So, what were you drawn to or inspired by as a child?
Well, I did grow up with a painter for a mother and an actor for a father. So I was introduced to art very, very young – I was having my five-year-old birthday party at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). So I was introduced to art, but the thing that I was particularly drawn to, I remember, was black and white photographs. There was something about them that seemed really magical to me, in a certain way. Because I'd seen my mom paint, so the mystery was gone. Like "oh, impressionist paintings, I see how that happens." And my dad, I'd seen him learn his lines and get onstage and put his makeup on, so the mystery sort of left for those art forms, though I was always interested in them. But I remember photography being the thing that really got to me, to a certain extent. And then I believe I was also introduced to installation art as a young child in certain galleries and stuff, but I didn't really understand that it was "art". I thought that it was just…a fun room, you know? A cool room.
Which it is, right? (laughs) So wait, let me ask you: it's interesting that it was black and white photography…more than color?
Yeah! Color seemed to be…too close to reality, to me. By the time I was born… I remember having one of the first personal computers. We had Macs, they weren't PCs, at home, so having images on the screen…
And what year were you born?
'88. I just turned twenty-four last week. So colors had been really prevalent in my life, and it seemed sort of boring.
They were ubiquitous, right. Were there any particular photographs that were hanging in your house, or you had a book of, I don't know, Ansel Adams – when you think of those photographs, which ones do you think of?
I don't think we had any photographs in the house, because we had all of my mom's artwork up. Though there was one photo of my dad, that he still has – it was a portrait of him when he first moved to LA, and he was leaning against the window smoking a cigarette, because that's what you did in the 80's…tight jeans on, and a sort of flow-y white shirt, and I remember thinking that that was this picturesque moment of my father – I think that's what it was. That you could capture this moment, and it really was a moment. I mean there was a whole process behind photography, but as soon as the shutter opened and closed, that was the moment. With painting, it was several moments to get to the final product.
And I remember that my mom had all these art books around, photographs of bodies, primarily nude still-lifes, and they were books about, you know, how to draw the human figure – and I remember thinking that the photographs were much more interesting than the drawings. Why would you draw it if you could just take a photo? So I remember that.
I remember being interested in photographs for a long time, but I didn't really pick up a camera until high school. I was always crafting, and my mom taught pastel classes at schools and retirement homes and things, and I always tagged along. And I had a corner of her studio, so she would give me scraps of paper and paints and pastels and markers and whatnot, and I was always making things. She also had a sound craft background that she passed on, so I was always interested in knitting, sewing…I never learned crocheting, but…crafts. How to build things. How to mend my doll clothes. Stuff like that.
So I always had creative activities around me, but I didn't understand that it was "art". I thought that everyone made their own doll clothes, I assumed that everyone's parents gave them a corner of their studio… (laughs). So my creative background started pretty young. Which I think is why I am where I am now – because I didn't have that "oh, should I be an artist or should I not be an artist?" question – I did have it when I was young, I think I was maybe six or seven, and I was sick of my parents being broke all the time, and I was like, "I'm gonna marry a doctor!" And my mom looks at me and goes, "would you really be happy being a housewife?" And I was like, "mmmm…no." (laughs) So that was it. That was the decision. It took me like two minutes to figure out, nope, I'm a creative, I have to keep going.
That's interesting, that you were that little…but you didn't think to yourself, "I'M going to be a doctor"…right?
No, it was "I'm going to marry a doctor." I was still going to make art – I was just going to marry up. (laughs)
Yeah, it sounds like it was a given from the get-go, that that's how you were going to be.
It was. And when I was little it was figuring out which form…I took music classes, dance classes, I did gymnastics, I rode horses, even in dance I did tap, ballet, and modern, I took art classes, I did theater, I directed, I did costumes for theater…I mean…
Wow. And you did all this in high school…?
From five to fifteen, I was overwhelmed with different activities. Or, not overwhelmed, I was…enlightened with different activities. And I would go from one thing to the next. My mom said I had to take music, because it's something that she'd always wished she'd had when she was younger. I started with piano, and then I went to violin, and then I went to guitar, but I got to sort of, "Well, I don't really like this anymore," so we'd figure out another activity for me to do. So I sort of found my niche, and that was in the photography department in high school. I had an amazing teacher who gave me an enlarger and would take me to art shows – he got me and another student two shows in LA. One was at Bergamot Station which is kind of a big deal. And we only had a piece or two each, but still, to have that on a résumé at seventeen…He was a really amazing teacher.
So at this point, as you were experimenting with photography, what were you photographing?
Mainly people. There's a school of contemporary street/documentary photography that I was trying to get involved in, which is kind of hit or miss – it's essentially just taking photos of cool kids. You know, getting wasted and peeing in the street, or whatever…thing that they do.
Were you shooting in black and white?
At that point, I went back and forth. I think it was primarily because my teacher was pushing me to shoot both, but I loved black and white and I actually had an extra filter that I carried around with me to up the contrast, and I thought that was really cool. And everyone would ask me "what's that thing for," because it's this giant red filter on my camera. (laughs) But I wanted it to be super edgy, sort of like Andy Warhol portraits. You know, very flashy…scene photography. But then I realized that I wasn't really a scene-ster. I didn't really like any of these kids that I was shooting photographs of. Even though they were very desirable from the outside, they didn't have much content. They looked pretty, but they didn't have anything to say. So I kept taking photographs, but I started…I think mainly in college. I dropped out of high school…or…I finished high school early. So I had a semester in LA where I was seventeen and I was at a community college and working at American Apparel. And I was sort of just waiting to move to San Francisco. But I started taking photographs of spaces, and I would go out from behind the camera, and I started fidgeting with the content of the image, or rearranging stuff, fixing little things, changing the photograph in the frame. That I think was one break from photography towards installation art for me – when I came out from behind the back of the camera, and I was spending more time prepping the photo than I was…
You were manipulating the photo by setting it up in different ways?
So you grew up in LA, you were in LA this whole time, and you said there was your photography teacher in high school. Were there other teachers or other adults that were influential in terms of you following this thread? Obviously your parents – you mentioned your mom several times – any other teachers, or other people that sparked something for you?
Definitely. I always had problems socially as a kid, I think because I never had the trendy stuff. But I always had really strong relationships with my teachers. I also had five godmothers: godmother of Heart, Hand, Soul, Earth, Spirit, and something else. They all had a specific thing. So Godmother of Hand was an actress to pay the bills, but she made these handmade quilts that were incredible. She was an incredible seamstress. And Godmother of Spirit rode horses in Wyoming and was a jazz singer. And Godmother of Mind was a writer, and Godmother of Earth was a gardener. So they all had those specific traits that they were meant to pass on to me. I'm not in contact with them as much as I should be, at this point, but I think maybe two or three years ago on my birthday I invited them all to come have a cup of coffee, and it was quite nice to see them all together. Because they're all…you know I should probably start interviewing them. They're not old at all, but they're starting to retire.
So these were friends of your parents, and your parents wanted you to have them as…that's amazing. That's incredible.
Well, my dad's family was primarily in England, and my mom's family was on the east coast. So I didn't really have a family or a support system on the west coast, so we just decided to do it in an unconventional way.
That's beautiful! What a gift. I love that.
…so I always had that support. And Godmother of Hand, I would go over to her house and sew something…each of them helped me in their own creative ways. And all of them are actors or writers or performers in some form or another, because they're friends with my family. So I definitely had that as a youngster.
And then all of my art teachers in school – because I went to a private middle and elementary school – my mom was friends with all of the art teachers, because she volunteered and did lots of stuff for the school. So it was almost like a love/hate, because I couldn't befriend them on my own – they were already friends with my mom… (laughs)…but it was a stronger relationship than with any of the other students.
And actually…in second grade, it was either first or second grade, we were supposed to make self-portraits. And this was with a teacher who, I think was probably my first art teacher besides my mother, and again, she was friends with my mom, so it was a little…meh…but I really liked her. She actually was very kind to me, because a lot of these other kids didn't like me. So she would give me special projects where I could go into the art room during recess and work on something. So we had this project we were going to do where we photocopied our hands, and then we traced our feet, and we were supposed to do the whole body…and I did mine nude.
Oh my god! Wait, what is this, like second grade? Did you say second grade?
Yeah, like, first or second grade.
Oh my god.
I actually remember getting into an argument with one of the boys in my class over the shape of a vagina. And I was like, "I have one! I know what it looks like!" and he was like, "well, I've seen my mom's, and I know what it looks like…” Like, “it has two bumps!" "No, it has one bump!" You know…
But I was horribly shunned, because everybody else was drawing themselves as a superhero, or just in clothes, or playing soccer…and I did mine nude, which was, like, so weird to everyone else.
So it was obvious to my parents and a lot of the adults in my life that I was going to be an artist one way or the other, and I was just confused as to why I wasn't accepted for it.
Well exactly. I mean from here, it's clear, hearing the story…it's clear to you now, right? That you were…
It's clear to me now…at the time, it was traumatic. (laughs) At the time, it was like, why does everyone hate me? And now it's like, oh…because I wasn't normal. (laughs)
Well, you were following that inner voice…that's amazing.
And I think it's so ironic now, because all these things that I would do as a kid – you know, I'd go to thrift stores, I loved digging through junk piles and putting different things together, or sewing a patch on a t-shirt, or these crafty things. Or listening to old music, and by that I mean the Beach Boys…but there was a period in high school where all of the kids from this private school were like, "Hey, have you heard of the Beach Boys?" or like, "I'm going to go to the thrift store and try and find a vintage dress" and I was like, "I told you so! I've been doing this for years, and you shunned me, and now you think it's cool. I told you so."
And you'd moved on to something else.
Yeah, I'm like, "what's next!?"
And I also, as a young kid…and I didn't think that this had anything to do with being a creative person either….I would constantly rearrange my room. Because I always had a smaller room, we had those classic California bungalows where it's a huge backyard and a nice front porch, and the rooms were really tiny. And my mom was obsessed with getting the most out of every square inch in her studio, so I think I was emulating her in my own space. But I was always rearranging the room, changing where my bed was, even just flipping which side my head was on the bed. I was constantly sort of puttering around. And I had all my horse figurines on a shelf, but I was the one who was arranging them. My mom didn't come in and dust them off and make them look pretty, I was the one that was making sure that they were all in the right order.
…which I think every kid does, to a certain extent. But then when I was about ten, I made my parents paint every single wall in my room a different color. And I remember choosing all of the colors, and thinking, actually, really debating the color scheme. Really thinking about, "well, I think I should have a blue and a green. What compliments that? Maybe a red and a yellow? Primary colors! And then green! There we go!"
So when my parents separated, I got the larger room, and then I was just rearranging all the time. And then I had TWO rooms and I was rearranging constantly. It was almost like, once a month, my dad would come home from something and he'd knock on door and my bed was flipped over, and my rug was pushed to the side…"Oh – I'll wait for dinner for later." So that's what I did.
I did it at friends' houses too, which again, did not make me very popular (laughs). One of my friends, who was by best friend growing up, she was a little messy. She was a very active kid, and would just sort of run into a room and throw stuff on the floor and run back out again, and I would be like, "No, you have to put your backpack away in the cubby, don't you know?" I would make her go through all of her possessions and go through her clothes and organize them. And I was like, ten! I shouldn't have been a personal organizer at age ten, but I was! I couldn't help myself.
But it was aesthetic, right? Was it aesthetic?
Yeah! It definitely was. I wanted things to be in order, and organized, and everything had a place to be…
When everything was in its place, was it a particular feeling that that created for you? Why did everything need to be in its place?
Yeah, to a certain extent it had to do with emulating my mom's OCD about making sure that everything was organized, but there was a certain comfortable level to me. If everything was put away, and a space looked nice, then I could relax. It wasn't that I was that kid where, "you have to clean your room…!" There was no trauma that led to this OCD or anything. It just made sense to me to have things put away. And if things were put away, then you had more space. And I remember as a kid, very young, having to put away, like if I was playing with my Barbies, I'd have to put them away before playing with my Legos, because I'd have more room. And I think part of it was having a small room - there was only so much I could pull out at one time. So I just got in the habit of organizing, and having like things be in the same container, and it made so much sense to me. So I continued. (laughs)
Well it doesn't sound OCD-like to me. It sounds more like a part of your impulse to want your surroundings to look and feel a particular way because that's important to you. And some people, they don't pay that close attention to the way a room feels, the way a room makes you feel when you walk in. And order's part of that, aesthetics are part of that – it sounds like it was part of a larger package for you.
Yeah. And I think I was also very sensitive to walking into different spaces and getting that feeling. And I guess I was trying to recreate that feeling of oh, this is a beautiful home. And as a kid, going to these private schools, I was exposed to mansions in LA. I was exposed to the houses with six-car garages and your ponies are living in the back. And walking into those spaces, I had a certain feeling, like, "ah, everything's clean, and it's in a closet, the furniture's beautiful, there aren't any rips or stains on anything…" My house was always clean and put-away, but it wasn't nearly as grand as these houses. I don't know if I would've wanted to grow up in any of these houses. But I do remember having certain feelings of walking into a home, going "oh, this is beautiful," and then if I'd walked into a kid's room where there were clothes everywhere, it wouldn't feel so comfortable to me. So…It was definitely a feeling.
The quality of the space…
And even now, in my life, I'm so busy starting a business that I don't have time to put all my clothes away every morning or every night. But I still have a chair that I pile everything on, and I don't do the dishes every day, but all the dirty dishes are still in the sink ready for when I have time. So it's almost like I do a sweep of my house before I leave – if it's not entirely put away, it's at least grouped with like-items, so that when I get home, I can fold all my clothes, do the dishes, take a shower, go to sleep. I've got a system set up of how to live efficiently.
Yeah. You've got it down. (laughs) So…you graduated early and you were seventeen, and working, and…so just take it from there. Did you go to school in San Francisco? Is that what brought you there? Or were you always wanting to live there; was it a dream to live in that part of California, or what? How did that happen?
Well, we had come up to San Francisco maybe four or five times when I was younger, because we had friends up here. Family friends. And I actually didn't like San Francisco, as a kid. I didn't understand why we had to walk everywhere, because I was so used to driving places. It seemed sort of noisy and overwhelming and a very different feeling from LA. But I knew that I wanted to go to an art school. I knew that I didn't want to go to a state school or a very heady intellectual school like Stanford or Harvard or anything. But I wanted to stay close to my parents, because I've always had a really great relationship with them, and I knew that if I went to New York, financially, it would be much more difficult to just fly home on a whim. And there actually have been two times when I was having a really rough time, and I just called my dad and I got on the first flight. And it was only like 200 bucks, so it wasn't the end of the world for me to come home for the weekend.
So I wanted to stay close to them, and I really liked the west coast because of the weather. I looked at a bunch of different schools – I looked at SFAI, CCA which is in Oakland – SFAI's where I ended up going. SFAI is San Francisco Art Institute, and CCA's California College of the Arts. And I looked at Cornish in Seattle and even Emily Carr in Vancouver – and it was sort of down to the money, to a certain extent. Because I got into all of the schools, and then it was figuring out who gave me the best package. Cornish I wasn't as into – it was much more of a multidisciplinary school; they had music and theater and dance as well as fine art, and I was pretty set on fine art. And at the time, when I was going to college, I was absolutely sure I was going to be a photographer because I'd just completed all of these classes with this amazing high school teacher, so I was sure that that's what I was going to do with my life. So I was looking at schools, primarily, with strong photo departments. And SFAI…Annie Lebowitz graduated from there, Ansel Adams taught from there…there's quite a reputation with the photography department.
So it was basically between CCA and SFAI, and SFAI gave me like a thousand dollars more a semester, so we went with them. Also, when I walked in the school…I actually did the CCA and SFAI college tours on my own, and did Cornish and Emily Carr with my family. Because I had visited a friend who was doing a summer program at CCA in Oakland. So I stayed with her for a night, and I went and toured the school, and then the next day I took BART into San Francisco. And I was seventeen, and I remember thinking, "I've got to be mature, and I've got to read the maps and make sure I get the right time, because I've got an appointment with this woman at a particular time," and all this stuff, and I was carrying all of my bags plus my huge portfolio, and I remember looking at the map and thinking "OK, the bus gets off two blocks away from the school, so this is perfect. I'm only running two minutes late; I'll just run to the school." And I get off the bus, and it's on Chestnut Street, which is one block away from Lombard, which is that curvy tourist street; it's so steep that you literally can't drive a car down it. And I'm standing at the bottom of the hill. I actually tried to start running up it, and halfway through, I was like, there's no way. I'm going to be late.
But I walked into the school, and there's a fountain, and it's this old mission-style building, and then it has this really modern 60's cement building attached to it, and I knew that that was where I needed to be. That that was my home. There were kids sitting around smoking and drinking coffee, someone was dancing on the rooftop…I was like, okay, this is it.
There was just some feeling to it that felt right.
Exactly. So I ended up giving her my portfolio, and she didn't accept me at the time because this was my first semester of my junior year, so I hadn't really developed as strong of a portfolio as I would have by the end of my senior year, which is when most people…or no, this was the beginning of my junior year. So most people apply to college at the beginning of their senior year, I think…oh, I can't remember…
I think it is. I think it's the beginning of senior year.
Yeah. So I was applying early, and my portfolio showed that I hadn't developed myself enough. But she said, "You should definitely re-apply, because I can see something in you." And she took me on a tour. I wasn't expecting to get in immediately; I just wanted to see the school, to see if I even liked it. So to have someone encouraging me was like, "oh okay, so I should definitely be going here."
So I was seventeen when I moved up to San Francisco, I turned eighteen the first week up here, and I decided on SFAI, and I did not live in the dorms. I remember that being a very conscious choice. Because we took a tour of the dorms, and it seemed like it was really expensive for such a shitty room. And I was like, if I'm going to live in San Francisco, I want the wainscoting, and the stoop, and the bay windows, and I want to be able to get a cup of coffee on the corner…
I want to live in the city! So I found this place for a hundred dollars more a month than the dorms, where I would've been sharing a room. I got two rooms and a walk-in closet in an apartment on the corner of Haight and Fillmore, which is one of the cooler areas to be, and I should've stayed there, because I was only paying 825 for that, but now I bet it's up to 1500 with all of the inflation. But it was like…I had the house that everyone went to because you could smoke and drink and there weren't any RA's.
But what ended up happening is that when I started throwing all of these parties, I was always conscious of how the space worked, and that I needed more chairs for people to sit down on, or I needed dimmer lights so that it felt more cool and underground – so I started making my space an installation, essentially. I had a fort of sheets that I'd pinned over my bed that made it this sort of canopy/sanctuary thing, and I had Christmas lights everywhere, and I had an Astroturf rug and all these fake flowers, and it was quite an art-school room.
Do you have photographs of it?
I have a couple photos, and I'll email them to you. I'm kicking myself now for not documenting all of the spaces that I lived in, because all of them were unique in their own way. I mean, I had frame clusters, I had shelves full of vintage cameras, I was…way ahead of my time for my age, I think. Because most of those guys could barely handle doing laundry. And I was…
Exactly. And that's…true. That's really true.
And I think it helps that the summer before I moved to San Francisco, my mom had already moved to a cabin in the mountains. My parents have been separated for years. So I was living with my dad, and he was traveling a lot, and he basically was treating me like an adult. I had to cook for myself, I had to do my own laundry, I had to clean the bathroom every once in a while – so I sort of had a couple months' training before moving away.
How old were you when your parents separated?
It was the summer before high school.
So you just lived with your dad, then, after that?
No, I actually lived mostly with my mom. I actually had a hard time with my dad when they first separated, because I think he moved on quicker than my mom did, and I had to sort of take care of her, to a certain extent. And I think also I was going through all the hormonal changes of becoming a woman, and I was just much more comfortable talking to my mom about that stuff than I was with my dad, even though he was very open. I think it was a gender thing, and it was also just a time in my life. So I would spend two weeks with my mom and one week with my dad. But I still saw him often. It wasn't like he was cut out of my life or anything. And they lived five minutes away from each other.
But she knew that as soon as I went to college she wanted to live in this cabin. We'd had it since I was about two, I think, and we used to go up there for weekends, and she paints the landscapes up there, so she just moved up immediately.
Now, where's the cabin?
That's in Idyllwild, in Southern California, like two hours east of LA by Palm Springs.
I built a fairy house up there, with a friend of mine as a kid. I'll try and find a photo of that and send it to you as well. It was my first model! And I made sure that it had a roof, three walls, two windows, and a hammock that we made out of grass so the fairy could nap in it.
So…I moved up to San Francisco, and I had these fresh eyes, and I was star struck, and ready to make art and express everything, and I was hungry for life and all that stuff, and I was in the photography department and I didn't really feel like it was the right place for me. It was interesting, because even though there were really dedicated photographers – photographers are very…ah…introverted. They spend a lot of time in the darkroom, and a lot of time behind the camera, a lot of time studying their negatives and…it's a very solitary pursuit, it seemed to me. And none of the students were very interested in talking about their work during critiques. And half of them were stoned the entire time – they were just in the photography department because it was cool.
So I was the only one talking during critiques. And it was frustrating, because I was paying $4000 to be in this class – I should get something out of it! And then I took a New Genres class, very conceptual art, which is video, performance pieces, installation work, audience participation pieces, all of the weird, out-there stuff. And all of a sudden these kids were talking. It's like they knew that they'd had to prove that they were already an artist, so they'd gotten over that discussion and they were talking about WHY they were making art, and what kind of art they wanted to make. And that was much more interesting to me.
So I experimented with all of that stuff. I don't think I did any nude pieces, but that was a classic – New Genres was the Naked Department; everybody got naked at some point and danced around in front of everyone (laughs).
You'd already done that!
Yeah, I did that in first grade, so… (laughs)
Were there any professors that were really influential around this time?
Yeah! So one, who I'm actually not as close with now…but he was my first New Genres teacher, Tony Labatt, he has recently been getting lots of bigger shows, like at MOMA, and I think he did something at Yerba Buena and he's been all over the world. But he was sort of a bad-boy artist. And I thought it was really fun pieces that he was talking about. I mean one of his pieces he – and this was bordering on funny and cruel – but he tried to kidnap somebody that was running for mayor. Like, that was the entirety of the piece. They have two photos of them trying to wrestle this guy into a car. And that was it. And he got away; they didn't actually kidnap him. They had no real plan. The piece was the attempt.
The attempt at kidnapping this person.
The attempt at kidnapping this person, yeah. (laughs) And actually he ran into the guy years later at an event, a fundraiser or something, and was like, "hey, I was that guy that tried to kidnap you!" and the politician was like, "you have no idea how much money I've spent on personal security since then." So he was really traumatized. And Tony apologized and was like, "I'm so sorry, my intent was to sort of knock you out of reality but not necessarily freak you out…" But that kind of thinking, that thinking that it doesn't have to be a two-dimensional piece on a wall…and he was also the person that got me out of photography. Because I brought in…this was probably the most ambitious project I'd ever done. I took nude photos of friends of mine basically dancing around in a studio, and I had these lights set up so that it was very contrast-y and there were shadows behind them, and I printed it in the darkroom on twenty-by-twenty inch sheets of paper. Huge trays, tons of chemicals, and it was a very grand project. And I put a screen on it to make it sort of newspaper, where you have all those little dots instead of a clear image, and I left the edges raw, and I thought, this is such a cool image. I didn't know why I'd taken it, but I thought it looked really cool. And I brought it in, and Tony just ripped me a new one. He was just like, "this is just photography for photography's sake, you have nothing behind it, why did you do this, it's a waste of expenses, it's a waste of paper, it's a waste of your time, you're better than this…" blah blah blah. And that was as close as I've ever gotten in terms of crying in a critique. But I did need someone to…
It's so hard to hear that. And yet…
Well, it was and it wasn't. I mean, he gave me a big hug afterwards; it wasn't like he was just standing there yelling at me. He was trying to push me. But it was like, "Oh – not everyone likes photography." And I had to take a step back and think is this something that I want to do? Am I following this advice because I'm following Tony, or am I following this advice because I believe in it? So that's when I started doing installation pieces. And the first one was really simple. I made a voice recording, it was a story about my mother hanging laundry, and I hung a laundry line in the classroom and hung up some clothes. I think it was all like vintage lingerie. And I had this story going, and the lights were dim, and I sprayed Fabreeze in the room so that it smelled like laundry. And it wasn't the most successful piece, but it was a start. It was the first installation piece.
And it was something new for you, right? It was a departure. Such a big leap to try something that's entirely new.
And that was what I did like about the New Genres department – because you were encouraged to try it. Even if you fell flat on your face, like I did with those photos, they still gave me a round of applause at the end saying, you know, good job, you did something. Creativity was encouraged in any form. And the more creative you could be, the more encouragement you would get. So to a certain extent that was not a good thing because people were just trying to provoke. You know, there were kids that were peeing in plastic bags and nailing them on the wall…
The weirdest thing possible, as opposed to an interesting thing. So I knew that I was a little conservative for that department, but it was the closest that I could be to where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. But by the end of school, I was getting a little concerned because in order to be an installation artist in the real world, you either have to have a sugar daddy, or have be really good at getting grants. And generally the grants were given to social projects: community based projects, like murals where you have high-school students helping you…pieces that are very necessary for our society, but it wasn't what I was doing. So I was concerned about making it in the real world as an installation artist.
But also, I was gaining these other skills. I was the director of a gallery at school; I was actually the youngest person ever – actually there was one other person who was nineteen as the director, but it was me and this one other guy that were the youngest directors of this gallery.
Was this on campus?
Yeah it was on campus, it was the Diego Rivera Gallery, so it was given funding from the Getty and Banana Republic to maintain what must've been a twenty by thirty foot Diego Rivera mural, and then the rest of the stuff that was chosen by a jury, but then curated by the directors. It wasn't like were picking which pieces the kids were doing, but we were installing, we were hosting the receptions, asking the artists what their elevator speech was…
Wow! So how did you get that? It sounds like a pretty big deal.
It was! It was also the highest-paying work/study program. So it was like, I'm gonna do that one.
And, well, I worked as a gallery assistant – there were two galleries on campus. One was for student work, and one was for outside work. And that was curated by Huhan Ru who's a Chinese man who also speaks French and German and English and everything else, and he curates more biennials…he just did the Istanbul biennial, and then he did one in Hungary as well…but anyway, he curated this gallery. And that was just being a gallery assistant, you know, painting walls and selling artwork, being a receptionist, stuff like that. So I was working there for a year, and I developed a really good relationship with the director of the whole gallery program. So when I applied, it made sense to her. And I was the only undergrad as well, that semester that had applied; everyone else was in the grad department. But because I knew all the maintenance staff by name, I knew the way that the gallery systems worked, I knew where the paintbrushes were, it made it so much easier for her, because she didn't have to train anyone. So I wrote a good cover letter, and I got the job.
So I was sort of like – should I be a curator, or should I stick with the art? Should I get a job that's entirely different? What do I do? And I'd always been working in clothing shops and little boutiques and stuff like that, but that's all minimum wage, and I was trying to figure out what I could do where I could actually support myself. And when I graduated…actually, my boyfriend's house had burnt down a month before I graduated, so I was very much in this, "Ahhh, what do I do with myself…" we were supposed to move in together, but then that changed, then we broke up, and all this personal craziness…but a month after school, I knew I needed to find work, so I just started walking up and down Valencia…sort like Abbot-Kinney in LA…and there were a couple art galleries that I applied at, and vintage stores – there was even a fitness place that I walked into to see if they needed a receptionist.
And I walked into this startup. I didn't know what a startup was, and I didn't know what they were doing. I walked in and there was music playing, but everyone was working on their computers, and people were sitting on couches with laptops…it seemed like they were just hanging out while they were working. And I walked in and they were like, "hi, can we help you?" And I was like, "Yeah, I'm looking for work…do you guys need anyone? Are you hiring?" And this guy walks up and he's like, "well, what do you do?" And I said, "Well, I graduated from art school…" and as soon as I said that, this petite woman pops her head up from the back corner and says, "do you have Photoshop?" And I said, "yeah, I do." "Do you have it on your laptop? Come here. Let's meet." And we had an interview, and I gave her my résumé and said that I had minimal graphic design skills but I'm a quick learner and I want to work hard, etc. And she's like, "How does $14 an hour sound?" And I was like, "That's amazing! I'll do whatever you want for $14 an hour!" (laughs)
And then I had two other interviews. I remember the final interview with the CEO of the company, he was wearing jeans, shoes, a blazer, and a Ninja Turtles t-shirt. And he sat down and was like, "so what are we hiring you for?" (laughs) And I was like, "honestly, I don't know." And he said "well, who did you know to get this interview?" And I said, well, I really walked in off the street. And that was like really intriguing to him. This is a kid who went to Stanford and was immediately hustled into being the CEO of a startup. He had his path destined from as soon as he was accepted at Stanford. So he was intrigued that I did something unusual, and he hired me. So the next week they flew me to Austin for SXSW, and I was part of their company. And I was assisting the director of marketing, who was that woman who'd interviewed me originally. She was teaching me and training me, and at first I was part time and then I added on more hours. So when the company started growing, and she hired a person with more skills to do the skilled stuff, I ended up just running to FedEx to pick up posters and stuff like that, I started organizing the supply closet. And then I went up to the office manager, and I was like, "I think I can arrange these desks more efficiently; do you want to see my floor plan?" and I just sort of started doing that stuff, and then anytime they needed a new table they'd send me to Ikea to go buy it…and they realized that that was where my skills where. It was creative, but it wasn't necessarily in graphic design. So whenever they had parties or events, I was organizing it, or I was helping whoever was in charge organize it.
And then I needed a break from that. Because that startup in particular, it was a business solution. It was data listing verification which is as boring as you can get.
Data listing verification.
I have no idea what that is. But that's okay. (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah I know. I mean, it's something that's necessary; if you type in "iPhone charger" on eBay, there are little codes and things going behind the program making sure that every item that pops up is actually an iPhone charger and not an iPhone or a bikini. You know, making sure that what you're asking for is accurate. But you know, it's really boring. Tons of little bits of information. And I'm not a business-y person anyway. I'm an artist, first and foremost. So I went to go work on a farm for a little while. And I'd also gotten out of this bad relationship, and I was still unsure with what I was wanting to do. So I worked on a farm with the WOOF program, which is where you work for four to six hours a day and then you have a place to live and as much fresh produce as you wanted, and they provided soap and towels and stuff like that.
Say the name of the program again?
WWOOF – Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It's all over the world. You choose which country you want to look at, and there are hundreds of farms even in California and even in the Bay area. Some were goat farms, some were chicken farms, some were produce, we did grapes and produce – this was in Sonoma. And at that time I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I'd work in the morning and then take a shower and take a nap because we had to wake up pretty early. And then I started creating things with sticks and twigs and bugs and I started making art again. And they were sort of sculptural objects, but I always saw them in a space as a decorative piece. I didn't see them in a gallery anymore – I didn't see them with white walls around them and a tag. I saw them as hanging over the kitchen sink, or in the bathroom, or whatever it was.
It had a context that you were envisioning.
Right. And that was the other reason I didn't like installation art or "Art" – art with a capital A – as much, is because I always wanted someone to be able to enjoy the work. It kills me that MOMA has hundreds of thousands of paintings in storage, you know? I mean I know that they can't show all of them, but art is meant to be viewed and loved, not put away. So I didn't like the idea that only people that would go to this gallery would see my work; only the snobs would see it. But I also wasn't a street artist. I didn't want my graffiti on a bus to be seen by the common people either – it was some sort of in-between. So again, I was envisioning my pieces in a house, not in a gallery or in a public place.
Right-you wanted your art to be lived with.
Yes! Which is exactly how I work with art, too. Most of the more fine art pieces that I make, I have to live with the materials. And I find a lot of stuff on the street; I'm really into scavenging. So I'll find a lot of stuff on the street and I'll live with it for a while before I ever put it in an installation. It needs to sort of become a part of my surroundings before I can work with it. Not all the time; sometimes I find something and do something with it immediately, but generally speaking I have to live with the pieces for awhile. And I do the same thing with clothes! Whenever I buy new clothes, they have to sit in my closet for a week or so before I can wear them…which is so the opposite of most people. (laughs) But I guess, without sounding too much like a hippie, I guess I sort of have to get the energy from that piece before I know what its purpose is.
Totally with you! I know the feeling.
So I finished working on the farm, and I was going back and forth between my folks' houses in LA and Idyllwild, and being in San Francisco because I was waiting for a room to open up with some friends. I moved back up there January 1st, and I thought I was going to have a job at that startup again, but two weeks before I moved back up, they told me that they were at a hiring freeze, so I wasn't able to work for them anymore. And that was a bit of a setback, because one of the main reasons I moved back to the city at all is that I was guaranteed they'd raise my wage to 18 dollars an hour, and I thought I'd be working full time, so I was like sweet, I have a house and I have a job; this is perfect. So I moved up here anyway, and I started making jewelry and trying to sell that, and it wasn't quite my thing, and then I was buying clothes at thrift stores and then reselling them to vintage stores, and that wasn't quite enough money either, and then the startup…because I'd come in every once in a while, like once a month or so to help them organize their closet again, or put together a party, but it was much more of a consultant than a job. But they recommended me to a venture capital firm, one of their investors, who was building an incubator which is the new thing investment firms are doing where they have the building, they stock the food, and they supply the internet, and they rent out desks instead of the entire office. And this particular incubator, you have to be funded by that investment company, and you have six months to have a desk and then you have to get your own space. It's almost like a mentorship program, where first you have the moms and dads of the investment company stop by on a weekly basis, stop by and see how you're doing, and then you have to move on and graduate and get your own space.
So I was given $10,000 to put it together, and I thought I had made it. I thought that was it. I was like, "I'm going to be rich!" …and then I looked at how much it actually costs to put together a fully stocked kitchen, two boardrooms, three phone rooms, and twenty desks and a lounge…and I still pulled it off!
Wow. Wait…they gave you $10,000 to do all of that? To buy everything, all the furniture you needed for the spaces?
Ikea. That's all I can say is Ikea.
I bet. Wow. That's amazing.
And I was so excited! I brought my friends in to build the furniture, and I was able to pay them 20 an hour, and I was making 40 an hour, and this whole world had opened up to me. And I couldn't believe that I was actually getting paid to do what I did compulsively anyway. It was amazing.
And then he recommended me to another investor, who had me buy one couch for $15,000. (laughs) So in the first month of doing this, I saw the two ends of the spectrum: very cheap and DIY, and then luxury items where you really are asking exactly what town in Italy the leather came from. And I decided that I'm in the middle. I don't necessarily like doing cheap stuff, because there's a lot of stress involved, and I don't really like doing the very, very, very high end, either, because again, there's a lot of stress. There's a whole ego thing that comes in where clients end up being a little more controlling, and less interested in your creative eye, and they want to have every element under their finger. So I've settled with the middleman. The everyman.
And I went from startup to startup to startup, and they just kept recommending me to another person and recommending me to another person, and then the office that I have now is where I sort made my – not my "name", people don't necessarily know my name yet, but this office a lot people come to, primarily because the client is successful. They're constantly having meetings with other successful startups. But they recommended me to two or three other people that were starting to give me $30,000 and $50,000 to put together their space. So all of a sudden I was not forced to only go to Ikea. Like with StackMob, I built a custom lounge that I designed. I designed every aspect – how high the seats were, how deep they were, what fabric, how many cushions, the whole thing.
And I like that range, where I have control, I still have to present my ideas to the boss or whoever's in charge, but they are really looking to me for the ideas. And I've done a couple residential spots too; mainly bachelors and one bachelorette of the startup world. Because these guys, especially the bachelors, they're making like 200,000 dollars a year, but they just graduated from college, they work sixteen hour days, and on weekends they go off to Tahoe or the go camping or the do whatever they want to do – they don't have time to go shopping, and they also really don't know how to, because they're the nerds. These are the nerds that are going to change the world. So for them, to spend $5,000 on their living room is not a big deal. And they didn't have the time, and they started hiring me to do it. I'm more drawn to offices, because I like the idea of creating spaces that are utilitarian, that have a specific use. Living rooms have a specific use as well, but it's much more for lounging. I like creating little phone rooms and game rooms and lounge areas and desk pods and stuff like that. So I think I'm primarily going to stick with commercial. Plus, a lot of these startups want almost installation art in their space. They want a cool rock wall or a slide or…I actually did astroturf rugs for StackMob in their game room. So it's like I'm doing the same thing that I was doing in art school but on a grander scale, and I'm getting paid for it.
It's so great! Wow.
And there's definitely a part of me that's wary that I've turned into "the man" – that I'm a business owner (Swell Spaces), that I care about the bottom line. That I have business cards and checks and stuff like that, and I'm not just this total free spirit. That I am answering to someone else. But – I set my own hours, I go shopping for a list of things, and I get to do what I want to do.
Yeah, it doesn't sound like you answer to someone else. It sounds like you're your own person. Your own boss, right?
Right. Well, certain clients like or dislike a couch that I pull in or whatever. You know, I still have to have final approval. They don't just hand me the money and I get to go wild. But – it's quite satisfying. You know, I get home and I'm satisfied with whatever I've done that day. And that's something that I've never felt.
Yeah – it feels like you've just created this – it sounds so authentic to who you are. What you're doing, and what you've created, it's completely authentic and natural to the person that you've always been.
Yeah. It made so much sense in hindsight, and after all of those years taking all those different classes, figuring out that this was not what I wanted to do…but that's a quote that I hold near and dear to my heart, you know, sometimes figuring out what you don't want to do is just as important as figuring out what you do. So I learned that this was not it, and this was not it, but maybe I can take some of those skills and some of the elements that I like, and use them. So it all makes sense in hindsight.
It all led to where you are. Everything played its part, right?
And I bet, I bet in about ten years, I will have moved on to something else. If not sooner.
Well I was I was going to ask you, what do you see when you think about…you're twenty-four? So you have your whole career in front of you, really. Where do you want to go from here? I mean you're really successful, and you're doing this great thing, you have this great business and you're doing it exactly your own way – and now what?
And it's growing! That's the thing, too, is that I was really concerned about starting a business and having it totally flop. Because with startups, they're funded, so it's easier for them to grow really big and then fall apart, but ninety-percent of them fail. And that was the industry that I surrounded myself with, and I was thinking, oh, what if I'm the one that fails? But in the past year, we've grown eight-hundred percent. I've grown from having one client every other month to four to five clients at a time. Instead of barely being able to pay rent this next month, I'm going to be making $15,000. I mean, I haven't made much money since May, so, you know, it's evening itself out, but…that's a LOT of money to be making as a twenty-four year old that's not a rock star.
It's amazing! It's amazing. What you've done is no small thing. It's really incredible. So what's your dream for the rest of your life?
Well, I definitely know I have to stay in San Francisco a little bit longer, just to build up a portfolio and really create a network. And I'm having such a success here that it would be a shame to end it early. But I am itching to get out of the city, because I've lived here for six years now, so basically my entire adult life I've lived in either Los Angeles or San Francisco, and I feel like there's so much more of the world to explore. And I have dual citizenship. So I can go anywhere in the European Union.
Oh wow! You're so lucky. That's amazing!
I mean, my goal is to build up a portfolio, and get some money saved up, so that I can move the business as well as myself. I'm obviously probably going to lose a lot of my installation crew, and I have an operations manager that I hired a couple months ago…I don't know exactly what his life plans are, but when I've mentioned, like, "hey, you wanna move to Berlin in two years?" he's like, "yep, I'm okay with that." So… (laughs) You never know. But even if he's not in the right time or place in his life, I know that I could probably find someone else to fill the role, sort of. I mean, the guy that I hired, is an amazing…he's a photographer, as well as a painter and an artist and just an all-around amazing guy, so I can't replace him, but…I don't know, I've been thinking of moving up to Seattle for a year to see if that works at all; I'm moving to Oakland in the next month, so I'll still be in the area, but that might be enough of a change to where I could just save up to move to Europe.
But I've definitely been thinking about Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona…I'm trying to stay away from England, because I'm not…England doesn't really have great design. It's pretty stuffy, still. It's either really stuffy and old-fashioned or really neon, which is not my thing either. But Berlin is sort of the height of…everything is cool, and everyone is inspired…at least from what I've heard, and from what I've read. It's such a can-do attitude there. Plus the cost of living, or the ratio of how much it costs to live versus what minimum wage is and what you can earn, it seems like…a one-bedroom is the equivalent of 600 American dollars in Berlin. Like, in the city. If you wanted a one-bedroom in San Francisco you're looking at $2200. So it's like, oh, I could live cheaply and do what I want to do but not be so stressed out about finances, and live in an amazing city…why not?
It's a place that's just a whole new source of inspiration because of all that's going on there, right? That's so great.
Exactly. So I feel like that's probably my next step. But I also have to be concerned because my parents had me older. My mom is sixty-five, and my dad is sixty-two, something like that. So if I'm moving to Europe, I do have to think about the fact that I'm going to have to move them soon, too, to wherever I am. Just because when they get old, you know, they're going to need help. That's the way that it goes. And I'm not interested in…I'm interested in putting them in retirement homes, but in ones that I can visit regularly, not across the country or across the world. So I am a little concerned about, if I move to Europe, they will have to come with me, and I don't know how that would work on the green card. I mean my dad could come, because he's British, but my mom would be a little difficult. I don't know – maybe they're much nicer about that over there than they are in America. So I am thinking about that as well, but both of my parents have always said, "the point of us birthing you was so that you could go do what you wanted and be the person that you wanted to be, so don't hold back for us." But I also wouldn't mind moving my whole family to Berlin, and setting them up with their little apartments too! And they can….do what they want!
Right! Well, you have a few years anyway, before they're at the point where they need serious help.
Yeah, right now they're sort of fine, but it's in the next ten years; that's what I'm thinking. In the next ten years I need to figure it out.
Ten years to play with. I mean, who knows. If you had this conversation with them right now, they'd be like, honey, go do whatever…
Yeah. I mean…so I definitely want to do startups for now, and then eventually, I'd love to do boutiques, restaurants, and stuff like that. And homes…it's tricky. Because I love the idea of doing homes, but until I have a particular style that's sought after, I really have to listen to exactly what the client is saying. It's very much their home, their space, their style. And they're not asking me, at least not yet, "I want you to make this like YOUR home" that they can live in…they're asking me to make THEIR home, FOR them. So it's a slightly different mentality. But I think at some point I'd love to do homes as well. For now, startups are paying really well, so I'm happy.
Yeah! I mean, it feels to me like something's going to open up around that, around doing homes at some point that's going to make it all…
Worthwhile. And at this point I'm just going with whatever's handed to me, and I'm saying yes to every opportunity. And some of the opportunities, some clients that I've worked with, I've absolutely hated, and I will never work with a company like that again, and some clients that I didn't think I would enjoy I'm over the moon with them. So I'm learning as I go. Which…if I had known how difficult it would be to start a business, I don't know if I would've had the guts to do it.
Well what's the hardest part about it? Like, what's the part about it that makes you think, "gosh, I'm not sure I would've done this if I had known?"
Honestly, it's the business stuff. Going shopping, staying up late, working hard, building furniture, doing all that stuff, that's my dream. Filling out invoices, sending emails with the proper terminology…that I'm actually okay with, but it's primarily the financial stuff…accounts, banking, I have to wait for a check to clear before I actually go buy the thing but if I'm on that block I just want to buy it anyway…but I’m learning to juggle…. And: how do we grow? And the guys that work for me, are they independent contractors or are they employees? At the moment, they're contractors, because they don't work full-time, and I'm trying to avoid all the employee taxes. There's stuff like that that…it didn't occur to me until a year and a half in that I needed liability insurance, and that was just because someone told me. So stuff like that, that I'm learning as I go. But I also think that, in a way, it's allowing me to grow the business organically. Like, now we're at this level. And now we need liability insurance. Okay. So what's next after that? Next is having our own office, but that's going to be a year down the line. Or, next is hiring Shaun full time. You know, what's the next step. So we don't have a business plan that we're following; we're growing organically and writing the business plan almost in retrospect. But it seems to be working! So I'm not complaining!
Well yeah. And at some point, you hire someone for whom that work is their version of your work, and it's totally natural and authentic to them, and you don't have to…
I hired an accountant! I hired an accountant to balance the books. And also Shaun, I hired him specifically to do mild bookkeeping stuff, you know, inputting receipts and things like that, but we realized after a while that his strengths are much more in photographing, documenting, and presenting Swell Spaces to the world. So website, blogs, he's an excellent writer – and I'm not a very strong writer. So he does a lot of the text for our web pages. And I hired an accountant, and I remember originally thinking "oh my god, $50 an hour; there's no way I can afford that!" and now I'm like, "just have her do it; it'll take her an hour, it'll take us eight hours…" send it to Rachel! (laughs) So my mentality is changing as I'm learning where my time is best spent. And certain things, even like buying fancy clothes. Because I was such a thrift-store junkie. And now I have to buy nice blouses to go to meetings. And I'm looking at the price-tags on these things thinking like, who the hell do I think I am spending this much money on myself? But I have to, and it does get me clients to look good, or to present myself in a certain way, the same way I present the website in a certain way. So it's a learning curve, but it's been an interesting challenge, and it's definitely kept me on my toes.
And also, I don't like going the easy way anyway. I graduated high school early, I graduated college early…I don't like the easy route. I like the interesting one.
You go with the route that's you.
Not necessarily the one that's easiest or the one that's the most well-established, it's not the road that's the most traveled, but you just follow your own sense of what's next and what's right for you, and that's what works! So why would you not do that continue to do that in every way.
And I've actually talked about this to a lot of people, because I'm still in that who-am-I, "discovering myself" stage in life, and I'm confronting some of the social problems that I had when I was younger, and I realize now that I was always comfortable with who I was, with what I was doing with, you know, the nude portrait, I was proud of that. But I was never comfortable with myself in society. I didn't seem to fit. I was always true to myself, but I didn't quite seem to fit. And it's now starting to come together. People are respecting me for what I'm doing, and enjoying the same music and activities that I like, which, you know, if I'd suggested in high school I would've been laughed out of the class. So…
Well what does that mean to you? What does it mean to you to…I don't know, I'm not even sure what my question is, but say more about that.
Well, it's been a challenge. Because there's a part of me that's always wanted to belong. I feel like most people want to belong. And one thing that creative folks always encounter is that they're different. And I think that more and more…there's the highest number of people attending art school, and the highest number of creative jobs ever, so I feel like more and more, being an artist or being a creative person is going to be socially accepted and also revered. But at the time, even though I was growing up in the middle of LA, all of my friends' parents were actors and artists and musicians themselves, there's some fear with kids of what's different. And I never quite understood why my differences were necessarily bad, but their differences were accepted. Because other kids were weird too, but they were weird in a cool way, whereas I was weird in an uncool way, according to them. Maybe also according to me. I'm sure I may have removed myself to a certain extent after I'd been shunned so many times: I just gave up and was like, "you guys aren't going to like what I'm eating, so don't even offer trading food with me…" My mom did give marinated tofu instead Oreos. So that didn't help. (laughs) But they could've accepted it. And I think one thing that I did learn from that is that…I was never really comfortable with kids, but I was comfortable with all the adults in my life…so I'm not nervous at all to go in and meet a client for an interview. I have no qualms with that. I have no problems talking to the architect of the building that's been doing it for forty or fifty years and is obviously established and wealthy and whatever. I have no problems talking to them. But I hate going to bars.
So on the one hand, because I was socially shunned, I was forced to find companionship in older people, and I'm very comfortable doing that now, but I'm still…I think I'll always struggle with kids, or with people my age. Also because those twenty-four year olds are getting as wasted as possible, working as little as they can in order to survive, hitting up their parents for as much money as they can while they can…you know, it's not what I want to be doing. I'm passionate and driven, and it doesn't make sense to me to spend all of Saturday watching cartoons, you know? I think most of my friends now are older.
Interesting! I totally get it. So I have a question that I'm not quite sure what the…like I can feel the feeling of the question, but I'm not quite sure exactly what it is…
Give it a go! We'll see if it works.
Yeah, something about… if you have a feeling about the world you're now part of creating, because you're a young adult, and you are passionate, and you are driven, and you are out there, and you are highly creative, you're making an impact…in lots of different ways. Probably in ways that you don't even know. So what do you…this is the part where I'm not quite sure what I want to ask you…do you have some feeling about how you feel like the world wants to change? Or where things are going? Or what kind of impact you want to have…
Yeah! I have an answer for you! (laughs) So…this is something that I've actually sort of been musing about maybe in the past couple of months. But I feel like, more and more, I've been hearing about these smaller communities that are being developed…not communities like suburbs, communities like, places where families are co-parenting, or co-living. So they all send their kids to the same school, and then one person goes and picks them up or whatever it is. Or communities where you buy into it, but you all have the same plumber or the same electrician and everyone sort of switches whose responsibility it is…and I'm extremely intrigued by that. By communities and communal living. So you have your own home; it's not like you're living in a co-op where the room next to you has five kids and…it's not necessarily like that, not very hippie, where you have your own space, but you're doing your day-to-day things together, like cooking meals and whatever. So I'm envisioning these houses in a community where one house has a giant dining room table, and that's the food house. And that's where everyone goes to eat their meal together. And then one house has like the awesome jungle-gym in the back, and that's the day-care house. And I'm envisioning designing these spaces specifically for communal needs, but that also have private spaces in them, so that the bedrooms of each of these places are all still very private bedrooms for the family to live in, but then their living room is open and free for all.
Cool! And…why are you interested in that? Because you feel it would be a better use of resources, or…?
Definitely resources, political, ethical…I think with today's technology, we have the world at our fingertips but we don't know our next-door neighbors' names. We're sort of removing ourselves from the way that we're supposed to live, which I think is almost in tribes – not in the way that we'd fight each other over the last Dunkin' Donut, but, you know, that there are smaller circles, there are immediate families, and then there are larger families. That you don't necessarily have to be blood related, but you check in on each other. If somebody's sick, you bring them soup. That sort of thing. I think we've been distancing ourselves from that, specifically, with suburbs. Because you end up having a very sterile environment. It's very beautiful and very nice, but it's not very homey or warm. At least, in my opinion. And not all suburbs, but you know the kind that I'm talking about.
Did you grow up in a neighborhood like that?
Well, I grew up…LA is one big suburb, but it was very beach-town-y; sort of Venice Beach area. I didn't have communal living, but my best friend lived maybe seven blocks away from me, and we would go back and forth between our houses. But I can't imagine growing up without her that close. Without a friend within walking distance. We were allowed to walk to each other's houses at twelve; I didn't have to ask my mother to drive me over there. And I think that's so important in upbringing. And I think my elementary school was – very small classes, very liberal ways of teaching, hands-on, the Socratic method was huge, asking questions as opposed to telling kids answers…so I'd sort of grown up with that communal idea or that communal background. And then more recently, I've been thinking about economics. And actually a good friend of mine, who I'd met through a Unitarian Universalist group of people – they're like the most anti-religion religion – they're post-church following an anti-religion, (laughs) but she and I have both sort of shared this view. And she went and worked on a farm at one point too, where you trade your labor and your time for food and a roof over your head. And I liked that idea – that if I put in my hours I receive sustenance, and the rest of my time is my own. So she worked on a farm like that too, and we've always been talking about this communal living thing, because we've always wanted to find houses, like two houses on the same lot where we live close to each other but we still have our separate spaces.
And her boyfriend now is really into economics, and he's been talking about utilizing the most amount of resources. And it seems like if you break communities down to the individual families, that's where resources get wasted the most. Scraps of food get thrown away, or shirts that get outgrown just get donated to Goodwill, or whatever it is. And the goal is not to live like a bum on nothing; the goal is to live well using the least amount that you need. Which is actually a quote from Charles Eames, who's a designer – I actually went to elementary school with his grandson. But we never talked about it at the time; we were more into lizards and dinosaurs. (laughs) But Eames' quote was, "make the best for the most with the least." So, make the best quality product, for the average consumer, as in he wasn't doing anything high-end, for the least amount of money. Now, I think the least should be the least amount of resources, not just the least amount of money. Because now a lot of furniture is being built in China. But if you have a fence that was just torn down, and a woodworker, and a woodshop, you can build a table. You can build a chair. And all you need is time and some glue. The resources are already there; how do you use them?
So I think that's kind of where I want to go eventually, and I'm very interested in DIY alternatives, and recycling furniture, and buying things that, you know, you find a dresser on the street that's missing one drawer, why don't you just build a drawer and then you have a brand new dresser? Stuff like that. And if you refinish it, it looks like new. So being sustainable is a huge personal goal of mine, and eventually I want to work that into my design. However, it is more expensive, startups don't necessarily care for it. So it's one of those things that I sort of implement whenever possible, and I suggest green options, but I don't ever force clients to buy the green furniture.
It sounds like a creative challenge, as you move forward into different things, whatever happens with your business…the way it sounds coming from you, and through you, and the way you envision it, it sounds like a creative challenge. I mean, it is because there's a need for it, and there's a good reason to do it, but I don't know – there's a way in which it feels a little different. It feels more open, it feels like – not like, "oh, it's what we should do, because it's good for the planet," but…
Yeah. It's not like, "I have to do this or I'm going to die." It's like, "These are the tendencies that I would like to entertain." You know, the direction that I'm going in.
And it is really an important thing. It's actually for real, as in the world is really changing, and all this stuff environmentally is going on, and this is actually a real…
Yeah. It's a way for me to be political or involved…I always say I think there needs to be a social change before there's a political one, because if people were as involved and educated, we never would've voted for Bush. You know, the people voted, you can go into conspiracy theories and stuff as well, but the fact that it was that fine of a line is scary to me. That that many people…and it's the same with this election. The fact that that many people are actually going to vote for Mitt Romney. To me it's not the politics, it's not the system that's screwed up, it's the people participating in the system. But there's a problem with education…kids don't learn; they don't go to woodshop anymore. They go to computer classes. It's a different way of thinking. And that's even if they have computers at the school; if they can even afford them. So I am political in my ideals, but I also, and this is sort of what I was touching on earlier with installation art…I think actually one of June's nieces does very political installations, and she gets grants for them. It's something that I never really wanted to do. I was never the stand-on-a-soapbox-and-yell-my-ideas, I was more…practice what you preach, and maybe people will follow, rather than…not practice it.
Yeah! And from just listening to you and hearing you talk about this, what it feels like to me is that what you do, what you believe, and who you are, it's so creative and artistic, and so matter-of-fact and accessible at the same time. It's not, you know, in the same way that you were saying that installation art in a gallery where nobody gets to actually live with it – it feels like there's some connection there with what you're saying. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I think I do know what you're talking about. And I used to be a lot harder on myself about this. You know, when I was in high school I was very, very political and I went to all the peace rallies and I was standing there with a picket sign and then I realized that I was not having my rebellion because my mom was right next to me. (laughs) So it didn't fulfill that part of it. But I also felt like I wasn't necessarily making a difference by being in a picket line. I mean, a difference was made because it was on TV to a certain extent, but like, I should be teaching my friends how to recycle things properly and how to plant their own vegetable gardens. And that can make an actual change as opposed to just being another face on the news. So, you know, I buy most of my clothes from thrift stores, and even with the furniture, when we build it, it comes with tons of trash and cardboard. And I actually spend more time than necessary separating the two, and making sure that everything can be recycled is recycled, first, before we throw away any of the trash. Because to me it's like, that should just be a basic part of our process. And yes it takes more time, but it makes so much sense to me. That's time well spent. So I try and incorporate little things that way – you don't print out a lot of things because you don't want to waste the paper, so I'm trying to have it all online. I'm trying to run my business the same way that I run my household: as sustainable as possible without suffering.
Yeah! So you're interested in maybe designing sustainable communities at some point in your life.
Eventually. That's a goal, but again, at this point, I'm just taking anyone that hires me, so…I'm learning. But it's definitely something…and actually there's a huge push in design right now for green and sustainable design. Like, the Dwell on Design Conference, which is a big conference in LA and all of the top people come speak, and everyone has a booth and all that stuff, there was a whole Green Stage, and a green/sustainable building materials booth. And they had all these Airstreams that were redesigned to be entirely green. And again this is high end, and not everyone can afford the brand-new Airstream that's all green, but if rich people can afford it and are buying that, power to them, you know? It seems like it's a directions that I'm interested in going in. And especially with products – with furniture, and decor – there are all these pillows that are made in Africa. Like 50% of the proceeds are going directly back to that community. And it's a beautiful pillow. Why would I not buy that pillow and buy one that was made in China by a factory. Again it's that I want to be a responsible consumer as well as a responsible designer. And it's kind of hard, because you really need to kind of educate yourself on what's right and what's wrong. Because that kid in China still needs money too. It's a nine-year-old, and it's not the kid's fault, it's the system's fault…So it's trying to sort of work out those ethical issues. And I don't have a failsafe rule for these things yet, but it's something that's always in the back of my mind – and a lot of people are responding to it.
Yeah – I'm sure they are. Do you think about designing your own product line? Are there products that you think about doing?
I do! Every once in a while I'll be looking for a table in a specific price-range, and I just can't find it. And I'll be looking online, I'll go through all my catalogs, I'll go to stores, and I just want this table. And I can see it clearly in my head, and it's nowhere to be seen. And there's a part of me that wants to do that. But I also know that to build a product is almost the same as building a business, in that you really have to think about your market, your price range, your product, the actual production of it, marketing, all of that. So I have a feeling that if I do start designing, I want at least some money in my bank before I start so that I know I can represent the item properly. But that's definitely a direction that I've been thinking about, especially when I can't find that right table and I know what it's supposed to look like. (laughs)
Exactly. You can see it in your head.
So…is there anything else that you want to talk about that we didn't get to?
I'm trying to think…oh, there's one thing! So when I was in college, while I was making my rooms cool with Astroturf and flowers and whatnot, an artist friend from LA came up to visit, and he brought a buddy of his who was a little bit older who was…I was probably like nineteen or twenty at the time, and he must've been thirty. So I was a little weirded out by his presence, because I was like, augh, it's a grownup, what are you doing here. But he slept on the couch in the living room, and we had breakfast the next morning. And he was pretty quiet, but I was watching him sort of look at everything in my room, and out of nowhere he just turns to me and he goes, "you know, if this whole art thing doesn't work out for you, you should be a designer." Like, just out of the blue said that to me, and at the time I was like, "I'm never going to be a designer! I am an artiste!" You know? (laughs) but now I'm like, oh, I should've been listening to him.
He saw it! Right there!
He saw it. Because to me it was just so obvious; doesn't everyone have a cool room? …no.
Yeah, the answer to that question is an emphatic "no". (laughs)
So at this point I'm living the dream, but the point is to get it as stable as possible and develop new ideas, and just get bigger – but I don't ever want – this is the artist part of me, the non-business part of me – my goal is not to have eight people working under me. I don't want to be that designer that shows up at the very end of the installation and says "yes" and then walks out. I want to be involved. I'm still building desks and painting walls, and I don't ever want to not do that. So, again, I'm doing it my own way.
I always had creative activities around me, but I didn’t understand that it was “art”. I thought that everyone made their own doll clothes, I assumed that everyone’s parents gave them a corner of their studio. So my creative background started pretty young.
Which I think is why I am where I am now – because I didn’t have that “oh, should I be an artist or should I not be an artist?” question – I did have it when I was young, I think I was maybe six or seven, and I was sick of my parents being broke all the time, and I was like, “I’m gonna marry a doctor!” And my mom looks at me and goes, “would you really be happy being a housewife?” And I was like, “mmmm…no.” So that was it. That was the decision. It took me like two minutes to figure out, nope, I’m a creative, I have to keep going.
— Hannah Ruskin
Owner, Swell Spaces