Everyday on design*sponge, Grace Bonney introduces her readers to talented and innovative artists, offers sneak peaks into amazing houses and studios, and inspires people to get creative. In her new web series, Design By the Book, she documents the collaboration process of five Brooklyn artists with the New York Public Library. The show chronicles the artists’ introduction to the library collection and documents the projects they make inspired by the research they find there. Through it all, Grace reminds us that not all librarians are bespectacled old ladies who shush everyone in the building. She uncovers the hip underbelly of the library and what treasure we can find there.
Tubefilter asked Grace Bonney about her library adventure, the Design By the Book artists, and how she translated the Design Sponge blogging aesthetic into a web series.
Tubefilter: How did the collaboration with the New York Public Library come about?
Grace Bonney: I feel like it was kismet. I was looking to expand the video content on D*S into something more episodic, like an online television show. So when I heard from one of the artists participating, Rebecca Kutys of Moontree Press, I was excited to hear more about the project. She brought me in to speak with the library team and we hit it off right away. They were looking to reach out to the creative community and make them aware of the incredible resources they have available, and I was looking to take part in a project that promoted local artists and focused on the creative process as a whole.
So after a few meetings we came up with a plan, I selected the artists and we hit the ground running.
Tubefilter: The five artists in the series get to create a project based a research from the library. How did you choose the artists?
GB: The library was kind enough to let me have first pick so I tried to select a good mix of people that I thought would create interesting work (in a wide variety of areas) but also would be interesting on camera. I’ve only worked with video a little bit but I know it can be a killer for shy people so I tried to look for artists that were talented and a good fit, but who would also have a strong enough personality to stand out on film.
Once I selected my list I discussed it with the library team, we emailed the artists and, to my surprise, received enthusiastic “yes”-es from everyone immediately.
Tubefilter: Their work is so diverse in mediums and styles. What do they have in common that made them the right people to work with on Design By the Book?
GB: I wanted to work people who I felt were current and worked in areas that are of interest to online viewers right now. So right off the bat I knew I wanted to work with paper, glass and ceramics- three disciplines that seem to be incredibly popular with the design community online right now. But I also knew I wanted certain artists involved because I’m a fan of their work and wanted to see them dive into this project. For example, Julia Rothman and Lorena Barrezueta are two artists I have a deep respect for and I know they’re both very passionate people about their work so I decided they would be great to have no matter what- and they certainly didn’t let me down. In the end, everyone ended up being from Brooklyn mostly because I tend to know artists who live in my area best. I hope we can do another season at some point and move into other boroughs, or another city all together. (and work with other local libraries)
Tubefilter: From the projects that the artists created, which was one the most surprising?
GB: I think for me, Lorena Barrezueta’s work was the most surprising because she bit off a lot and managed to really handle it all beautifully. Everyone’s work was fantastic, but she seemed to really embrace the project and spent DAYS in the library pouring over really diverse subjects. I thought she’d made one piece, maybe two, but to see her printed vases, an incredibly complex paper origami-style vase and her porcelain skeleton pieces are really impressive. Her passion for the project shined through and it was impossible not to be inspired by that.
Tubefilter: The scenes with John Pomp blowing hot glass look dangerous. The other artists work with ceramics, patterns, drawing, and a printing press. Which art form would you like to try?
GB: They do look kind of intense- but John promised me it wasn’t actually that dangerous, if you know what you’re doing. I’ve been telling myself I’d take one of John’s glass blowing classes for ages so that’s probably what I’d want to do first. Though I’ll have to say, I’d be really envious if I had one tenth of any of the talents these artists have.
Tubefilter: Tell us about the process of filming an episode.
GB: Filming this series was easily the best project I’ve done in over 4 years of running Design Sponge. It was an incredible process to watch something come together from the ground up and turn into this fantastic little snippet of footage. Our videographer and editor James Murdock did a seriously spectacular job, as did our producer and editor Amy Azzarito and our resident librarian expert, Jessica Pigza. We all got along really well and had a total blast.
Our first filming segment was with Julia Rothman and it took four hours to get one and a half minutes of edited footage. Our last segment was for the final video and took about 40 minutes. We really learned on our feet and had fun trying to get away with shooting in parts of the city we weren’t allowed to shoot in- we had a run in with some security guards but it was all great fun. I’d do this every day if I could- it’s just such a fun medium to work in.
But to answer your question more directly, we basically would arrive at each artist’s studio, set up and record a conversation with them about their process and inspiration, and then as their work progressed we’d come to shoot them actually working and making their final pieces. In between that we’d shoot at the NYPL’s main 5th avenue branch to record intros and outros, which were always a hoot. We got to record in the main reading room on the terrace that surrounds everyone. Nothing says awkward like walking and talking at full volume while hundred of silent people trying to read and work stare up at you.
Tubefilter: Did any of the NYPL librarians shush you or your crew during filming?
GB: Ha. Not really. But we did get a few stink-eyes from the women in the reading room office when we filmed on the walkway above them. When you’re used to silence and the sound of pages turning and suddenly we come in (although, we were pretty quiet for a team of 4 people with equipment) I guess it can be pretty annoying to have people walking and talking above you. But in general we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Tubefilter: The music really sets the tone for the independent spirit of the show. Where did it come from?
GB: Oh man, we really lucked out on that. The music is a band called the Clear Tigers, from Williamsburg Brooklyn. It also just happens to be the husband of our editor Amy Azzarito. That was a real score- I think we all had that music stuck in our heads for months.
Tubefilter: How much were you involved in the editing and final decisions for each episode?
GB: I thankfully didn’t have much of a hand in the editing. I have few editing skills and James was a real master with that so I mainly worked on the filming side. Then he would take everything back home or to the library with Amy and turn hours of footage into a beautiful 8 minute episode. Though they were kind enough to let me see the first episodes before they aired to get feedback and suggest changes.
Tubefilter: Issac Mizrahi appears in an episode to talk about the creative process. Did he make you feel inspired?
GB: Isaac was a trip. He was everything I thought he would be- in the best way possible. We only had 15 minutes from him from “Hello” to “Goodbye” so it was a concise filming segment and in that short time it was impossible not to see how dedicated and passionate he is about his work. I love when he said “there shouldn’t be time for anything else in your life but you’re work. That’s sick but it’s true.” I try to live close to that creedo and it’s clear he really does live and breathe his designs.
Tubefilter: I feel like going to the library right now! Do you go to the library more now after doing this series?
GB: To be honest I was never a library person- and that was exactly why I wanted to do this project. I wanted to prove to myself, and anyone watching, that the library wasn’t a scary place full of “shooshing” librarians and dusty books. I was instantly smitten with the collections of pattern and textile books so I’ll definitely be going back for that.
Tubefilter: Will you do more video series for design*sponge?
GB: Absolutely. I’m trying to figure out funding for them but as soon as we do I have a few big projects lined up- so we’re ready to roll.
Tubefilter: What else are you working on now?
GB: The biggest project in my life right now is my wedding, but in terms of work I’m trying to get a new spring contest together, launch the 2009 scholarship for design students and find funding for the video series since that’s my big focus (and love) for 2009.