We have long admired multitasking designer, illustrator, brand-owner, Mother and creative all-rounder Elke Kramer, who, amongst many other things, has been running her own super successful jewellery and accessories label for eleven years now.
To top off her seemingly endless list of admirable skills and achievements, Elke recently returned from a fundraising trip to Nepal, where she climbed to base camp Mt. Everest and raised over $10,000 for charity. Since returning, she has collaborated to produce a range of beautiful handmade soaps, with a percentage of all sales going to Unicef’s Nepal Earthquake Children’s Appeal.
Our Sydney contributor Amber Creswell Bell gives us the lowdown.
In the eleven years since Sydney based Elke Kramer first launched her jewellery and accessories brand, she has quietly and methodically achieved the kind of success that many young creatives can only dream of. As an illustrator, art director and designer, Elke has collaborated with fashion designers, illustrated for countless publications, and, most importantly, put out collection after collection of her unique accessories and statement jewellery, sold across Australia and in high profile international stores including Colette in Paris, Liberty in London and Opening Ceremony in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
The distinctive aesthetic Elke has become known for channels the creative gusto of a founder who commenced her studies in Fine Arts, going on to graduate with a design degree. Elke’s meticulous attention to creative detail touches every output of her business, right down to the hand painted boxes that each piece of jewellery comes in.
As if she isn’t already busy enough running her own business, Elke also bakes, pickles, climbs mountains (including Everest) and gives her time to charitable undertakings. A recent fundraising trip to Nepal compelled her to do more to assist with the enormous earthquake relief efforts. Joining forces with her sister-in-law, Amanda Callan of The Church Farm General Store in Northern NSW, she has produced a range of beautiful handcrafted soaps to continue raising funds for the ongoing relief efforts in Nepal. $5.00 from every soap sold goes to Unicef’s Nepal Earthquake Children’s Appeal.
You can purchase Elke’s soaps and other things in her online store.
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?
My ultimate original influence was my mother. Growing up and watching her establish a career as an accomplished designer and then as a painter, I believed nothing she touched could be more beautiful. She was endlessly capable, and she spent all her waking time painting, designing, crocheting, quilting, mastering calligraphy and Chinese watercolour, pretty much everything. But beyond her love of art, design and craft, she embodied a sense of creative and technical confidence. She KNEW that there was no project she couldn’t conquer, and she taught me that I could do anything I set my heart to.
I have carried and traded on that innate sense of creative confidence. She showed me she could be a mother (of a family of five) and a professional designer and artist. She also taught me to create for yourself, as ultimately it’s about your own personal relationship with your work, your own challenges and struggles, not other people’s opinions and ideas. I feel so blessed to have had that influence.
After leaving high school, my studies took me to a Bachelor of Fine Arts where I felt lost within the hugeness and openness of the discipline. I eventually moved to a Bachelor Design at COFA. I loved the structure of the course, along with the whole art school lifestyle. I felt in familiar company among the artists, the freaks and the weirdos. It was a sense of relief after graduating from the world’s most conservative and narrow-minded high school!
What have been one or two of your favourite recent projects?
The walk I did to Base Camp Everest was hands down the most remarkable, unforgettable and spectacular project I have ever undertaken. Just over 12 months ago I was invited to join a team of creative women to raise money for a deserving charity called Sunnyfields, while also taking on one of the most powerful and challenging climbs. It pushed me to my limit in the greatest sense. The best part was sharing it with my friend and huge inspiration, the prolific contemporary artist Kate Mitchell. She really embodied the ‘fighting spirit’. Only she really knows how far we climbed in a physical and metaphysical sense. It was the best of times and the craziest of times!
I also really relish my jewellery campaign collaborations with my partner, Christopher Morris. He is such an honest photographer and has a really formal and considered approach. He takes my complicated, convoluted, abstract ideas and distills them into a practical and realistic vision. Each time we work together I am more blown away by both his patience and his skill. He is a true talent and I am lucky to have him help connect my crazy dots.
How would your describe your work and what influences your style?
Exact, bold, graphic, considered. I look at the work of artists/designers who can be loose, flawed, unfinished and spontaneous and I wish I could let go like that! But it’s the opposite of what I innately do. I feel calm in balance and stability. I do try at times to be perfectly imperfect but it feels so contrived!
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process?
My work is both intuitive and planned. I generally start a project, be it a range of jewellery, a logo or identity for a client, a website or a collaboration, and I just enter with the intention to play. I take a bunch of ideas I love, and ferment them like sauerkraut. I test and tweak these ideas until they become something new and something original. I am always working on many, many projects simultaneously and often the ideas, the process and the experimentation feed into each other, which can lead to surprising and unexpected paths.
What does a typical day for you usually involve?
The first part of my day involves a lot of cuddles with my two-year-old son, followed by some cleaning and fuelling. He is a small little effervescent energiser bunny and his energy levels blow me away! My partner and I are good at tag teaming; we take turns walking our large dog or wrestling the child. I have finally found an amazing benefit to the dog walking chore, as I can listen to a good hour of some of my favourite podcasts. My currents go-tos are This American Life, TED talks or Invisibilia. I love the way it sets the tone for the day.
Then I traffic to work and try to untangle the deluge of daily tasks. I am still mastering the skill of doing the most important thing first, rather than getting a million non-vital things done. I share my studio with the most vibrant and spunky paper artist Benja Harney of Paperform, who has a knack for lifting the spirits in his sparkling, exuberant kind of way. I also am lucky to work with a team of really talented women. The morning is usually spent half delegating, half gossiping and lots of cups to tea. A usual day consists of emails, fulfilling orders, following up press leads, checking in with my production team, solving technical problems and negotiating disasters!
I have also just set up a new company called Common Knowledge with my business partner Kate Hurst. It unites our 30 years combined experience working across fashion and design in a creative and business sense. We work with brands, helping them cultivate a stronger, more authentic brand voice. Kate’s amazing at analysing the network of systems and motivations in a business and highlighting its strengths and weaknesses, and we have a team that can rework existing or generate new identity, branding and web presence. It’s in its early days but very exciting. There is never a shortage of things to do!
Which other local artists, designers and creative people do you admire?
I am mostly inspired by an artist or designer’s approach rather than their end result. Of course I love a beautiful object, surface or pattern but I am transformed most by the story behind people’s work. My dear friend Kate Fleming of KT Jewels, who is now based in Melbourne, is an amazing jewellery designer that I met in Bali and she is a perfect example of someone who creates, designs, builds houses and makes music; she just emits an authentic creativity. She doesn’t do what she does to make money or because it’s part of a strategic business plan, she does it because it fills a hole in her being and without it she wouldn’t feel alive. I love that realness.
I am lucky to be surrounded by a huge number of talented creative people, it’s hard to know where to start to list them! Others in my circle that I admire are artist and curator Rafalea Pandolfini, florist and flower artist Selena Murray, contemporary artist and stunt woman Kate Mitchell, and my assistant the visionary Nicola Wilson who never fails to blow me away with her sheer talent and vision.
What has been a career highlight for you so far?
I have some great collaborations coming out early next year. One of them is with Brintons, an international carpeting company based in the UK. They have collaborated in the past with some of my all time design heroes, including Timorous Beasties, so it felt like a great accolade to be invited to design a range of carpeting and rugs for them. They produce amazing high quality, 100% wool, digitally woven carpeting in huge blocks to create massive allover repeats across large spaces.
Tell us about the Elke X Church Farm collaboration? What is it and how did it come about?
It is a collaboration with Amanda Callan and Andrew Morris, who run the The Church Farm General Store and who happen to be my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. I have watched them build their humble farm and grow a little family in an old weatherboard church that they bought off a pastor in a small town called Billinudgel near Mullumbimby on the NSW north coast. All the soap and bath products that they make by hand and are 100% natural, cold pressed and organic. They grow most of the ingredients on their little farm and pour a lot of love into each product.
I immediately became addicted to their lush, creamy soap, and after I returned from Everest I wanted to translate some of the experience into a product. The smells off the mountain were really unique and unusual. After talking to Amanda we decided to create a range that was inspired by the aroma elements and key notes that was unique to various places I had travelled.
Himalaya, Kashgar and Petra were all places that struck me with their visual and sensual overload. I like to think the soaps with transport you when you unwrap them and use them. The packaging is a continuation of the labour of love from hand making the slabs of soap, as we also hand-marble the paper in the studio then hand stitch up each block with our copper foil embossed, lettered-pressed labeling. Sometimes I worry that they are too pretty to open and use!
What are you looking forward to?
A week-long hike that Christopher and I are planning to do later this year, The Larapinta Trail in the West Macdonnell Ranges. I need an excuse to get all my mountain climbing gear out of our garage and get my heart pumping and clear the cache in my head. There’s something about going deep into nature that puts the city’s problems back into perspective.
Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?
It’s pretty hard to not choose your own neighbourhood as your favourite! I only moved to the inner west a few years ago and it was so unfamiliar and new to start, but I have discovered its secrets and been seduced by its quirks. I love my neighbourhood of Camperdown, sandwiched between the grandiose Sydney University and RPA hospital on one side, Newtown’s great bars, goths and hipsters on the other, plus moments of great eating in Marrickville, Leichardt, Ashfield and also a blink to Chinatown. It’s all about proximity to eating really!
Where in Sydney do you shop for the tools of your trade?
I love a good art supply store and I never leave Art on King without buying things I didn’t enter to buy, such as pastels, pigments or brushes. I still appreciate a good physical bookshop and it’s a shame that so many are facing hard times as the world becomes digital, Published Art is a favourite. Barnes in Newtown is great for resin supplies including tints and metallic pigments.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?
We are a bit obsessed with Newtown’s Hartsyard, it never fails to dazzle. Best food and sexiest atmosphere in Sydney I think. In my studio we practically DIE for lunches at Boon Cafe in Haymarket. It’s just one block too far from my studio, so it feels both decadent and slightly impractical, which just adds to its ridiculous deliciousness. If you haven’t eaten there before, prepare your tastebuds.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Sitting in the backyard of my home with my partner, son and frisky dog, eating homemade Rose Bakery pancakes or my husband’s delicious ginger congee with Chinese sausage and chilli, or my homemade golden turmeric and ginger tonic (if I am nursing a damaged liver from a fun Friday night).
We usually eat then try to get the hell out of our tiny house and either go to the local markets, yum cha or meet friends at an inner west park nearby, and run our wild child around as much as possible before naptime (standard life with toddler). I also love to spend any spare time on my Saturday mornings baking, knitting or pickling. There’s a certain joy to engaging in humble home crafts.
What is Sydney/NSW’s best kept secret?
I love the divine landscaped Botanic Gardens at Mount Tomah with its spectacular views. It is the home to a diverse range of species, bog and blackbutt, rhododendron and rainforest. It’s an exotic setting that is not far from Sydney but universes away from the sardine packed chaos of our hustling and bustling city.
Take a whole day and meander through the different surroundings; rainforest, eucalypt woodland, spectacular heath and wind-sculpted sandstone. Be engulfed by the carpet of ferns, moss-laden rocks and lush green rainforest with towering trees, before emerging onto a rocky outcrop with mid-blowing views of the Blue Mountains.
Then finish with a champagne lunch in Sean Moran’s Tomah Gardens Restaurant, the expansive balcony dripping in wonga wonga and wisteria vines.