A Day With…
Instead of waiting for Grace Bonney to call, I commissioned a fifth "portrait" to emulate Design*Sponge's A Day in the Life—her playful, behind-the-scenes portfolio that highlight makers' lives. Well, wouldn't you know it, soon afterwards, Bonney came a callin'. Our residential-focused feature can be found at designsponge.com.
Meet Jennifer Elsner once, and you’ll know her approach to life is very much her own. She doesn’t keep up with Joneses or do the right thing. She occupies a space somewhere between artist and designer where joy and inspiration are essential daily vitamins. We have that last part in common. I spent the day in Jennifer’s world – and head: The coffee’s Paleo, the pastries are memorable, and the conversation’s consistently surprising. Here’s where she took me. — Carrie Nieman Culpepper
A FRESH START
I go to bed early and I’m up with the sun. My bedroom doesn’t have a lot of information in it. I like having a few things I love beside my bed rather than my devices or to-dos. I think it makes for better sleep.
GAUGING THE DAY
My hair is a reflection of my inner state. I’m always changing it – up, down, up, down. It’s like a barometer. People have said when my hair is blown out I’m less expressive. What I have noticed is that when I’m talking and it gets intense for me, I’ll pull my hair up. It’s like a containment tactic.
A PASSIONATE NONCONFORMIST
I got my start with Aveda, which [not anymore, but in the ’90s] was pure and true but luxurious. My products continue to straddle those values, they’re aspirational, but have to be rooted in authenticity and purity. The Le Labo perfume was mixed for me at the Ace Hotel, where they also make the label. The girl asked who it was for and I said ‘freedom and grace’ so that’s what it says on the label.
LIVING IN THE SPIRITUAL WORLD
We live in a historical space, across the street from an important, 18th century church and cemetery. We’ve done remediation in the house because of spirits. Upstairs I’ve put smoky quartz in the window because I believe rocks and crystals can activate a room. Here, we’re telling the ‘unsettled’ they’re not welcome.
I like to come down and make breakfast and send my boys off. There’s something conventional about it that appeals to me. When David and Sam leave I actually feel a sense of accomplishment. When they’re out the door, that’s when the day becomes mine.
LIVING BY DESIGN
We had John Downer draw the numbers above our door. He’s a renowned sign painter and a total historical purist. He researched our neighborhood and created these numbers to fit contextually with the house. Look at how the 4 curls up and fits with the 1. The numbers fit within their own universe.
STEPPING INTO THE UNKNOWN
I spend a lot of time with clients on the phone and I like to walk the neighborhood while I’m talking. Since the bulk of my work is in front of the computer, I try to disrupt that and make space for myself. Right now I’m searching for an office space outside my home. I have a great lead in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. Fingers crossed.
Not by choice, but I could answer email all day long. When I wake up and think, ‘oh my god, I’ve got so much to do,’ I know I need to do the opposite to recalibrate. A lot of times I go to Sub Rosa Bakery, alone or with a friend. They’re bread nerds. I like nerds. Those are the kinds of places I want to spend my time.
I write a lot. It’s not a reference tool, it’s stream of conscience. For me it’s the equivalent of walking. It helps me stay juicy and flowing. Writing is at the core of my art, too. Last spring I exhibited a series of 100 unique drawings, using my handwriting. Layered, free-form, and illegible—they became abstract, but contained so much actual information. They were piled up and for the taking at the gallery. Strangers have my private thoughts. I like that.
YIN & YANG
On the outside our house fits the neighborhood, but on the inside it fits me. I find that balance a good place to be. We have a strong mid-century modern vibe going on but there’s also a playful aspect that’s important. Like, there are mini-collections all over our home: action figures from Mexico, small ceramic objects made by friends… We enjoy the contrast between hard edges and ease. I suppose, the hammock symbolizes that ease best – and it’s a great place to think, too.
A MOMENT FOR SOMETHING TACTILE
Daydreaming is so much easier with print. There’s more intimacy created when you’re physically holding something. On screen nothing feels like a gift, it’s like being talked to, a diatribe versus a dialogue. I’m always trying to figure out how to make client websites a gift, how to replicate that experience.
I need the creative input. The output for me is easy. I’m going to get it done. I need the other stuff. If I stay in front of my computer all day, I’m less likely to get inspired, less able to do the best work.
I like to walk to Proper Pie Co. when they open for lunch. They’re known for their savory pies but I’m rebellious, I always get the soup.
Weather permitting, I pick Sam up from middle school on my scooter. It’s a kind of youthful act, picking him up this way, next to all the SUVs and family cars. There’s something great about a bike and being exposed—it gives traveling through Richmond more meaning to me, somehow. It’s nimble.
THE ARTIST VS. DESIGNER CONTINIUM
My life is a balance between being an artist, who loves the unexpected and craves that, and a designer who structures space. There’s a base language to my house—black, white, gray, wood. Then the pops of color are the variable, the ‘mistake.’ Both are essential to me.
I love to cook but nothing too fussy. Too many ingredients and I feel contained. Here, I’m making a sweet potato torta for dinner. Recipes need to have wiggle room for me. I love Mark Bittman for this reason. I learn the conditions then move around in them.
CONTEXTUALIZING THE DAY
Lately, I’ve been studying tarot. I’ll often end my day with them. It’s not predictive; it sets up a framework to see my day. I love doing anything that sparks my curiosity, I’ll go down that rabbit hole—and they’re just so visually rich.
Carrie Nieman Culpepper is a journalist and communications consultant currently working on the forthcoming Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. She writes about culture and design for The New York Times, New York magazine, Travel & Leisure among others, and blogs at culturefixblog.com.