The Art of Life is a new series where we introduce you to people who inspire us by the way they live their life. Exploring style, I’ve understood that it’s not just how you layer your clothes. It’s in the way you walk, in the foods you eat, in the people around you, the lifestyle choices you make. The people in this feature have, in some way or another, designed their lives based on their very personal interests, dreams, and choices.
They are the kind of people who write their own rules, tell their own stories, and shape their own futures – and we couldn’t be more excited to learn from them, and share them with you too.
So this interview is about your “art of life,” because it seems like you’ve developed some very personal ways that are pretty inspiring. How do you respond when people ask you what you do?
I’m a Creative Director. When I come through immigration at the airport they always ask me what that means. I say, “I like to use creativity to problem solve and create new ideas.”
You’re from Australia and have an office in NY, LA, soon to be Tokyo, and of course the beautiful Mermaid Ranch in the Hamptons. Where do you consider home?
This is an odd answer. But the place I have happily spent most of the past decade is my library at the the Chandelier Penthouse in New York. That really is home to me, in an odd way. I love it there so much. I believe deeply in the idea of genius loci – in classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. And that space has a special energy for me. Especially late night, when it’s just me and the dogs, and I can sit to brainstorm and dream amongst a pile of books.
Having said that, I am about to move to Los Angeles, to a home I have been working on for three years. The story goes like this: In the 1940s, a pair of handsome, determined entrepreneurs arrived in California, building their vision of an earthly paradise high in the hills above Los Angeles. By the 1950s the flamingo-pink Spanish complex had become a hedonistic enclave in Los Angeles. The compound became the headquarters for an early-American erotic film company, and a creative retreat for photographers and artists.
For the past three years the Flamingo Estate has been restored by my friends from Paris-based Studio KO. In the new Flamingo Estate, we will celebrate creativity, cultivate horticulture and creative liberation. I am really excited about the move. LA feels like the new New York right now. In my imagination, that is my new home.
Growing up, what was one thing you envisioned your life as having?
Make believe and magic! I grew up on a farm in rural Australia, spending countless hours dreaming about America, and the rich and famous people who lived there. But also about exotic far away lands. I would read The Adventures of Tintin and want to explore all those mysterious places. And then read Roald Dahl novels and want to meet all the characters. I was looking for a world where all of this was a reality.
I used to get so angry with my mother when we finished our family vacations. The day before we would arrive home she would always say, “Oh well, back to the real world!” and it would drive me into furious hysterics. It still does – she said it two weeks ago when we all went on a vacation! I would always fight her – “Why can’t your real world be as wonderful as your vacations? Why does the day-to-day have to be so bland?” I would get so angry.
Who was your hero?
I have a few, and I think you will see some similarities in all of them.
Walt Disney is a big hero of mine, and has been from a very early age. He had the audacity to dream about things, but also make them happen. That second part is where most people stumble. Most of us can be creative. But the true talent rests with the people who can turn the engine on. Not only people who SAY things, but people who DO things. He created things that affected people, that made them feel something wonderful. The same applies for Jim Henson and the Muppets.
The iconic Australian artist Ken Done was also an early hero, and is still a huge influence. He is colorful, bold, and 100% his own man. He has his own style and doesn’t seem to look over his shoulder. When I finally met him a few years ago I was in awe. He told me a story about when he too came to New York as a young man, and (like me) worked in advertising. He was also the son of modest parents, and told me about coming to New York and sitting in the bar at the Plaza Hotel – and how that was the most exciting thing in his life. During that time Ken was drawing storyboards for New York ad agencies (which is a very long way from rural Australia), and thought “I’ve made it.” Little did he know that he would become one of Australia’s biggest creative icons. Proof perhaps that even your heroes are a work-in-progress. After that meeting Ken gave me one of his drawings from that period, which is one of my most treasured possessions.
I also have a serious obsession with airlines, so naturally Sir Richard Branson is on my hero list. Today Sir Richard’s story is well known, but as a kid I would pour over articles and books about him. I was in awe of how he loved to rattle the status quo. How he loved the underdog. Later in life I also came to admire how he created a brand that people wanted to work for. The Virgin brands are not corporate, instead they are wild and wonderful places, full of young people and disruptive ideas. A few years ago we were asked to pitch on a huge piece of Virgin business. The day of the meeting I was so nervous I almost threw up. I begged Alanna Lynch (our very talented Managing Director) to let us withdraw from the pitch. I didn’t think we were “big” enough to do the job. Alanna pointed out that we were in a David and Goliath battle, just like Sir Richard was when he founded Virgin.. Thank God I listened to her. We got the job, and it became one of my favorite projects of all time.
Finally, I want to mention my friend Kylie Minogue. She was my hero as a kid so it was a very surreal and exciting experience when we got the chance to collaborate with Kylie on her album launch and concert tour. Actually Garance, I think we were together when I first met her – remember? At the Spotted Pig in New York. I’ve got such a huge respect for Kylie – she is pure magic!
Anyway, the interesting thing about all these people is that they had a non-linear rise. They struggled and had set backs. They were once the underdog. But ultimately their creativity triumphed.
It seems that a lot of things in your life are conceived first as what might be called a “big idea” – can you remember the first big idea you ever had?
When I was nine or ten years old I created a fake homewares company called “Brass Class Tinned Rabbit.” I wrote a jingle and sung it in front of the entire school. Everyone thought I was a lunatic. I loved every minute of it. My brother will never let me forget it.
Tell us a little bit about your creative agency, Chandelier. Where did the name come from?
For years we told everyone that it was because a Chandelier is made up of many diverse bright lights, all of them connected to a central idea. And that we were a collection of bright ideas. But that is not true.
The truth is, about twelve years ago I was asked to be the Creative Director of a new fashion magazine for Time Inc. The finance team was especially unforgiving of me, always getting mad with me about the cost of my ideas. At one point I rented a large chandelier for a photoshoot. The Time Inc. finance people were so annoyed when they saw my expenses, and then started calling me “that chandelier guy.” It became a running joke in the building. When Time Inc. closed the magazine, I took the core design team and started an agency. We were all proudly audacious and extravagant, so “Chandelier” felt right.
How did you start? What was your first job?
Washing dishes as a teenager in a Thai restaurant was my first actual job. Followed by many years as a waiter and a barman.
My first “break” came as the Creative Director of the controversial magazine “Colors,” the magazine stared by Tibor Kalman and Oliverio Toscani for Benetton. I was in my early 20s and was inhaling every creative reference I could find.
As for Chandelier, our first and now well-documented real pitch was for the American retailer, Nordstrom. We had just opened the agency and they wanted to come to town to see the “office” in New York. The problem was we did not have an “office” because we were working from my apartment. So we leased an empty space, and filled it with furniture from the flea markets, computers from Tekserve, and most importantly, strangers we found on Craigslist. We didn’t have enough electricity sockets for the computers, so we turned the screens to face the walls so the clients wouldn’t notice all the fake typing! Ultimately our ideas were better than any of the bigger established agencies, and we won the job. Lesson number one: perception is everything. Lesson number two: fake it ’til you make it.
I’ve heard you don’t fire employees, that they become like family members – how do you manage this and why is it important to you?
My goal was to create a business and a physical place that I would love to come everyday.
The reality is that some of us spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families or friends. So we need to ensure that “work” is as rewarding, curious and enjoyable as possible. A big part of this for me is finding projects that the team is passionate about and excited to work on. This has led to some truly incredible work. I feel really lucky to have worked alongside the Chandelier team over the years.
The truth is, I have actually have asked some people to leave, but I always do it with a very heavy heart.
How do you go about making business decisions ? Do you ask for advice, trust you gut?
I usually trust my gut. But as we have grown larger I’ve been very fortunate to work alongside some really smart people.
Our CEO Lauren Prince and Managing Director Alanna Lynch both have very different views on the world than me, and I’m really fortunate that they challenge me in different ways.
You seem to balance the impossibly imaginative with serious business – what is the key to maintaining the magic in both?
A huge part of this is to surround yourself with people who also understand the value in both.
It’s rare to find people who can be wildly creative but also think about business. We have a remarkable Design Director, Zan Goodman – she has built an incredible team of really hard working Art Directors and Designers and I respect her enormously. Not only is she an incredible designer, but she also understands business. Honestly, the same could be said for all of our creative and account teams.
A key to this success is also how you approach the work. I had a really interesting conversation with Roman Alonso from Commune, which I’ve never forgotten. He was telling us about how they designed the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. He began to tell us a fictional story about actress Mary Pickford who had a sordid affair with architect Rudolph Schindler in the 1920s. They had a wild love child named Ace, who took the best of each of their qualities. Soon I began to realize this was the “design story.” Totally grounded in a make-believe narrative of a girl named Ace. This is a way to keep the magic in everything you do – ground it in imagination. It’s a great tool – whether you are designing a logo, making a TV commercial, building a hotel, or staging a concert.
You have this beautiful place in the Hamptons that is entirely designed as a place to share with your friends, your employees, and creative people around you. What was the spark behind that idea ?
Ugh, I hate the term “Hamptons.” It’s so bourgeois. Our place is called Mermaid Ranch, in the fictional town of Mermaid Bay. The idea was that an American Jazz singer fell in love with an Italian artist. The pair escaped to Mermaid Bay, a secluded inlet on Long Island where they hosted creative friends on the ocean. Here, they built and furnished their own private escape, dedicating themselves to music, art, culture, and food. Today Mermaid Ranch is home to a collection of Italian and American design honoring the fictional narrative. Inside the house you can find furniture and design by Michel Ducaroy, Gio Ponti, Harry Bertoia, Milo Baughman, William Wesley Peters, Paul T. Frankl, John Risley, a collection of rare tapestries by Evelyn Ackerman and sculptures by Paul Kasper. It became our summer camp. Our Design Director Zan Goodman led a team of designers who branded the space – from textiles to teepees. The property is almost always full – the team here uses it constantly, and we have a really robust artist-in-residence project that has seen creative people come from all over the world.
How do you receive and evolve with the changes around us? Social media for example is changing our lives and our work. How do you engage with those changes?
We’re running full steam ahead into the changes. Our office in LA is about to shift to be entirely about digital and social innovation. We’re hyper focused on it.
What’s most important to you – fame, money, love, passion, kindness, authenticity?
Honestly, what’s important to me now is purpose. I’m trying very hard to shift the type of work we do. The team is incredibly creative, and we want to do more with that than just get people to buy stuff. We want to solve some problems that really matter. This has been a big change for us, and it began to manifest this year. We’ve just started working with the iconic naturalist Jane Goodall. And we’ve got some other projects about to begin. It’s a real sea of change for the agency right now.
What do you believe in? Magic, horoscopes, energy?
All of that. I’m a sucker for a good horoscope.
Who has an inspiring life to you?
We’re about to begin filming a project with Roman Coppola, so he’s on my mind today. I have to say, he’s one to the most inspiring people I’ve met and worked with. He’s incredibly talented, remarkably professional, and very sophisticated. He sees the world in such a magical, joyful way. In the same way as Walt Disney, he’s also created a very successful business (The Directors Bureau) doing the creative thing he loves. Aside from his film and TV projects, Roman also has a venture named “Special Projects,” where he creates brands and ideas. So he just follows his imagination and makes things happen. He’s also got a wonderful wife and family.
As I said, I’ve been collaborating with Studio KO, the French Architects. I respect Karl and Olivier very much. They have a unique POV and have created a world for themselves that’s very contagious. They are wonderful, curious people, and I have learned so much from watching the way they live and work.
Also my friend Fabrice, the founder of Le Labo. Wow, he has worked so hard and built an empire – quite literally a massive empire. But he’s also a rare and generous soul.
He’s so deeply committed to the environment, goodness and fairness. The last time we had lunch we were talking about buying a farm in Ojai, California. He also has an incredible wife and family and has managed to balance both.
You’re a very social person – what draws you to meeting new people?
I love really curious people. I love people who tweak out, who obsess over something.
And most of all, I love people who have the guts to start things.
Here’s a good example. Do you know Los Enamorados in Ibiza? I went there a few weeks ago to meet the owners Roze de Witte and Pierre Traversier. They re-created a life for themselves. They left Amsterdam and opened a hotel and a design emporium. It’s an amazing place. And that spirit of creative entrepreneurialism makes me so excited. They are exactly the type of people I am obsessed with. Creative risk-takers.
In a couple of sentences, can you tell me about the most interesting person you’ve ever met?
I’ve met President Obama a number of times, and I’m always in awe. He conveys a genuine moral compass, and a sense of calm. You also sense that he’s able to multitask better than anyone on the planet. I find it so interesting that he has the ability to meet thousands and thousands of people, but always make you feel like he’s there just for you.
Martha Stewart is also someone who I’ve come to deeply respect and like. She has this insane curiosity about things, which is so rare today. One of our mutual friends said that Martha is “haunted by curiosity” and I think that’s a great way to describe it. She’s a powerhouse of ideas and action.
When things get tricky in your personal or professional life, what do you do, how do you recharge?
I make honey, I’m a beekeeper (as are my parents).
My friend and Creative Director Lena Kuffner taught me all about furniture and art, which is a magical escape for me. Lena’s extremely talented, and loves to research design work for fun. She used to take me to the Rose Bowl flea market in LA. We’d also spend hours on auction websites learning about furniture design and designers.
Do you have any form of therapy in your life? Any guru, shrink, ritual that helps you?
No. But I have a trainer, Jonathan Bokelmann at Equinox, who I see first things in the morning, almost every day. Obviously we do a lot of exercise, but we also talk a lot. His favorite expression is, “Ideas rule the world.” So he’s always asking me to pitch ideas to him while I’m running or lifting weights.
What’s the craziest, most adventurous thing you’ve ever done – personally or professionally?
I am trekking across Antarctica in November, eventually arriving at scientific research station at the Geographic South Pole, the southernmost place on the Earth. I suspect that may become one of my craziest adventures!
And you’ve just climbed Mount Everest…Where did the desire to do that come from? What was the most challenging / surprising part or biggest take away from that experience?
I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was very different that what I imagined.
I expected it to be very bleak. But it wasn’t. There was so much color and design inspiration in the villages and from the Nepali people.
There’s also several rhododendron forests on the way up, which were in full bloom when I was there. So I was walking through vivid pink flowers. The rhododendron flowers actually get more pale as your climb, becoming white as you reach the top of the tree line.
The most difficult thing was being in my own head for so long. The mountain doesn’t care what you do for work, or how many people you know. It’s the ultimate equalizer. We were all just in it together. It also humbled me, made me feel very small – that I am part of this massive planet, and my worries and thoughts are a tiny tiny tiny blip on the radar. It was incredible. I really came back changed.
What’s one thing in life you’d never compromise on?
I have a very low tolerance for people who chew gum.
Is there anything that scares you?
Small planes. Not much else.
It looks like you’re building a very personal path, what drives you? Did you ever get worried of what people would think?
I let that go a long time ago. Nothing kills happiness or creativity faster than worrying about what other people think.
What about love? As a creative, it probably influences your work… Do you keep things very separate? I know you bring your dogs to work… ;)
No, not separate at all. I don’t believe in a “work life” and a “private life,” I believe in one life. And I’m always curious about the world, meeting people and seeing new things, which ultimately show up in my work. I move really fast, and don’t like to sit still. Maybe that’s why I’m single.
I would love to meet someone and fall in love.
Let’s spread the word!
What have you yet to accomplish that’s on your radar?
I’d like to do a project with Hermès. That’s always been a brand I’ve wanted to collaborate with since the very beginning. We’ve also wanted to re-brand an airline for so long.
My other obsession is the green world. I have an idea for a new brand that will disrupt the green world, and stick a big middle finger to companies like Monsanto. That’s been taking up a lot of my headspace recently.
Do you think there is a secret to happiness?
Turn off your TV and go experience the world.
What is your biggest piece of advice to someone who might be looking at your life and career, wanting to do the same?
Bite off more than you can chew.
If everything falls apart, what’s your plan B?
When I was a kid I remember hearing Michael Jackson say, “You’ll never fail if you know your dance steps.” I’m always practicing my dance steps. There is no plan B.
What are the three things you’d save in a fire?
Favorite city in the World:
Summer (in Italy).
Best place to get inspired:
The natural world.
I made a tour t-shirt that says “Kylie Minogue is my spirit Animal.” Does that count?
Drink of choice:
Last meal would be:
A steak from Petit Trois in Los Angeles.
Last words would be:
Never Have I Ever: