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Meet exciting Hitchin-based design duo Sas & Yosh

PUBLISHED: 13:13 21 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:13 21 November 2017

Sarah and Yoshie in their Hitchin studio

Sarah and Yoshie in their Hitchin studio

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Designing fun, colourful prints in a fusion of tradtional European and modern Japanese styles, a pair of illustrators have combined talents to create a globally-successful business. Nikki Lennox Moorby met the duo in their Hitchin studio

Flowergirls wallpaper Flowergirls wallpaper

Sometimes life has a most unusual way of using a tragic event to guide you in a direction you were destined to be travelling in all along.

I’m waiting to interview designers Sas and Yosh in their studio located above a hairdressers at the top of a quirky 17th century house in Hitchin. As soon as I reach the studio I can see their designs everywhere – a range of vibrant and intricate artworks printed on homewares, women’s and children’s fashions, art prints, stationery and textiles. There’s even bespoke children’s wallpaper hanging on the walls and in frames – strictly for the uber-cool kids. The patterns feature dancing flower fairies, fun flamingos and blazing botanicals with pink elephants.

The design duo work together blending the styles of French chateau opulence and Japanese manga. The mish-mash of European and Oriental influences is possibly at opposite ends of the design spectrum, and in theory, shouldn’t work together. But here they do. The patterns even include a contemporary range of stunning black and white geometric print textiles which are draped over the studio, playfully bringing every nook and snug of the studio to life.

Sarah Bellisario and Yoshie Allan both started their careers as picture book authors. They were brought up on the opposite sides of the world, Sarah in Hertfordshire and Yoshi in a ‘countryside city’ in north eastern Japan.

Flying Journey wallpaper - an example of the designers' vivid, playful style Flying Journey wallpaper - an example of the designers' vivid, playful style

Yoshie, 37, originally studied fashion at the avant-garde ESMOD Tokyo college and worked in the fashion industry for a while before starting a career as a freelance illustrator and an adult and children’s book author. She was published in Japan between 2006-2009 and again in 2017.

She first came to England after being evacuated from Fukushima following the devastating nuclear power plant accident in 2011. The earthquake that caused the accident did considerable damage to the region, but it was the tsunami it created that caused very much more. The water surge disabled the power supply responsible for the cooling of three core nuclear reactors, causing the release of a highly radioactive contamination. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes. It is a traumatic experience that Yoshi prefers to shy away from.

Sarah’s first picture book was published in France in 2014. The Hitchin-born 40-year-old studied media, initially working in London on Time magazine before becoming an art teacher in a private girl’s school in Herts. After nine years at the school and the birth of her daughter she made the decision to go back to university to study for an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art.

Following the degree, Sarah returned to academia to lecture at North Herts College. At the time Yoshie was a full-time mum of two looking to get back into the design industry. A mutual friend introduced the pair on the school run.

Organ donor mural designed for Lister Hospital Organ donor mural designed for Lister Hospital

When fate brought them together it immediately felt like a missing piece of a jigsaw had fallen into place. The admiration for each other’s work sealed the partnership and six months later, in the summer of 2014, the Sas and Yosh design duo was born.

‘We spent the first summer coming up with patterns and deciding what to put them on,’ explains Yoshie. ‘We created small ranges of limited editions by using local businesses to print our designs and then sent out samples of our designs to places like Liberty and Selfridges – or anywhere that was reassuringly expensive!’

The pair now have commissions and collaborations from all over the world including kids fashion brand Lilly et Louis in Berlin, folk made in Tokyo and textile company KOKKA in Osaka, as well as a client base in Paris and New York.

The Hitchin studio is where these global designs are born using a mixture of hand drawn illustration and digital processes to bring the patterns and prints to life.

Sas and Yosh has collaborated with European brands to create children's and women's fashion as well as designing their own t-shirt and sweatshirt range (photo: Sharon Cooper) Sas and Yosh has collaborated with European brands to create children's and women's fashion as well as designing their own t-shirt and sweatshirt range (photo: Sharon Cooper)

They take turns to work on all their creations – something that sets them apart from other designers.

Sarah explains that the process starts by talking to a client about their requirements and then both artists create several hand drawn illustrations independently of one another. These are then scanned to a computer and saved into a joint file, where the designs can be picked up and developed by each artist digitally in turn, until the result is a blend of their styles.

‘We are really honest about what we think of each other’s designs, brutally honest actually,’ confesses Sarah. ‘Yoshie’s style is European and contemporary mixed with manga. She loves using vibrant colours to inject energy and fun into her work. My style has more of an Oriental meets French chateau feel to it, which shows off my passion of working with fine lines and patterns.

‘One of us will work on a design until we can no longer see the wood for the trees. Then we hand it over to the other person to develop further. For some reason the two styles brought together in a cohesive way really does work. We are so passionate about our designs that we get over-excited about them every week. We get carried away making plans about wanting to put them on new things like ceramics and bed covers.’ They both laugh when the Sarah admits, ‘Then we check out the associated costs and realise that we really can’t afford it.’

Textile lookbooks - patterns have been used on clothes, cushions, wallpaper, stationery and bags Textile lookbooks - patterns have been used on clothes, cushions, wallpaper, stationery and bags

Sarah is now riffling through designs, handing me samples. They are so good I’m distracted thinking about how they would look in my house and which rooms I could put them in. Until that is, we get to a one-off bespoke design with a subtle phallic pattern, and the room instantly dissolved into a heap of giggles. The silk sleeves donned with a beautiful fine art ‘Erotic’ print is a small part of an adult play-wear collection – a collaboration with Darkest Star.

With success creating patterns, the pair have also made a collaborative return to illustration – not in books, but bespoke wallpaper for Lister Hospital in Stevenage.

‘We have been asked to design a third mural for the children’s ward of Lister,’ Yoshie says. The designs are printed on to giant vinyl wallpaper with each section measuring around 2.5 meters wide so they can be installed on the walls. The pair’s first mural, installed in 2015, is on the walls of the neonatal unit.

‘The second mural is located in the main entrance which was designed in collaboration with the NHS organ donor transplant and blood and transport teams to encourage people to sign up to the Organ Donor Register,’ Yoshie explains. ‘We are hoping our latest mural design for the children’s ward may be used as a template for other hospital wards.’

Looking around the roof-space studio with its beams and sloping ceilings at the array of ideas, one has to remind oneself that just six years ago these two designers were at opposite sides of the world and had no inkling of what fate had in store. A tragedy played a big part in bringing them together, but from that something joyful has sprung.

The pair say they will continue building the Sas and Yosh brand, focussing on expanding four or five of their signature designs. They are also appearing at trade shows across Europe, like the independent creative show for children’s brands, Dot to Dot London, and exhibited at Playtime Paris kids and maternity exhibition in the summer, gaining new collaborators and stockists. See them for yourself at sasandyosh.com

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