Esther Khang is the Bristol-based designer-maker behind EK Colours. Bold and colourful, Esther’s handprinted art tiles are gaining a reputation in the art and design world. Working on paper as well as ceramic tiles, I caught up with Esther to find out about her journey as an artist, the inspiration behind her work and starting EK Colours.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
My work is a joyful statement, celebrating the ordinary and everyday! It’s playful, minimalist and colourful, with bold graphic motifs and hand-rendered elements.
Can you tell me about your background?
I have pretty much always been an artist in some form. I first studied drawing and printmaking then went on to do a Research MA at Central St Martins where I developed a concept for ceramic architectural surfaces. I now design ceramic murals and create collages and works on paper too.
My work straddles the lines between design, art and craft so it’s often hard to know how to communicate the brand to others. But I’m learning to see this anomaly as a positive!
Have you always worked as a multidisciplinary artist, and what drew you towards ceramics and collaging?
On my BA course, I started to explore applying my own prints to handmade porcelain tiles and grouting them onto walls in the city. Like posh graffiti! I loved the idea of creating surprising surfaces for intervention in public spaces. I was also seduced by the glossy, translucent quality of the glazed ceramic surface. But it’s incredibly technical producing your own large tiles, there is so much that can go wrong at every stage, they often warp or crack in the kiln. It drove me mad! I now collaborate with a UK manufacturer to produce my tiles and that allows me to concentrate on actually designing and applying the surface and layout, which is what I really love. The art on paper informs the tile designs and vice versa. My work straddles the lines between design, art and craft so it’s often hard to know how to communicate the brand to others. But I’m learning to see this anomaly as a positive!
Can you tell me about when you decided to start EK Colours?
I had completed my Master’s and didn’t want to lose momentum with my design career so I produced a range of ceramic alphabet tiles, using collage and print to design the whole font. I came up with a brand that felt right at the time and allowed me space to develop future collections and also grow into different disciplines, hence why I didn’t use the words tiles or ceramics in the name. I designed the logo, brochures and business cards myself to keep costs down. I launched EK Colours at London Design Fair in 2016, then went on to show at The Surface Design Show in 2017. Trade shows are exhausting though!
How did you come up with the name EK Colours? Did you know straight away or did it take time?
I played with a few ideas but it didn’t take me too long to actually settle on it. It featured the letters from my name but also gave a flavour of what I wanted my brand to look and feel like. I liked the fresh, upbeat sound of it. I also Googled it to check there wasn’t anything too similar as a brand out there!
Your tiles in the artist Suzy Broome’s house look amazing. Can you tell me about this?
It was a great project to work on. Suzy’s and my styles are very much aligned, being bold, bright and abstract. We met through Instagram and Suzy told me how much she loved my tiles and she was thinking of tiling her ensuite bathroom. We worked together on selecting some tiles from my collection, which she installed herself. It was a great collaboration and was such a bold, creative statement. I’ve also had some recent projects where the client has used a smaller selection of tiles which look amazing too.
Have you always been confident about selling your work?
No, and I’m still not! I still have to get over huge hurdles about marketing and fears of seeming pushy or showy whenever I come to show anything or even think about promoting it! Any suggestions on how to overcome this are most welcome! It helps me to think of putting on a different ‘hat’ that isn’t quite me – but I have to wear it anyway!
You have to allow yourself to give time to different things. You can’t always be doing creative stuff. My creative time ebbs and flows.
What are some of the things you do to stay motivated and inspired?
I have no problem with being inspired! The issue is more not having enough time to realise ideas. I have a massive stash of collage material accumulated over the years, such as printed packaging, which serves as a constant source of visual inspo, and I am constantly looking around me when out and about taking in colours, design, industrial surfaces. Since having a child of my own and working part-time my time is more precious than ever, but I am always motivated to make new work because I value it! The problem can be getting into the right headspace for making art. You have to allow yourself to give time to different things. You can’t always be doing creative stuff. My creative time ebbs and flows. I might spend some time on things like planning, writing, orders, email newsletter, website, social media then I might take a block of time to work on paper collages, then have a phase of working on tile layouts, then a week or two on photographing and editing. You also need to find time for downtime too, that’s really important.
Can you tell me about a failure, and what you learnt from it?
In all honesty, I consider my first collection — the Alphabet tiles — an almost failure. They cost a lot to produce but it just didn’t quite hit the market audience right. Although there was interest at the start, it tapered off. They are made for Modernist design and colour lovers, and typography fans. But the style is very niche. Suitable interior projects for this product are few and far between! I probably could have simplified the colours and design to appeal to a broader audience. I need to revisit this collection and repackage how I market it. I think they could work better in the gift setting, with each letter tile framed up individually for wall mounting perhaps. What I learnt is that you need to be very focused on what you are doing and what the purpose and context for it is. This is the challenge of design. With art you can be a bit more relaxed about this. I mean if you create art from the soul and people catch your vision, you’re winning! I also learnt that I want to approach my tiles more as art than off-the-shelf products.
Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired and in awe of people who are not self-conscious, and who have a very clear vision and creative expression. Their aesthetic is confident, unique and recognisable. I love the graphic design masters of the Avant-Garde, namely many of the poster art produced in the 1920s and ‘30s Europe. Their bold compositions and intentional use of colour. Some examples are Piet Zwart, Jan Tschichold, Theo van Doesburg. Also many of the Modernist painters from this period to around the 1960s, such as Joan Miró. Their visual expression is free and dynamic, yet intentional and considered. I currently really like the large murals of Agostino Iacurci, their scale, bold design and beautifully saturated colour.
Don’t compare! You have a unique journey that is entirely different to those around you. They cannot do what you do! Think of it as a generous act of sharing what you have with the world.
What advice would you give to someone just starting on their journey?
Stick to what you love. Trace a line from what you think you want to create or produce backwards to the everyday tasks that it would actively involve. Ask yourself what you want to spend your days doing? It’s so important to create from the heart and to love what you do, as you will need that drive and energy from within to spur you on when exhausted, discouraged or frustrated. Don’t compare! You have a unique journey that is entirely different to those around you. They cannot do what you do! Think of it as a generous act of sharing what you have with the world.
What’s next for you?
I would love to sell more original art. I am working on building my confidence to approach galleries and collectors with my recent work series. I have many ideas for more works on paper to pursue! I currently have two projects for home tile murals in the pipeline and I’d really love to get more commissions for these tile installations too, but all in the right time! I am also working on prototyping a wall frame for hanging my latest #ceramicollage tile montages.