Making Room for Influence
Creative ownership, identity, drive and influence. A conversation with Alyse Archer-Coité and Jillian Choi.
INTERVIEW BY Kate McTigue
PHOTOS BY Erin Petree
Nearly eight years ago, Jillian Choi and Alyse Archer-Coité founded MAKER mag: a quarterly publication highlighting the artistically in-tune innovators of this generation. Since, each has gone on to a successful creative career—Alyse as Associate Director & Programming Director at A/D/O, Brooklyn’s creative hub for designers; and Jillian as Director of Collective Design for four years before leaving to become a creative consultant.
Through all of this, the common thread has always been the pursuit of creativity in all its forms, and Jillian and Alyse’s tie to one another, which remains as strong today as it was during MAKER mag—when they would find themselves hunkered in bed in the small hours of the morning, fueled by Kombucha and cigarettes, pulling together editorial spreads just in time to meet a self-imposed deadline before heading off to work the next day.
Crea co-founders Kate and Erin interviewed Alyse and Jillian on a Saturday morning at Collective Design 2018, a show curated in part by Jillian.
Kate How did you first meet?
Jillian We met was when I was working for this German knitting machine manufacturer—
Alyse —Snooze. I'm already asleep.
J —to develop emerging designers, and Alyse came by with a mutual friend.
A And then we started talking, and decided to meet up in Chelsea somewhere. I didn't really remember what you looked like—I knew that you were Asian. And I knew that you would know that I was black. You just told me you were wearing a yellow dress.
J I was?
A And you came out and you were wearing some very extra spring getup—like, ‘Look who it is!’ And so that's basically been our relationship forever. From there, we've worked together, we've lived together...
J —No, we would work at our day jobs until 7, and then all meet and work on the magazine.
A Mostly it was just the two of us.
J Yeah, we were writing, we were copyediting, we were working till like 4 in the morning before our deadlines, and then going to work the next day.
J We definitely went through blood, sweat and tears to get there. We're sisters for life, whether we like it or not.
A Truly. There is no exiting. ‘Til death do us part.
K What was the motivating factor behind pushing forward and working so hard?
A We were really naive. That helps.
J: I think we were genuinely excited. We ended up working with people we never dreamed would say "yes" to us, and putting things together, like editorial shoots, that we were really excited about. We were in touch with everything—from content creation to distribution to chasing down checks.
J It’s personal connection. That's why even at Collective Design, the amazing things are the ones you can connect with and experience. The more senses you can engage and evoke, the more it sticks.
A Which is why Maker worked. At the time, everyone was moving digital. People were like, "What's your website," and we were like, "We don't have a website." That level of having to hold it, touch it, buy it—I think that's something we're looking for again in the shift from digital to tangible.
K You had complete and total control over the magazine, including all of the decisions on medium, distribution—not to mention content. How did it feel to have that level of influence?
A It was stressful. I didn't like playing God, saying "this is good, this isn't." When you're making something, you create from your own tastes, always. In the end, it's what you like. And that's a really self-aggrandizing position to be in. As we weren't curators or publishers by trade, for me, it felt sometimes unnatural.
K You partnered up to do a print publication, Maker magazine. It’s made resonant waves in the creative industries because of its content, the range of creativity it explored, and, from what I’ve heard, the parties thrown for it. Tell me about how that got started.
J At the time, I was working at an art PR firm and Alyse was working at an auction house, so we were both in the arts. Alongside us were women working in creative fields, from art to fashion to makeup to editorial; but none of us felt as if we were being creative in our jobs. We just kind of started talking to people about our idea, and meeting with them made us realize how open they were to participating.
A The more we tell the story of Maker, the more I realize we just happened to have the idea at the exact right time. We were the only print magazine doing what we were doing. Nowadays, the market is just flooded. Everyone is a “small-run, boutique—...” Even the language we were using was not something people were talking about. We were small-run because we didn't have any fucking money, and even that was a novelty at the time.
A We also all had full-time jobs. So we were working at night, and on weekends, and peddling the magazine door to door. I had a bicycle—yeah, literally “pedaling” them. [Laughter]
J We were able to get the magazines in the Standard Hotel—
A —The hotels don't pay for them. And then with the museums—the non-profits—we cut the price in half. We lost money on every issue, but we wanted to have a presence there. I think all of us realized when you really want to do something, the human body is really miraculous. It's capable of untold things. I mean, we were not sleeping at all—
“We were small-run because we didn't have any fucking money, but even that was a novelty at the time”
A Everything was us. We had multiple titles in the masthead—Jillian Choi, Editor at Large, Jillian Choi, Director of Photography, Jillian Choi—you know? But with any work that I have now, I can almost always follow the thread back to the magazine. I have a young cousin who just turned 21. She’s more creative than any of us ever was. She knows how to do everything—make music, take photographs, design—everything. She's part of that generation. She asked me, what should I do, how do I get started? I'm like, just keep making your own stuff, because then you can call yourself an editor, a writer, a publisher, a designer, a manufacturer. You get to take every job title and say that it's yours. And with the magazine, we were finally the creators; not just the curators of other creators.
E With the magazine, and with your respective work now, how did and do you cut through the noise to promote things that are genuine?
J You can do things to cut through the noise, but it may not work. You have to truly work with people you admire and respect, and hope for the best. There are no guarantees that things will succeed.
A What makes me interested are things that feel more human-centric or at human scale. There's just so much content, and everything is over-produced and slick. When someone shows you the human side, that's something I click on. That's where things are headed.
"Being young is beautiful. You can crash into the ground and just start anew again."
J For me, it's about trusting in other people’s tastes. Unless you're creating art on your own, you're always collaborating with people around you whose tastes you trust, but who have different viewpoints. And that's what I think is great about Crea, and about what Alyse and I try to do now in our work. Diversity—aesthetic, cultural, racial—that melting pot, it makes for a better outcome.
A And longevity. When you make something like a magazine, or start a company, in the end, it's about ego. You want to leave something behind, make something of your own, so people can see your point of view. When you create the ability for people to speak up, when you offer them a platform that's really diverse, it lives longer
J That can be beautiful. The cohesion and juxtaposition of a fashion story next to a profile about an artist—it comes together unexpectedly, regardless of the amount you try to curate. There's a chemistry that just happens.
K How much did having one another—to curate, to create, to guide collaborations—change your vision or process?
A Jillian and I are both hard workers, but we work in very different ways. Jillian is very clear in her choices. She pushed me to be more honest about my opinions.
J Alyse is a Virgo and I'm an Aries. I'm always inspired by Alyse's creativity. She's such a powerhouse of a woman. She's clear in her vision, and decided in who she is and what she wants to do. That's inspiring for me. Work-wise, she's a bulldog.
K Can you speak briefly to your own personal influences and what drew you to creative careers in the first place?
J I went to NYU and thought I was going to be a journalist or a psychologist or something. But I ended up studying Art History. From there, I ended up working with Cristina Grajales, who's been an incredible mentor of mine. She has a design gallery and was basically my design education since I didn't study it. One of my first days there, the Director was like, "Can you get that book over there on the top shelf?" I took a chair and stepped on it. It was a vintage Prouvé Standard chair!
A Like, $40,000.
J It's what I love about design. It's not so precious.
(4/8/1901 – 3/23/1984)
is a French metal worker, self-taught architect and designer.
K How have your roles in the art and design community affected your attitude toward the industry?
A The sphere of influence is so much bigger now than when we started. Geographically, New York or LA are the hotspots for creativity, but with the advent of social media and ease of shareability of content and stories, the it’s so much broader. As a woman of color working in a predominantly white and male business, I get a lot of inbound inquiries from women of color who are trying to get into the industries. I wonder why they're reaching out to me, then realize when we were starting out we didn't have anybody—there was no way to find those people.
J There was less visibility for everybody unless you were at the top.
A There's a responsibility for everyday women to be an example, to be accessible, to create ladders and network down, not just work. It's added pressure, but also an added bonus. Jillian and I, the older we get, the more we talk about how few people there are who look like us, have our background, or come from immigrant families. We're the first American generation of our families, which comes with its own bag of responsibilities, pressures, and exciting things, as well. There's responsibility for us to consider that our visibility is not the same as it is for Steven [Learner, Founder of Collective Design], for example. It's great that your experiences (good or bad) can be an example for someone else to do it even better.
J I agree. Part of me—as I shift gears in my career, choose how I want to spend my time, and decide what's important—feels an added sense of responsibility as a woman of color. There are so many films where I can relate to the characters, but it’s especially impactful when I can say, "Yes, that girl is my story. That girl looks like me. Or my cousin. Or my sister."
"I'm really lucky when I get close enough to someone truly creative and just crazy enough to give you some energy but not take your energy. That's a great person to be around."
K Is there creativity in your family?
J My mother was a fashion designer and an artist—she was the left brain. She bought me books, took me to museums. If ever there was a school play, she would empty out our whole living room and have a projector and do huge murals in the living room.
A My mother was an illustrator and author of children’s books in her spare time, but worked in corporate setting daily. So our time together was mostly spent in the outdoors, exploring. As a result, I gravitated towards the masters and the soft sciences like geology. I studied Art History because I'm bad—no, terrible—at math. But I have strong cognitive abilities. Art history was nice because it reveals the story behind the making, creates a window into the political and social scene of the time.
J I learned so much about human history through art history.
A As far as creativity, I've never been an artist in that sense. I don't have tools to do that, but I think I have a good eye and a tendency for deep connection with certain things. For me, art, and design are beautiful things that bring all of life and history together. And I like working with creative people. I'm really lucky when I get close enough to someone truly creative and just crazy enough to give you some energy but not take your energy. That's a great person to be around.
J For me, it’s whenever I read or see something that moves me, that speaks to my soul. I was always inspired by that ability to connect because I think that's what art, literature, film and design do: they bring people together.