It’s Grim Up North: Sarah Cowan

How could we ever decipher whether it’s Grim northward or not if we didn’t interrogate the owl loving, mushroom hunting and mug brandishing lady of the lakes? 

Living and working in the Lake District, in the ever comically named town of Cockermouth, this previous city dweller packed in public transport, trendy burger shops and continental Christmas markets for hills, rain and quiet evenings. As a freelance designer and illustrator in a modern age, you can truly work from anywhere—assuming that ‘anywhere’ has a wifi connection and ample electricity for thirsty shiny light boxes known as Macintosh Computers.

Even though my current adoptive home of Carlisle isn’t many more miles north than Cockermouth (HA!) and barely clings at it’s city status when comparing it to other northern powerhouses, I found the idea of a creative working amidst the hills totally bizarre and somewhat crazed. It’s a weighing game between quality of life and quality of clients; which by the look of Sarah’s work, she seems to be guiding that fine balance quite well.

With a basket full of foraged goods and a British wildlife observers book in our coat pockets, we squelch down the tree lined muddy track to the nucleus of Sarah’s creative reasoning. Can you smell scent of animal droppings and a post-city lifestyle? Smells great doesn’t it?

Sarah Cowan

Who are you, where do you come from and where do you live?
I’m Sarah Cowan, designer, illustrator, owl enthusiast. I was living and working in Manchester for the past 5 years but returned back to the rolling fells of the Lake District last year.

Who or what are your biggest influences?
I think nature has always been my biggest influence. I started drawing as soon as I could fit a pen into my grubby little baby fist, and my favourite thing to draw was animals. If I didn’t feel like drawing animals, I’d make some up instead (the terrifying evidence of which is shut away in random drawers in my parents’ house).

There is a lot of inspiration to tap into when you’re out for a walk, or even just staring at a tree. Colour palettes, patterns, forms and shapes are all there to harness if we take the time to stop and look.

What items that you work with, could you not work without?
Pencil and rubber, and a computer helps too. Even when I work on something digital I always start with pencil and paper. The rubber’s worth a mention because I always find the ones on mechanical pencils wear down too rapidly. It’s taken me years to find the best one—one that doesn’t rip your paper or make weird smears, or smells weird. It’s a Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser by the way. Beware, the link is strictly NSFW.

Being that London is the centre of British design, why here?
Design happens regardless of where its ‘centre‘ is.

I tend to look at design based on how it functions and looks rather than where it’s from, and I’ve seen amazing design work coming from all around the world. With the power of the internet we have more inspiration, tools and resources at our fingertips than ever before, regardless of where we’re based. There are exciting things happening in design in other places outside London, in and out of cities. Manchester for one is a thriving creative hub with an amazing community and its people rock, it’s the reason I moved there after university and why I still consider it my second home.

If I was given the option to move to London, I would still rather be among the lakes, forests and fells of the countryside. It’s a place that fuels creativity through its landscape and nature. I’m also too much of a country bumpkin to survive in a city the size of London. As much as I enjoy visiting it, the horror stories alone about rentable accommodation from my friends there are enough to put me off. I think I’ll stick to my little cottage in Cumbria. Good choice.

What is the worst part of being away from London?
There’s a downside to being away from London?
No, but really, I see more and more designers opting for a less stressful and creative life outside of the city. There’s really no worse part once you’ve built your contacts and client base.

Do you feel The North lacks culture and/or support for design?
It depends how you define culture. 
Is there a cronut bakery or theatre on every street corner? No.
Are there creative people doing an array of amazing things? Heck yes!

I think the North lacks support in a lot of things as well as design and the creative sector, but the people have a spirit all of their own.

What (design) work would you never do?
Work that would contradict my own values. I realise this a privilege, as not everyone can afford to turn down paid work in this way, but stick to your guns where you can!

Where does the north begin (or end)?
There was a time when I considered only Cumbria and Northumbria ‘The North’, as they’re the only two counties that literally touch the Scottish border. But then I met people from places like Yorkshire and Lancashire who insisted that they too were ‘The North’. This confused me initially, as compared to Cumbria, they were technically “The South” or “The Midlands” at most (this caused a great deal of anger when I told them this).

I then realised that “The North” is in relation to London – that people who are north of London consider themselves Northern. I’ve since changed my narrow-minded view and now refer to anyone outside of London as Northern, including my friend from Dorset. Dorset and Cornwall are honorary Northerners since it’s mostly countryside there (i.e. the natural habitat of the Northerner).

How do you have your tea? (Brand, sugar, strength, milk?)
The closer to He-Man’s skin tone the better. The first thing I do in the morning is boil the kettle and leave the tea to brew while I get on with my morning routine. I’ve been known to leave tea brewing for at least 10 or 20 minutes.

What is the name for this?

I seem to be one of the few people that doesn’t pop a vein when this debate rears its head. I call it a variety of names, I think it’s the filling that dictates which. Bun, bap, teacake, roll are all fair game. The one I couldn’t get my head around was “barm” when I was living in Manchester. When someone asked me to get them a “chip barm”, I thought they said “barn” because they were hungry enough to eat a barn full of chips.

Wouldn’t that be a glorious thing to behold? Yes, a thing of obese glory.

If you have liked what you’ve seen, please see my previous bout in interrogating people where I quizzed the ever lovely Lydia Leith and the deadly trendy Gary Bovill.

It’s Grim Up North: Gary Bovill

In the second edition of analysing whether the North is in-fact Grim or not—we step up to Gary Bovill, possibly the only designer I know who could name all premiership football clubs. 

It’s not quite the amazing accomplishment I’m making it, but I don’t often stumble upon a designer who screams at both balls and iMacs; I mean what people do in their spare time is their own business isn’t it. You nosey buggers.

I’m yet to fully figure out how to pronounce Bovill, but like everyone other person in the this series so far (please note, there has been only one other so far) we’ve met once so that’s perfect criteria for my mild interrogation, as I strive to find whether it is actually grim anywhere geographically above Birmingham. As a side note, as far as I can tell in these early stages, it’s a little grim but not too bad.

My first encounter with Gary is both a sweaty and confusing one—as I sat at home, sipping some coffee working my way through an editorial design and I receive a semi-panicked message from my tutor “There are two senior designers here to see you”. Here being the campus I was currently 3 miles away from, dropping my coffee and suddenly now running towards, with great haste and bewilderment. As I reach the campus, I burst through the door to find two tall, beard owning men looking confused at my confusion. The two stood before me had travelled from the North more north to give a lecture and workshop to various students, for the second time—they’d want me to add.

One of these men being Gary. As his face pans up, he asks me “You do posters for the yard, right?” How many blessing I have received from just being involved in that half-broken lovely place. It transpires that they were regulars, still conversing with likes of Mark Howlette (& others), Mark being the previous event manager now fancy furniture selling aficionado. Big up The Brickyard massive.

Now off with the waffle and on with the questions!

Gary Bovill

Look as this trendy man, doing trendy things in trendy Berlin. Trendy.

Who are you, where do you come from and where do you live?
I am Gary Bovill. Originally from Darlington in the North East, I lived in Carlisle for 3 years whilst at University, then London for 4.5 years at the start of my career and now I live in a lovely little town called Marple, where legend has it, Agatha Christie came up with the name for her fictional spinster come detective, Miss Marple.

Who or what are your biggest influences?
My influences change on a daily basis depending on where I am or what I am doing. I think as creatives, we have the ability to take inspiration from things which others may find strange; The angle of a building, a pattern in the pavement or the contrast of colours on a fruit and veg stall. You can find inspiration in everything. I also think the internet has drastically changed the way in which we consume information and I am a huge Pinterest fan, but I still love getting the books down from the shelf and flicking through them, I’m a sucker for a new book from Unit Editions or Counter Print.

In terms of actual people, the list is endless. However, a few people I always fall back on are (in no particular order); Stefan Sagmeister, Jessica Walsh, Neasden Control Centre, Paula Scher & Pentagram, HEY Studio.

I also take inspiration from other designers around me, friends from university—it’s great to see what path everyone is taking. Big shout out to SNASK and Jane Bowyer—also my best man James McCarthy. This aint no radio show mate.

What items that you work with could not work without?
I mean the obvious thing is an iMac, but more importantly a second screen. It’s amazing how much of my time is saved by having my emails and internet browser on a second screen whilst working on the other. Apart from that, my hard drive, some paper and a pen.

Being that London is the centre of British design, why here? (Manchester)
We wanted a slower pace of life and to buy our first house, it’s that simple. The simpler life was achieved instantly and we bought our house after 2 years of living here.

The design scene is great here too, there is a big sense of community and everyone is really supportive. People want to help, encourage and inspire each other rather than compete against each other which is very refreshing. North 1 – South 0

What is the worst part of being away from London?

  • Our friends. A lot of our close friends still live in London and it’s hard to find the time to visit as we’re putting roots down and building a life for ourselves up here.
  • The weather. It’s different, no matter what anyone tells you. Directly related to my next point…
  • The number of beer gardens/outside drinking places. When the sun is out in Manchester, understandably everyone gets very excited yet there is a distinct lack of beer gardens in the city centre.
  • A good Turkish kebab/takeaway. I worked in Dalston for over 2 years and the options were endless, I’m yet to find somewhere that comes anywhere close to how good they were.

Do you feel The North lacks culture and/or support for design?
I think the culture here is fantastic. You can always find various exhibitions, talks, festivals etc to attend. Pair that with the welcoming design scene that I mentioned earlier and you have a very strong and healthy network of driven, creative, talented people.

What (design) work would you never do?
Free work. There is this sort of strange expectation where people think they are doing me a favour by ‘giving me the chance to work on this project that may lead on to some paid creative work.’ Nah you’re ok thanks. It happens a lot less now as I think people are becoming more aware of the value that design has to their business but it is still a problem. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to fit you a new bathroom in the hope that one of your friends might get them to do theirs, would you? Depends if your ignorant arse or not I guess, my friend.

Where does the north begin (or end)?
I think the North starts at the bottom of the Peak District. Maybe Stoke-on-Trent, although that is a bit close to Derby/Nottingham which is definitely Midlands, so somewhere above there. My dad thinks anywhere below the River Tyne is south.

How do you have your tea? (Brand, sugar, strength, milk?)
I’m a straight up coffee snob, black, no sugar, none of these fancy flavoured things or instant granules. After lunch it’s lemon and ginger tea or I will occasionally have a standard builders tea, with milk and one sugar.

What is the name for this?

It’s a bread bun. I can understand that to some people it’s a roll, but a muffin or a teacake? What? Glad you didn’t say barm-cake laddo.

End transmission, conversation with Senōr Bovill has concluded.

Well folks, that’s all I’ve got for you I’m afraid; but just to tease you a little more, I had previously wrote about some future plans of Gary’s but he’s a promiscuous bugger, and ask for it to say this. “We’ve chatted through various exciting projects that Gary is currently working on, so keep an eye out or something like that…” It’s all a sneaky secret here. Shhhhh! *makes cyber hand gestures that are completely unintelligible*

Despite only meeting once, I’ve grown quite fond of Mr. Bovill—it’s likely something to do with our shared taste of the ever-illusive MF DOOM and black coffee. I reckon he’s a pretty good lad, even if he does think the North starts at Stoke (pffffttt) and has a much better grasp of fantasy football than I.

If you have liked what you’ve seen, please see my previous bout in interrogating people where I quizzed the ever lovely Lydia Leith.

It’s Grim Up North: with Lydia Leith

Lydia Leith is just your typical Londoner come Cumbrian, printmaker, ceramicist, sick bag producing fake tattooed designer. Of course.

As part of a newer idea, I’m hopping around the north interviewing creatives to prove or disprove whether it’s grim up north—tea, cake, pint and pie in hand. First in the firing line is Lydia Leith, a local – not so local – known for making paper receptacles for you current event tummy spins and rather nice mugs. Though from her internet presence it could be known that she’s an ‘accidental entrepreneur’ it’s not as well known that she’s quite a lovely helpful person; writing a list in collaboration with her family in preparation for our interview—though this list was so large in mass that I’ve had to not include it here in this post.

Lydia was originally born in London but around age 12 moved north with her family to pursue a more relaxed, family focused life. Carlisle, London, Edinburgh and Appleby have all been home for her, her family and the other half.

It’s a poignant fact that her mother and father are artists, especially her father who is known nationally for his illustration and artworks—despite this fact, it’s not a shadow that hangs over Lydia’s being, for she is a creative being also, creatively successful in her own right. I would not have mentioned this fact should it not have featured in the questions, but should you be interested in his work or instead be a terrible bigot and believe that only men can create good work, see here to fill your creative/bigoted needs.

Lydia Leith

Photo credit: Dylan Collard

Who are you, where do you come from and where do you live?
I’m not really from anywhere I think, but I’m currently in Carlisle.

Who or what are your biggest influences?
Inspiration is actually too big to capture in a paragraph, it comes from everywhere. Colours on a bus ticket, the pattern on a fabric, tissue paper wrapping under an orange, I collect the latter and it’s surprising how many different designs you can find. I am a collector, I have boxes of bits of paper and packaging that I have saved, they are all little bursts of inspiration.

I’ve got some lovely hot chocolate sachets from a school trip to France when they served us hot chocolate for breakfast, I bet I am the only one from my class at school that kept these. It is a bit of a life time obsession but I guess I just appreciate that someone has designed everything, decisions have been made, what colour, what typeface for everything even a tiny apple sticker or a label on a stick of rock. Sometimes the nieve designs are the best.

But of course, I am inspired by all the usual suspects too.

Artists include Hockney, Picasso, Sonia Delaunay, Rousseau, Paolozzi, Kurt Schwitters, The Bauhaus—I could go on all day.

Illustrators and Designers FHK Henrion, Russian posters, Abraham Games, Robert Brownjohn, Kit Grover, Donna Wilson, Rob Ryan, Judith Kerr. Again it’s endless.

Photography Martin Parr & Tony Ray Jones

Architecture Goldfinger’s 2 Willow Rd.

Ceramics Carol McNicoll, Janice Tchalenko

Films Wes Anderson, Jacque Tati

I also can’t ignore the fact my father wouldn’t have influenced me. Both my parents are creatives so without them it’s not too likely I would have gone to art college.

I suppose I look up to designers who are just slightly older than me, I look up to their journey. Sometimes there it too much inspiration to look at and you have to shut it all out and just get on with some work!

How would you describe yourself as a creative?
Well I know one of my problems, I like to do too many things. Doing too many things at once. I’ve recently got into pottery, my stock cupboard is full of printed papers, ceramics and I’ve even experimented with textiles in there. I like to just give everything a go.

My work is usually nostalgic, humorous, topical, or in many cases all three. Once I get an idea I will try any medium to make the idea become reality, this has lead me to use a range of materials plastic, ceramic, printed paper, magnets, fabric etc. I love variety and different materials. I enjoy finding out how things are made.


Being that London is the centre of British design, why here?
Many reasons, though mostly it’s because here we have a garden and the family is here.

Do you feel the north lacks culture or support for design?
We’re missing the fruit and vegetable selection, you can’t even get a ripe avocado. We do miss that but we’ve been visiting Manchester, London, Edinburgh. When we go to these places we’ll grab all the food we need and return with big heavy bags full of Harissa and Tahini.

I think you can get culture wherever you live, as long as you are motivated to find it. People like to do interesting things, there are going to be a few good ones.

What items that you work with could not work without?
A computer, that’s a big one. My diary though—I’m holding it now, it’s my life. Everything goes in this book, if I lost it I’d be very unorganised.

Pencils, pencil sharpener.

What (design) work would you never do?
Only things that are morally wrong, that I disagree with. But also you do need to make money—though you wouldn’t want to do an advert for the conservative or anything, would you?

Where does the north begin (or end)?
Birmingham is the middle, so it must start somewhere around Leeds. People in London say Birmingham but they don’t know about anything north of there.

How do take your tea?
Usually, with a teapot. This goes with a mug overload at home, so try picking a mug, then add the milk, then the tea. No sugar.

What is the name for this?

A bread bun; what are the other options?
A bun. Not a roll; it’s quite fat.
Or a butty.

To see more of Lydia Leith’s work, please visit her website, visit her father’s current exhibition at Tullie House or (if you are a bit of an edgy character) sacrifice a range of milk tops under a full moon incessantly chanting the theme tune to Antiques Roadshow—she will soon appear.