Hello friends! Today, I’m excited to share with you an interview with my friend, fellow mom, artist, design + branding creative extraordinaire - Sarah Von Dreele. Sarah and I met through a mutual friend who swore we’d be friends FAST, and he wasn’t wrong. We’ve bonded over our love of painting, design, being single moms to daughters.
Sarah’s talent not only lies in her artistic ability but also in the way she tells a story with each of her pieces. I’m so happy to share a glimpse into Sarah’s world with you today!
Tell us about yourself, Sarah. A bit about your creative journey, motherhood - all of it.
I received a BFA in Graphic Design in 1997 from RISD and have been a designer and creative director in corporate and consumer branding for the majority of my career. Immersed in the Freshman Foundation program, the school doesn’t allow work/study participation during a student’s first year – for very good reason. Beginning sophomore year to assist with expenses, I remember sending out 100 humble resumes for internships. Reflecting on this 19 year old version of myself, it was a tell tail of my inner entrepreneurial drive.
The 100 resumes yielded my first internship, which yielded another, and another and so on… one of those experiences was at Taylor Box Company, a packaging manufacturer in Warren, Rhode Island, not far from RISD. The first two weeks that summer, the president, who is now a dear friend, sent me to work at every single machine before settling into the design studio. The experience was invaluable. Learning manufacturing processes so intimately enabled me to learn production parameters so that I could design with those in mind.
Navigating professional a relationship is like any relationship. You try new experiences, understand what resonates, what is challenging, what fits. And we all stumble into a place where it is necessary to pivot. I found myself in that very spot a year out of school – in the wrong environment with little room for professional and creative growth. It just didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know what to do. I hated going to work. Period. Without much context to evaluate a path outward nor a large network to draw upon, I reached out to a respected professor and information designer from RISD, the late Krzysztof Lenk, founder of Dynamic Diagrams. Always direct and efficient, his response to me was, “I’m not going to refer you to any design studio. Come work for us. We need someone on a contract project on-site at Harvard University. We are designing the print version of Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia Africana at the W.E.B. Dubois Institute.” I jumped at the opportunity, even though it was only a temporary position. Over the next 18 months, myself and another designer worked with a large editorial team converting Microsoft’s digital database content into book form, which, at the time, was a daunting task. The book was 2200 pages long, and we laid out every page, ragging each line of copy, for three editorial passes. What is amazing to reflect on is the craft still involved with image and typography even in digital form. Looking at thousands of lines of type over that length of time, I also gained a visual sensitivity that is very difficult to learn any other way.
After the book project completed, it was time to leave my professor’s nest, regroup and chart a course. I was 23 whose responsibilities involved only a student loan and a car payment. One of my dearest RISD friends was living full time on Nantucket, and I had been spending a lot of time on the island having just gone through my first “grownup” breakup. I wanted to figure out an artistic capacity on the island, creating a space to regroup personally and professionally. The island arts foundation offered a residency program, so I applied. Accepted with a grant in hand, I packed up my car, moved into a tiny town cottage, and took over a Wauwinet barn as my studio. This experience became an important reference point in my adult life.
Each morning I would get up really early, make a coffee, and drive out to the barn. The island was still and foggy. My hair was messy. My thin frame sat in the sun. I wore sneakers with sand in them. I took tubs at my friend’s house in a ball and claw tub with grapefruit bubble bath. I ran 5 miles every day. I drove around the island in circles. I spent time picking flowers, weeds, grasses. I bundled and grouped hundreds of bunches of white fluffy Groundsel. I started making… making a lot. I spent the entire fall twisting wool fibers on native grasses which evolved into dimensional weavings. The repetitive process was calm. What I didn’t realize was that through my making, I was processing and creating space for myself, something I had never done or knew I needed.
Fall became Winter. The resumes went out again and the ferry returned me to Boston. Fewer letters were sent out this time, as I learned to call upon a growing network of professional friends. The late Michael Westcott, who I worked for during my senior year (also the husband of my grandfather’s best friend’s niece - how’s that for six degrees?), suggested I reach out to two of his former Fitch designers who had just gone out on their own. This lead me to Tank Design – a young, scrappy studio that was smack in the middle of the 90s tech boom. I was employee number 9 in a carriage house in Brookline where we were eating Chinese food 10 nights a week and listening to Moby.
My experience at Tank was foundational for me as a designer and business owner. One of the founders, David Warren, sat with me so patiently. He was direct in his feedback. He reworked my files, reworked them again, and again. He suggested more iterations which led to even more. But he also knew when little Von Dreele was having an off day or was frustrated by some client request. He’d pat me on the back and tell me to go for a walk to scream or go sit in my garden for the afternoon because we’d been up all night working. Young designers could be intimidated by his working style, easily interpreted as abrupt. But I wasn’t. I kept my eyes and ears open and just watched. I watched everything he did and said – that learning is still with me today, over 20 years later. He probably has no idea how much I attribute his influence on my career. If he reads this he will definitely blush and probably say something witty in his charming, British accent. When he comes to New York for work, we like to catch up to catch up over sushi. We’re slowly doing a sushi crawl through Manhattan. David, if you’re reading, it’s your turn to pay next!
When the bubble burst in 2001, Tank’s quick growth exceeded the slowing market demands, and now that I am a business owner, I can appreciate the emotional side that the two founding creative directors must have experienced. I was dating my future ex-husband (more on that later) who was living between Amsterdam and New York, and the commute was becoming unrealistic. As my company shuffled the deck to respond to the market changes, they were agreeable to moving me to our New York office - the timing was perfect for everyone.
Smaller than the Boston office which was focused on large scale B2B branding initiatives, New York exposed me to consumer-facing projects. I found myself directing photoshoots for Cole Haan seasonal campaigns (shot on film, I might add) – working with talented photographers, stylists, and client teams. And given the small studio environment, we had to divide and conquer, leaving me to work and manage projects independently. I loved my colleagues at Tank, but I felt the desire to run my own show. They were really supportive and even sent me on my way with a fully-loaded laptop. Starting in 2003, I was on my own and thus begins a new story.
While it seemed like a risk at the time to leave the security of a full-time job, in hindsight it was a safe move. I started working on my first client project, a cookbook with Food & Wine Magazine. Always a collector of cookbooks and an avid cook, this was my dream project. Ironically, when I interviewed at their offices, I had been up all night with the stomach flu. With the test kitchens just down the hall, the design offices were savory and sweet but not what I wanted to smell that day. I used to get nervous meeting prospective clients, but not that day.
I like to joke that starting a new business earns you an honorary MBA. You are starting with no infrastructure, building all the foundation elements of a business allowing you to do the work you want to do. The first two years were brutal. I slipped into the small business trap of doing everything yourself, which landed me at the cardiologist with a racing heart. (I was fine, just needed to work less. Oh, really?) I was working from home and even the UPS guy looked at me one morning and asked if I’d left the house in the last two days. Although I finally got a small office space, hired interns and eventually other designers, I never scaled the business beyond that. We had enough work and things were fine. I was now married, owned an apartment, and had a flexible schedule allowing me to accompany my husband on business trips. Things were seemingly good.
Then, a difficult pregnancy and motherhood took over, changing my priorities completely. Suddenly seasonal footwear campaigns no longer felt important. I didn’t want to review every design iteration before it went to the client. While becoming a parent forced me to delegate responsibilities at work, I was becoming less and less involved in the business, including growing it. My husband started traveling 5 days a week when my daughter was 18 months old. Eventually, I hit a breaking point where I couldn’t do it all - develop new business, oversee day to day work in the studio, manage our home and assets, be a mother and supportive wife, get my kid into a Manhattan preschool. We were financially stable for me to cut back at work, and I wanted my daughter to have a parent who was present. I enjoyed being a parent but was exhausted. Then, when my daughter turned 4, things got really sticky.
What is your FIRST memory of being creative? And what spurred you to get back to prioritizing making by hand in recent years?
I come from a family with a visual thread in their DNA. My grandfather was accepted at Yale for fine art in 1925 but was urged by my great grandfather to find a career, a wise move given the Great Depression was just on the horizon. He landed himself at MIT for naval architecture which did combine his love of sailing, the sea, and craft. He spent time designing boats at major New England shipyards like Bath Iron Works, eventually ending up at Electric Boat designing nuclear submarines. He even worked on the USS Nautilus. While his career was technically demanding, he continued making outside of those parameters – scrimshaw, jewelry, drawings, paintings, photographs. When his fingers no longer worked the way he liked, he gave me a small cigar box of jewelry supplies and a binder with instructions. It was like a process time capsule. I found the copper braid tests for silver bracelets that he made my mother when she was 16, which she gave to me when I was 16. I discovered extra ivory pieces left over from my scrimshaw earrings. The dusty binder was filled with pen and ink sketches for broches and earrings that he made for my grandmother. After his death I discovered a large box of ecktachrome slides chronicling 40 years of personal and professional adventures. I loved looking at the process and documentation of how he saw the world. Reflecting now as an adult, it is clear why he took such interest in my work as a child. When I was accepted to RISD, I think he was not going to let anyone tell me I couldn’t go. I was his chance for Yale fine art.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I went to this amazing independent school, Winchester-Thurston, kindergarten through fourth grade. It was still single sex when I attended, and we were addressed as “ladies”, as one should be at age five. Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister, Christa McAuliffe was training for space, and Geraldine Ferraro was on the VP ticket. We sang “I Am Woman” so loud that Carnegie Mellon University, several blocks away, could definitely hear us. Our version of the Miss America contest was a crowned young lady who could name all 50 states. It was a bright and joyful school. My earliest memories of creativity were there, centering around the relationship and dialog between artistic expressions. I remember being invited to perform for a group of parents, in maybe the first or second grade. The school curriculum included weekly modern dance and movement classes with the creative director from a Pittsburgh dance company (I eventually studied at the company school on the weekends in middle and high school.) I clearly remember presenting a painting of a green paint and then improvising a dance about my painting. This was the beginning of making as expression, which continued with me through secondary school years. Once in high school, I quickly exhausted all the art electives and industrial design classes and knew that if I wanted to get into art school, I’d have to find an extra-curricular program to develop an admissions portfolio. I heard about a Saturday pre-college fine art program at Carnegie Mellon University from a friend and off I went. The program offered classes similar to freshman foundation courses which not only helped me build a body of work but gave me a window into the studio environment that I might experience in college. I knew I was visual, but committing to art school versus a broader education was a difficult decision.
Once at RISD, Graphic Design and Textile Design were major contenders, and I think I’ve always had texture and pattern on my mind. This can be seen in much of my corporate work and information design. It may also provide a window into my love of large scale communication programs and the organizational patterns required in visual systems.
I never formally studied painting in school and only took up a brush to hand paint letter forms or work on color theory. During the last year of my marriage, however, I started to paint. My daughter was in preschool for 3 hours a day, which felt like an eternity in mom hours. I really wanted to develop fabric designs and explore a new business but something felt forced. What was happening on the page was very telling as I reflect now. My paintings were tight, as if I was using the work to gain some control and understanding of something. I would spend hours on one perfect leaf. Indeed, something was very, very wrong, and I had no idea what was about to hit me in July of 2015. A big ass Mack truck which no life experience can prepare you for.
The end of a marriage can manifest itself in many different forms. For me, the end was abrupt, unexpected, and emotionally traumatic. I stopped living. I couldn’t get through 5 minutes of a day. I stopped eating. I couldn’t cry. Sleep was out of the question. My whole body inside and out just ached. I sat in the dark for hours, recounting soundbites of my marriage. Without much calorie intake, I could no longer train for the marathon I had my heart set on. I remember going to the recycling bin, taking only one item at a time, just to pass the time. My mother moved in to run interference. My daughter had just turned four, and I realized that for almost 50% of her life she communicated non-verbally. She didn’t need to know what happened to know that mom was in trouble. She felt it. And I represented her security. I was in excruciating pain but still had to be a mom. I needed to get help immediately.
Slowly, I started to pull in what I thought I needed. I called my doctor who got me to a therapist. I called the pediatrician to find my daughter a therapist. I called my best friend from childhood, my best beach girlfriend, the moms from my daughter’s school, my clients who are friends, my stock broker, my tax attorney, my beach neighbors. I called the guys at Tank. I called on everyone who was a friend, near or far, to let them know what I needed. People don’t know how to help unless you tell them, and I was going to be clear on what my needs were. A litigator in Washington, my beach neighbor knocked on my back door, nudging me to get legal counsel. He called his New York partners, drafted a short list, called candidates on my behalf, set up interviews, and sat next to me in the meetings. Within 30 days, I had a team. I felt like crap, but could finally get through 10 minutes of the day, not just 5. These first steps created a little bit of space… just enough for me to find a path and begin to put one foot in front of the other.
That fall, I returned to New York with my daughter, 20 pounds lighter and pretty beat up. Once settled at school, I made my daughter’s mental health, my mental health, and matrimonial law my jobs, with razor focus.
One evening after my daughter went to bed, and I’m not sure what precipitated this, I pulled out my gouache and brushes. I started making marks – fluid and colorful, unbounded. It felt good, so I kept doing it. Almost every night. For months. Months turned into a year. The papers started to stack up. I was going through hundreds of sheets at a rapid pace. Space. I felt like space was opening up in me.
In the winter of 2016, I hosted a dinner party for some families from school. My friend, Traci, was thumbing through the stacks of paintings and looked at me and said_ “You need to do something with this. I’m going to hold you to it.” I thought the work would evolve into something but wasn’t sure what at that time. Having clients in the A&D and contract interiors markets with my brand consultancy, I reached out to several colleagues to share the work. They echoed Traci’s comments and made a few suggestions of where to start. Over the course of a year, I secured two licensing agreements which gave me validation that my work was marketable. And in 2019, I decided to develop my own product brand, starting with wallpaper and fabrics due out in 2020. Here we go!
You’ve had many interests + pursuits along your creative journey and tackled so many new skills from graphic design, to creative director and brand strategist, to artist and textile designer. Tell us each of these has prepared you for the work you do now?
I feel fortunate that both sides of my brain are quite active. The last 20 years of professional life in branding has allowed me to build skills in a lot of different areas maturing as a designer and a business owner. I have developed and managed brands for other companies – knowing how to do that for myself is an asset for a start up, from a cost perspective. However, there is value in engaging a fresh perspective, eyes from the outside, to help build and evolve the brand image. In order to grow, I am mindful of getting out of the way of scaling my business. Painting is my job, and I need to preserve the space that allows me to continue to develop new work. But I don’t need to be doing everything to run the business. That only prohibits a company from scaling.
When you’ve pursued a new creative hobby or learning, what’s the first step you take in get- ting started?
Turn off my head. Test drive the materials and tools. See what they can do in the simplest, lowest common denominator. For me the process is about responding rather than predicting what the work is going to be. I try to be as fluid as possible in exploration – noticing what is happening on the page and responding.
What’s your creative practice look like on an average day?
I’m not going to sugar coat it. It likely looks like I am wearing too many hats right now because I am, and I’m in the process of laying the groundwork to change that. In a dreamy world, my day would look like this_
School drop off
My time is heavily managed and scheduled in order to accomplish everything I need and want to do, including spending time with my daughter. The product side of my business is being incubated within my brand consultancy until it can sustain itself, so my days are full. Regular “running a business” communications with all the usual suspects is a given_ clients, project team members, bookkeeping, my wallpaper manufacturer, print vendors, CPA, my publicist, attorneys, showrooms etc. One day I might be working on a design development presentation for an ad campaign or website, and another I might be pulling paintings to submit for a licensed product, like my work that just launched for CB2. My PR team is amazing at helping me with trade outreach, and I usually carve out a few appointments each week to meet with interior designers and editors to introduce myself and the wallpaper line.
And somehow there are gaps in between, where I find the quiet space to take time out from all of the above. Sometimes I just need to paint, when things get messy out in the world, or I have so much on my plate that I need a break. Painting has served as a healing tool that has segued to the most lovely career. And while a very deep wound will likely remain with me for the rest of my life, that wound created this new space that makes me so happy. Sometimes I pinch myself that this is my job. And it is no accident that I have started to sell the originals in my archives – they served their purpose.
One of the things I love best about your work is juxtaposition of organic + free while still being grounded and calming. How did you refine your style, and especially your approach to taking your work from original art to wallcoverings?
When I began painting four years ago, the paintings served as a meditative necessity. I wasn’t envisioning any kind of product development. The fluidity and inherent repetition of my work reflects an internal process that manifests itself on the page.
Once it became clear that the work could translate into a product, I showed up at an early planning meeting with a huge stack of work hoping my newly found team could help a girl out. We spread hundreds of paintings out and edited it down to 9 patterns for my wallpaper launch collection. Once the foundation of the collection was identified, it was easy to see where the I needed to repaint raw material for the repeats and colorways. Having gone through development of the first collection, I have made considerations as I’ve been working on the second collection, aware of production requirements like colorway and scale.
Now that painting has become my career, I am very aware the importance of getting lost in making and painting freely, like when I was painting purely for reflection. This must be preserved by remembering to turn the business head off.
You do such a great job of fostering creativity in your daughter and inviting her into your process. What tips do you have for parents looking to encourage making + creative play in their own children?
My daughter has a work table next to mine with her own supplies, although she has free rein of my paints and brushes. Primary school watercolors are not in her vocabulary when she has a few hundred gouache tubes at her disposal. She has watched me paint for four years now, not knowing the personal purpose for which it has served me. But if she has a bad day or just wants to connect, it makes me smile when she wants to paint.
I like to say, that in our family, we like to mix paint and glue. Years ago, I remember leaving my daughter with a new sitter, only to return home to view their afternoon project – my daughter’s name in bubble letters, each letter perfectly filled with color. This was the polar opposite of how I wanted my daughter to leverage materials as a form of self expression. I think it is important for children to have their own making spaces, room to explore without worrying about ruining a carpet. My daughter has a “studio” off to the side of her bedroom where she mixes, stirs, cuts, stacks, and builds. It is a complete mess in there. But it is her space, and she has multiple projects going on at once. She stores “reusables” aka recycled materials for her inventions. Under her workspace is an inexpensive carpet, which is not to promote spilled paint, but it eliminates the worry.
In addition to her studio, she has a work table next to mine with her own supplies, although she has free rein of my paints and brushes. Primary school watercolors are not in her vocabulary when she has a few hundred gouache tubes at her disposal. She may be using her glue gun while I paint, or sometimes we set our papers and paint palettes across from each other. Above all, I try to provide enough unstructured space for her to create. That doesn’t mean there aren’t boundaries or safety rules, but there is definitely no coloring in the lines chez moi. She has watched me paint for four years now, not knowing the personal purpose for which it has served me. But if she has a bad day or just wants to connect, it makes me smile when she wants to paint.
Rapid Fire Round.
Being creative means_ exploratory, responsive
My creative habit brings me: A smile. Quiet space.
My advice to anyone looking to push themselves into a creative life_ Stop thinking.
Favorite read on creativity_ I like to read dreamy travel narratives where I get lost. They are an analogy for how I work.
Best place to travel for inspiration_ France, where I am happiest. It makes sense to me.
Best way to get out of a creative slump_ Wander. Down the street or on an airplane.
Most challenging part of building a business based on creativity_ Preserving the honest and authentic space to create, without the realities of profitability.
Thanks Sarah, for chatting with us today! Inspiring AS ALWAYS.
All images photographed by Christine Han.