Sister act

Sisters Astrid and Karen Schwarz design for passion and create for purpose, all the while uplifting and inspiring with their stationery and jewellery ranges.

Part of the Project

Sister Made

Yesteryear the days shine bright

We remember you with great delight.

In small beginning our days have sight

In small beginnings our dreams find flight.

These intriguing words greet you on the first page of a Schwarzie Notebook. This is after the striking illustration on the cover draws you in….

They're a stationery lover’s delight, these notebooks. They’re designed by the Schwarz sisters, Astrid and Karen, of Schwarzie™. Their whimsical, yet elegant, stationery and jewellery design are all about “living life in full colour”.

Astrid – or Miss A – runs Schwarzie’s stationery line, which includes greeting cards, calendars, diaries, travel notebooks and personalised stationery. While Karen – Miss K – heads up the jewellery line she is also involved in the development of the stationery. Karen’s jewellery is made in sterling silver with semi-precious gems, leather and meticulously hand-shaped Mother of Pearl integrating in various bespoke ways.

The siblings officially started Schwarzie in September 2012. Their first public showcase was at Design Indaba Expo 2013 where they were part of the Emerging Creatives programme.

“It was quite an experience,” Astrid says of Design Indaba Expo. “You learn so much about yourself. We feel so privileged and blessed to have been there. We met so many good people there.”

These “good people” include Zando who contacted them about getting involved in their GetThemSomeShoes campaign, an initiative that saw the online retailer collecting shoes for children in need. Schwarzie supplied the notebooks that accompanied a set of travelling teddy bears that went around the country collecting little shoes for small feet.  

Before Design Indaba, the first big campaign the sisters did was for Seattle Coffee Company in November 2012. They were commissioned to do a design for coffee collars. “Eventually 76 000 collars were printed,” Astrid exclaims. Their work has been featured in Glamour (SA) magazine, Fairlady and Rapport. Most recently Schwarzie did a campaign for the Cell C Take a Girl Child to Work initiative.

For Cell C the sisters presented the mobile network with the option to include a special story in the notebooks that the initiative hands out to participants, with the story focussing on encouraging young women to “Dream Big”. The final notebooks had a special Schwarzie-authored story inside with an illustration of a girl holding balloons, together with a relevant quote, interspersed throughout the notebook. “This was one of those projects where we could just be us”, Astrid explains, this campaign around empowerment being completely in line with their own vision for the Schwarzie brand.

The youngest two of seven children the sisters grew up in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and Northern Sudan. They’ve travelled to many unusual places and cite this as some of their key influences. “So much of what we do is inspired by memory, the experiences we’ve gone through and the places we’ve been to,” says Karen.

It is through storytelling that the sisters put these influences into context. Each piece that they produce, be it stationery or jewellery, comes with a little story. “It’s about having a conversation with the person that is getting the piece, without even talking to them,” Astrid explains.

In the travel notebooks, for example, there’s a story reminding us that we don’t need to get on a plane to travel. “You can travel with your mind,” the sisters believe. Each of Karen’s jewellery pieces also come with a story. “It’s a different relationship and connection when you know what inspired that ring, or the earrings,” Karen says.

The sisters envision Schwarzie evolving into many different things, all with a social conscience. “We see Schwarzie as being many things. It won’t always just be about design,” Astrid says.

Doing good and helping people is one of these directions that the sisters see their brand moving into. “We won’t just do anything to get noticed,” they affirm. This social awareness is something they credit to their upbringing and “good, solid foundation”. Their five other siblings and parents play an active role in their lives and support them in all their Schwarzie endeavours. “Our mother is our biggest fan!” says Astrid.

Karen and Astrid admit though that working together as sisters isn’t without its challenges but it always ends well. “We have our differences but we’re sisters. You’re not afraid to be honest with each other because at the end of the day you’re sisters and you’re going to make up,” Karen says. Astrid adds: “I have to love you!”

Adamant about not simply following particular design trends or latching on to whatever is happening, the siblings are working on a variety of different things at the moment. Astrid is busy with 2014 diaries and journals, “with lots of colour”, and she’s also working on a collection of paper dolls. “They’re old-fashioned but really cool!”. Karen is working on a collection of custom, handmade watches. “Watches work so well because it is all about time and memories, and not a lot of designers are doing watches,” Karen says.

Their creative inspirations are manifold. They’re inspired by people and their stories, and by design legends like the Christoph Niemann late Alan Fletcher. “We met him (Niemann) at Design Indaba. That was incredible!”

It is the playful, humorous element in Niemann’s work that the sisters are particularly drawn to and relate this to their own work too. “It’s work, it’s play…. It’s all the same things. Except when you do admin. That’s work!” they agree.

Creative success for the Astrid and Karen is simple. “At Design Indaba people would just walk up to our stand and start smiling. People smiling is success for us. That’s what we want,” Astrid says.

“We’re dreaming big. People have often said to us that we’ll never be able to make a living as designers. We always knew that we’d prove them wrong,” they affirm. Watch this (Schwarzie) space!

Watch the Talk with Christoph Niemann