A background peppered with psychological resilience think tanks and medical degrees, alongside a marriage to a neuroscientist, have helped ensure artist, writer and teacher Sophie Howarth has long had an interesting relationship with the health of our minds. Here, she talks us through the legacy of her journey to the centre of our psyche as she reimagined retail via her projects The School of Life and Department Store for the Mind.
words – boom saloon
location – edinburgh, uk
Sophie Howarth talks good shop. As she explains the multiple layers of meaning behind her latest venture, Department Store for the Mind, I’m hit with a plethora of buzzwords. Mindfulness. Wellbeing. Feminism. And yet, there is something almost tangibly unique about this particular pitch; I believe every word.
Starting her career in medicine before curating at The Tate for eight years, Howarth’s first foray into retail was the much loved School of Life, a forward thinking organisation dealing with the trials and tribulations of relationships, careers, anxieties and emotions. Relishing the opportunity to “just put things out there,” as opposed to sourcing funding and gaining Arts Council permission, the immediacy of retail was a massive draw for Howarth. “I just love the way that shopping isn’t terribly fancy; it’s a common behaviour we can all understand. Make something beautiful, put it out and if it seems beautiful to other people they’ll buy it. It’s like an early version of crowdfunding.” But School of Life was no run of the mill gift shop, instead working to combine retail with mindfulness, continual learning and self discovery – encouraging shoppers to browse and pick what was useful to them, returning what was not.
Nowadays, Howarth has taken the next step and is applying her knowledge to her heavily curated Department Store – a one stop shop for genuinely nourishing goods. Combining her love of great design, packaging and poetry, the store stocks a range of homewares, stationery, jewellery and gifts for mindful living. As she says herself, the concept is the “science of the bleeding obvious” – we are, as a species, so much more interesting on the inside than the outside and looking after our minds is the gatekeeper to everything else in our lives. For those feeling overwhelmed, the ingenious ten deep breaths bracelet is a saviour. In need of a little lift? There’s a product for that, too – a charming white tin containing a single red balloon, a length of twine and an illustration card by Marc Johns.
The concepts themselves are nothing new – as the store’s founder states, she’s always been careful to stick to tried and tested principles rooted in human psychology and scientific research. Senses of ownership, belonging and comfort are ingrained in many of the Department Store’s goods. And yet, the differentiation between art and science is never overlooked: “it doesn’t matter how many statistics you have – you have to move people. Art has the capacity to do that, through song, through experiment, when a single line of something or a type of object can cut through centuries of trauma and the trials and tribulations to explain one person’s experience with another – that is a form of communication not to be underestimated”.
Naysayers may be quick to brand the project “materialistic,” yet it must not be forgotten that this is a business as well as a concept. When faced with the question of whether we really need yet more “stuff’ in our arguably over cluttered lives, Howarth is quick to rally against such a suggestion, stating “objects have a very special power, and I think that we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater with this idea that things are bad for you and materialism is bad for you. Materialism doesn’t have to be bad for you at all – we always need things. For those of us struggling in the world, objects can help you reaffirm and stay on your own path.”
This idea of recognition and self discovery is pivotal to the concept, yet comes with an arguably 21st Century approach. For Howarth, the age old solution of putting the kettle on simply does not add up. Central to her vision is “our capacity for so many different things. For me, one of the main themes around wellbeing and emotional lives is a tendency to clear the decks or get back to a base level or iron out the complications. Whereas I think, hey – let’s be complicated! We are complicated, let’s celebrate it. We can be happy and sad at the same time, and strong and vulnerable and all these things that don’t really add up and don’t make sense – and that’s not such a dreadfully embarrassing thing. That’s amazing! That’s what makes us human beings.” With a wealth of role models to look to, Howarth is not short of inspiration on her quest – citing Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown as part of her amazing tribe of visionary creatives. It is these “fucked up feminist’s” way of accepting themselves and living just as they are in public that Howarth truly admires – a facet of life she admits to struggling with somewhat in her earlier years. Even now she’s quick to note that she doesn’t have any of the answers; all she can offer up is the fact that she’s a real person who is creative and who occasionally struggles with life. And herein lies the ultimate USP of Howarth’s ventures: they are genuine, come from a truly great place and never claim to be anything they aren’t.
This openness feeds directly into the Department Store’s company values, which are clearly of huge importance to their founder. As with any remotely personal project, there’s an undeniable element of nailing your colours to the mast – but it seems clear that Howarth’s latest venture will have no problem in living up to her high standards. “I put my values right out there and now I have to live up to that. It’s a big one in terms of the organisation so one of the things that I said from the beginning was that joyfulness, openness and compassion are key – more so than fairtrade or sustainability. Of course we have stressful moments, but I’ve set these values in place so now it’s my job to help us all live up to them!”
“...if you can imagine something to be different, to be better or the way that you want it to be- in your own life or in the world- then you should do all you can to make it so.”
Helping others, it would seem, has long been in Howarth’s DNA. Much of her previous work focussed on utilising art for social change, a theme which has carried through to her secondary role teaching on Year Here, a postgraduate fellowship in social innovation. Scratch the surface of this facet of Howarth’s character and you, arguably, reach her most enticing trait. The desire to utilise creativity to do good pours from Howarth; but don’t for a second think it comes across in a saintly manner. “It comes down to the fact that that’s what inspires me and when I have tried to do things that aren’t rooted in creative practice I end up feeling a bit eroded and soulless. I tried doing only honourable things, without the creative side, and I became worn out and gave up. I think if you can imagine something to be different, to be better or the way that you want it to be – in your own life or in the world – then you should do all you can to make it so.”
Again, such grand ideas are backed up by inspiring words from the greats – from Thoreau’s 19th Century advice of grounding your castles in the air to Schneiderman’s need for both bread and roses. In spite of such stirring references, it is Howarth’s recounting of a personal lesson which rings truest in her fight for good: “I spent some time with a theatre director who would say, if it’s forbidden to walk over the grass, you can fly over the grass – just don’t be bogged down in red tape. There’s no rule against flying, most people are just too unimaginative to do it. And the point is that if you fly, people want to fly with you – it’s like Peter Pan. Everybody wants to be hovering above the ground; it gets you from A to B so much faster if you fly on a magic carpet. To me, imagination is absolutely our best tool for change – in ourselves and in the world.”
As we discuss the concept further, it’s not long before Howarth’s modesty kicks in and she assures me she is “no great pioneer.” Hearing of her work as a mentor, a lecturer, an artist and a curator, I cannot help but beg to differ. In such realms it is all too easy to take the easy route, to see potential but fail to nurture it due to the mammoth personal undertaking doing so would require. And yet here is Howarth, putting her all into sparking connections between others on a mind to mind level in the hope it will better their worlds. And why? As she herself puts it, “I want to be making stuff that in a tiny, ticklish, small way makes the world a little better. It’s just obvious to me that, given the choice, you want to be on the side of the angels.”
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