This week we head to Boulder, Colorado to meet designer and illustrator Dan Lehman of QRS Studio, otherwise known as danlehman in the Spoonflower Marketplace. His specialty is an illustrative landscape of intricately woven motifs, colors, textures and story-telling that are the result of plotting and conceptual research, with a dash of pop culture thrown in. (Queue the Grand Budapest Hotel) You may have seen our recent collaboration with Dan and Indiesew founder, Allie Olson for an exclusive fabric collection centered around Dan’s original botanical themed illustrations. You’re in for a treat as we dive deep into the creative world of Dan Lehman—and find out just what Wes Anderson thinks of his work!
My day starts with…
“Like apparently every creative, coffee! I normally make espresso on my stove top along with a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. While I eat, I either read, draw, or work on client projects. I make an honest effort to stay off my phone and computer during this first hour to reduce distractions and to set myself up for a stress-free day.”
In my studio…
“I do my best work when I can block out several hours for a singular task and get fully focused. When I’m home, without roommates or pets, I have the luxury of reducing distractions to a bare minimum. Unlike a lot of people, I’m content working in total silence, at least for a portion of the total time I spend working.”
Tell us about QRS
“QRS is the name of my design studio but is also kind of attached to any of my broader creative pursuits. Despite sounding like a cryptic acronym for something, QRS is simply a name that popped into my head many years ago that I enjoyed the sound of. It originally manifested itself when I started hand painting ‘QRS’ as an identifier on my Moleskine sketchbooks, a series which started in 2007 and now includes 14 volumes.”
I fell in love with pattern design when…
“I saw Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014, I immediately felt compelled to create illustrations based on the film. Since it was only showing in theaters at the time, I was forced to recreate all of the imagery from memory, which forced my illustrations to take a slight departure from the literal source material and allowed me to reimagine the exact details.”
“Once I had completed this collection of drawings and considered ways of organizing and presenting them, it occurred to me that the content would make for an interesting pattern. This initial design sparked what has become a true obsession with surface pattern design, and I decided to create a pattern for the entire Wes Anderson collection. I’ve named this series ‘Wes Anderson Plot Patterns’ due to the fact that I want my patterns to focus on all of the little storytelling elements rather than the characters or scenes. I like the idea that when Wes Anderson fans look at my patterns, they can figure out where every little piece fits into the narrative and piece it all together.
To date, I’ve completed six Wes Anderson films and will tackle The Royal Tenenbaums next.”
Has Wes Anderson seen the plot patterns?
“Yes, and the funny part is that it was never even a specific goal of mine to make that happen.
This year, I began exploring ways to develop my own product line around the series. I landed on the idea of sewing custom flags which feature a detailed illustration on the front and the corresponding plot pattern on the reverse. Someone suggested to me that I reach out to Wes Anderson’s legal team to ensure that I wouldn’t run into any legal issues down the road. So I tracked down a phone number for Wes’ lawyer and gave him a call.”
“Up until that point, I had [mistakenly] assumed that my patterns fell under “fair use” because I had drawn everything from my memory and executed the artwork in my own style. What I learned is that the mere fact that my creation is based on intellectual property that I didn’t create means that I don’t have the inherent privilege of reproducing it. At that point, we began discussing an arrangement where I could legally sell the artwork while paying royalties against my earnings.
In the middle of these conversations, the lawyer casually mentioned that Wes had seen my patterns and enjoyed them. That was a definite high point for me this year.”
What are your professional development goals?
“As a baseline, I want to make a name for myself as a creator of surface pattern designs that are unique, complex, and that continually explore the boundaries of existing trends and processes. Even though I’m thoroughly proud of the work I’ve generated so far, I want to push my techniques and processes even further.
I also want to challenge myself to make an honest attempt at creating complete pattern collections. My problem is that I have too many ideas — I’d normally rather finish one design and start on something new than stick with a singular theme until I’ve generated a half-dozen coordinating repeats. That being said, there is obviously a tremendous and practical value within the marketplace for offering full collections, so I want to identify the patterns where the time will be well spent and see it through.
Lastly, it would be an absolute dream to attend Surtex in New York City to share my pattern portfolio and make connections within the industry. One way or another, I’d feel extremely rewarded to design a full collection for fabric or home goods.”
What’s in your toolbox?
“I ultimately use the same tools for the majority of my patterns:
When I’m in the research phase, I usually make a point to stop by my local library to see if they have any books with useful descriptions or illustrations. There have been so many times that I’ve found incredible resources that aren’t available online. Go to your library!
For the drawing portion of the process, I use a mechanical pencil and fine tip eraser to create detailed illustrations in my Moleskine sketchbooks. If I need to complete any tracing, I use frosted acetate.
I keep a flatbed scanner on my desk, which is integral to digitizing my ink drawings. I use either Photoshop or Illustrator to complete my pattern designs.”
You recently collaborated with Spoonflower and Indiesew for a series of exclusive fabric designs. Can you tell us a bit about your design process for this project?
“This project was such an amazing opportunity for me, and I’m still trying to comprehend how much we completed in just a few months. Once we agreed to collaborate on a project together, I presented Allie (the founder of Indiesew) with several options. Both of us were most excited with the idea of doing a botanical print, but one with only carnivorous plants. I immediately got to work creating sketches and gathering visual research. After inking the artwork and scanning it into Photoshop, I began building the pattern. Due to the size, amount of variation, and the added layer of vines in the background, this design demanded a lot of attention and time to complete. Compared to most of the patterns I’ve designed, much more time was spent determining the color palette and testing printed samples (Allie wanted to order several hundred yards!), but it was well worth it to ensure that the final product was perfect.
To top everything off, we did a photo shoot at the Denver Botanic Gardens with a professional model wearing four different garments that Indiesew made! It was an incredible experience, and infinitely rewarding to see my design being worn in real life.”
Where did your inspiration for the Fool’s Paradise collection come from?
“I’ve had the idea for this pattern kicking around for about a year now. In our initial discussions, Allie expressed a strong preference for a design with botanical elements. With floral designs being pretty ubiquitous, I wanted to find an interesting angle. That’s when I remembered an old sketch I had made of carnivorous plants and proposed the idea to Allie. She was instantly on board with it, and we ramped up the project quickly.”
Does being a graphic designer inform your approach to making patterns?
“Yes, actually. I think I bring a lot of my design tendencies into my pattern work: obsession over detail, developing a thorough and efficient process and continually looking for new approaches to existing ideas. I would also say that I approach my personal pattern projects with much of the same work ethic that goes into my graphic design. This would include things like conducting exhaustive research and visual exploration, not taking shortcuts, and ensuring that the final product aligns with the original vision.”What is your process when creating a new design?
“Most of my designs begin with a very rough sketch and some written notes. Some of these ideas sit in my sketchbooks for years before they are realized. I’ve found that my least productive approach is forced brainstorming and that 95% of my best ideas have popped into my head while I’m brushing my teeth, in the shower, or running. It’s really important that I jot down these ideas immediately as they tend to be fleeting.
Once I’m committed to an idea, I develop the drawings with more detail, then finalize the artwork with Japanese ink and natural brushes. One thing I have to consider since all the artwork is completed in black ink is which parts will need to be on different layers in Photoshop. If I want two or more colors to occupy the same area in my digital file, I’ll place a sheet of acetate over the drawing and ink on top with a clear reference of the final composition.
I believe that people are inherently drawn to things with a human touch. To this end, I intentionally allow imperfections to occur — which is basically guaranteed when using ink and brush. After scanning in my drawings, I organize my artwork in Photoshop. My workflow involves creating multi-layer groups for individual illustrations, and it’s normal for my files to contain over 100 of these groups! Because I like to include a TON of detail in my patterns and prefer a well hidden, organic repeat, I tend to work with canvases that are 30 inches or bigger. My Indiesew pattern, for instance, is 36 x 36 inches, allowing a single repeat to occupy the entire width of a typical garment.”
Who or what influences or inspires your work and why?
“I am influenced mainly by other illustrators and love to see new projects that they are working on. In the past few years, I have been especially drawn to the work of John F. Malta, Bjorn Lie, and Lisa Congdon. I think what fascinates me about their collective approach to illustration is an ability to depart from strict reality in a charming and intriguing way. As an illustrator, it’s important for me to reinterpret things through imagination so that I am adding something new to the story rather than just replicating or duplicating things that already exist.”
My mantra is…
“‘Try Harder.’ I believe that one of the easiest ways to differentiate yourself from your competition is to simply do more.
- Do more research so that your work is better informed and your concepts are more developed.
- Spend more time getting the details right. Don’t be afraid to completely revise something that doesn’t feel finished.
- Don’t let failures feel like dead-ends, accept them as part of the process, learn from them and move forward. Learning that failure is okay is liberating to your process and goals.
- Don’t simply replicate what others have proven works; find the new angle. Sometimes doing the opposite of the expected is the most compelling solution.
- Learn new skills—cross-pollination leads to richer work and more creativity.
- Work on personal projects—not because anyone is making you—but because it’s fun.”
What piece of your wardrobe best represents your style?
“My custom Vans! These sneakers were designed around my brand, QRS, and feature my trademark navy and gold color palette, woven labels, and hand-painted lettering. While the rest of my clothing isn’t this heavily customized, I do enjoy adding little touches here and there to make my outfits more fun to wear.”
I’d love to see one of my designs turned into…
“A button-down shirt worn by Jeff Goldblum. For some reason, I feel like his taste in fashion is perfectly aligned with where I want my patterns to be.”
The secret to a strong design is…
“Engaging with the viewer, whether through strong concept, story-telling, or craft. With my patterns, I want to draw people so that they have to look a second or third time before feeling like they’ve even seen everything in the pattern.”
Proudest accomplishment from the last year?
“It’s been just over a year since I began working independently as a designer, and it’s been an incredible journey so far. It’s so rewarding when a new client has been referred to me, or when an existing client returns for more work. The best part about working for myself has been the privilege of determining where my personal priorities are and finding more projects that blur the line between work and play.”
What drew you to Spoonflower?
“For me, Spoonflower is a tool with equal utility to anything else that’s essential to my process. There’s a ‘chicken and egg’ aspect to coming up with great ideas—without access to a wide range of useful tools, you will be limited in what you can even imagine.
For instance, my Wes Anderson flag project wouldn’t have even occurred to me without the ability to print my designs on durable fabric at a range of sizes. Additionally, the mere fact that I had recently learned how to sew and purchased a used machine meant that I could efficiently prototype the idea in my own home.”
“As a contributor to the platform, it makes my day whenever someone orders one of my prints on Spoonflower. Imagining that my designs are out there in the world gives me the motivation to continue generating original content. One of these rewarding experiences involved an independent hat maker in Portland, Oregon buying my Pizza Rat pattern and creating a short run with the design!”
For someone new to designing on Spoonflower, what advice would you give them?
“Learn to sew! If you are coming from the art or design world like I am, it’s massively beneficial to learn about the different factors that will affect how your designs look and feel on fabric. Gaining real insights into the market will inform your design process and make your products more marketable. Once you learn the basics, you’ll begin to imagine more and more projects that you could create using your patterns.”
Dan Lehman is an independent visual designer from Boulder, Colorado who specializes in branding, illustration, and pattern design. Dan says he loves Boulder because, “I can participate in a thriving design community, while also spending a ton of time outdoors. Like many creatives, I maintain a range of hobbies and side projects to fuel my curiosity and offer opportunities to get away from the computer. In the past few years, these side projects have included improving my surface pattern design process, learning how to sew, and getting into map and compass orienteering.“