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Art, brands and staying in touch: Woodmansterne’s Creative Director, Lee Keeper, on licensed greeting cards
Lee, thanks for making time. You’re the Creative Director at Woodmansterne. Tell us a little about your background…
As a child my parents took me to a museum or gallery if not every week then at least once a month. I’d always marvel at the lightboxes showing colour slides – as a teenager I’d always prefer the ‘square arty cards’ over all others – as I broke into adulthood I always balanced my interests very broadly, in particular challenging classical music. Little did I know that a little over six years ago I would be welcomed to work in a business led and built by the Woodmansterne family who either created these formative moments and also shared some of these passions and interests for ‘the finer things in life’.
Sounds like a match made in Heaven. And how did you come to be in the industry?
For as long as I can remember, the process of creating ‘just the right’ card and choosing carefully thought-through gifts for my friends and family has always been part of my world… My now-retired parents still have the pictures, cards and gifts I made from a very young age.
So you were always inclined towards that sort of thing?
Yes; I’ve also always been passionate about arts and after graduating from art school – having both studied painting and printmaking, with a sideline designing jewellery – I went on to work with a gallerist and sold some work. To better ‘monetise’ my talent for conceiving and making, I also taught myself the fundamentals of graphic design with one of the first Apple Macs.
Anyway, after a couple of years designing posters and merchandise, I had a welcome call from someone who asked me “Are you interested in working in greeting cards?” – and I started freelancing for a small studio in north London… Working for another eminent Creative Director, who I still catch up with at shows, to deliver products for Continental Europe and the UK market with overseas and local illustrators – the rest became my history.
Terrific! So you’ve always had that creative ability and outlet. So now, as a Creative Director, what does your role entail?
My role is to ensure the quality and variety of all our products and publishing are consistently engaging, inspiring and commercial – a juggling act. Fortunately, my creative interests and background are shared by the wonderful team I’ve seen grow with me at Woodmansterne, which makes my job a hell of a lot easier and also very enjoyable. I like to be both challenged and surprised and the people at ‘Woody’ never fail on that front. I’ve always endeavoured to keep the culture as creative as it can be balanced with the pragmatic demands of commercial publishing wherever I’ve laid my hat.
“My role is to ensure the quality and variety of all our products and publishing are consistently engaging, inspiring and commercial.”
I’m curious to ask, then: if you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing do you think?
I’ve always admired people who create worlds where others can thrive and strive to extend the ‘ways to say’. It’s a blend of the solitary artist and collective that I’d set as another life goal. A couple of years ago I went to Dungeness to visit Derek Jarman’s garden; a pilgrimage to a space knowing he was a person that I admired and continue to benchmark my own interests…
Derek Jarman? So this is the artist, writer, film director and activist?
Right! His work was totally uncompromising, ground breaking and was a reminder that this precious life is truly one to make the most of and that one should never stop asking questions.
Fascinating. As I recall, the cottage and gardens were given a huge boost last year through an Art Fund campaign… I’ll put in a link to the site at the end so people can see what you found inspiring. Okay, so… Today, Woodmansterne offers a tremendous range of greeting cards, with some really quirky and interesting licenses… These include The National Trust, Quentin Blake, The RSPB and Spike Milligan. What connects all your brands, though?
I’d let others join the dots, but it should be quite obvious that the pioneering nature and unbridled passion of the people who created these ‘brands’ and associated ‘brand values’ are very much in line with my way of seeing the world – which is in tune with the Woodmansterne portfolio.
Are there any kinds of brand you’d love to hear from? IP you look at and think, “That would be a great match for us!”?
I’m not about to give our competitors a commercial edge! Let’s just say if there are any more pioneers, or passionate individuals or groups out there with whom we haven’t already engaged… Drop us a line!
Perfect. Let me ask you this: in a world where fewer and fewer people are picking up a pen to correspond, what does the market look like today?
I’m not at all of the mind that pen to paper is going to diminish more than the text or Whatsapp call. There’s nothing like getting a physical object, personal to someone, where effort, time and presence of mind has cared to both write and send. An art tutor on receiving a letter from me stated “How very 18thcentury” – which I’ve never forgotten.
Well, it happens I’m with you! I send dozens of cards throughout the course of a year… And while there’s no doubt some of the recipients are surprised to get a handwritten note, I think all of them are delighted. But why do you think that is?
We live in a world where the noise of communication can overwhelm and distract, and this has only made stationers and providers of ‘18th-century-and-much-earlier tools become much stronger today, with variety and personality winning through what they offer us ‘letter-writers’.
“We live in a world where the noise of communication can overwhelm and distract…”
One question that I suppose comes up increasingly with a greeting-card company is that of sustainability. As a third-generation, family run company, what changes has Woodmansterne made to adjust?
I’m proud and very fortunate to be a part of a company that very much values sustainability and long-term thinking and actions through the way it works with people – and the manner in which we create product. From the elimination of our plastic bags to consideration of warehousing power and the welfare of our employees, through to the massive changes accelerated by Covid, we’ve always kept on track without compromising or cutting corners.
What’s the most interesting question I could have asked you today but didn’t?
How do you relax and recharge?
A genuinely new question; good one… Inevitably, then, how do you relax and recharge?
Well, if you knew me very well, I am partial to a Campari and soda and a bloody good night out! Preferably that would involve some authentic disco, or an opportunity to share my vocal talents at a Karaoke bar.
Gosh, it’s like we’re separated at birth – apart from the disco, karaoke and drinking! I’ll tell you what though, Lee, when our paths do cross, the Campari and soda is on me. In the meanwhile, thanks so much for your time.
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