Even though children seem to swipe, scroll and click as naturally as they laugh, cry and run, and use iPads better than their parents, Hannah Jayne believes that “there will always be a want for physical toys.” Because Angry Birds will never replace that one special toy we still hold dear to our hearts, that which knows our deepest infancy secrets, crushes and hidden school notes. Through Hanjipan Designs, her creative studio, the Sheffield-based artist makes extra cute, joyous friends for kids and adults alike, inspired by anything from Japanese anime to fantastical creatures like fairies.
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Hannah, first of all, could you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a bit more about your background?
Hi everyone! I’m Hannah (or Hanji), I make plush art dolls, prints, pins and other items based on my original and unique characters and designs. I’m very much into the ugly-cute aesthetic. I live in Sheffield with my husband and son, where I’ve lived all my life. Before I started my own business, I studied Art, Metalwork & Jewellery at uni.
You define yourself as a maker, illustrator and designer. Were you always a creative kid, or maybe surrounded by creative family members and friends? How was your upbringing like?
Very creative! There are bits of my art and crafts all over my parents’ house, and old projects stashed away wherever I can find space. I’ve always been excited by art and making, and it definitely runs in the family. My sister has a calligraphy business called Melancholy Mondays, and we often do collaborations together. If the scrawls on the living room wall are anything to go by, my little one might be getting interested in art too.
If I’m not wrong, around 2014 you decided to launch Hanjipan Designs. As you explain on your Etsy profile, everything started with some cushions printed with your illustrations and then started to experiment and turned some of your designs into toys. What led you to make your designs come to life finally?
I think it was a natural evolution of what I was doing. The cushions were lovely but very awkward to make with home printing, so I started making small felt characters and Christmas tree decorations, then moving up to plushies as I got more comfortable with sewing techniques and creating new designs. It was hard at first to put myself out of my comfort zone, but I’m so happy I kept pushing.
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You say you’ve always been a toy collector. How do you remember the toys you played with during your childhood? Was there any special one you played the most with, or that you held dear to your heart? Tell us more about it.
I’ve always loved toys – and even dolls despite being a tomboy. I definitely liked to think they would come alive when I left the room, like in Toy Story – I would often peek back through the door to try and catch them out.
My earliest favourites were Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore. My most precious toy was called Dingo. He’s a yellow dingo plushie with two left eyes and gangly arms and legs. He once rode all the way to France strapped on the top of my mum’s motorbike top-box in a waterproof coat she had made for him! He’s still hanging out in my son’s bedroom, though he’s definitely looking his age!
One thing I love about your designs is that, generally, they all smile or have happy faces. I think it almost gives them a sense of humanity and empathy, something that makes them extra cute and joyous. Do you believe that making them look happy influences the kids (or adults) collecting them and playing with them?
For sure. My husband and I often joke and pull faces to imitate them when I’m done making their faces, and I hope that everyone who has one of my creations gets a little kick of joy every time they see their smiles. Even if I try to make more than one of something, each one still has its own character based on how the facial expression turned out.
I imagine your creations have changed over time. Could you tell us a bit about their (and your) evolution?
Originally, I was making cushions and prints as a part-time hobby business after I finished uni. My job at the cafe I was working out tended to slow down a lot in the winter. The eyes stayed the same from my original printed sketches and first felt toy experiments. One of the first plushies I made was actually called Suspicious Bunny because of his eyelids, but everything else has slowly been refined over time, especially the materials I use. I don’t think I’ll ever stop trying to improve and evolve.
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When I first saw your toys, I thought they were Japanese or Korean – also because of the name, which to me personally sounded more Asian. But I discovered you’re based in Sheffield, so not even close… However, are you inspired by anime, manga and the Japanese toy industry, which is massive?
I really enjoy Japanese animation, especially Studio Ghibli, and I also love to collect figures and blind boxes – Pucky are my favourite. I’d love my own range of figurines someday. So there’s definitely some influence there. I’m mostly inspired by animals, especially ugly-cute animals like pugs and frogs. My business name is actually based on my nickname, which is a combination of my name – Hannah Jayne – and Frangipane (like the cakes) because they were my favourite at the time!
I guess you’re also inspired by imaginary and mythological creatures from fairy tales, fables, myths… Could you tell us some of your favourites?
I’ve definitely drawn on unicorns and yetis in the past; the Oodigord and the Yoodle were some of my earliest designs and the result of playing about with the form of those creatures. I’m also hugely inspired by my love for forest, plant and fairy creatures.
As kids – and even as adults –, we may think of our toys and inanimate objects as more alive than they are, something like Toy Story, for example. Do you ever make up imaginary stories in your head with your own toys? If so, what are they about?
Absolutely! I used to create stories for each one of my designs when I started, each shop listing would have a short whimsical description, for example, a bumblebean looking for a friend and buzzing over marshmallow fields. Sadly, I have not continued to do that as my time is much more limited now, but I do hope to make storybooks one day for my characters.
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You’ve designed dozens, if not hundreds, of toys. What do you do when you have a creative block? What triggers your creativity and inspiration again?
Having time and freedom is when I’m at my most creative. I occasionally do a preorder and I’m always reminded how much I struggle to stay motivated when I don’t have creative freedom. I very rarely draw a sketch or plan what I want to make; I just choose some fabric from my stash and see what I can make from it. I usually want to spend a long time making just one toy with many details, but I usually have to reign myself in so that I can make multiple things. I’m extremely grateful for my customers, so I always try to focus on making more items available.
New technologies have changed the way we shop, meet, date, communicate, work and have fun. And, of course, the way we play. Many kids (and I’m referring to small children) are now obsessed with having smartphones and tablets to play video games and apps, leaving aside the more traditional games like dolls, toys or board games. As a toy designer/creator, how do you feel about all this? Do you think physical teddy bears and toys will exist forever despite technological progress?
That’s a very interesting question, and something I hadn’t really considered before. I think that there will always be a want for physical toys though. Especially for collectors as many do collect as a hobby. I don’t think technology will ever be able to replace having a special toy… Many of my customers have shared with me that their toys have helped them emotionally, and many truly see them as part of the family.
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