Truly successful creatives know how to tap into their intuition when making decisions about the direction of their work. In a way, the path a creative career takes can be art itself.
Laura Chautin has nurtured her burgeoning success by listening to her intuition when deciding what work will make her happy. She is undaunted by the challenge of a new frontier, trying her hand at textile design, screen printing and custom ceramic mobiles. This freedom and willingness to experiment can be traced back to a structured, formal arts education where she built the tools and skills that ultimately gave her the confidence to branch out and take on a multitude of creative tasks. Her work is imbued with a playful spirit thanks to her tendency to create and experiment across mediums.
A pattern has already emerged in Chautin’s young career – motivated by curiosity and the desire to explore an idea that won’t let her go, she will initially make work only for herself without worrying about commercial viability. These experiments have been spotted by people who want in on her distinctive, colorful designs, who then commission similar work from her. That is just how several of her projects have been born, including the Bum Tees with their playful floral motif. The success that she has had with these ventures speaks to the value of respecting your ideas, listening to your creative impulses and giving them the necessary space to thrive.
Chautin has spent time working in London (where she lived until she was 16, and again for her painting degree) and New York (where she moved four years ago) and values the creative influences each city has on her process. “When I go back to London, I feel very much at home, I feel cozy, it’s the comfiest city in the world, and I feel inspired by the people I know there.” Being surrounded by artists, designers and creative thinkers has led to multiple collaborations that grew out of organic connections. Among these are window designs for Otherwild, custom illustrations for Ladurée, and one-off mobiles for clients.
Here, Laura talks about the logistics of launching a creative career, balancing creative output and money-making gigs, and the validation of recognition from the artist community.
Q. How did you get started with your art and design work?
A. I always wanted to do something creative. In high school I was only interested in art and history and that was what I was focusing on in college. When I was 18, I went to Chelsea for a foundation degree in painting at the University of the Arts London. The teachers weren’t really around and I thought maybe I wasn’t really an artist because I didn’t know what I was doing. Luckily, I had gotten into an art fair before I moved and met the people at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). They looked at my portfolio and kept my place for a year.
London was a one-year foundation degree and a lot of people love it, but I just wasn’t ready to be let go at that point in my life, I needed structure. Being at SAIC really gave me freedom to explore things, and not be that scared of going into different realms I started to feel like I could draw and paint and printmake. And that’s especially valuable for me now because I do a lot of different things in my current career. I learnt how to stretch a canvas, paint with oils, things I hadn’t learned before.
Q. After graduating, you took on several assistant roles in the interior design and retail industries. What did you learn working in an assistant capacity that has been helpful to you as a freelance artist and designer now?
A. I also do assistant prop design right now, so it’s still in the creative field. The set and prop design world is really intertwined in New York, so if a friend can’t take a job, she’ll tell me to do it. I work with a couple different prop designers and set designers here, and I never really turn down those jobs, because that’s a good source of income. For example, next week, I have a full week working for Macy’s and that’s obviously super helpful.
I’ve learned through all these jobs that I love working for myself. When I first moved to New York, I didn’t do any work for myself. I was an assistant at an interior design firm, then I worked on the windows for Barneys, then another interior design firm. I thought that seemed like more of a path I should do because I’ll make money doing this. But I didn’t make any artwork and I was so sad.
My first job out of college, I was meant to work under the assistant to the boss, but she quit in my first week, and I was expected to fill the assistant’s role. I learned a lot but it was so stressful. I knew the boss liked what I was doing, but I always had this doubt, and that pushed me to say that I needed to work for myself. I was still working toward his vision. Pretty much immediately, I was getting to work early and building my own website, thinking that it was what I needed to do to be happy. Before that, I hadn’t been making work for myself and I was miserable. I was too stressed and all of my creative energy was going towards this job.
Q. How did you sustain yourself financially while you started making art for yourself again?
A. When I quit my first assistant job and started at Barneys, I had a bit more freedom. It was a four-day job doing their windows, so I could start painting again. At that point I was still confused. I felt like I had to get a full time job again, that I couldn’t just be an artist. And that was mostly from not having confidence in myself. I had no confidence and no friends who had moved to New York to pursue being an artist. I had this idea that things need to be done in a certain way. I’m super English like that – I follow the rules.
Q. You are now a part of a diverse creative community here in New York. As you met more people through your work, did it help to expand your definition of what being an artist looked like as a career path?
A. My friend Katie Kimmel was hugely helpful to me, we met at school. She was working at a ceramics studio and making her own stuff and people started recognizing her for it. She also makes animations and at school she would work non-stop on her own stuff because she found it fun, and that was really inspiring to me. She made these bags and said “it’s so cool and so easy, you should just do it.” I painted this big painting and so I took a part of it and printed it on a bag. I was actually wearing that to a Group Partner sample sale and one of the girls who works there thought it was cool and wanted one. That was the first time I realized that people want what I’d been making. It felt so validating.
Making more art, getting more recognition, more people being like “this is cool, keep doing it” has been encouraging. My partner Masami (Masami Hosono, creative director at Vacancy Project) has been so supportive. It’s so inspiring, she didn’t start in New York, and she is of the mindset of “just do it.”
Q. Tell us about the different mediums you work in now, and how you came to work on such a diverse range of projects. You seem to do everything.
A. I’m still at the point now where I accept most jobs, because I think I should be accepting most jobs. I think it’s good for me to try different things. With projects like making mobiles, no one initially asked me to do that. My friend had a baby, and I just thought it would be cute to make a mobile. It made sense because I like small things, and I like painting, so it was just fun for me to do that. I had a client who started following me on Instagram and she was having a baby, and she asked me to make this very custom mobile. It was a collaboration, but she wanted specific, personal things included. That definitely gave me more confidence.
I really like taking on projects when someone comes to me with an idea. I’ve learned through doing custom illustrations that I like having a project, I like making something happen based on an idea, even if it’s not something I’d usually do.
The first time I did food drawings, I was working a part-time retail job and a designer was having a launch at Ladurée. It was the first time I’d ever made art that wasn’t just for myself. I was asked to make an invite and a menu for the event. I only had two nights to do it, I was working all through the night. If you think that something’s right, you have to do it. All I could think of was “I love it.” I had so much fun doing it, it made me so happy.
As for the flower t-shirt design, I thought about making it a planter, but it didn’t quite work out. I still thought it was a cute illustration and that it would be a fun t-shirt to have embroidered just for me. I just bought a t-shirt from the Gap and made a one-off for myself. When I wore it, people thought it was funny and cool. I got some orders just from wearing my one-off and then started producing it in small batches.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’ve been looking at being part of an agency for illustration, so I can have someone help get me more jobs [Ed. Note: this is a popular debate!]. I enjoy having the push of an illustration assignment, even if it’s something I’m uncomfortable with, like portraiture and drawing people.
I would love to make big sculptures, and explore types of printmaking, etching, or lithography. I’m also taking a ceramics class, as I do want to learn new skills.
At the moment, I’m making a book of foods for a client. For Christmas, I made Masami a book of her favorite foods and posted it on Instagram. The client saw it and asked me to make him a large scale book, which is new for me. It’s going to be a full meal, with a check at the end, and it will be professionally bound.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.