh and Glasgow displaying contemporary furniture, lighting and accessories – this was the 1980’s before modern design became mainstream and I was trained under the watchful eye of the late architect Bill Potter and his wife Sylvia. They taught me everything I know about contemporary designers and it’s where my obsession with Italian designer Achille Castiglioni’s started (and continues). I was also working for The Open Eye Gallery, which specialises in contemporary Scottish art so I was absorbing design and colour every day at work. Fast track several more years and I was working for a paint company designing colour palettes for their interior range…by this time, colour was the ‘thing’ that motivated me.

Part Four, I set up on my own. At this point, my story may become useful to you as its tells you who helped me on my way. However, I have written about this part in previous posts so I will be very brief.

In 2015, I launched my first mens ties after being encouraged to print textiles by Solii Brodie of BeFab Be Creative. Gordon Miller of Scot Street Style was very supportive and took the collection over to New York to officially launch in Brooklyn during Tartan Week – he did this for no financial gain to himself, he just believed in the product and was proud to show America contemporary Scottish design.

Then I was introduced to Creative Edinburgh ,‘a network of creatives in Edinburgh, committed to advancing the value and impact of creativity, both locally and internationally’. They helped me connect to others working in similar fields. They encouraged me to take part in The Fruitmarket Gallery Design Market which helped me reach out to a very receptive local audience and is also where I met  an executive from Scottish Enterprise who gave me lots of useful links. After that Craft Scotland invited me to take part in their 2016 Edinburgh Festival Summer Show, again, widening my reach. Scotland Re:Designed then invited me to design a new print celebrating the iconic Paisley Pattern and exhibit at their Paisley Make event. At Paisley Make I was told about Cultural Enterprise Office and I enrolled to receive free mentoring. They strongly suggested I improve my social media (arg, still working on that), build a better website – I’ve done that, it’s now branded Niki Fulton rather than my company name ‘unifiedspace’ and to prepare my range for export – which finally gets me to the point…this is why they gave me the travel grant. The reasoning is that if my brand does well, I shall eventually employ people and if I start to export, well that’s obviously good too. When they awarded the grant, they knew I had been invited by Charlotte Abrahams to exhibit in the Spotted area of Top Drawer, a London Trade Show in January 2017 (something Craft Scotland had encouraged me to do). So what I’m keen to explain is that in this time of austerity, it may seem a little feckless to be sent over to Paris on a grant. But, the award is very carefully thought through and CEO have calculated that it might be worthwhile not just for me but for others too if I can get the brand to take off.

I did warn you it’s a long answer, you may have even forgotten the question by now, (how did I qualify for a CEO grant)  but I felt it was maybe useful for others to see the huge list of people and organisations that have really helped me get to this point. As I said it has been a slow organic build and the more conventional way would be by doing a related degree, textiles for instance, and building your business up much quicker. However my design knowledge has been the 10,000 hour route rather than the Art College route so it has taken a lot longer. I hope I can prove CEO right and do well abroad, I will certain try my hardest. And on that positive note, there is an exciting project opening tomorrow, more on that next time and thank you, if you have, for reaching the end of this post!


Finding your Zone

I think it’s safe to assume that we all have habits to help us find our focus and get into the “zone”. Not surprisingly, colour once again can play a significant role here.

Don’t you find the mere act of wearing a crisp white shirt can dramatically improve confidence and clarity? Perhaps it’s the lack of distraction, perhaps it’s the precious virginal nature of a clean white shirt, you know its “pristine time” is limited so your time feels almost sacred and special – not to be wasted.

However, I find what tops all these habits is sharpening some pencils. A sharp pencil looks ready for action, poised for whatever direction you may take it in. The pencil is sharpened and so is the mind.

It’s multi sensory. The evocative smell of fresh curls winding out from the sharpener can transport you to many places. The random pattern of fallen shavings are visually satisfying in their own right. And the quick touch of the new point, sharp and ready to go……only to be placed in a jar on my desk while I get on with my work at the keyboard. This doesn’t matter, they have done their job, I am now ready to work.

Actually, before I sign off I must tell you an interesting story about pencils I discovered in Victoria Finlay’s book, “A Natural History of the Palette”.

For a long time pencils made from the high quality graphite deposits in the British Lake district monopolised the European art market. But in 1794, a Frenchman, Nicolas Conte , was commissioned to find an alternative to the English graphite. He did this by mixing low grade graphite (France did not have high quality graphite deposits) with clay and his pencils were quickly favoured by many prominent French artists. Then in 1847, Jean-Pierre Alibert discovered high quality graphite in Botogal Peak, Siberia close to the Chinese border. The graphite was of such high quality that the world clamoured to use pencils with this graphite. Later when pencils were mass produced in America, the manufacturers painted them bright yellow to reflect the colour of the Manchu imperial robes linking the mass produced pencils to the high quality graphite from the Alibert  mine (whether they used the Alibert graphite or not).

Interestingly, yellow is so symbolic that most pencils made in America even today are still painted yellow! The power of colour in marketing is of course enormous and as Mark Woodman of Global Color Research said, “perusing the selection in a sale bin recently, I was reminded how imperative it is to get the right colour on the right product”. It is difficult to over exaggerate the importance of colour selection – get it right and a product can fly, get it wrong and that sale bin beckons.

Back to my original note. Do you have a habit which helps you find your focus? It would be great to hear some of your ideas.