Featured Designing Mom: Lisa Swerling and My Little Animals

by Cat on October 1, 2012

I was making my way through the Renegade Fair two years ago at a good clip until I ran into the Glass Cathedral booth of Lisa Swerling. I instantly became a nine year old geek, peering into every one of her creations with endless ooh’s and aah’s. I’m excited that she has a new venture and Jennifer at the Studio had a chance to chat with her for our Designing Moms Feature:

Above: Lisa working in studio, San Anselmo, Marin California 2012

Lisa Swerling of Mylittleanimals.com is a multi-tasking maniac who balances multiple work projects and raising a family with her husband, Ralph. They launched the Mylittleanimals site as a way to teach lessons to children in a lighthearted way using fun animated characters that Ralph illustrated. Lisa also runs her line of poignant artboxes (called Glass Cathedrals) and together she and Ralph produced the Harold’s Planet book series. From traveling and homeschooling her children in Africa for four months to embarking on these creative journeys, we asked  Lisa some questions about how she combines creativity and family.

How did the idea for my little animals come about? 

We wanted to create a storytelling website that dealt with the ‘sticky subjects’ of parenting, young kids being fussy with food, not sleeping, not knowing when to stop!
As parents of two girls ourselves we totally see how we can get into unhelpful dynamics with our kids over these types of issues. The subjects become so exhausting you lose inspiration over how to break the patterns. The stories are meant to be light-hearted –  they are not patronizing or directly pedagogical. But we hope they will give parents and kids a new (and silly!) way to talk about and deal with these sticky subjects.

“Maybe you shouldn’t grab that – remember what happened to Grabby Wabby….”

“You’re such a Naughty Horty! YOU are Naughty Person Number 1!!”

We wanted to really make the stories come alive, so we commissioned a hole lot of talented etsy.com plush makers to (relatively inexpensively) create one-off versions of the characters. We’re giving them away in weekly competitions (although we keep finding them tucked up in our daughter’s beds in the mean time!)

How did you make the idea a reality? 
With mylitteanimals.com, our first step was to create a website and populate it with stories. It sounds like an upside down way to do it, but having the site motivates us to create the content. Once we know people are looking at our website, we’re obviously more inclined to make it as good as possible! It’s an incredible driver of quality content production (if it doesn’t kill you).
Another key, for us, is that we have built up a mailing list over the years for our different projects. For our cartoons vimrodHarold’s Planet  and Mahoney Joe, we create and mail out a free cartoon every day or near enough. So any time we do a new project we immediately have a loyal group of around 40,000 people, who already like our sensibility, who we can share our new work with. This was a kick start for mylittleanimals.com.
As with all our many projects, the main thing was just to START making. Ralph is very good at starting projects, without being overly perfectionist. He is also good at finishing projects, i.e. taking them public. I guess I must be good at doing all the fun stuff in the middle!
How did you also accomplish this for the Glass Cathedrals and the Brainwaves books and the illustrative Web sites?
It seems the common key to all our projects is just ‘get out there’.
With Brainwaves, the publisher Dorling Kindersley approached us because they has seen our cartoon Harold’s Planet, which is well-loved in the UK. We originally published our own range of “Harold’s Planet” greeting cards (over 10 years ago). The first cards we published were terribly uncommercial. They were fabulous and quirky but hard to sell a card with captions like “Contemplating Horseness” and “Jumping out of the Family Tree.”  But the simple fact of being in the public space put us in a position to talk to people, to learn what worked commercially and build from there.
Below: Two “Harold’s Planet” greeting cards
With Glass Cathedrals we again followed the ‘sink or swim’ formula! In order to inspire us creatively, about 8 years ago, Ralph and I rented a huge amazing exhibition space in London’s East End, and invited all our friends, family and work colleagues to The Big Show. Small catch – we had no art to show (who has time to make art with two little babies and full time jobs being graphic artists??) So, you guessed it, we had to get cracking on making art and this was the origin of Glass Cathedrals.
At that time I had just been given a small broken tiny figurine from an architect friend – with only one arm and one leg. Slightly chewed. I had a wooden box from Ikea and when I placed my little friend in the box – he was suddenly transformed from pathetic reject to Lord of the Manor. There was a magical transformation and he just owned the space. I recognised how the combination of tiny person + box created a parallel world where small became big and big became small. So I made some shadow boxes along this theme…and Glass Cathedrals were born.
Above: One of the Glass Cathedrals artboxes titled “All the Days.”
I read that the ideas for Glass Cathedrals came from childhood thoughts and inquiries. How do you address these questions in your own children? 
We try not to intervene in their creative play.  People don’t believe it but I scarcely ever sit down and do creative work WITH my girls, I never have. Partly (selfishly) because I have never particularly been drawn to do it, but also because I believe it’s better for kids to play and create independently. My girls make work that is a million times more amazing, creative and original than I ever have.

Below: Detail of one of Lisa’s Glass Cathedrals titled “A Woman’s Work.” The only bit of housework I enjoy is sweeping, especially sweeping up pink glitter. I feel like some ideal of womanhood. This lovely lady carefully sweeps up the sparkling remains of the day, dignified and optimistic.

What is it like multi-tasking book sales, marketing my little animals, producing the Glass Cathedrals, AND being a mother? 
I have always loved multi-tasking so I get a buzz off doing lots of different types of work.
I have worked since the girls were small babies, and it took a few years to get the family/work balance right, and not feel guilty all the time (guilty about not working when with girls, guilty about not being with girls when working.) The key has been to really separate out the two, not an easy task when you work from home.
I don’t work on the computer when the girls are home from school although I may try sneak in some Glass Cathedral making. It doesn’t feel like work – so no guilt. Me there with my pots of glitter, them doing homework or just hanging out.  It’s parallel play! If I so much as glance at my computer, by comparison, by some homing instinct the girls start to demand my attention. I’m sure lots of working moms have similar experiences.
We get really intense shared experiences by traveling together. We took this mult-tasking to a crazy level when we spent four months on a Southern African camping road-trip together, at the start of this year. We rented out our house in Marin which funded the entire trip.
We home-schooled the girls from the back of a Landrover and traveled through Mozambique, Botswana and Nambibia. And we could work remotely.   I know we are very lucky and privileged to have this flexibility that many others do not, but we did also seize the opportunity (there is always a reason NOT to do these off-piste things) and put a lot of work into making it happen.
How do you do it all? 
I have to make the obvious point that I don’t do it ‘ALL’  – I just do a lot of the things I personally love and value. There happens to be a physical output which you can point to and say ‘My, doesn’t she do a lot?’ I could list the things I don’t do but that would be time-consuming and I have so much else to do.
If you want a list of the various lifestyle choices which have led me to where I am:
We don’t have a TV.
I work a lot, while the girls are at school and most evenings for an extra three or four hours.
I have support from Ralph, as he works from home too. I do most of the ‘mom’ stuff – scheduling all our lives, getting kids from school, cooking, washing – as I don’t mind it. He is the vacuum guy.
I feed off exhaustion.
Below: Lisa and Ralph’s daughter at their first Art Exhibition (Spitalfields, East End London 2004)
What were some of the difficulties in creating all these projects? 
You can become disillusioned when an idea does not get immediate popularity, or any popularity at all…
It can also be stressful working speculatively, and in general working for oneself means the future is always uncertain (financially speaking). You have to stay on the ball and never be complacent about your successes. We dream of being able to be complacent for a while! 🙂
Below: Example of both the landscape and sensibility of “Harold’s Planet”:


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