Meet: Erin Grace Cheng
Erin Grace Cheng graduated from BA Fine Art at Byam Shaw School of Arts (now Central Saint Martins) in 2008. Since then, along with her husband Ben, she has gone on to set up own business BerinMade. BerinMade is a multi-award winning stationery design studio specialising in weddings, greeting cards and other custom design work.
We caught up with Erin to find out more about her time at UAL, her company, and future hopes for her business.
What made you decide to come to London and study at UAL?
Going into applications, I had never had a doubt that I would like to go to art college in London. The capital city was always my first choice because of its vibrancy and accessibility to galleries and internships, and I had always imagined starting my career there, which I eventually did! At the time, Byam Shaw School of Art had just become part of Central Saint Martins and its alumnus Yinka Shonibare had just won the Turner Prize (in 2004) which really elevated the college for me. I liked that it was full of character, soul and the history of its alumni.
What was the most important thing you were taught while studying at Central Saint Martins?
My course was in Fine Art, and I found it hugely challenging, in a good way. It taught me to look at art as a platform to start discussions within society and diverse communities. Our tutors encouraged us to critically solve problems in our own way. On a very practical level, that’s where I learned to hustle, and hustle really hard. If you wanted to make a wall-to-ceiling painting, there was no one who would make the canvas frame for you but yourself. As any practising artist, I just learned to be resourceful and flexible in my methods. It prepares you well for the real world if you take the right lessons from it!
Congratulations for setting up your own brand – BerinMade! Can you tell us more about how it started?
I graduated in the most testing time of the financial downturn in 2008. Work was really hard to come by as a new graduate, but I was fortunate to have landed an internship at Christie’s at their Post War and Contemporary Art department. It opened my eyes to how art is run as a business, especially on such a corporate scale. UAL was a good place to learn practice, but at work, it was largely about clients, sales and turnover.
In those years, many creatives were also starting out on their own. The winds were gradually changing with blogging platforms and social media coming into our periphery, and artists didn’t necessarily need middle men such as dealers and agents. The prospect was exciting! I wanted to make work again but because of our tiny flat, we lacked space, so I had to go small. I made paintings like I did in college, but went small-scale. My dream was to start a lifestyle brand, and I spent two years building up start-up capital by turning my illustration and paintings into wedding stationery.
We heard that your company has won many awards; can you share more of these achievements?
I got a start in wedding stationery and the industry is very supportive and friendly, which was amazing. In the first year of business, we were named Best New Comer in 2013, and then again Best Wedding Stationery in 2014 (both The Wedding Industry Awards). Now I am among the panel of judges in the awards and it’s really great to give back.
What’s the secret to your productivity?
I’m not so sure it’s a secret but I make plans and lists all the time. In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to productivity is procrastination, and procrastination comes from being overwhelmed, which is paralysing!
I look at my calendar not only in terms of days and weeks but also in a year view, sometimes 2 years ahead. The key is not to get overwhelmed by all the things that need to happen, and the way to do it is to get the best overview you can, whittle it down by months, and weeks, then days. For example, if your goal is to get stocked in national and department stores, make your action lists backwards from your goal, according to submission deadlines, your pitches, marketing, pricing plan, product prototype, designing, all the way down to concept and sketches. Allocate each milestone to a date and leave it there. When you sit down each day, if you stay on track with what you need to do that day and that day only, then you can be productive and not distracted by the prospect of what you have to do tomorrow.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Currently, we’re traveling a lot in Asia so I’m really inspired by exotic botanicals, fresh natural materials in interior design such as terrazzo and metallic finishing. I love how it all translates into paper goods. As always, our signature gems motif is evolving and we’re working on lots of ways to incorporate these into our gift kits, inspired by my new book Paper Parties which focuses on life’s best moments and gift-giving.
Can you tell us more about this upcoming book Paper Parties?
Of course! This book is a real labour of love. I believe that creativity is our very basic way of making human connections, and everyone is capable of tapping into it. That is really the reason why I love stationery and snail mail so much, because it’s so social and tangible. In our world now, there is a lot of disconnect because of our generation’s obsession with technology. Paper Parties, in that sense, is my antidote to this. It aims to inspire and show that we can get back to making things with our hands and sharing that to mark special occasions like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
My team and I styled 9 party settings of really fun celebrations in each chapter, such as Goodie Gumdrops (all sweets and desserts for birthdays); Wintry Forest (a Scandi winter party), and packed it full of over 50 design-led projects that the reader can make and share with their friends and loved ones. I’m really excited about it because it’s got a unique format of a lookbook at the front, and a manual at the back, so essentially it is an inspirational coffee table book meets instruction book. It came out on 11 May, and you can see more about it here.
What advice would you give to UAL students who would like to start their own business?
Believe in your own vision. Only you have your voice, which is what makes you unique.
Where do you see BerinMade in 5 years?
Honestly, I can make plans but this journey has been so crazy, I’m convinced anything can happen. I’d love to do homeware, wallpaper and fabric. Perhaps make another book, that was really fun.