If you’re someone who’s curious to delve into pattern design for the first time, we have just the interview for you. This week we’re getting to know Dutch designer Heleen van den Thillart, who joins us from the heart of Rotterdam, Netherlands where she lives with her spouse and two children. Heleen discovered Spoonflower as a way to earn money doing something she loved while raising her young family. She had never designed patterns for fabric before, so using Spoonflower’s design challenges as a springboard, she decided to commit to it for a year. Not only is Heleen now publishing new designs weekly, but she’s also secured licensing deals with companies large and small. How cool is that? Keep reading because we promise you’ll be running for your art supplies by the end of this post!
My day starts with…
“Early morning snuggles with the whole family. I do not function before 7 o’clock in the morning, so my kids (ages 1 and 4) are allowed to crawl in bed with us to cuddle and play. During the day I stay home with them which sometimes can create a struggle to get work done since they don’t have the same nap schedules. I make up for it in the evenings, though, unless I don’t have the energy to work after a day with the kids. That’s when I will watch a movie or binge a series on the couch. But, I love to draw and design so it’s often not a problem to sit behind my desk in the evenings. It doesn’t feel like work at all. Except when I have to do my taxes, but nobody likes that anyway, right?”
I fell in love with design when…
“When my parents gave me my first colored pencils as a child. For ten years during my childhood, I used to go to a drawing club every Saturday and could spend months on just one masterpiece! I still find that working with colored pencils is very relaxing. From an early age I loved to solve problems and make things with my hands; I used to invent and design my own board games for instance. Because of this, I started my study of Industrial Design Engineering at the Technical University of Delft as an adult. After obtaining my Bachelor’s degree I wanted to be more creative with my hands—not just with my head—so I applied for the Royal Art Academy in The Hague. There I studied graphic design and fell totally in love with typography and design. I like the mathematics and scientific approach to designing with type.”
What’s in your toolbox?
“I use a variety of items when drawing—crayons, chalk, acrylic paint, watercolors, pen and ink and stamps. You can make stamps out of many different things such as old wine corks, erasers and potatoes. It’s a fun activity to do with kids, too! Everything can be a tool, but I definitely cannot live without my pencils and paper. I use a light box to trace my sketches into outline drawings, so they are easier to trace in Illustrator, but a window will work just fine too. To make a usable pattern, I will also need my scanner and computer.”
When I’m in my design space, I feel…
“I work at home on my desk in the living room. To keep me from being distracted, I often put headphones on with music or a series. When I’m in a flow I will stop at nothing and keep drawing and editing and sometimes even forget to eat and drink!”
What is your process when creating a new design?
“I always begin with research, utilizing both Google and my extensive art and typography book collection. When I brainstorm a theme, I look for what similar designs are already out there and think about what is still missing or how I can do it differently. I try to come up with at least 10 different design ideas, including some silly ones, too. From these ten ideas I choose the best one and start sketching and sometimes make stamps, watercolor paintings or paper cuttings. I scan my work and edit it in Illustrator which is my favorite design program, unless I’m working with watercolors and paintings, then I prefer Photoshop.”
What piece of your wardrobe best represents your style?
“I am definitely a dress girl and colorful, too. I often wear cobalt blue or mustard yellow—or turquoise of course. Those colors look great with my red hair, which is the best accessory ever! My husband and kids have red hair too!”
Who or what influences or inspires your work and why?
“Everything can be an inspiration! I never run out of ideas, only out of hours in the day. My kids are often a source of inspiration. I like to design cute animal designs for them. My husband encourages me a lot, even though he thinks I use too much turquoise in my work. Even the wall behind my desk is turquoise! I definitely have some artists I admire, too. Kees van Dongen, a Dutch-French painter, makes the most powerful portraits, especially the one of Brigitte Bardot. I adore all Roald Dahl illustrations by Quentin Blake. Mies van Hout makes amazing artwork for children’s books that are so vibrant and powerful. Charlotte Dematons, another Dutch artist, makes wonderful picture books with very detailed illustrations which she works on for months. Well known artists like Vincent van Gogh and Picasso are amazing, as well. I definitely like strong bold colors and shapes.”
If I could live in a painting, I would live in…
“Can I live in a sculpture instead? I would love to live in Jean Dubu et’s “Jardin d’émail” at the KrÖller MÜller museum, the best museum in The Netherlands. It has the second largest collection of Van Gogh in the world and, more importantly, an enormous garden with sculptures you can touch, feel and experience. The museum is in the middle of a national park and I love to see how the different seasons influence the art pieces. When you climb on top of the roof of “Jardin d’émail” you enter a whole new graphic world that works perfectly with the trees from the “real” world. It’s hard to explain the work, you really have to experience it. It makes you see things in a new way.”
I’d love to see one of my designs turned into a…
“I have seen other people turn my designs into baby clothes, accessories, bed sheets, yoga mats, packaging and much more. I enjoy seeing how my designs come to life on a product and would love to have a pair of sneakers featuring my art!”
The secret to a strong collection is…
“I don’t have the answer to this question because I haven’t designed a collection from scratch yet. I do often start with one intricate design, that I created for a weekly design challenge, and make some simpler versions and coordinates for it. People often ask for custom variations of a design, like a different background color or size, and those will be part of the collection too. I am always happy to help people with making a design that’s exactly what they are looking for. So if you like my style but can’t find exactly what you need, please feel free to contact me. I love custom orders!”
The best advice I ever received is…
“Work hard and don’t be afraid. “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” is a quote by Thomas Edison that a teacher once told me about, and I totally agree! You can’t just sit and wait for a brilliant idea to come. It won’t happen. Just get going and don’t be afraid to make a lot of mistakes. Making mistakes is a good way to learn. I try to teach this to my kids too.”
What drew you to Spoonflower?
“The weekly design challenges are perfect, because they give me a deadline to work with. The first challenge I entered was for ‘Groundhog Day’ and I won ninth place! I also made my first sale within a month as a result of that challenge. I felt flattered and encouraged to make many more pattern designs. My Spoonflower shop is still growing and I make new designs every week. It’s just like type design, very mathematical and precise because of the repeat and yet playful and loose because of my use of hand drawings. I love this combination.”
For someone new to trying the design challenge, what advice would you give them?
“Just try it! Do what you love. The challenge themes can get a bit quirky sometimes, but just give it a twist so it will work for you. And as I said earlier: Try to come up with at least ten different ideas before you choose the best design idea. Never settle for the first thing that pops up in your mind. This will stimulate your creativity.”
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
“A few months after I joined Spoonflower I got a custom order to design a fabric for a wedding proposal. This was so much fun to make. Customers now often ask me to make a custom design. Also companies, big and small, ask me for licenses to use my designs on their product. Again, I love to see what other people make with my designs! Almost a year ago I opened my own Etsy shop where I sell baby bibs, teething rings and tea towels with my designs printed at Spoonflower. I like to sew simple things for my kids or home. I am not an expert, but I can manage a baby bib, pillow cover or tea towel just fine! I also sell postcards and stickers with my designs.”
We couldn’t end this interview without suggesting you browse Heleen’s Summer Fresh Fruit collection, most certainly inspired by the strawberries, herbs and plums she grows on her balconies at home. To keep up with Heleen and her musings, be sure to bookmark her website and follow her on Instagram.