An expanded version of our chat with the watercolor artist and designer

Our winter/spring 2017-18 issue included a condensed version of an interview with watercolor artist and invitation designer Yao Cheng of Yao Cheng Design. Read on for an extended version of that interview, edited for clarity; you can read the condensed version here.

Columbus Weddings: You seem to be pretty unique in the city in terms of bespoke, artistic invitations. It seems like the art came first and wedding invitations followed for you, is that right?

Yao Cheng: I don't know if you know Erin Souder? She runs a really popular lifestyle blog, it's called Earnest Home co. She's actually in town. So she approached me—we were friends—and she said she had a styled shoot with Style Me Pretty coming up, and she was wondering if I could contribute some wedding invitations.

I had always thought about it, because my work is very floral-oriented, and I always loved stationeries. So I thought at some point, it just makes sense to bridge the two. But that's how I actually got started, was through that project; I did a whole suite for her. And that got published on Style Me Pretty. That was in 2013, so I think a year into my business. [At that point,] I was doing art prints and greeting cards, but hadn't really done wedding invitations yet.

So that got published, and that gave me an incredible exposure, actually. That was really fortunate to happen early on. Then the [wedding] projects kind of started rolling in, and I did more and more. And that turned into collaborations with Minted—I do have two suites through them—so that gave me more exposure in a different market and a different customer. So yeah, that's kind of how I got the ball rolling.

Is the Style Me Pretty suite that got everything started still available?

Yeah, it's the Ingram suite. … It's really funny, you never really know what [will end up being] the thing that people gravitate toward. I would've never thought that that was something that … I would be known for, as far as wedding invitations go.

Were your first orders all bespoke/custom, or did you create a collection or two to get started?

I did bespoke for a while; I actually only launched collection [suites] last year. … I didn't know how much of my business I wanted to focus for weddings. So I always kind of just sat back, just to see how much interest there would be. I kept it small and bespoke, just until I figured out what I wanted to do long-term.

And then I realized how much I really do love designing wedding invitations. Working with bespoke brides—actually, working with brides in general—is such an interesting design process, and it's a very long and personal, one-on-one relationship that we create with them. Because we're working on projects for well over a year. You start with the save-the-dates, and then you go into the invitations, and then you work through day-of pieces, and that spans a year. It's really crazy. I love that long-term relationship that I get to have, and that communication of seeing all these different pieces come to life for people.

There were a lot of inquiries about, ‘Hey, you know, can I get this, but I only have four months for you to do something and I don't have the budget for something totally custom, but I like the suite that you did before.' So I kind of took that and made a couple collection suites that people can just buy.

So tell me about the bespoke process.

It's pretty generic in the first meeting; I think it's pretty much what they would expect to be asked or to tell all of their other vendors. But I have a constitution form that I bring with me, and we go through general inquiries: when they need things by; how many pieces they're looking for; what kind of pieces they're looking for; what their color palette, inspiration, theme [are]. We don't really get into a ton of specifics; having a lot of imagery up front is helpful for me, because I'm a visual person.

Is that imagery of the dress and the venue?

More like Pinterest boards; [they] are really helpful for colors they're looking at, what kind of flowers they're really wanting—that actually is really helpful for me to know, what flowers they're looking at and thinking about.

Which is a great way to bring in flowers like peonies, which won't be widely available unless your wedding is in early spring.

That's so true. And I really think our invitations are more than just a piece of stationery. Because my work is very artistic, I really think this is a very special art piece—a small art piece that they get to keep and they get to share and send to all their guests and friends. So I really treasure them.

At this point, Cheng becomes almost bashful.

Do you want to see them?

When she hears the “yes,” she pulls a large box off a nearby shelf. It's a bit larger than a standard shoe box and stuffed to the brim with samples of her custom work.

Do you keep everything you've worked on?

I do! I do.

So I do the calligraphy—I think [that's] unique about me—so everything is very cohesive, and I'm kind of like a one-stop shop. You can get all the pieces. The maps are, I think, what people really come to me for, because they're so different and they're so custom to them. They're really fun.

Were you always into calligraphy too, or did you learn that for your business?

I did have to learn that, but I wanted to learn it, because—it's funny. It's similar and different to watercolor; it's very fluid, but it's very controlled. And I actually love addressing envelopes.

Really?!

Mmhm. I love it! Because it's so repetitive and it's—I can kind of, like, turn my brain off and just do it. It's very automated for me.

So going back to the bespoke process, how often are you meeting or conversing with couples?

Most of my clients are not local, so we'll have an initial conversation on the phone. And then after all the agreements and everything, then I start sending out sketches. So I am in touch with them at every phase of the process, but I'm not doing face-to-face. Occasionally we'll have phone conversations, especially if I'm working with a wedding planner; then I think there's more communication involved. But I think once I have an idea of what they want and we've done sketches, then I will paint it, I will paint the layout that they choose, to full color, and then we will revise from there.

But in the process … I send them paper samples, so they can actually see the pieces in person, touch them, feel them. So that's kind of—ideally, it'd be great to meet with them in person. But I think a lot of times, it's more virtual.

So if your couples aren't local, where are they from?

They're pretty much all over the country.

At this point in your business, do you find yourself doing more wedding stationery or more art prints?

That's interesting. So I think it depends on the year. This year, I came back from maternity leave, so I didn't do as many wedding invitations as I usually do. But I would say last year, it was pretty substantial. It is definitely a part of my business model, but I wouldn't say it's the largest portion. Retail side, with products, is our focus.

But I love being able to work with clients as a design studio also, because it's a chance for me to not just realize my own ideas, but to collaborate with other people and do things that I've never done before. Like, I've never done a program like this before. That was a really great challenge for me, to go outside my comfort zone, do something that I normally wouldn't. And actually, the brides' requests for custom maps have inspired me to do a series of city prints, city art prints. So I feel like they feed off of each other. My inspirations with my products feed into ideas for invitations, and vice versa. I think it's' a really great, organic process, to have both.

Do you tend to sell more bespoke or collection material?

I think right now, they do gravitate more toward bespoke; I think it's because I've been doing it for longer, so I'm more known for that.

But we're really trying to push, this year and next, for the collection suites, because I think, in the end, it's a faster turnaround for brides, but they still get the bespoke feel. They still get the very special, specialty sort of work that I do, without having to customize every single thing. … A lot of times, we'll have a collection bride, but then in there will be speckled a couple of bespoke pieces. So it's interesting that it's not always one or the other.

Where do you draw inspiration for your collection pieces from?

I think I designed all the collection pieces together … I wanted each collection suite to have its own personality and be suited for a certain … setting or style.

It took a long time to design suites, because I wanted every piece to fit with each other but not be too repetitive next to each other. So they're all coordinated in a very specific way. But I also got to bring in my love for patterns into it—we have patterned liners for the envelopes you can bring in. So there's elements of playfulness and elements of other things that I love, but I don't necessarily get to do as much in invitations, like surface patterns.

What can couples expect in terms of pricing?

So I've tried very hard to make our collection pricing as economical as possible, without compromising the quality and the amount of time that it takes us to create everything. But I would say it's about 30 to 40 percent cheaper than our bespoke. I understand our bespokes are expensive; again, part of that was because we wanted to make sure that we have the right tools and the amount of time to really make something really, really special and really custom.

You have to be a little exclusive in order to deliver the best product.

Yeah, I think so. So I think in turn, people really value the work that I do, and they really do love the pieces that we make.

I read on your website about your focus on expression and imperfections; how does that work for weddings, having a love for imperfection as it relates to something that most clients want to be the most perfect day of their lives?

That's a really interesting question. I would say, with wedding invitations, it is a little more tight. There's definitely more process. So with paintings for products or anything else outside of weddings and clients, I don't sketch; I don't do it in black and white; I don't plan out the color palette. I don't do any of that. So already there is that opportunity for imperfections and improvisation.

But with clients and weddings, which makes sense, I have to plan everything out. Because the colors are supposed to be right, and the layouts need to be what they want … things are more structured and perfected, if you will; things are pieced together more. But, because it's watercolor, naturally, it's going to be imperfect. And the strokes are still there. So I still preserve the integrity of watercolor.

Who's your ideal client?

I know that the clients that I love having are people who know what they want. They have a vision; they are very specific about what it is—they've narrowed it down to what it is that they'd really like to see, versus brides that are like, ‘I don't know what I want; let's see what you create.' And I create something, and they're like, ‘That was not at all what I wanted, but I can't tell you what I actually want; I just know that this is not what I want.' So then you waste a lot of their time and your time figuring out what it is they actually want.

[It's important] to know what you want, but be open to why you've hired this person to do this for you, because I've also had brides who have been very stressed about making sure that every aspect is right. But that's the point why you hire people like me, is so that I can take that stress off your shoulders. I will take care of it for you and make it beautiful and perfect for your day, so it's not something that you have to stress about. And I love doing it! I think it's really fun.

What's up next for you?

We have a couple stationery things coming out with Chronicle Books … so this is really exciting, and this gives us the opportunity to be in big-box retailers—Barnes & Noble, Target. Also, we're getting ready to go wholesale with our products next year, which I'm really excited about. So rather than selling to individual customers, we're going to be selling to retailers and buyers. So the hope is to have a bigger exposure that way and have more of a presence in stores nationwide.