Q&A: Caroline Gardner

The founder of the eponymous stationery and accessories brand.

Interview: Clare Finney
Portrait: Orlando Gili

In the current climate, cards are even more important than ever. The mental health benefits and opportunity they give to connect with people who are afar, or perhaps isolating, cannot be underestimated.

Legend has it, it all started with a flat tyre. Tell us more.
It was ridiculous. It was one of those incredibly serendipitous things. I was locking my front door, on my way to pick my son up from school, and I could hear this ‘clunk-clunk-clunk’ down the road. I turned, and I saw this really small woman driving this great big car, totally oblivious to the fact she had a flat tyre. I stopped her and told her, and she said, “Oh no! I’m already late picking up my son.” It turned out she was headed the same direction as I was, so I gave her a lift, and we got chatting. We got on really well. We ended up spending the rest of that summer together, really, as our sons were about the same age.

Yvonna Demczynska, as she’s called, was an advisor for the Design Council, and had a business sourcing British design for Japan. At the time, I was doing big abstract paintings and had just finished redesigning our house. I’d finally had my art accepted by a well-known gallery when Yvonna asked me if I could help her. The lady who was supposed to be making her cards with metal on for a show she was organising in Japan had let her down at the last minute, and she thought I could make them instead. I’ve always loved designing things, so I got some electric wire and some eyelets from my local DIY shop, and told her I’d have a go.

And the rest is history?
They sold out in two days. I’d only made 36 or so, and they rang and said, “We need 600.” I made them because I needed the money, but then I thought, well, I might as well see where this goes. So, I made a few more, this time with my name and address on the back. I borrowed my husband’s car and drove around London at night, posting them through the doors of various shops and galleries. Every single one of them placed an order. I asked our au pair to help me, then Yvonne’s au pair, and eventually I ended up with 35 people making hundreds a week. I did a show at Olympia, won best in show, and got so many orders I could hardly cope. It went on like that for about a year. I was working day and night. 

Have you always been into art and design?
I studied interior architecture and fine art, but I like designing everything: from handbags to clothes to furniture. When I was six, I ruined all my dad’s tools by getting balsam wood and making furniture for dolls houses I didn’t have. I took my brother’s Lego bricks and designed buildings with them. Now, switching off and chilling out time for me is designing houses from scratch.

How easy was it, segueing from cards to accessories?
I think if you are a designer, you can design anything. It’s about feeling and looking, not just knowledge. Of course, you have to gain that—when you start to design silk scarves, for example, it’s a steep learning curve finding out what silks there are, how they behave when you print and what to print them with—but I find that fascinating. I love finding out how craftspeople work and how things are made. A card is great, but I have done everything you could ever do on a card now, really. It is liberating to do other things.

Obviously now you have a whole team of people helping you. How hands-on are you?
Everything that is done, I have had a hand in. It’s my name at the end of the day, and I like what I like. That said, I am trying to be less-hands on than I have been, because I think my design department understand now how I work. I will have an idea for a range and the design department will run with it, coming up with ideas of their own which I will look at and say what I like and don’t like and so on. We have some amazing designers, and while sometimes I will look at a design and think, maybe that’s a bit too... you know... Hoxton, we will still run with it. Our cards appeal to 20 to 90-year-olds—and besides, 60 is the new 40. Parents are cool these days. You have to take risks. 

Where are your products made?
All over the place. All our cards and wrapping papers are made in the UK, but we tried to make our other products here and there just weren’t the manufacturing facilities. The few people who are making in the UK are making very exclusive items, rather than wholesale. We have a strict code of conduct for sourcing, though, and our buying team travel twice a year to visit everyone to check everything is ethical and above board.

Where do your ideas come from?
It’s hard to know: books, nature, galleries—anywhere, really, except other shops or designers. I never go to shows and I don’t enjoy shopping. If I want something, I’ll design it, even if it’s a new dress: I’ll get a bit of fabric and either go to a dressmaker or make it myself. If ever I see something similar to a design we’ve done, I want to discontinue it. I don’t want to be samey: I like to push the envelope a bit. Excuse the pun.

How have card-buying habits changed in recent years?
People now buy cards in a different way. Thank you notes for presents or parties are less common, perhaps, but people buy cards for all sorts of other things. If they saw their friend and they seemed down in the dumps, they might send a card saying, “sending you sunshine”, that sort of thing. Sometimes this can seem a bit tokenistic—I’d never send a card that says, “here for you”, for example—but people do really seem to like them. They sell well, as do cards that are a bit more decadent. The market for cards that are more luxurious, with thicker paper, maybe an inside leaf, nice details, all of which we do, has definitely grown.

Your husband joined you in the business in 1996. Wasn’t that a bit scary, putting all your eggs in one basket?
It was scary, but he was getting up at 7am and coming home at 9pm in his job and we had three children. My business was doing so well, I really needed him to help out—and of course he would far rather do that than be out of the house for such long hours. Today it’s very much a family business: my son is a photographer and has done some shots, my other son did economics and works in the accounts department occasionally, and my daughter helps out at Christmas on the shop floor. They’ve grown up with the business, they feel very involved in it, and whenever we need all hands on deck they are there.

What does the future hold?
As well as doing the cards and paper, I’d like to continue expanding our range of accessories—handbags, scarves and so on. I love that they are taking off and I love designing across a range of platforms. That said, I think going into fashion would be spreading ourselves too thinly. We should stick to what we’re really good at: cards, paper and accessories. That’s what we’re best at, so that’s what we’ll continue to do.