Artist and Designer
Although Elle has spoken publicly about discovering her dream studio, a sublime white room in San Francisco's quiet Dogpatch district, I was nevertheless awestruck upon seeing it with my own eyes. I had always pictured a perennial blank canvas, the real life representation of The Unfinished Swan's opening moments, but when I walked through the door, no white walls were there to greet me.
“I’m sorry it's such a mess.”
A mess it was, but not in the traditional way. The once empty walls were covered in abstract and evocative paintings. A quote taped to the wall read, “Intuition is emotion and intellect going together." Beside it, I smiled at a familiar black textile dyed with the phases of the moon.
“You should take a swing before we start.”
She pointed to the circular object strung from her impossibly high ceiling.
“Did you build this?” I asked, happy to oblige.
“Yes. My friend hung it for me. He's a trapeze artist.”
“Always a useful friend to have.”
The swing lost its momentum while Elle lit candles and put on some music. We sat down on the couch with cold beers in hand, and she spoke into my iPhone.
Hi! My name is Elle Luna, and it's Friday night on January 24th. I know that because yesterday, the 23rd, was my lucky day.
What makes the 23rd lucky?
I've been finding that magical milestones continue to reveal themselves on the 23rd. As luck would have it, we sold out of our first release for the Bulan Project on the 23rd.
Congratulations, that must have been an amazing feeling.
It was surreal.
She glanced at the black fabric.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an artist?
During my senior year at Vanderbilt, I applied to nine law schools and was rejected by all of them. "We regret to inform..." were the first four words inside of each envelope. Around that time I was also practically living in the art studio, and my friend Daisha, who was legitimately afraid for my livelihood, would come check on me in the video editing cave and bring me Coca Cola and chocolate.
Now that's a good friend.
She's the best friend. She would deliver food to me basically every day, and I would still be there, working away. And so, I finally came to the realization that while I felt like I should go to law school, I really just wanted to make art.
Why did you decide on design in particular?
I was in a master's program for Film, Video, and New Media at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I had one of those professors that changed it all. Her name was Shellie Fleming, and I was in her film class, struggling to produce my first film. She spoke to me in the way only a really knowing, kind professor could. As I sat there looking at the film strip, she told me I was spending more time thinking about the individual frames and transitions between them on the strip than I was considering the final projected piece. She had the insight that the frames on a strip weren't so dissimilar from pages in a book, and suggested that I explore a bookmaking class with graphic design so I could explore each frame in the way it would be enjoyed by the reader. I wandered across the campus to a graphic design class, and the rest was history. In no time at all, I fell in love with print, typography, image making, and storytelling. I wanted the ability to create art that was actually out in the world. Art that was functional. Versatile. Usable.
You began your career at IDEO. Tell me about their design process.
At the beginning, it's a process of diverging. Wildly. Broadly. Casting your net very, very wide. How far you cast your net at the start is as wide as it's ever going to be. Experimenting. Iterating. Being light on your feet. Trying new things while going down a million rabbit holes concurrently. At some point, you begin to refine ideas and kill off your children, so to say. The process of expanding and converging can happen again and again over time, but generally at the beginning you're opening up, accepting all possibilities, and then narrowing in and beginning to test hypotheses. The result is a secret sauce that's been aged, matured, and is delicious in all of the complex ways that only a fine wine could be.
After five years, you left to join Mailbox. What prompted the switch?
IDEO is the type of place that even after you leave, you still say "we." Once you work there, you are always part of the family. IDEO’s user-centered design process gave me the "how" for how I work, irregardless if I'm making paintings or apps or videos. The process can even be applied to life and relationships. IDEO taught me how to empathize with others, and how to navigate really complex situations where you have a lot of needs that you must balance.
I felt like a crazy person leaving IDEO, because it is the type of place you never ever in a bajillion years leave. And yet, I really just wanted to work with startups. I wanted to work in one full time, and I wanted to go all the way from an idea on a post-it note to an app in the App Store.
How many people were on that original Mailbox team?
I think when I joined there were nine…or ten…or eleven.
That's a pretty good size.
When I joined, the team had already been working together for about a year, building Orchestra To-Do, a shared to do list app. Orchestra gets overshadowed by Mailbox, but it was key to our success.
In terms of process, it wasn't too dissimilar from Instagram. When Kevin and Mike were first building Bourbon, it had a lot of features. It did a lot. They saw that really, at the end of the day, users were going to extreme lengths to share photos inside the app, and they began to wonder, "Wow. What if we just made the app about sharing cool photos?” And so they ripped everything out of the app, and six weeks later, launched Instagram.
The team had been working on Orchestra for about a year, so when the idea for Mailbox came along, the team was ready. I'm not sure that we could have come out the gates building Mailbox if the team had not built Orchestra first. Every experience mattered.
Was redesigning the mental model behind email your main passion at the time?
As a team we were really inspired to help people work better to live better. Orchestra was the first manifestation of that idea. When we came across the opportunity for Mailbox, we hypothesized that it might answer our mission even better. The origin of Mailbox fulfilled the company's purpose. Over time, I came to realize that redesigning email wasn't my life's work.
Just a chapter of it?
A really, really great chapter.
You gave a great talk on finding your must. When is it best to stop what you're doing and follow your passion?
[I laugh, and after a pause, ask her to elaborate.]
I recently read a book that stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s called "The Happiness Project," by Gretchen Rubin, and she talks about how she wants to design more of her life around happiness. What I loved about the book is that she's married with two kids, and she describes the conundrum of being in that moment where she wants to make this incredible change. She imagines going to a wind swept island, with nothing but books and losing herself in her work for a couple of months. But, she confesses in the book, “I realized that was never going to be my life.” What I love about her story is that she figured out how to make massive change in her life within her existing schedule and maintaining all of her commitments.
You don't need six weeks. You don't even need to have a weekend. If you have intuition that's drawing you towards something, which everyone does even in this moment right now, follow that intuition a little more tomorrow. Follow your heart just a little more tomorrow. Honor your intuition a little bit more with the features that you build, with the products that you build, the activities you do, the people you love, and over time, as you feed your intuition, it will get stronger, louder, bigger, bolder. Listening to your intuition will change your life. And it all starts with doing something that's aligned a little more with your personal truth — tomorrow.
What do you say to those who can’t afford to leave their job due to financial reasons?
You make time for the things you want. You make it work, no matter what circumstance you have. If you want it, you find that small corner in your apartment to work in, put some duct tape on the floor, and declare it your magical kingdom. If you really want it, you'll make it happen.
It's not about resources, it's about desire. The force of believing that you must do something is infinitely greater than financial resources or time or space. If you can't find those 20 minutes to write a paragraph for your book because it's been a busy week, or you just need a nicer window, or a better pen, or another glass of water, you don't want it. Stop making excuses and stop talking about wanting to do it and stop looking for inspiration online because you've googled that 10,000 times. Now it's time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Can you tell I've given myself this speech before?
Recently you shifted focus from digital art to more traditional, physical forms. What inspired that change, and how different is the process of designing a physical product from designing a digital one?
Paul Rand talks about the designer’s toolkit in Design, Form and Chaos, and how the designer's obligation is to maintain a robust set of tools, of which the computer is only one. He says:
"The language of the computer is the language of technology, not the language of design. It is also the language of production. It enters the world of creativity only as an adjunct, as a tool — a time-saving device, a means of investigating, retrieving, and executing tedious jobs — but not as the principal player."
Returning to Rand's teachings got me contemplating my own toolkit, and I felt like the computer was the only tool that I was creating with on a daily basis. My toolkit was underdeveloped and malnourished. For the past year I've been focused on rounding out my toolkit. It's something I would encourage all makers to do. We get really reliant on one medium, but switching it up, being a beginner again, and returning to our roots as explorers of a variety of mediums is exciting and important. Discovering something new quite literally creates new neural pathways in our brain. When I returned to Photoshop after three months of painting, I found that I was able to move through the application in a whole new way. I tacitly navigated layering, image composition, rhythm and movement, making disparate, novel connections digitally because of everything I had been exploring physically.
That's a fascinating discovery. Every metaphor in the digital medium is taken from the physical medium, but so many of us now are starting digital that we have rediscover the roots of our own tools.
How did the Bulan Project start?
I was in an Airbnb in the middle of the rice paddies in Bali, and a friend of mine suggested that I turn some of my paintings into fabric. He was an amazing batik artist and he liked my paintings, so he wanted to combine his art with my art and see what would happen. Before I knew it, he left with two of my paintings. On my very last morning in Bali, I had all my suitcases packed and was eating breakfast when Baggus came running down the sidewalk in his flip flops.
He unfolded these beautiful, exquisite, modern, simple paintings on fabric. I'm literally eating papaya when my jaw drops. I thank him, fold up the fabrics, and while flying back to SF from Hong Kong, I felt like I was transporting the Holy Grail of treasures. The energy coming from the overhead bin was palpable. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew that I should keep renting Airbnbs because I was clearly getting some very magical ideas when I stayed in them. Fast forward a couple months, and I decided to go to New York for two weeks. The goal? To figure out what I was going to do with these paintings on fabric.
Why New York?
I was browsing on Airbnb.com and I found a modern loft in Soho that actually belonged to a textile designer. I clicked the listing, and there, in the photos, were these two female dressmaking mannequins. I'm a big believer in clues, and that our internal desires are reflected outwardly in the world, like mirrors. When I saw this apartment with these two mannequins and a gorgeous table for cutting fabric, I knew that I was supposed to go to New York to figure out these textiles. I devised a two week product sprint where I'd prototype my idea fast and dirty, and put it into people's hands for feedback at the end of the two weeks. I wanted to know if there was a larger opportunity here, and the inspired Airbnb gave me the focused space to do just that.
So I began painting moons on fabric. After I posted the moons to Instagram, I realized that I'm not the only one who loves the moon. Many people really, really love the moon.
Why do you think that is?
It's mysterious, ever changing... a shape shifter. I think a lot of people have some sort of spiritual connection with the moon. I certainly do. I don't talk about that very overtly, but that was the inspiration behind the first piece.
You describe the Bulan Project as livable art, in that it's meant to be worn, carried, washed, and made part of your everyday life. Why was this important to you?
After having my art up in some galleries, I realized that I really like things that scale, and it's a little difficult to scale a one of a kind painting. I wanted to create art at a more affordable price point. We released the first issue in a limited edition of 100, and the more I worked with fabric, the more I fell in love with it. Unlike canvas, you can use a textile as a duvet cover, or as a tablecloth, or a towel or blanket or a pillow for the plane. The fact that it's art that is versatile and functional is very alluring; it's a painting that you can throw in the washing machine.
You're operating at this strange and exciting intersection of technology and classical art. How do you see those two worlds converging, and what do think your knowledge and expertise in the tech world can bring to more traditional art?
I see them converging, and they have so much to offer each other. The intersection of art and tech is just so exciting and obvious, and as a startup culture we are now at the point where understanding the importance of design is a given. We are so lucky to be there. It's no longer debated that having a designer as a part of your founding team could very well be the difference between being a company that makes it and a company that won't.
The shift we are going to see next is in the role that art can bring to startups. You can see early signs of this with John Maeda, who recently made the announcement to step away from his role as Rhode Island School of Design's President to join the design-savvy venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. The artist mindset has so much to offer startups, and Kleiner knows this. Entrepreneurs are artists; artists are entrepreneurs — they're the same. I want to explore every possible opportunity at this intersection between technology and art. Imagine what will happen when startups foster more art-based thinking and process while art continues to scale and grow through technology to create truly democratic, global and egalitarian work.
What do you think the future holds for you?
The future holds a lot of big, bold, scary dreams. I have never in my life felt more prepared for the future, yet I have moments of incredible fear and vulnerability that I'm realizing accompany a pathless journey.
When we were about to release the Bulan, someone close to me said, “It didn't really matter if people on Instagram liked the design, or if the textiles were going to sell out, because it seemed like you were going to make this textile no matter what.” While that was true — yes, I was going to make this textile no matter what — I still wanted people to like the design. I still wanted the project to do well. It was the first time I actually began to worry — what if we only sell two? Or ten? Or what if no one buys any? I imagined this nightmare where we wouldn't sell any of the textiles, and in order to save face we pretend to sell out and put up a graphic reading "Sold Out!" so that no one would know we had failed. I shared this horror story with a friend, and she looked at me and asked, in the softest, kindest voice, "Elle, can you actually envision selling out? Can you just imagine that scenario for a second?"
Fast forward two weeks to the moment when we sold out, just minutes after W Magazine named us the editor's Most Wanted pick. It was an incredibly humbling, powerful moment where I made a promise to myself to keep dreaming big crazy scary dreams. To not let fear or vulnerability keep me from doing the work that I feel I must do.
Recently I had lunch with a girl who asked what my goals were for 2014, and I said "Well, I think 2013 was the year that I went off the path to find my treasure. And now, 2014 is about bringing that treasure back and giving it to the world."
Right then and there, over tea and pastries, she began to dream out loud with me. And suddenly, it felt so much safer, so much less scary, to hear her talk about my dreams. Later, I kept thinking about this and I was reminded of a passage in Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist:
"We who fight for our dream, suffer far more when it doesn’t work out, because we cannot fall back on the old excuse: “Oh, well, I didn’t really want it anyway.” We do want it and know that we have staked everything on it and that the path of the personal calling is no easier than any other path, except that our whole heart is in this journey."
We all need more people in our lives who give us permission to dream our deepest, scariest, and worthiest of dreams. And we also need more people who help us see that we can actually make our wildest dreams a reality. Because in the end, it is really all up to us. Only we can hold ourselves back. Only we can sell ourselves short or settle for less. There's this awesome Kanye song I've always loved, and in it, Jay-Z raps, “I look in the mirror, my only opponent.” I love the truth in that.
Wow. How did we end up in a Kanye song? I think we should end the interview with Jay-Z. Don't you think?