Maker Moment: Paper Source’s Design Director Finds Inspiration in Materials
Paper Source’s Design Director, Erin Burke, struggles to sit still.
Read Time | 7 Minutes
On a Saturday night, you’re just as likely to find her on the couch binging Netflix as the rest of us. But her restlessness demands that she also have something creative in her hands.
“I’m naturally a person that has a constant need to create and produce,” Burke said.
At Paper Source’s headquarters in Chicago, Burke and her five-person team illustrate and design everything that bears the Paper Source brand. Stationery, greeting cards, invitations, journals, calendars, craft sets, and more—it’s all born from in a flurry of productivity that begins six months to a year before the rest of us have started to think about holiday wishes, New Year’s greetings, or wedding season. (Many of Paper Source's wedding invitations, and some of their calendars, are printed on Superfine.)
Between the workflow and having to stay ahead of the calendar, the job can feel dizzying.
“Sometimes we realize we’re stressing out over a unicorn illustration or something that’s really enjoyable,” she said with a laugh.
Even after a long day of taking the lead on perfectly pop culture paper goods bedecked with everything from llama puns to love notes, the need to create still buzzes for Burke. A few years ago, while looking for something to keep her hands occupied, she gathered some inspiring materials: rope, embroidery floss, and some embellishments. The resulting jewelry caught the eyes of friends and colleagues, who asked for their own and encouraged Burke to find a wider audience for her creations.
“I realized this could kind of take off, so I started doing local craft fairs around here and selling on Etsy,” Burke said. You can see her brightly colored textile jewelry on her website, erinlburke.com, but you’ll have to be patient if you’re hoping for an original of your own—Burke is taking a break from her side business right now to think about new designs and consider the jewelry business’s future.
“I don’t work with a plan, I just like to experiment and have a bunch of my supplies in front of me and just create,” Burke explained. “Creating organically is hard to maintain a website—once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Burke comes by her creative impulses honestly. As a child, her mother and grandmother often provided her with craft supplies and encouraged her to create freely.
“We had a lot of tools and things handy. Saturdays growing up would be, ‘Now we’re going to make our own clay beads or do a painting,’ all kinds of fun, creative things that really shaped how me and my siblings are,” she said.
Today, Burke acknowledges that her work life exemplifies, for many people, a dream job. For aspiring creative powerhouses who hope to blaze a similar path, she offered some advice and insight into what it takes to sustain such unbridled creative energy.
Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MOHAWK: What drives you to make?
ERIN BURKE: I’m naturally a person that has a constant need to create and produce. I can’t sit still in a way, I kind of get anxiety if I’m not doing something productive. Sometimes I have a hard time just relaxing on a Saturday and watching TV—I want to do something. That’s where my jewelry line started. I like to watch a bunch of Netflix but also have something in my hand that I’m creating. It takes your mind off stuff.
M: What materials or media most inspire you?
EB: I’ve always been a bit of a painter—not successfully; it’s just something I’ve always done. But really, fibers and textiles feel super-inspiring to me because they can take on so many different forms. All the floss that I use is made for embroidery, but I don’t use it that way. The interior ropes I get at hardware stores and are very utilitarian, but I love the forms they can take on.
M: What do you do when you’re feeling blocked creatively?
EB: I usually just take a break, get outside, get off the internet. As inspiring as Pinterest and Instagram can be, it can also be overwhelming. You’re looking at the same stuff and your ideas are all over the place.
M: Which parts of your daily routine are most important to you?
EB: I start every single day with at least a cup of black tea, to the point where I’ll get a headache if I don’t. I’m not super organized, but I keep a lot of lists. At my home and my office, there are tons of post-it notes everywhere. Sometimes I’ll move those all together and make a cohesive list.
M: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?
EB: Probably something about [the fact that I was] going to school for art. I’m from South Carolina originally, born and raised there, and moved to Chicago eleven years ago. I went to school at USC [University of South Carolina], and they had a pretty decent graphic design program. But the more I interview people for design positions, I realize that while school is obviously very important, I think you shouldn’t stress about what program you’re in or which school is the best.
Your education matters, but your portfolio and your willingness to learn matters so much more. You can teach skill sets. What you can’t teach is personality and work ethic, and those things are so important that no design school is ever going to teach you to be better at that.
M: If you could talk to your younger self for just 30 seconds, what would you say?
EB: I think, just try to be more like yourself. I was always intimidated by other people, like as a younger person you’re always wondering what other people are thinking about you. But really, no one cares!
M: What’s your happiest creative accident?
EB: Probably just some of my paintings. It’s funny, I’ve always painted just because it feels like, when you move into a new apartment you want to create something. In college, I wanted to be a really great realistic painter, then changed into almost like a stencil graffiti style. And that obviously has changed so much. Now I’m just inspired by really big, kind of organic abstract paintings. Some of the last ones I’ve done, I was experimenting with gold leaf.
M: What are you enjoying right now culturally that you would recommend to others for inspiration?
EB: I really like the new Tame Impala album that just came out. And I’m working on an assignment here at work looking into Art Nouveau again. It’s always been something I’m not really into, but for some reason, this second look for this purpose—I’m really into it right now.
M: If your creative influences were a family tree with you at the bottom, who would you include in your lineage?
EB: Realistically, there are so many artists and illustrators that I follow daily that it just gets overwhelming, so just my mom and my grandma. They’re very creative people and gave us a very crafty, artistic childhood. My mom repairs jewelry, so we had a lot of tools and things handy.
M: What do you want to be when you grow up?
EB: I think just the creator of anything. My inspirations change constantly, but I always want to be making something—that’s a constant. Now I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to design fine jewelry,’ or I would love to just be a painter and have a studio. Anything creative, which is the life I’m in, so I’m on the right track.
M: We have to ask—what will you make today?
EB: Here at Paper Source, we’re working on almost 22 illustrated calendars done by our team. Some are more utilitarian, but some are where we get to do the most intensive illustration in all different styles. There are a lot of things I’m going to make today!
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