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April 29, 2022 —

Love What You Do: Oonagh Staerck of Aesmo

A deep reverence and awe for the natural world inspires designer Oonagh Staerck in creating soothing, minimalistic prints at Aesmo, her studio in the Scottish Borders.
Sine Fleet - contributingeditor of 91 Magazine
Sine Fleet
91 Magazine contributing editor,
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Winter meadow print by Aesmo styled with linen table cloth

Hi Oonagh! How would you describe your work?

Minimalist, clean and earthy-coloured artwork and stationery. My work is simple – it was always my intention to create something that wasn’t too much of a sensory overload. Like a little holiday for the eyes; a welcome break away from life’s many stresses. My customers have described my work as calming, which I have always loved, too.

What inspired the idea of setting up your business?

I’d known that I had wanted to build something for a little while before setting up shop. I had a note taking app on my phone with a long list describing the branding, the ethos, even the grid layout for my Instagram! All for a nameless business with no products.

At the time, I had recently re-enrolled at college on an intensive year-long art and design course, and began working for a local designer and my now dear friend, Hannah Nunn. After a while of working together, Hannah took me to a craft show in York called Art&, which was so inspiring. The penny finally dropped and within two weeks of the show ending, I had my first product!

I sold a set of my Seaside Postcards on the very first day of release with just 40 followers on Instagram and honestly, that was just the most exciting thing ever. People seemed to really like them, and within another two months I had my first collection of seven prints ready to sell.

Seashell postcard prints by sustainable Scottish brand Aesmo

How did your career begin?

I didn’t go to university. I got incredibly close a couple of times, but both times I ended up deciding that it wasn’t the right path for me at that point in my life. I don’t regret it at all, though I definitely had to work through a lot of ‘imposter syndrome’ feelings in the early days. I had enough motivation to dig deep into the things I really wanted to learn about, and I was able to get a lot of field practice working out in the ‘real world’ in the meantime.

I haven’t ever had a career as such, I’ve worked in an art studio, a paint shop, a hair salon, a florist, in bars and retail. I have been pretty fortunate in all of my jobs. Each of them, except one, were woman-owned, and I was always given the trust, space and autonomy to bring more creative, design-based tasks into my broader job role.

This experience, along with guidance from all my mentors (family and colleagues) helped me to cobble together my business know-how. The rest has been a learn-on-the-job type thing involving many short courses, YouTube videos, educated guesses, some mistakes and lots of just winging it until I found some sort of rhythm.

Lemon themed jigsaw

Where do you find creative inspiration?

The outside world. The light, colours and life that inhabit it. I’m a country girl – I grew up on farms and in small gamekeeper’s cottages on vast, green country estates in the Scottish Borders before moving to the rural Portuguese mountains in my pre-teens, where I lived in a Mongolian yurt with my mum. I was home-schooled, and we lived without electricity for six months and without hot running water for almost three years.

A lot of my life has been lived outside. Sometimes I just sit there, freaking out inside my head at a sunset or a heron, thinking, “Is anyone else witnessing this magic happening?!” It feels so overwhelmingly beautiful that every other thought goes quiet for a minute, and that is the feeling I wanted to bring to others with my work.

What’s the story behind the name Aesmo?

It makes me laugh that I chose such an obscure and hard-to-pronounce name for my business because growing up with an obscure and hard-to-pronounce name myself felt like a bit of a burden. Aesmo (ays-mo) started out as a made-up word which plonked itself in my mind one day, before this business was even a glimmer of an idea. I liked the sound of the letters together and the way they looked together. It also had a vaguely Scandinavian feel to it, which felt right for my aesthetic. It wasn’t until two years into the business that I realised its true meaning and the reason I had been drawn to the letters in the first place.

We lost my brother Aonghas when I was 12, and recently lost my sister Emma in 2020. I found their names swirling round my head on a continuous loop, searching for a way to feel them with me on my path when I realised that the initials of our first and surnames make up the acronym ‘aesmo’. Albeit a little jumbled up, but it felt so special to have us all there together. Hiding in plain sight and with me all along.

Oonargh Staerck of Aesmo on a beach

How would you describe your style?

It’s like hand-cut tissue paper shapes pieced together on the computer; creating nice little colour build-ups where the pieces overlap. I like to use rougher, imperfect shapes because I find it balances out those clean computer lines a bit and helps me to counteract my desire to make everything absolutely super-clean and ‘perfect’.

What career would you pursue, if you weren’t a designer and illustrator?

That’s such a hard one to answer! I often daydream about all sorts of jobs that I’d like to try if I had the chance. I’d love to try my hand at watch-making, or Japanese joinery. Growing up I wanted to be a vet, a dancer, or an author. Briefly a journalist. Then a photographer, then a singer, then an interior designer. When I was considering uni, I applied for philosophy, religion and politics. For a while I considered accountancy too. There are so many career paths that I could still picture myself following, and honestly, I wouldn’t turn the lights out on any of them as a potential for my future. I’m happy to keep the door open and see what comes in. Though perhaps becoming a professional dancer is a bit unrealistic these days, because, y’know… pastries.

What’s the ethos behind your business?

It was important to me that Aesmo products were fully recyclable. I didn’t want to create new products that might one day be clogging up an ecosystem that inspired their creation. I also wanted to give back to causes that helped support those systems, both ecological and social. My very first product, Seaside Postcards, uses 10 per cent of the profits to donate to sea life charities.

My mother is an eco-warrior on a pretty serious level. She grows her own food, generates her own electricity, and lives off her land out in Portugal. I lived with her there in my adolescence, and although my teenage angst just wanted central heating and crisps, it was impossible for what she was doing out there not to rub off on me.

What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?

Confidence was a huge killer when I was first starting out. Putting myself and my creativity out there and not only inviting people to look at it, but to comment on it, ‘like’ it, and buy it was absolutely terrifying! I’d be lying if I said that I was completely over that feeling of being an ‘imposter’ now, but it definitely gets easier with time and a friendly, supportive community.

Sustainable artwork print by Aesmo

Tell us about your work process…

I used to get a bit down about my creative process because it’s not very “Instagrammable”. It’s mostly just me sat behind my laptop screen or sketching on my iPad. I often get so engrossed that I end up sitting there for hours on end before looking up from my screen. I’m definitely not the slightly-chaotic, paint-covered artist stereotype that so many tend to picture in this line of work.

I love working digitally because it works well with my indecisive tendencies. I test out dozens of colour, shape and size combinations before finally settling on the one I like the most. I love that you can change something and if you don’t like it, it can be gone without a trace in less than a second. It suits the way my mind works, and gives me much more room to try new things without fear of failure or ruining the final piece.

Tell us a little about your location and community…

My business has existed in two different countries so far. Initially Aesmo began in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, which is a beautiful, rainy town full to the brim with artists and creatives. Many of the old factories and mills are converted into bustling hives of artistic activity. It is a pretty inspiring place for an artist to be, and there are a huge amount of regular events which support and boost the thriving creative community there.

In 2020 we moved back up north to the Scottish Borders to be closer to my family. The pandemic has definitely been a limiter on social activities up here, so I’m still in the process of reacquainting with our surroundings and the people here, but I would say 75 per cent of the people we know are self-employed. It feels really reassuring and supportive to be able to share all experiences, good and bad, with the independent community here.

Beautiful natural style packaging by Aesmo

Is there an element of your work that you love the most?

Packaging! I could happily spend entire days wrapping up products to send out on their merry way. I love designing the way that they will look once wrapped up; picking colours which set each other off nicely, and adding little treats for unsuspecting recipients. In Japan, the way a gift is wrapped is almost as important as what is inside the wrapping, and I believe wholeheartedly in this ethos. Not only are you giving a physical item, but you are also giving a little piece of you by giving your time in a practice that can’t be rushed.

How valuable is the online community to your work?

Hugely valuable. I very much doubt that Aesmo would be here without it. This journey began just three months before a global pandemic in which all other forms of traditional advertising and marketing became temporarily extinct. It would have started and stopped within just a few short weeks without the online community.

I found the Instagram community in particular to be a real lifeline at times throughout the pandemic. It was a chance to ‘meet’ and chat to like-minded folk with ease from the safety (and monotony) of our homes. It really felt like this strong, creative space which was full of people who supported and uplifted each other. I have met so many people online who I have since worked for, worked with and become good friends with, and who I would otherwise have never known.

Seaside postcard prints sustainable stationery by Aesmo

How do you differentiate yourself in a creative industry?

Dr. Seuss always explains this one (and probably most other things too) better than I ever could. “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

It can often feel like you’re not making any sort of unique path amongst the millions of others already trodden, especially when confronted with a seemingly endless sea of creativity online. But your path and your output will always be unique, because it’s yours. Use that.

Working as an independent – what are the joys, and what are the challenges?

The highs are high and the lows are low, but for the most part I do enjoy working as an independent. The lows usually come with a burn out. Being on your own and shouldering all the responsibility for each aspect of a business can be lonely and exhausting work. I especially miss sick days and paid holidays!

Nothing will ever compare to the feeling of building something, by yourself, which can support you though. I love that I can manage my own workload and timetable, and that I can get outside on those rare sunny days if I work twice as hard on the rainy ones. I love that I can be a designer one day, a photographer the next, and that I’m able to choose which role I’d prefer to be on any given day. It never gets boring and there is always something to keep me occupied.

Penguin print by Aesmo

What have been your business highlights so far?

There have been many but a lovely local restaurant, Osso, has seven or eight pieces of my work on their walls as a permanent feature. We eat there a lot, and it fills me with pride to see them there as a considered part of their interior design.

Any good advice for independent creative businesses who are just starting out?

If you want to, then do it! A favourite proverb of mine is “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” The lack of confidence to try is probably the biggest killer of creativity that there is. Plant that seed. Watch it grow. Nurture it and see what happens or you will never know.

I worked part-time for the first few years alongside my business so that it was less of a risk. Although it can be exhausting running your own business alongside your main hustle, it gives you the freedom to try new things and to afford mistakes – because no matter how much research you do, they will always happen!

QUICK-FIRE QUESTIONS

Books I love… anything by George Orwell!

Creative heroes… my sister, Matisse, Forn Studio

Shops I love…Treen, Olive and Cos

Inspirational places… Kyoto, Morocco, Perthshire, anywhere up a hill!

Instagrammers I love: @hello.mado, @tom_pigeon, @sewsaima, @sarahmasonfilmmakeruk, @tamaragomezjewellery, @thiswildidea, @permaculturinginportugal, @itineranttreasure, @hannahnunnstudio, @theflowerbee___, @juriannematter and @cheznunez.

Discover Oonagh’s work at: www.aesmo.co.uk

Follow her on Instagram: @aesmo.studio

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