I first came across Oh Wonder Calligraphy when I was frantically searching for someone to design the She can. She did. logo in August. After scowling Pinterest for days on end and emailing countless graphic designers, a few favourites stood out. Lauren Cooper being one of them.
Clearly tight for time and pennies however, I ended up using one of those ‘do it yourself’ logo makers that you can find online. A big ‘no no’, I’m sure, in the world of graphic design and a good explanation as to why the She can. She did. logo looks so… simplistic let’s say! Feeling guilty when she responded therefore, I replied with something along the lines of “I’ve had one made now I’m afraid but thank you for getting back to me nonetheless…”
Rather than lumber me into the “time wasters” box however – which let’s face it, I wouldn’t have blamed her for – she replied saying how much she’d love to be a part of this project regardless and if there was anything she could help me with, she’d be happy do it. And why, might you ask? Because her path to setting up Oh Wonder Calligraphy was by no means an easy one…
Like her already? Yes, me too.
I caught up with Lauren in her custom made design studio that was built by her equally creative partner in the garden of their Beckenham home last week after what has been one manic summer season…
Lauren Cooper. I had a really, really busy July and August. A bit too busy really! A lot of what I do tends to be on the day stuff…
She can. She did. In what sense?
LC. I tend to do a lot more place settings, table plans and signage than invites. I don’t know why! I’m trying to push invites more now though as invites get busier around the winter ahead of summer weddings and the day stuff is obviously busier in the summer. People sometimes don’t have their confirmed guest lists until 3 weeks before the wedding so it tends to be quite grouped together.
Lauren’s work includes everything from modern calligraphy for weddings and custom-made invitations to letterpress stationery and bespoke branding. Using materials ranging from paper and mirrors to blackboard, agate and wood, no two jobs are ever the same.
LC. It’s such a big mix of stuff! It’s nice to not be doing the same thing all the time!
Lauren’s path to OWC was by no means straightforward. After studying Fashion Journalism at The University of Creative Arts in Epsom, Surrey, Lauren took to graphic design in her final year and spent the first few months post-university, interning within the design sector for various men’s fashion magazines. With a new love for graphic design, she enrolled at Shillington – a renowned graphic design school where students are treated like designers, not students from day one.
LC. I did a three month full-time course, Monday to Friday 8 till 5. It was really crazy and I was working weekends in retail too so I was a little bit dead for a while! Their way of teaching is like working in a design studio so you’re given a brief and then you have 2-3 days to turn it round. They do the teaching for the brief while you’re designing so it’s really intensive but you learn so much! I absolutely loved it! I made so many good friends and I met my boyfriend there!
After graduating from Shillington however, Lauren’s confidence plummeted.
LC. I kind of lost my way a little bit. I lacked self-confidence in what I was doing and I found it really hard to apply for jobs. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to work for myself but I think a lot of that was at first because I didn’t have the confidence to go in and work with other people…
SC.SD. Do you know why?
LC. I think it’s just a bit of who I am and because I’d changed what I was doing from journalism to graphic design, I started to worry about whether I was going to fall out of love with this as well?
SC.SD. I think that’s quite a common feeling in your twenties though. It can be so overwhelming deciding what you want to specialise in…
LC. Definitely, I think it was a massive confidence thing so I carried on working at the shop. Then about four years ago, I quit my job because I was so sick of it, moved here and free lanced for a year / didn’t do anything for a year! That’s when I realised I wanted to get into wedding stationery but even though I knew what I wanted to do, I didn’t know how to get there and I felt so overwhelmed… I felt like I was fighting a losing battle.
SC.SD. How did you pull yourself out of that?
LC. I started calligraphy. I saw it on Pinterest and I just thought I’d give it a go! I’m not particularly artistic. I can’t paint and I can’t draw but I knew that I wanted a ‘hand done’ element to the designs I was doing and so calligraphy became my saving grace! I just spent so much time practicing it because I really enjoyed it, found it calming and I didn’t have a whole lot else to do!
SC.SD. So it was completely self-taught then?
LC. I learnt through LOTS of trial and error… mainly error! I would just see stuff online and try to recreate it. I also did a Skillshare course. It’s a really good website and learning platform with little video courses. I think it was only 20 quid for the whole course and then a book came out which really helped too…
SC.SD. What’s that called?
She reaches to a shelf and pulls out ‘Modern Calligraphy’…
LC. It’s this one by Molly Suber Thorpe who is the one I followed on Instagram to begin with. I’m in a Facebook group with her and I kind of fan girl over her..! I’m like “Oh Hi Molly!”
SC.SD. “Molly I love you!”
LC. “Be my friend!” Anyway eventually I started to feel like my work was starting to look how I wanted it to look!
However, plans to launch a wedding stationery business were put on hold when Lauren was approached by a recruiter and soon hired for a six month, contract position designing Evans’s in-store fashion magazine.
LC. It was actually really fun and it built up my confidence even though I did sit in the corner feeling so out of my depth a lot of the time! Everyone was soooo nice though! But then I found out I was pregnant… I was 26 at this point, my contract came to an end and the next contract started when I was too far gone so I just spent the rest of my pregnancy lying on the sofa watching crap TV!
SC.SD. Nothing wrong with a bit of crap TV!
Lauren’s light bulb moment came a few months later after she sent her friends a handmade engagement card and was instantly asked to design their wedding invitations. When feedback at the wedding confirmed that her designs were popular, it was the boost she had been waiting for. Around the same time, Lauren was asked to return to her contract role at Evans but after working out the financials once childcare for her four month old and travel was taken into consideration, the option to go self-employed became ever more appealing.
LC. I just thought it was now or never. If I don’t do it now, I’m going to get dragged into another job that I don’t love or I’m going to be a full time Mum and don’t get me wrong, he’s my absolute world and I definitely wouldn’t have done what I’ve done if I hadn’t have had him but I need something that is for me too and as much as I love lying on the sofa doing nothing (!), my brain needs something to focus on.
In January 2016, Oh Wonder Calligraphy was born.
SC.SD. How did you come up with that name?
LC. You can’t post this… it’s a band name!
(NB. I’ve had permission since..!)
SC.SD. I thought it might be! I love them too and I thought to myself on the way over here, I bet it’s inspired by the band..!
LC. My sister said “this is a really cool band, you’ll love them” and I was listening to them and just thought ‘oh my god, I really like their name. Can I steal it and just add calligraphy?!’ I’d been thinking about launching this business for 18 months and I’d been trying to think of a name that whole time. It was such a nightmare! Either the domain wouldn’t be free or I’d Google ideas and someone else had it already… I wish I had a slightly better story about where I got it from but that’s it!
SC.SD. See I love that story! Let’s talk logistics. You’re now happy with your calligraphy, what steps did you take to transform the hobby into the business?
LC. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I was getting so caught up in the fact that it wasn’t perfect yet. I knew how to build a website but my photography was sooooo awful!! I just kept retaking them and retaking them but then I thought you know what, screw it, I’m just going to put them online! So I launched the website last January then started emailing wedding fairs.
I started talking to the lady that runs the ‘Chosen Wedding Fair’ in Islington and she just said “look I’m fully booked but I’ll put you on the waiting list for the next one and I’ll add you to the Facebook group for people in the wedding industry.” It was a total game changer because I suddenly met so many people in the wedding industry which is the NICEST industry in the world.
SC.SD. Why so?
LC. Everyone is SO friendly! I mean I come from working in the fashion industry which is anything but…
SC.SD. It’s definitely got a reputation…!
LC. Exactly, I don’t have the energy to be a bitch and the wedding industry is just so collaborative because of all the suppliers and shoots!
SC.SD. Did it catch you by surprise then?
LC. I guess I just learnt that you have to be a person in this industry. You can’t be too corporate. When I first set up my website, my boyfriend – who is creative director for a big corporate property marketing company – said “say ‘we’ and make yourself sound bigger than you are” but I quickly realised that it just doesn’t fly. These brides trust you with the most important day of their life and you have to be a person that they can talk to and be a friend so because of that I think a lot of people in this industry are real people. There’s no front there.
When someone posted in the Facebook group about taking part in a bridal shoot, Lauren volunteered and quickly learnt that shoots are essentially free press for her start-up business. Taking part in a total of 18 shoots last year alone, often her work went on to feature in bridal blogs and magazines and as an added bonus, she was sent all the photos from each shoot…
LC. Being featured on blogs is the only SEO on the website! I found out yesterday that my website is now featured on the first page of Google if you Google ‘London calligraphy’ which is amazing considering I’m no SEO expert! And it means that my website is now full of professional photography..!
SC.SD. I was going to say, for someone that claims not to be good at photography, the photos on your website are gorgeous but it’s not you?!
LC. I’m fine with an Instagram picture but yes, it’s mostly from shoots!
SC.SD. Do you remember what your first paid commission was after setting up?
LC. Hmmm… I think it was a mirrored table plan. They’re so hard! I got it through a wedding planner I met through networking online. In one of the calligraphy Facebook groups I am part of people post questions like ‘I’ve got a mirrored table plan, how do I do it?’ and I just figured it out from that!
SC.SD. So you took the job on not knowing how to do it?!
LC. Yeh… I do that quite a lot! It stresses me out a lot but I always think I’ve seen it on Pinterest, there must be a way to do it! I practiced all over my bathroom mirror…
SC.SD. Was your boyfriend happy about that!?
LC. He came home and he was like “Lauren…?!” But it looked so good and I’ve had more work from the wedding planner since so I guess that’s a good sign!
SC.SD. What did it feel like when you handed that first piece of work in?
LC. A massive relief! I get quite anxious when I hand work over. I always triple check everything but I always have that panic. I have a bit of OCD so I do get big pangs of worry but I also get really excited to see it in situ, in photos, hear what the bride thinks etc…
SC.SD. Are you proud of yourself when you hear that feedback?
LC. Yeh it’s so nice because I love weddings. I love going to them, I love working on them, I wish one day, hopefully I have one…! To be a part of that is really, really nice.
SC.SD. I can imagine! What’s your biggest challenge with running this business?
LC. Time. There’s never enough of it. I’m a bit of a procrastinator as well… I have days where I’m so on it and then I have days where I’m like what have I done today!? I’m gradually getting better though, especially as I pay for someone to look after Oscar now 3 days a week so I have to be making money!
I have Oscar’s nap times, I work most weekends… I get so tired! Having this studio is amazing though because even though I’m close to the house, I’m out of the house so once I’m in here, I’m in here all day.
SC.SD. It’s such a nice space, I’m so envious!
We get side-tracked slightly as I start ogling everything from the studio’s custom made desk to the industrial shelving unit- all of which, Lauren’s partner made!
LC. He’s a really excellent designer; I can be sat here for ages thinking ‘what isn’t working?’ and he just looks at it and says “it’s this.”
SC.SD. Sometimes you just need fresh eyes on things…
LC. Exactly and he’s amazing. He’s super handy, he loves building things so he builds all my stands for fairs too!
SC.SD. Stands have to be masterpieces in their own right now though don’t they?
LC. It’s like a whole installation! It’s crazy! I did the ‘Handmade Fair’ last September at Hampton Court but I was selling cards rather than bridal stuff and it was a bit of a negative experience.
SC.SD. Why so?
LC. I just didn’t sell anything! I made about £200 but I think about £120 of that was from family members who felt sorry for me so I lost so much money considering the stand alone was £800! I just felt like ‘what am I doing?’ I just stood there like ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!’ I was so lucky that I had ladies on the stand next to me that had done loads before and they looked after me but I felt like a little kid way out of my depth. Had it been a wedding fair though, that would have been a lot worse because that’s the main part of my business.
SC.SD. I can imagine. Would you say that’s your biggest low so far?
LC. I had another one about two weeks ago..!
Lauren goes on to explain how last fortnight, she’d spent hours personalising hundreds of marble coasters for an entire wedding party. After posting them, the courier went on to deliver them a day late and worse still, all of the calligraphy had scratched off when they were eventually unboxed…
SC.SD. That sounds so stressful! How did you deal with that?
LC. It was the day I went on holiday… I just didn’t know what to do! They went straight to the wedding planner thank god. I rang Steve half crying, half laughing, I was hysterical! I was like “I don’t know what to do?” and he just said there isn’t anything I can do and I kept thinking ‘there has to be, there has to be’ so I spent all day trawling the internet stalking northern calligraphers!
SC.SD. Did you find one?!
LC. In the end yes but I think the main thing for me was that I just felt so unprofessional and I genuinely didn’t know what to do to make it better. It’s the only time – touch wood – that something like that has happened to me.
SC.SD. I think those are the situations though when you really realise that you are self-employed because there’s no one but you to take the blame and there’s no boss to say “it’s ok let me handle it…”
LC. Definitely. I was just like SHIT… I was having a pedicure at the time when I got the email and I just started shaking and the lady was like “what’s wrong?” and I was like “don’t mind me… I just think I’m having a panic attack!!”
I don’t deal particularly well with stress. My emotional response to pretty much everything is to cry so I was trying to ring the planner, like ‘don’t cry Lauren, don’t cry…!’
SC.SD. I think a lot of women will relate to that. It says a lot about you that you can dust yourself off and get back to work when your confidence has taken a hit like that though…
LC. I think it helped that I had the holiday so I had time to get over it as opposed to having to go straight back into the next job. Instead, I had the time to go away, talk about it a lot, whilst drinking massive glasses of wine…
SC.SD. I feel like wine cures everything… when in doubt, bottle of red.
LC. When the email came through, my first thought was ‘is it too early to drink wine?!’ but then I was like ‘Lauren, you have to pick your son up later!’ I genuinely do have confidence in what I’m doing but I always have a voice in the back of my mind saying ‘is this good enough?’
SC.SD. That voice can be a good thing though. It keeps you on top of your game. For someone that’s a self-confessed unconfident person, where did the workshop idea come from because you’re in a teaching roll; that takes confidence in my opinion?
As well as staying on top of stationery and wedding orders, Lauren also hosts modern calligraphy courses on a regular basis which promise to introduce guests to the basic tools and strokes that make up modern calligraphy.
LC. The idea actually came from another calligrapher who is a good friend and she teaches workshop in East London.
SC.SD. That’s so good of her to recommend you do them too…
LC. The industry is honestly so nice. She was like “come to mine and you can see what they’re like” so I went along and it was so fun! I was sat next to this girl and she kept looking at my paper like ‘who is this girl? Why is she so good?’ and I was like “errrr… it’s my job, I’m just here to see what she teaches” and she was like “thank god! I was sat here like, ‘what am I doing wrong?!’”
SC.SD. You should have gone along with it!
LC. “I know, I know, it’s obviously my calling…!” But yeh, I originally thought it would be a good way to guarantee money coming in so I started emailing a few venues in South London.
These venues include Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, a pub in Greenwich and Lauren’s favourite venue, Forest in Deptford.
LC. I didn’t think I’d like it at all but I taught my first one last August – I was an absolute nervous wreck – but I loved it! I got a massive kick out of it which I wasn’t expecting so I’ve carried on with them. I still get nervous but I teach a maximum of 10 people at a time so it’s not too overwhelming. Hearing the feedback after is always so nice.
SC.SD. I bet! The photos always look so fun! Let’s talk about this network more then, you’ve said it’s collaborative, how collaborative are we talking? Do you meet them in person?
LC. Yeh loads, it’s so nice! From that original Facebook group, there was a stationery based one that branched off of that- it’s amazing for things like suppliers etc… and a few of us started chatting and we now have a Whatsapp group with about 15 of us on there! We talk all day!
SC.SD. About more than calligraphy?!
LC. About everything! We talk about when our boyfriends are annoying us, when our kids are annoying us…! But then when the tiles went wrong for instance, they’re the people I turn to. I just said ‘PLEASE HELP ME’ and they were amazing! We recommend each other for work if we’re too busy or can’t make an event; it’s nice not to turn down work without giving them somewhere else to go…
SC.SD. Essentially they’re your competition though…
LC. We don’t see each other like that even though we are! They’re the people that can help me and most people in the industry have the same attitude. We can ask any question and usually someone will know the answer.
SC.SD. I think that’s refreshingly rare…
LC. I think it’s super rare. When I first wanted to have my own business, one of the things that I found so overwhelming was all the little things. There’s so many printers out there, there’s so many types of paper… it’s stuff like that that really knocked me and I’d feel like an idiot when I was ringing them so to be able to have this group of people that just say “oh this is the name of the printer I use, give Mark a call” is so nice!
I think working on your own can be really isolating – and I like being on my own- but it’s so nice to have people to speak to when you just fancy a chat or when something goes wrong. Your competition should be your community because they’re the people that are going to have the answer to your questions and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without them.
SC.SD. What would you tell your 23 year old self now then? The one that’s lost out of university and lacking in confidence?
LC. To just do it.
SC.SD. Strong advice!
LC. Haha I think it’s the same advice I’d give to anyone. Just do it because your worst case scenario is never really going to come true. People aren’t going to point and laugh at you and if they do it’s fine, they’re on the internet, you can’t see them! Also just do it because it can be so easy trying to perfect something whereas a business should grow with you. I’ve changed my branding three times. Even though I’ve been doing calligraphy for 5 years and I have a style, it still changes depending on certain jobs I’m doing… It should grow with you. Don’t wait until it’s perfect and try not to overthink it…
SC.SD. My brain gets carried away with me sometimes!
LC. Same! I go into such detail and I’m like why is that important?!
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite quote?
LC. I don’t!
SC.SD. That’s not allowed! You have to!
LC. Ooo I do have one actually! “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It’s so easy with social media to compare yourself to everyone but I think it’s really important to know that Instagram isn’t real and you never really know what’s going on behind the scenes…
SC.SD. Like your slate coasters! I saw those and thought ‘oh my gosh, they’re amazing…!’
LC. Exactly! Whereas behind the scenes I was like WAAA! You never know what someone’s story is- another reason why you should always be nice to people on the internet!
SC.SD. And also, it’s what makes you unique. It’s what you’re selling yourself on.
SC.SD. You said that time or the lack of time is the biggest challenge in this job and it’s a business that’s based on your talent alone so have you thought about how you would expand it?
LC. It’s a conversation Steve and I had on holiday actually. Having someone like Laura to help with admin is amazing, she’s creative too so she’s really interested in it.
Lauren has recently hired her boyfriend’s niece to help her with packaging orders, tidying and general day to day admin one day a week.
LC. Steve said “why don’t you train her in calligraphy” but that’s what I love most about my job. I don’t actually want someone to do that. Ideally, one day I’d want Steve to do some art work and take over the computer designing because if I didn’t have to do that, I wouldn’t miss it that much whereas I know I’d miss calligraphy.
SC.SD. And it’s a skill that you’ve got now. You could be doing this until you’re 70… do you think you’ve found your forever job in this now?
LC. Yes I think so! I feel quite happy with where I am and where I’ve got to over the last two years and people are always going to get married… I hope so anyway!
SC.SD. Something tells me that trend isn’t going away anytime soon..!
I switch the microphone off there and after tearing myself away from Lincoln, Lauren’s gorgeous sausage dog / office companion, we say our goodbyes.
Anyone that names their business after one of my favourite bands was always going to get my vote but my chat with Lauren proved to be so much more.
Lauren dispels the myth that you have to be self-assured and confident by nature to go it alone in business. Despite her anxieties and self-doubt, she’s carved her own path out of a self-taught skill mastered through tons of practice and practice alone and by agreeing to commissions where she quite literally has to learn on the job, she’s proved her versatility and a rare ability to not let being afraid stand in her way.
Yes there have been wobbles along the way and yes, it’s likely that there will be more to come – that’s business – but she confronts her fears head on proving the age old cliché is true: often the jobs that scare us the most are more often than not, no way near as bad as we first think. Hell, we might even go on to enjoy them.
(And if we don’t and it all goes a bit tits up à la ‘the marble coaster incident’, there’s always wine…)
She has that real, no barriers held openness to her and if the interview didn’t convey it, she’s also a hoot. It’s no wonder to me why she’s a woman in demand. The jobs keep coming in and she deserves them all.
For more information on Oh Wonder Calligraphy, visit Lauren’s website here.