Tied Up: The Q&A

Posted by Rob Walker on August 15, 2006
Posted Under: DIYism,Pleasing,Q&A,Subculture Inc.,The Designed Life

From time to time here at Murketing, new features will be introduced. For example: Q&As. There was one yesterday, and there will be one tomorrow. There will never be three in a row again, I can assure you. But this one, here, today, below, is the one I want to introduce with a few words, because I hope it’s an example of the first installment in an open-ended series, a specific subset of Q&As.

The interviewee in this case is Bethany Shorb, and the subject is the ties that she makes and sells, mentioned in an earlier post. (She does a lot of other things as well, and those are addressed below, but see here if you just can’t stand the suspense.) Since that earlier post she has launched the Cyberoptix Tie Lab: “A new take on conservative menswear.” All of this makes for a good example of what I want the open-ended series to be about: interviews with people who are artists and entrepreneurs, finding ways to make a living from creative enterprises.

Clearly, this general theme is a long-time interest of mine, and I’ve pretty much done all I can with it in the various other venues I write in. My focus here is somewhat different, and so is my one and only criteria for these interviews: Here on Murketing I’ll be interviewing people whose work I, personally, find interesting.

Here we go:

You’re from the New York area originally, you have an MFA from Cranbrook, and you live in Detroit. I guess you ended up in Detroit because you went to Cranbrook?

That’s correct — in the Fall of 1999, I packed up all of my earthly possessions into the back of my little red pickup truck and headed for the Great Unknown. I was living in Boston at the time after getting my BFA at Boston University. I cried my eyes out for days upon arrival.

But wait, looking at your blog, your views on Detroit have softened a bit? I’ve never really spent any time with Detroit and sort of fascinated with it.

There are great things to be said about Detroit from a creative standpoint, there is definitely a justifiable fascination with the city. It is relatively inexpensive to live, especially compared to places like New York, Boston and Los Angeles — and that allows you to allot much more time to making art rather than making rent, and there is much more space to do it. Detroit seems to be a unique incubator for quality art and music, there are less distractions and I think people get a lot more done as a result, but if I didn’t make a trip to either coast every few months I’d probably go a bit crazy. Music is a huge exception, there is usually somewhere you can go every night of the week and hear excellent music — whether you want to party or pull up your laptop in a dark corner of a coffee shop or dive bar, I think a flourishing music culture really goes hand in hand with any kind of art making.

The downfall of the Detroit area is that the economy here is not the best at the moment, so people are consuming little else than what is necessary to live, thus why I really want to get my product out to more areas of the country where people are actually spending on luxury and fashion items.[]

When did you finish your MFA, and if you want to say, how old are you?

I received my MFA in 2001. I turned thirty earlier this year and so far the dirty thirty club has been quite kind and a lot more rewarding than the twenties, so I’m not ashamed in the slightest. The fact that I lived even partially through my twenties is rather remarkable so I can’t complain.

What was your focus in school, your area of study — more in the fashion costume side, or the “fine art” side, or … ? Partly what I’m curious about is whether you were at some point focused on (or maybe are still focused on) the traditional art gallery world.

This fashion deal is still comparatively new to me — both my undergraduate and graduate degrees were in sculpture and photography concentrations, I found I could get away with combining the most media in those departments, traditional, digital two and three dimensional. My goal in choosing a graduate school was one that would permit me to learn to be an artist, not a master of one singular material or process. I strongly believe those specializations are best attained later in life. Artmaking should be about the best way to communicate and realize a concept via whatever materials necessary. Unfortunately these institutions are few and far between. I want to remain involved at full speed in all of my areas of interest -fashion, design, music and more traditional fine art and not relegate one or the other to “just” the gallery or “just” the marketplace.

My partner in crime and I are bringing our music project “DethLab” to the Guggenheim on December 1 for their “Art After Dark” series. I’ll certainly be making some special ties for that. We also recently co-curated an event called “Machines That Feel” at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, so the gallery world will always continue to be an important facet of my work.

Why neckties?

My first venture into the fashion business had me making pieces that were so intricate and complicated that I was literally paying myself slave wages and I began to hate my work because of the time and expense involved. Although much of the work was receiving great reviews, I couldn’t find a qualified manufacturer locally to handle the level of detail.

The ties were a welcome break from that process as they allowed me to insert samplings of extreme intricacy while cutting down on the manufacturing time — appliqueing small swatches of handmade and hand patterned fabric for example — the time involved in making a handmade tie is obviously infinitely less than a full outfit with the same materials, making it affordable and therefore much more marketable. With the screen printed editions I’m able to play with my love for graphic design on a wearable object, that process is certainly nothing new, but I find the blank canvas of a necktie more visually interesting than that of a tee shirt. I also enjoy making menswear because until very recently I feel guys have been really left out of interesting fashion, and I have a wonderful partner who is my favorite tie beta tester/guinea pig. Plus the subversive aspect of a businessman wearing one of my ties to an important board meeting with the graphic only partially viewable makes me feel funny. In a good way.

You’ve got the ties in a couple of stores in Michigan, are you looking at trying to get them into other retail outlets? Have you pursued that or are you sort of taking it as it comes?

I’m currently courting a few shops in New York as well but I’ve wanted to build up some stock first while I have my summer intern before (hopefully) getting a barrage of orders. Any wholesale orders are more than welcome.

Do you get a lot of internet orders? Is there a tie that’s proven to be the biggest hit so far?

I’ve gotten quite a few orders online, that is definitely where I do the bulk of my business. The blogosphere and flickr are amazing resources for showing work from small design companies. The HeartAttack tie seems to be the biggest universal hit. Everyone has had their heart attacked in the romantic sense.

Was getting mentioned on the Make blog a pretty big deal? How did that happen?

It was definitely a big deal both for the company and for me personally — I’ve always been a fan of their writing and the DIY aesthetic as a whole so I really felt honored to be among the same pages. I’m pretty sure they found the link from another blog or from flickr.

What’s the source imagery that you’re working with — how do you find/what attracts you to certain images for use on a tie?

It varies — much of the imagery is adapted from 17th and 18th century advertising woodcuts and engravings, some are my hand drawn illustrations and some from scanned ephemera I’ve found in abandoned buildings around Detroit. I try to integrate things I see in my environment on a daily basis and those that resonate with our current political culture.

Are you making a living off your various creative enterprises (maybe you could summarize those here)?

My own design work is definitely a significant part of my living but I also augment that through my web design/admin job at Cranbrook, where I am employed three days a week. That work is definitely creative so it is safe to say that 100% of my living is made through some form of artmaking. I also really enjoy working in film industry and doing costuming for musicians because I can make incredibly intricate pieces that are like wearable sculptures … and I only have to make them once or twice. After making something multiple times it gets quite boring. Working for Skinny Puppy and The Gene Generation were perhaps my favorite jobs to date and really were catalysts for the work I’m making now — the research that went into fabricating pieces for both those accounts sparked my love for using recycled and sustainable materials, even on neckties.

There’s obviously a long history of artists and other creative people having notorious problems with the whole managing-their-business thing. What’s a piece of advice you’d give, maybe a lesson learned, to others trying to make a living off creative enterprises of one kind or another?

Structure. Being at the office a set schedule per week definitely makes me make the most of my studio time. The same goes for being in the studio itself — having an intern or studio help completely disallows you from any shred of screwing off. No setting bad examples!

And in a reversal of the prior question: What kind of advice or information would like someone to give you (regarding business & creativity, I mean)? That question may be too vague, but, to make up an answer, perhaps there’s some other DIY creator you admire and there’s some aspect of their success that you’re curious about…?

I’m very interested in the interstitial space between designers who just starting out and the huge mega design firms – small, boutique and specialized design houses who are successful and large enough to sustain themselves and some employees but are still small enough that they can remain paying serious attention to detail and do not have to compromise for the masses. How companies of that size manufacture and market their wares is something I would certainly love to hear more about.

A big Murketing thanks to Bethany Shorb! Now go to Cyberoptix.com and buy her stuff.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

nice job bethany, lovely new work you are doing

Written By j.edgar on August 15th, 2006 @ 1:28 pm

Greatest. Product caption. Ever.

Written By ryan on August 15th, 2006 @ 7:05 pm
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