How to be a happy bunny? HAM Rabbit, the long-eared creation of British artist and illustrator Joanna Ham may have the answer...
Wine tasting, casual topiary, a spot of yoga – this little chap knows a thing or two about life’s oft-overlooked simple pleasures. “I love to make stuff and tell stories that have a positive impact on others,” says the graduate of The Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University. “It’s so rewarding when people connect with your designs… full-on belly laughs are the best.”
It was after a brush with serious illness, that the former brand consultant found solace in her sketchbook, and her desire to launch her own brand gathered pace. In 2011 HAM was born and her Rabbit has become quite the little ambassador. As well as appearing on the walls of many a stylish nursery, Joanna’s designs have featured in a solo show at colette in Paris, at an exclusive HAM pop-up at Topshop and on the windows of the West Elm furniture store in central London. Now HAM Rabbit has been enlisted to encourage people to sign a petition for The Body Shop’s Forever Against Animal Testing campaign, which aims to ban animal testing globally.
Three bespoke rabbits, each issuing a call to action, can be found on limited edition packaging and a special animation to bring the message to life. Currently at five million signatures – making it the biggest-ever petition against animal testing – when it reaches eight million, The Body Shop and animal rights group Cruelty-Free International will present it to the United Nations, demanding an international convention to ban all animal testing. “From a personal perspective it has been amazing to use design for good and particularly for a cause I feel so strongly about,” says Joanna.
With her three-year-old son Kit – she also has a little girl on the way – Joanna juggles her business with family life from her beautiful converted granary in the grounds of her former family home in the Shropshire countryside. We couldn’t wait to discover her inspiring story.
A selection of Ham prints
Tell us how your brand began?
Four years out of art school and I was happily working as brand strategist at a great agency in London. Although I loved my job I still longed to be an artist. Just as I began to mull over my options along came a bolt out the blue – after eight months of slowly losing weight, not feeling great and ignoring a lump in my left cheek – a series of trips to the doctor confirmed that I had a rare head and neck cancer.
My life changed pretty quickly. I went from being part of a busy creative studio to a repetitive routine of waiting rooms and boredom. Encouraged by my consultant and family I took refuge in my sketchbook. I started making work and suddenly had an escape.
As I couldn’t get out much I looked for inspiration in the objects that surrounded me at home and the good times from days gone by. I started to see the fun and happiness in our daily routines – made even more poignant now I’d had my normality threatened.
Illustrations started to flow… each an ode to life’s simple pleasure and the joy of the everyday with the main protagonist becoming a little black Rabbit I’d first created in my second year of art school. Although arguably a product of a difficult time this was to be a celebration.
I was gaining momentum when my treatment finished but needed normality more and returned to work six months after I’d left. It took a year to get back into the swing of things but I couldn’t switch off from wanting to develop my idea.
I had a renewed sense of living for the moment and that, along with the encouragement of friends, a new found love for interiors and a yearning to do my own thing, all pointed me towards launching a line of objects that showcased Rabbit sharing my stories. One year after I returned to my job I took the plunge and quit. HAM was born.
Why do you think people engage with him so much?
Rabbit seeks to celebrate life’s simple pleasures – shared experiences we can all relate to that often are overlooked. When I start to design I always hope to create something universal and upbeat – that’s open to interpretation irrespective of age, gender, culture or language. How each design is read really does change from person to person…some say the illustrations remind them of a sibling, childhood nostalgia, or perhaps their favourite hobby. For this reason, the Rabbits don’t ever have facial features or hold your gaze. They are busy in their own little world – not engaging with us directly. I like them to be lost in their own thoughts or actions, inviting the viewer to finish off the narrative.
Your designs celebrate the every day – what little every day things give you the most pleasure?
The stuff we often take for granted… like spending an hour on the swings with Kit, amazing food, a great movie, reading by a log fire, a natter with mates over a huge slice of cake, walking Ted (the dog), cooking a big Sunday roast for the family or even just time taking time out to do an exercise class.
What are the secrets to creating a strong brand?
Above all, I think knowing what you’re about and what makes you different is the key to building a brand. But often that only comes with time so being prepared to work incredibly hard is a given. Starting and then growing a business is one of the toughest things I’ve done. I often refer to HAM as my first born as it really has been like having a baby… you love it, nurture it, make sacrifices and often don’t get much sleep! But the reward is huge. And like having a little one I’ve also found my support network to be crucial… whether it’s family, friends or a mentor, having a sounding board and an extra pair of hands has proved invaluable.
A selection of HAM mugs
What are some of the challenges?
It is very easy to get lost in an idea, especially if you’ve spent months working on it, so knowing how to find clarity is important and often that means being open to criticism or being prepared to start again.
The huge amount of hard work needed to get a concept off the ground can be daunting and it is relentless. Typically successes only last a brief moment before you’re back working on the next one. And you never know what’s around the corner – a change in market conditions, suddenly needing funds for lawyers as you’ve been copied, a supplier who doesn’t deliver, a buyer who won’t pay. The road is never easy but you learn from each situation – even if it’s not to go down that route again.
What do you love about what you do?
The variety and flexibility that comes with running your own business is unparalleled. It’s empowering to be the master of your own destiny and to have the freedom to be both creative and commercial where previously I’ve often had to compromise.
What are your efficiency tips?
I’m all about lists! I carry a moleskin weekly planner everywhere, which along with my daily diary has a note page that I obsessively add and strike off to dos!
Do you have apps that you rely on/do you schedule when you look at social media?
I’m a bit weak-willed when it comes to controlling my time on social media – it is so addictive. But Instagram is a really crucial marketing tool for HAM. It’s great being able to share your work to such a broad network of people so quickly – and for free!
What is your morning like?
Probably best described as organised chaos! Kit typically dictates what time I wake up. He’s finally getting into a bit more of a routine but he’ll normally be calling me into his room (he’s new to his toddler bed and hasn’t yet discovered he can get out!) between 6 and 7am. I get him dressed, breakfasted and out the door to nursery by 8.30am. It’s then straight back home to tidy up and grab Ted the dog for our speedy walk over to the studio next door, to meet the team and start planning the day.
Which other artists do you admire?
I think the contemporary print scene in London is incredible at the moment. And there are so many great places to discover new talent like Print Club London and Rise Art. Work I’m obsessing over right now includes Stephen Smith’s riotous abstract prints, Kate Gibb’s monochrome geometric pieces, Claire Halifax’s intricate line drawings, Bonnie and Clyde’s pop art collages and Charlotte Taylor’s fictional postmodern interiors.
How do you balance your work with Kit?
I try really hard to keep a balance between work and home life. But it is difficult, particularly with the studio being on-site and my phone and laptop only ever an arm’s-length away. The weekends are our most precious time and we always try to do something together as a family away from the house.
I think the biggest change now is that I don’t really get any me time. There are some really simple things I miss, like reading. I used to chomp through books … and sadly now can’t remember the last time I picked one up that wasn’t work or child related! Although Kit’s in nursery full time, I’m working. Most evenings are centred around the tea and bedtime routine and end with me back on email before collapsing in a heap! I’m currently six-months pregnant and fatigue is definitely starting to kick in!
Are you more ambitious now?
I think I’ve always been determined with my career and since having Kit this has probably gone up a notch, as I really want to prove to myself that I can run a business and be a hands-on mum.
What has surprised you most about becoming a mum?
The bond. It is so much stronger than I could have ever imagined. I had no idea what to expect and it’s been quite overwhelming.
What has been the hardest lesson learnt?
Restructuring my day: I wasn’t a routine person before babies. When Kit came along I had to get seriously organised. With number two due this summer and the other half working away a lot I suspect I’ll need to up my game even more!
Which other mums inspire you?
Mum’s that are raising mini people on their own… those who are balancing babies and work… parents who have little ones who aren’t well… and many more. I regularly come across mums on Instagram telling incredible stories about family life, both the successes and struggles, and I’m in awe of their resilience and spirit.
What’s your favourite parenting quote?
It does get easier!
How would you describe your parenting style?
We’re quite relaxed with Kit. Although he is now entering toddlerhood and so the ‘I don’t like it’s’ and ‘no’s’ are getting more frequent. We try and be ‘firm but fair’ and have found that now he can talk, explaining situations generally gets him onboard. I am now slightly concerned I’m going to rue those words at 2am this morning when he won’t go back to sleep!
What do you remember most from your childhood?
Being outside, hot summers, making mix tapes, neon Bermuda shorts, my purple Raleigh bike, Saturday morning kids TV, playing snake on our Apple Classic, making stuff, my first watercolour set and reading a lot of Nancy Drew. A happy child of the 80s!
What things would people not know about you?
My maiden name is Ham and I grew up on a farm with pet pigs (I kid you not!). When I was 11 I fell out of a tree and badly broke both my arms and my nose! I started studying History and Politics at Oxford but quickly realised I’d made the wrong choice and switched to Fine Art. I love potatoes but cannot bear them mashed.
Where is your happy place?
With my boys and Ted strolling through the Shropshire countryside.
How do you look after yourself?
Probably not as well as I should! I’m trying to schedule in some downtime at least one evening a week… to cook a proper meal (no more cereal for dinner), escape from the laptop and take a long bath.
What makes you stressed?
I’m such a worrier and a bit of a perfectionist – a tricky combo. I’m definitely one to get hung up on the little things and have a habit of over thinking a lot. I cope by putting things in perspective – reminding myself I’ve had cancer and how lucky I am to be here normally snaps me out of it and gets me back on track.
Tell us about where you live?
We actually now live in the house I grew up in Shropshire. We bought it off mum and dad a year ago and have been slowly making it our own. It’s a four hundred-year-old farmhouse so the renovation has had its challenges but we love mixing old and new. We have also been able to relocate the studio right next-door. It’s an old granary barn that we’ve gutted and rebuilt – being mindful to retain all that makes it special like the beams and stone walls. I feel very lucky to be looking out over hills every morning – and sheep make great neighbours!
Do you miss being in London?
I miss London a lot especially my friends and the huge array of culture and food on your doorstep. But we get back there often, it’s not too bad a commute by car or train so we don’t feel we’ve abandoned the city completely.
Finally, what are you most excited about for the coming year?
It’s a pretty big year for Stew, Kit and I as our baby girl will be saying hello to the world in July. I’m hoping to have a bit of time out from the business but there is one more exciting collaboration – with a great British brand – planned for Christmas.
Jo Ham’s little list of loves
1. My family – not forgetting Ted the labradoodle, our first-born son!
2. Herbal tea – I’m addicted to lemon and ginger.
3. Neal’s Yard Remedies – their frankincense moisturiser is a staple.
4. The Cowshed Spa at Babbington House – the perfect retreat.
5. My Lisa King London leather tote – it goes everywhere with me and is the perfect size for my laptop, cables, make up, Kit’s bottles, the odd Thomas the Tank etc!
6. Moleskin diary – I am lost without it.
7. Lighting – we’re renovating at the moment and I’m obsessed with statement lights. My latest love is the Petite Friture cherry pendant. We’ve just got two for the kitchen.
8. Meredith Frampton’s ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ – part of the permanent collection at the Tate Modern.
Join Rabbit in the fight to ban animal testing and sign the petition here: www.foreveragainstanimaltesting.com