Alice Gabb is a cool woman. She has this effortless vintage-inspired style and seems like someone you’d want to have everyday afternoon tea with. And she is insanely talented. In a world of saturated handmade items, Alice has created something original and heartfelt. She has carved out a niche for herself in the creative industry that has led to even more doors opening up, proving that as long as you’re authentic and true to yourself, the possibilities are endless. So let’s get into the interview!
What do people call you: Alice
Occupation: Lettering Artist and Banner Maker
Currently residing: East London
IG Handle: @alicegabb
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
I’m Alice, I’m 33 and I have a little studio in Dalston, East London, where I work as a hand-lettering artist/calligrapher and now I make custom banners, too! I also run beginner Modern Calligraphy classes in my favorite cafes in East London.
We love your work! How did you get started in your particular niche?
Thank you! I did my Art Foundation at Wimbledon School of Art, and then graduated with a graphic design and illustration (visual communication) degree at Bath Spa in 2009. I did a lot of work experience while I was at uni, and then got a stall at Broadway Market and did part-time work in various designer/makers’ studios that I liked. I also had a part-time job as a Matron in a boarding school in Hampshire that supported my freelance life in London and lived a bizarre split life for seven years! It took a long time to go full-time as an artist and was very gradual. It wasn’t until January 2015 that I went totally full-time. I just kept making work with my ‘perfectly imperfect’ lettering on it, that I think was different to a lot of other modern calligraphy at the time, and eventually got a steady amount of work coming in!
Do you have any projects that you’re particularly proud of?
I got to teach a banner-making workshop for families at the WOW Festival in the Southbank Centre this year for Museum of the Home. That was a great moment. I felt extremely proud to be included in that lineup.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Every day is really different, which I love. I might be off somewhere to teach a lesson, either for an office or private lessons. I’ve seen some absolutely crazy mansions teaching private lessons in the West End! I also have to do a lot of ‘launches’ and press events, doing live calligraphy. And a lot of live calligraphy for shops, mostly in department stores, which involves personalizing products in store. In the studio, I spend most of the day misplacing my fabric scissors and measuring tape! But it’s lovely, I listen to podcasts and get on with my sewing or client briefs. Couriers drop-off boxes of envelopes or place name cards or invitations for fashion events and I name and address them and send them off again. Studio days are meant to be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but are usually 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (I love gardening and long breakfasts in the mornings). I’m especially lucky as I get to walk to work—it’s about 40 minutes through Hackney Downs and every time I thank the universe that I don’t have a stressful commute.
Aside from your work, do you have any creative hobbies?
I love knitting, although I can’t read patterns yet. Lettering is my hobby even though it’s work, too. Every year, I make sure I do a creative course of some kind. This year, I’m doing a Spencerian calligraphy weekend course in Cornwall that I’m really looking forward to. I also play the drums weekly in a samba band that pops up at protests!
Tell us about your style. Do you have a signature uniform or look?
At the minute, it is definitely ‘garden centre chic,’ but I think my style is always evolving. All my clothes are secondhand. There’s a Beyond Retro near the studio so I definitely love playing with vintage and I don’t take fashion seriously at all—there’s a sense of humor in a lot of my outfits! I’m often found in a jumpsuit and a visor these days, and I absolutely love my grandmother’s oil-cloth shopper. I definitely have a very particular style, I don’t think everyone owns cat tapestry coats…
Current beauty routine?
Actually after the lockdown, I really wear a lot less makeup. I subscribe to the beauty industry in the most minimal way I can. I think it’s 99 percent bollocks. I use ‘Ultra Bland’ by Lush as a cleanser (honestly, it is incredible), and ‘Ocean Salt’ as an exfoliator. I think Lush is doing incredible things and I’ve used the brand since I was a student. I often get gifted face creams for jobs that I’ve worked on so I just use those for my moisturizer. If I need skincare, I always read Ethical Consumer magazine to keep an eye on which brands are the most ethical (or least awful, whichever way you want to put it), but Lush is a very safe bet overall.
Female calligraphers are often encouraged to always have painted nails for events and I really push against that, I think our beauty standards/ideals are getting out of hand.
What does self-care look like for you?
I really don’t ‘do’ struggle if I don’t have to. I’m hard-wired to be kind to myself and I don’t know where that came from but I’ve always been that way. As I get older, that seems to be really unusual.
I don’t want to be a ‘busy fool’, I like a calm life. That’s a term used in the freelance industry, as because we love what we do, you can all-too-easily slip into working all the time for an unsustainable hourly rate if you’re not careful! We also have to ‘make hay while the sun shines’ as they say. Work can come in all at once, especially in the lead up to Christmas, so when I have more relaxed months I make sure I really look after myself and rest, I don’t give myself a hard time about it (especially as I don’t get paid sick leave!).
Probably the biggest act of self-care for me is that I don’t want children and I dream of a future doing nice things with no dependents (I still fear that my biology will take over and this might change, but I’ve always felt this way up to this point).
How has your business and routine changed since COVID-19?
It’s changed a lot but I feel incredibly lucky to still be busy. I am now only studio-based, mostly sewing banner orders. I do love having my Saturdays back I have to say, as I’m often usually teaching at least two Saturdays a month.
Where do you find creative inspiration when you’re feeling discouraged or burnt out?
Travel. That is an extreme privilege but it always does the trick. Space to think, new experiences, new chats. Even if it’s a day out to a gallery, it’s very important for me.
I’m hard-wired to be kind to myself and I don’t know where that came from but I’ve always been that way. As I get older, that seems to be really unusual.
Who are some of your biggest creative inspirations?
Nathaniel Russell, Shelby Rodeffer, Bob and Roberta Smith, Jeremy Deller, Jenny Holzer. All the artists I like seem to be language-based or subversive in some way.
Coffee or tea?
Tea. I’m an afternoon-tea-and-a-biscuit type. I come from Winchester in Hampshire where it is said that afternoon tea was invented (who knows if that’s true) and I do really take it quite seriously. There is always tea and cake at my classes—it’s a little bit of ritual and one of very few traditions that I love.
What do you always keep in your fridge?
Homemade oat milk, cold brew coffee and kombucha and ferments. I mainly cook from Anna Jones’s books, so all of the stereotypical miso pastes, maple syrup and tahini. It’s all frightfully pretentious! I desperately try not to eat dairy at home so there’s not even tasty cheeses I’m afraid.
What’s your go-to dinner recipe at home?
Currently, the daal recipe from New Food For Thought cookbook, which is a veggie classic by Jane Noraika. She ran the most amazing restaurant in Neal’s Yard (sadly now closed) that I used to visit a lot while I was a student. I’m also a big fan of BOSH’s Ultimate Chili. I’ve been veggie too long haven’t I, my 20-year-old self would be horrified, but they are so tasty, I promise!
My bookshelf is pretty serious these days. I always have one fiction physical book on the go, and one non-fiction audiobook on the go. I’m reading Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, which is bloody brilliant, and listening to Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, which is such an interesting listen. I really recommend it.
What are your all-time favorite, must-read books?
Patti Smith’s Just Kids changed my life I think, it gave me clarity and peace. It sounds strange but it did! I keep very, very few books. I love the idea of passing them on and I rarely re-read, but I have kept: Just Kids, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and When We Rise by Cleve Jones. Caitlin Moran’s books also really helped shaped my outlook in my late twenties. I give around 1,000 less shits about my weight/appearance/body hair since reading her books, so I thoroughly recommend those. Less time thinking about that equals more time thinking about more interesting things, which as a creative, is very important. Absolutely no judgement or shade for anyone that gives it all a lot of thought, that’s your choice and I bet you look fab, but I grew up not knowing that ‘not caring’ was an option and I am thoroughly embracing it!
Shop Alice’s book recommendations:
Do you listen to music or podcasts when you work? What’s your jam?
The studio next door to me can hear my music so I often can’t subject them to my love of country music, ’80s new wave or more recent Witch House. So I listen to a lot of podcasts. I loved Dolly Parton’s America, and will always love Desert Island Discs. About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge was excellent, and Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe.
At my workshops, we listen to my favorite mix of doo-wop and ’60s, and lots from the “Mermaids” soundtrack, so I can pretend I’m Cher floating around in a twin piece.
How do you typically spend a day off?
I am a very simple soul. I love wandering to nice cafes, hunting in charity shops and going to more cafes, and walking around a lot. I’m really social and love my fellow humans, but I’m very comfortable in my own company. I go to the Castle Cinema a lot (it is so beautiful) to watch fancy art films.
Are there any particular causes or movements that you’re passionate about?
A lot. I feel really strongly that the system that we’re living in is all wrong. Social, racial and environmental justice is what I care most deeply about. I find it overwhelming but I am trying to learn as much as I can, and be as engaged with my local community as I can be. It’s easy to feel helpless but we have so much power when we work together as a community, and I believe in leading by example. I’m trying to build social responsibility into my workshops for the long-term, so that we are always giving back to the area that I’m teaching in and benefiting from.
What’s next for you?
A bigger studio. Who knows when that will be possible, but I need more space and I’m not convinced London will provide an affordable studio…but I continue the search! I would just love to be able to host classes from my studio space, it would be so great.
An online course will hopefully be coming soon, and I’ve just done a banner for House of Hackney’s takeover of Trematon Castle, which I’m excited to see.
‘Another world is possible.’
I also really firmly believe in: ‘If you’re not part of the solution then you are part of the problem,’ and that governs a lot of my actions.
I have to squeeze a Dolly Parton quote in there, too: ‘If you want to see a rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.’
Thanks, Alice! Connect with her on Instagram: @alicegabb