I don’t know what I expect, shivering in the winter chill outside the Covent Garden tube station. Part of me is scanning the crowd for Mike Judge in a skirt. Then I get a text: ‘I will be the one wearing a silly white hat with a purple jumper and I’m Chinese!’ She turns up, and she is! She’s also short, opinionated, chatty and one of London’s most promising illustrators. Meet Alison Tang.
Littleclouds, as she’s known around the web, is a fascinating product of formal education in graphic art and illustration, cross-cultural experiences and a healthy dose of cynical humour. Her designs, weird, funny and wonderful, find their way onto anything that isn’t coated in Teflon, from screen-printed totes to embroidered cushions and postcards.
Although she slates her university experience with graphic design studies (‘It was a really bad course – I want that written down!’), it must have instilled a certain sense of marketability, as her designs are both trendy and professional. Crisp, linear images of chubby children and speech bubbles with weird witticisms smack of modern pop-culture magazine illustration.
So where do you get your inspiration? Do you look at others’ work, go to galleries, things like that?
‘When I was at university we were always told to go to museums and go to galleries, but I always found it really hard to “catalogue” the ideas. You can’t just come up with an idea; you have to show the process. But I get them randomly.’
Not a fan of the art scene then?
‘I quite like a lot of student work, like they have the uni nights in East London. I like looking at things without knowing who they’re made by. I like fine art, but if you look at Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, it’s not made by them, it’s made by fifteen students. How is that your art?’
Far from employing a team of minions to ghost-produce her designs, Alison creates hers from scratch and by hand, all from her home studio. ‘It’s really nice,’ she smiles. ‘Wake up, have a cup of tea – just chill out.’
One creation, from start to finish, can take about a day. Suddenly, the knick-knacks on her Etsy page take on the warm glow radiated by all things unique and hand-crafted. I carefully prod the surface of how potentially phony the gimmick is.
Would you ever want your work to become commer-…
…So you wouldn’t want to see your designs on, say, a TopShop T-shirt?
‘Well, I quite like making it myself. My stepmom’s nephew has a factory in China. I was really surprised by what it was like, just a normal working place. If you think of a warehouse or factory here in the UK, it was like that, but cleaner. My dad and brother offered to have my designs manufactured there, but I don’t want to do that.’
Alison goes on to talk about her family, and the support they have shown her over the years with her involvement in the fine arts. Trying not to sound prejudiced, I ask how this works, seeing that she’s not only female, but also Asian.
‘When I was young they wanted me to do stuff like medicine or accountancy. You know, very sensible academic subjects. [But now] they’re really up for it. My dad always used to say when I was younger: “Have your own business, because even if it’s a small business it’s still yours.” You can never get fired.’
She cites Tatty Devine as an inspiration. Not so much for the creative style, but the powerful (and sadly rare) concept of two women running a successful design business. ‘I like how two females, quite young, just wanted to do something and did it,’ she says.
Although Alison never overtly discusses hot-potato topics (racism, sexism, capitalism), she shows fiercely intelligent opinions of all of them. She’s right about Tatty Devine when she points out that it isn’t that crazy to think about a female-driven business anymore. That’s just something to think about.
We chat and we sip our tea (both with milk). Alison talks loads, unprompted and un-self-conscious, laughs in liberal doses and makes politically incorrect jokes (‘They call us bananas, Like, we’re white on the inside but yellow on the outside. I find it funny, [but] don’t go around saying that!’). She talks about her love for travel and how the concept of copyright doesn’t seem to exist in China. She talks about lovely mail she gets from fans of her creations (shh, it all goes into a specially-designated folder on her Mac!). And then it’s over; we put on our coats and leave the comfort of the café, and I sit dreamily on the tube home, trying to imagine the magical whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that careens through the mind of Alison Tang, designer extraordinaire. (‘I don’t see myself as a designer,’ she corrects me, ‘I just say I make things.’)