January 20, 2012

Interview with Justina Blakeney

Justina Blakeney is a creative consultant and stylist who, along with her sister, has run the design collective Compai for over a decade. Her eclectic, colorful style is informed by diverse cultures from throughout the world and time.
How did you begin your career? Did you have any particular education or training that has helped you get where you are?

I began my career simply by doing the things that I love. The more I designed--the better I got at it. I volunteered, interned, worked for trade and got involved with anything that sounded fun and/or interesting to learn as much as possible about art and design. As far as formal education, I got my Bachelor of Arts degree at UCLA in World Arts and Cultures and I minored in Italian. I then got a post graduate degree in fashion design from Polimoda in Florence, Italy. Ultimately I feel that travel and collaborations with people that I admire have provided the best education.
How did you decide on the name "Compai"?

Faith [my sister] and I had a long list of names when we first started the company 10 years ago. We were living in Italy at the time and we liked that the name was one word [and] that it was easy to pronounce in many languages. It means 'friend' or 'companion' in spanish...[and is similar to]  'compa' [which]  in Italian... means companion. Since we were running a design collective, we thought the name was fitting.
You are currently based in LA but lived in Italy for 7 years. How did you end up in both places? How have both California and Italy influenced your tastes and designs? 

I grew up in Berkeley, CA and moved down to LA to go to UCLA when I was 18. I fell in love with this city--so warm, so vast, and so many cultural enclaves throughout. I made a ton of friends that are still my friends today. My junior year at UCLA I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. I studied communications and became enamoured with Italian language and culture. When I came back to the US after my junior year I decided to return after graduation. When I went back my sister Faith came with me and we did our post-graduate work at Polimoda. The following year we launched the Compai brand and boutique. Both

Italy and California have influenced my design aesthetic tremendously. My love of vintage, thrifting, layed-back- bohemian style is definitely Berkeley/LA calling--my attention to detail, love of bold pattern (Pucci was from Florence afterall), tailored styles, and appreciation for old world charm and brights is an Italian thing. I also just learned so much about design in Italy. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing Italian designers and learned so much from them. Something about being a foreigner and always being just a little bit outside of your comfort zone forces you to observe, observe and observe more-- so you learn a ton.
How would you describe your approach and relationship to color? 

My approach to color is fearless. I like bold statements and don't think of color as static because the same wall changes color 100's of times in one day depending on the light in the room. My relationship to color is great. We love each other very much :P
What is a typical day like for you? 

As a full-time consultant, each day is drastically different.

My main job is a creative consultant. I help people and businesses with creative concepting and design. This can mean one day I'm doing home decor and interior styling and the next day I'm art-directing a photoshoot. My 'gigs' are kinda all over the map and I like it that way.

But, as an example--yesterday morning I was thrifting sourcing vintage items for clients--then I headed to the homes of two clients to bring them some new pieces and then style the pieces into their homes. I got home at 4:00PM and took some photos for next week's blog post (that's when the light is best in my living room) and then I had a 5:00PM consulting session with a young woman who is starting her own craft/handmade goods brand. She needed advice on branding, naming and social media outreach.

One thing that is constant day to day is that at least one hour a day dedicated to the blog. Since most of the posts on the blog are original content, I need time to make things, to photograph things, and to lay them out and then to write the posts. I also dedicate 20 minutes a day to reading and connecting with other people's blogs. I'm also very active on twitter, instagram and pintrest--these tools help to catalog and share my inspirations throughout the day.

I wake up pretty early in the mornings!
What are some influences or inspirations on your work that might seem surprising? 

Even though I'm a maximalist and I'm into bright, outlandish style and colors, I love a lot of the more minimal Japanese designers and the wabi-sabi sensibility.
Global cultures feature prominently in your work. What is your own cultural background and has it influenced your work? How has travel and your knowledge of world cultures influenced your aesthetic? How do you incorporate foreign cultures in your work without appropriating those cultures? 

My mother is of Eastern European Jewish decent and my father is Afro American and Cherokee and Chickasaw Native American. I believe that growing up in an intercultural family has affected my work and aesthetic (and everything else about me) a helluva lot. I love being mixed and I love to mix lots of unexpected elements in design. I believe that being multi-cultural puts me in a unique position to blend in where others may stand out--whether I'm in Central and Latin America, Israel, Turkey, Morocco, or Italy people tend to mistake me for their own ethnicity. That combined with the fact that I speak a lot of languages (Spanish, French, Italian and German) makes it easy for me to navigate in foreign countries and get deep into others' cultures.

I adore spaces that feel cultivated and well travelled--items that carry stories along with them. I've been so lucky to travel all over the world--I don't worry about appropriating others' cultures-- people who know me know that I celebrate all the cultures of the world and if I incorporate foreign cultural items into my work it comes from a place of respect and love.
You've written 4 books on upcycled fashions. How did you start working with fashion? What is the relationship between your personal style and interior design work? 

I went to fashion school and learned a lot about fabric, draping, construction and I had a great pattern making instructor who was very conceptual. She taught me not just how to make clothing but why clothing is made the way it is. We had to figure out how to make patterns by cutting up clothing and this got me thinking about upcycling. For me, there is little difference between dressing up a room and dressing up the human form: it's always about balance, contrast, fit, function, color and feel.
What suggestions do you have for those with limited space and/or means to create such lively interiors?

I don't consider space to be a limitation in design. My whole adult life I've lived in small spaces and the so long at you love every item on display in your home you will love living there. Also--plants, good lighting and cozy rugs will go a long, long way to make a place look more lively.
Your interiors often have lots of stuff but manage to remain organized. What organizational tips can you offer, especially for those of us who love to acquire random stuff (aka thrift junkies like me) ? 

The key to making your home look organized is to design in collections. Keep clusters of similar things together. Think about placement and don't just leave items around haphazardly.  Color coordinating items--from books to clothes to dishes-- will make your items look more collected.
You seem to love the hardy lil' succulent. Why is that?

One of the reasons why I love succulents is because they have shallow roots-- so they can grow in things like fishbowls and even tea cups. Also, many succulents can be propagated from pieces cut from the stem of the plant, so I can just keep 'em growing and growing. Plus they are very low maintenance--and so quirky-- some of them look like they're right outta a Dr. Seuss book and I love the humor.
Do you have any tips for upcycling furniture and home goods? 

I love flea markets (obviously) but what I love even more is garage sales and what I call "sidewalk surfing" -- finding items on the curb that people have trashed. You would be shocked to know how many items in my home I found discarded curb-side. Whether I'm thrifting or sidewalk surfing, I look for the same things, mainly, good bones-- something that with a good scrub and a coat of fresh paint could be made new. Good bones means it's sturdy (or easily made to be sturdy), and it has to have nice lines. Sometimes, I'll take something just for its legs or just for the table-top-- mixing and matching is also a big part of the game. I also try and look at everything with a fresh set of eyes, without defining it right away--in this way, I turn a broken crib into a magazine rack, or I make a curtain from a kimono.

Any favorite projects you've worked on? 

My T shirt book 99 Ways to Cut, Sew, Trim and Tie Your T-shirt into Something Special taught me that I can have an idea, execute it, and sell 100,000 thousand copies. That's pretty gratifying. I also love to help others get their projects off the ground. I've helped people open shops, start clothing lines, decorate their homes and create new identities for their brands.... I'm also working on a new personal product line right now that will debut in 2012. I can't say to much about it yet but--it's very Jungalow.
Do you think there are any decorating faux pas?

Buying everything from one place is a no-no. I think taking design and decor too seriously is a faux pas, too. I like to tell people to calm down and have fun. ;D

Wow! Justina truly is a woman after my own heart! Not only is she stylish and sophisticated, she's articulate and adventurous. I hope you all find her work and words as inspirational as I do. 

(all images courtesy of www.justinablakeney.com) 

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  1. I think my favorite part of this space is the use of the various picture frames. Looks like a natural collection accumulated over several years, as opposed to decorating all at once.

  2. wow, fab interview Melina! i love love love all these photos, they're the most beautiful

  3. I love this. Her aesthetic is fabulous, sophisticated, and worldly. Your webpage is like candy without the calories or teeth damage (which is the best kind).

  4. hi,
    nice blog. let me know if you'd like to get associated with a new start up related to fashion and styling. you can check the details at:facebook.com/StyleStanza and contact me at: shiriishbohare@gmail.com 


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