Taunton-based designer Susie Thomas has always been creative, and pretty much grew up with a paint brush and a pair of knitting needles in her hands. That creative gene was passed down to her from her mother, who has hugely influenced Susie’s life. Susie has now passed that gene onto her own children, and it was while pregnant with her first child that she decided to take a leap and launch her own design company, Rocket & Co. Susie’s children influence her work today, as does her beloved dog, who has even inspired the name of her business.
Susie: "I started Rocket & Co. six years ago while I was on maternity leave with my son, Max. My full-time job at the time was as an in house artist/designer at a greetings card publishers based in Bath. I used to commute to Bath by train three or four times-a-week and after having Max I didn’t feel I could continue that work routine, or indeed wanted to. I decided to go freelance with the idea of focusing on illustration but I found it hard to find time to concentrate on painting. Rocket & Co. is a one man band – I do everything from designing and making, and framing and posting, to social media and customer service."
With making and creating in Susie’s DNA, she’s proud to have now passed it down to her children – and she’ll even be working alongside her little boy in the not-too-distant future.
Susie: "For as long as I remember I’ve loved making things, drawing, and painting. My mum is very creative so I was always exposed to arts and crafts, and some of my strongest memories as a child are of creating – making Christmas cards with pots of glitter, knitting teddy bears, and making jewellery. I always chose to paint at school when we had the option. My mum used to sell at craft fairs and I used to make various little bits to sell on her table from around the age of seven. Funnily enough my son Max, six, has recently discovered beads and has started making and selling bracelets. He’s going to be having a small basket of bracelets on my craft tables this Christmas so he’s following in the family footsteps! My love of painting and drawing grew and grew throughout school, and I was lucky enough to have wonderful art teachers at secondary school who really encouraged me and gave me real confidence. I studied General Illustration at university in Swansea where I focused on children’s books and greetings cards. I achieved a first-class honours degree in 2003 and then, after a bit of travelling and some freelance work, I got my job as an in-house artist/designer at a greetings card publishers where I worked for five-years."
Susie runs Rocket & Co. HQ from her home in Taunton. She loves the freedom of working at home, although Susie does admit that sometimes it can be distracting.
Susie: "I work from my home and my studio is right in the middle of our house – it is what was once the dining room. It’s a nice big room with plenty of shelving for my growing map and book collection. I’m also lucky enough to have the most gorgeous plan chest which doubles up as extra storage and a huge desk space for me to work on. It can be both an advantage and a disadvantage to have my studio in the centre of the family home. I am always on call during the evenings for when my children wake up. I have no door to my studio so my work area is ‘on show’ at all times. It’s quite fitting that the business that I started to work around my family sits right in the middle of the family home. I’d actually love to have a studio at the bottom of the garden and be able to shut the door on my work but that’s something to aim for for the future. My partner, Jim Farrant, is also an artist and he works from home in his studio at the back of the house."
Susie’s family is a huge inspiration both personally and professionally – as is her dog, who is a very important part of the business. It’s a business that is expanding all the time, and Susie is already using her experience as an illustrator to draw up plans for the future.
Susie: "Rocket is our Cocker Spaniel. When I was trying to think of a name for the company I didn’t want something that was too obvious. Rocket is often sat under my desk while I work, and a lot of my ideas come to me while I’m walking him so he’s a very important part of the business. The red dot at the end of the logo was inspired by Rocket’s favourite red ball. When Phoebe starts school I hope to have a bit more time to pursue my illustrating career. I’d love to try and combine the paper cutting work I’ve developed over the past six-years with my painting. Children’s books have always been my main goal so I will aim to work towards that. Rocket & Co. has allowed me to spend all the time that was needed with my children during their pre-school years and I’m grateful for that, but as I find myself with more time the business will evolve and although I will continue with paper cutting I look forward to picking up my paintbrush again."
Aside from her family, where does Susie get the inspiration from for her designs?
Susie: "Often the materials themselves give me the ideas, for instance the maps and where things are from – in particular this led me to make my ‘Dogs of the World’ pieces, where each dog breed has been cut from maps of where that breed is from. I love making the dog portraits as there are just so many breeds in so many shapes – I’ve learnt so much about dog breeds since I’ve been making them! The dog portraits are always very well received. My favourite pieces are the butterfly quote art works as I just love the colour that the old maps and book pages give me to use, they are perfect for the butterflies. I think butterflies are just beautiful and symbolise new beginnings and freedom, which again work wonderfully with the maps. Often a quote can inspire a design also and the butterflies just sit so nicely aside the quotes that I use."
Susie’s art work is incredibly personal, and it’s that personal element that can provoke strong reactions from her customers.
Susie: "I pay a great attention to detail. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and that comes in quite handy with the map pieces in particular. I offer a really personal service so when I’m working on bespoke commissions I work with the customer to get it spot on meaning the artworks are totally personal and completely unique. I have created some really special map pieces for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and so on, which have been given as really thoughtful gifts that have evoked a real emotional response. I’ve been told of tears (happy tears!) on many occasion and that’s just so lovely for me to hear. My artworks are also all cut by hand by me, with a tiny pair of scissors. I don’t use laser cutting or punches, apart from the small heart pieces."
Susie likes to use old maps and recycled materials in her work. Not only does the vintage aspect of the materials compliment her work, but the process also appeals to Susie’s love of upcycling.
Susie: "I love the colour, the feel, the texture, and even the smell of old books and maps. They have a quality that new ‘shiny’ books don’t have. The colours of these materials lend themselves really well to my artworks. The environmental aspect is also very important to me. My artworks are reusing items that may otherwise end up in landfill or being pulped. One of my favourite places to buy my materials is from the ‘tip shop’ – the Reuse shop at Taunton Recycling Centre – and this gives me a real sense of saving items from landfill. The old books I use are often damaged and the maps are out of date. I like to think I’m giving them a new lease of life in my artworks. I know not everyone approves of books and maps being cut up but I hope they can see that I am making something beautiful from something that is no longer loved by it’s previous owner. Most of my maps have come from car boot sales, charity shops, or the tip shop. My kids both love having a good rummage with me when I’m searching for maps and books so it’s something we can do together. Ordnance Survey gave me 80-plus old maps a year or so ago as part of their recycling scheme so that was fantastic, and I find now that more people know what I do so I get given a lot of maps/music/books when people are having clear outs – it’s just lovely! I’ve even had strangers leave maps for me at The Emporium in Wellington, where my shop is. If I need a specific map that isn’t in my collection then I will source it on eBay, but my collection is quite large now so I rarely need to do this."
Susie’s handcrafted designs are as intricate as they are beautiful, and, as you can imagine, they take time to perfect. However Susie says all the hard work is worth it when she receives lovely feedback from her customers.
Susie: "It really depends on the design and, as they’re very often artworks that I pick up and put down, it’s hard to say. Often the longest part of the process is creating the computer mock up, and finding the right maps and getting the design just right for the customer. The actual making of the artwork is much quicker than the design part. Some ‘trickier’ ideas can take a lot longer to get from my head to the paper, but it’s often the designs that I put off until last minute that tend to be the most successful ones. I guess my motivation is my children, but I’m also driven by creating nice artworks for people’s walls. When I receive lovely feedback it inspires me to keep making more. I love filling my shelves at my shop space – it’s great having an outlet for my work, and having that space is also a motivation as I love to keep it full with artworks, prints, cards, and gifts."
Susie’s passion for her business, and her family, is obvious, but why does she love Somerset?
Susie: "I’m Taunton born and bred so, for me, Somerset is home. It’s also where my oldest friends live, as well as my parents. I’ve always felt it’s a really friendly place to live, and just recently I’ve discovered the fantastic groups that are available to offer support to small businesses, Somerset Ladies in Business in particular. Somerset is also of course a beautiful county, we have the Quantocks on our doorstep, and the beaches are a short drive away. It’s a great location to live in with lots of potential for wonderful dog walks. I also love cider!"