The window of Jacky Al-Samarraie’s Saltaire office – in a building that once housed Sir Titus Salt’s private apartments – overlooks a leafless tree bending in the wind towards the canal.
It is a view that inspires the designer and mum-of-two, whose images depicting rural and urban landscapes and landmarks appear on a range of tableware, prints and postcards sold across the country, from John Lewis stores to the House of Lords gift shop.
It was approaching her 40th birthday that led Jacky to follow her dream of setting up her own business. After juggling part-time arts courses with a career in social services, she re-trained as a graphic designer and set up The Art Rooms in 2007.
Now based in Saltaire, the business supplies to trade across the UK. It recently became a supplier to the National Trust and the Woodland Trust, and other clients include museums and galleries such as Tate Modern and the Baltic centre and Sage in Gateshead.
Jacky creates the designs and all products are made in Britain. Her mugs are made in Stoke-on-Trent from Staffordshire pottery, her paper is produced in the Lake District and her cushions are stitched in Yorkshire.
Originally from Liverpool, Jacky has designs ranging from the city’s Albert Dock and Liver Buildings to tranquil tree-lined scenes of Ilkley, Yeadon and Calverley. There are coasters bearing images of the Angel of the North, Salts Mill, the London Eye and the Antony Gormley Another Place sculptures on Crosby Beach, and table mats with designs of Lister’s Mill, Saltaire streets and Cardiff Castle. Jacky is working on new cycling designs celebrating this year’s Tour de France Grand Depart in Yorkshire.
Her designs have appeared on TV – producers of reality show Geordie Shore ordered eight Angel of the North cushions, and other cushions have appeared on Hotel Inspector and DIY SOS.
“The Landscape design has become my signature style. The rural Yorkshire Land-scapes have remained popular since I introduced them in 2007,” says Jacky, who started out with greeting cards and now produces prints and other stationery, bone china mugs, tableware and interiors products.
“I love walking. That’s what inspires me. I like simple designs and block colours, and I love landmarks because they lend themselves to silhouettes.”
Jacky’s creative streak is rooted in childhood, when she was “always looking for something to make”. Aged eight, she learned to sew, using sample fabrics her father brought from work, and by the age of ten, she’d taught herself to make sewing patterns.
“I measured myself, then stuck newspapers together and drew the shape onto them. My mum had a hand sewing machine and I made myself a catsuit! The zip was a bit wonky, but I thought it looked great,” she smiles.
“My friend had a pair of Scholl shoes and I wanted some, but my parents couldn’t afford it, so I decided to make a pair! I found some plywood in my dad’s garage, sawed two pieces into a shoe shape and nailed peppermint green plastic bands onto the sides. I clip-clopped around in my home-made ‘Scholls’.
“My parents were very encouraging – when I was 16 they bought me an electric sewing-machine, which it still works!”
But school wasn’t so supportive. “I went to grammar school, and the arts weren’t really encouraged. I didn’t want to work in an office – maybe I thought working with children would be more creative, so I went into nursery nursing,” says Jacky.
She worked as a nanny in London, before moving to Abu Dhabi for her husband’s job. Returning to the UK, they settled in Bradford and while the children were young, Jacky did part-time creative courses, including pottery and woodwork. “I made our kitchen table!” she smiles. “I bought a secondhand knitting machine and made clothes for the children.”
She later did a two-year interior decoration course, followed by a graphic design HNC and, in 2000, gained a first class honours degree in graphic media and printmaking from Bradford College’s art school. She fitted in her studies around working at Saltaire Family Services and being a mum.
“I always thought I’d like a business but it wasn’t until I was approaching 40, with two teenagers, that I thought ‘do I want to retire in social services?’ The answer was ‘no’. I felt I had to change direction,” says Jacky. After college she took a studio on Thornton Road and started designing wedding stationery, moving onto greetings cards for friends and family.
“I booked a newcomers’ stall at the British Trade and Craft Fair in Harrogate, showcasing my cards and canvases, and was accepted to do Enterprise Island, a weekend in Haworth for new businesses to develop their ideas. It was a bit like Dragon’s Den. I had no business knowledge, but that weekend made me think ‘I want to be seen as a designer with a brand and an identity of my own’.”
In 2008, things took off when she booked a stand at Harrogate Home and Craft Fair, taking out a loan to fund her products. “My stand was really successful – that was the start of it,” says Jacky, who was still working for social services while running her fledgling design business from home. In May 2011 she took voluntary redundancy and moved into the business full-time, leaving her job after 21 years.
Last September, she moved from premises at Baildon Mill to Saltaire. “It’s a very creative place. I find it inspiring,” says Jacky. “I look out of the window and see all this history; the canal and the park. I get Japanese tourists at the door wanting to see my designs!”
Her showroom, studio, office and storeroom are based in what was the kitchen area of Titus Salt’s private block, next to Salts Mill. A dumb waiter is still visible in the wall, and there are stone slabs, hooks and pulleys in the old kitchen. Light pours through large windows in Jacky’s airy office and on her mantlepiece is a ‘Henry’ award for Best Art Range at the ‘Henries’ – the greeting card industry’s Oscars.
While she has a showroom in Saltaire, all her business is online. “It’s a huge growth area. Online retail sales almost doubled in 2013,” says Jacky, who plans to expand her range of products to include trays made from sustainable birch wood, picnic wear and cool bags.
As her business developed, she had support from Rising Stars, a business growth programme funded by Bradford Council and Bradford Chamber of Commerce. Packaging, previously outsourced, was brought back in-house, prompting the move to a larger space in Saltaire.
“The arts and creative reputation of Salts Mill means it’s the perfect location for us,” she says. “I started my business in the recession, that’s all I’ve ever known, and now I supply across the country. I set out wanting a sense of achievement from doing something on my own – now I’m finally starting to feel that.”
Not bad for the grammar school girl in home-made shoes who honed her craft on her mum’s old sewing-machine.
For more about The Art Rooms visit theartrooms.co.uk.