In the fourth of our new monthly series profiling designers based in the UK and Europe, our editor at large Katie Treggiden talks to London-based artist and designer Jo Ham.
Jo Ham is best known for HAM, her brand of design-led homewares and paper goods featuring the escapades of Rabbit, a silhouetted black bunny with endearingly human habits. But she is also a fine artist and, under the name ‘Joanna Ham’, she creates complex screen-printed photograms that explore what it means to be a woman in today’s society. The two bodies of work might seem very different, but they have more in common than first meets the eye.
“They are both a form of social commentary, both feature a character in silhouette, and in both cases, how they’re read changes from person to person,” says Jo. “Someone might say one reminds them of a friend or a sibling, others see playfulness, aspiration, beauty – it depends what they’re going through at the time – and it is absolutely about what you feel, not what you’re supposed to feel.”
“For this reason, my characters rarely meet your gaze,” she explains. “The rabbits don’t have facial features and the women’s faces are often obscured by glasses, or hands, or are turned away. I don’t want them to engage with you directly – I prefer them to be lost in their own thoughts or actions. Both bodies of work are about the desire to convey emotion and feeling. I want to create something that is impactful but not confrontational, that is both modern and timeless – I hope my work appeals across, gender, age and cultures.”
Jo’s interest in recreating the everyday began at a young age. “I started drawing on walls when I was about five, much to my parents’ horror,” she laughs. “They managed to get me off emulsion and onto paper relatively quickly and since then I have never been far from a sketchbook.” She drew what surrounded her – friends, the animals on the farm where she grew up, and what she describes as “very ordinary objects” – shoes, chairs, washing up bottles and pot plants.
She continued to explore these themes while studying fine art at The Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, writing her entire dissertation on Philippe Starke’s lemon squeezer, and after graduating, went on to become a strategist at brand consultancy Wolff Olins.
It wasn’t until later that these everyday inspirations took on the poignancy they have for her today. “The week I turned 25 I was diagnosed with a rare head and neck cancer and everything stopped,” she says. “I had to give up work to begin treatment, and life changed pretty quickly. More than ever before, I appreciated the fun and happiness in daily routines – all the little things we take for granted.”
Encouraged by her family and her medical team, she picked up her sketchbook again, turned her bathroom into a darkroom, and started to capture some of these moments. “I couldn’t get out much, so I drew the objects that surrounded me and happy moments from days gone by,” she says. “Suddenly, I had an escape. Drawings started to flow – each one an ode to life’s simple pleasure and the joy of the everyday – things we can all relate to but often overlook, like mowing the lawn, going to a yoga class, or taking your kids to the park. Although arguably a product of a difficult time, this work was a celebration, something fun and witty but still subtle and always with a bit of edge.”
She recovered from cancer and went back to work, but a spark had been ignited. “I was surrounded by design and creativity at Wolff Olins, but I wanted more, I wanted to make my own work,” she says. “So I took the plunge, quit a job I loved and gave it a go.”
That was six years ago and today both HAM and Joanna Ham are thriving – with HAM, Jo has had a solo show at Colette, Paris and designed the windows for West Elm’s flagship UK store for the London Design Festival, and for Joanna Ham, she has exhibited at London’s Serena Morton Gallery and collaborated with Nike.
But the best part? Running two successful businesses that enable her to balance the demands of motherhood with the desire to create work that celebrates the everyday moments of happiness that she still won’t take for granted. “Having and raising a little human and still being able to be a hands-on artist and designer is something that is a huge challenge, but one I am really proud of,” she says.