Conn Brattain and John Giordani are partners in life who design an exuberant amalgam of creative projects. They worked for years in New York City — Conn for designers Gemma Kahng and Todd Oldham, and John for SPIN and Details magazines — but left the bustling city for a new life in Hawaii. Now working across a range of disciplines such as branding, interactive design, illustration, print and more, they share in this interview an indelible range of visual impressions that have shaped them since childhood. Their Cuckoo for Coconuts blog and story feel like a children’s tale: the love that traveled afar, that designed a life, that tended a bird, that planted a garden, that created the brands, that inspired the house that Conn and John built.
I love stories of people making big life changes and taking a leap of faith, but in this case, you did it together. Whose idea was it to move to Hawaii, and what kind of impact has it had on you creatively?
Conn: We vacationed in Maui for our first trip anywhere together in August, 2001. It was love the minute my foot hit the ground. After twelve days, we returned back to New York and spent an afternoon lounging in the park under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, tossing around ‘what-ifs.’ We may not have known it at the time, but we had planted the seed. With a return visit to the islands every summer through 2005, we finally went on a shopping trip in 2006. I would say I was the one really pushing for the move, but I am lucky that John was willing and was equally into making the move as I was.
The move has impacted me creatively in several ways, mostly in terms of my use of color. It’s become softer and more earthy. I do love bright colors, but I find myself making them a bit lived-in rather than so new. I also enjoy working with natural imagery like palm trees, flowers and natural textures. Making things look like they are lit by the sun rather than by artificial light has also worked its way into my work.
John: We might have moved sooner, but we wanted to save up for it and pay off any outstanding debt. Since our move, I have become more aware of color due to the natural surroundings. The nuances of green in a variegated ti leaf, for example.
We often think we can only do a certain type of work in the ‘capital’ of that industry — the fashion capital, the publishing capital, etc. — but you’re proof that these days you can still do that work from anywhere and prioritize lifestyle over proximity. Any words of encouragement for those who are not yet thinking outside the box?
John: If you are not happy where you are, then you should change that if possible. Luckily, we were able to take our work with us due in large part to the internet. We try to keep close ties with our New York contacts while also pursuing local clients. It’s also very important to not only love but also to research all aspects of the place you would like to move to. For instance, our Amazon wish lists were chock full of books on the Hawaiian culture. Not just vintage Hawaiiana, but also the history of the people and the land.
Conn: Anything is possible anywhere. But you have to love what you want to do. You have to be committed to it. If the love and commitment are there, you can succeed anywhere. Just because you love great design does not necessarily mean you would make a great designer. You can’t just think something looks good — you should know how and why it looks good, or why it doesn’t. If you want to design clothing, you also need to know fashion history and, most importantly, how to make patterns and sew. I agree with John: get to know your new place of residence before you move, and keep learning about it well after.
Conn, I know you worked for Todd Oldham for many years in New York and continue to work with him from Hawaii. How did this relationship shape your own style and sense of confidence?
I wouldn’t say that my years at Todd Oldham shaped my sense of confidence any more than it had already been shaped. What it did do was allow me to experience different types of work outside of what I moved to New York to do, which was to work in fashion. My first job was part-time for Gemma Kahng. I got a full-time job at a bedazzled sweater company that nearly took all of my confidence away before going back to work for Gemma full-time for six years. That being my first real job in fashion is where I discovered the art of keeping your personal style separate from the style you create for someone else.
When you work for someone, you need to adapt your style for their projects. I think it is ok to be influenced by their style and bring elements into your own work, so long as you have your own sense of style to start out with. I love the work I did for both Gemma Kahng and Todd Oldham, but I try not to bring it into my work, and vice versa. I learned more from Gemma Kahng about sewing, patterns, fabric and how to put together collections than I ever did from school. What I learned from Todd was that it’s ok to break the rules and to try things you normally wouldn’t try — like polka dots with plaid.
I always said that my schooling prepared me more for working with Todd. I attended The School of the Arts Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and studied Fashion Design, but I also had to take classes that had nothing to do with fashion, per se. They were all on the creative side, but not in the realm of fashion. Subjects like Death and the Hereafter in which I had to design my own tombstone — something I loved because of my fascination with graveyards.
There was another that was the History of Park Design, from Central park to Coney Island and everything in between. Others devoted their learnings to Perspective Drawing, Paper Making, Performance Art, Painting. The only thing missing was business classes, which I am sure were there, but I must have purposefully overlooked those. Now I wish I had taken one or two. Taking all of these classes inspired me in ways that I might not have been had I gone to a school that was strictly devoted to Fashion Design. I started out as Todd’s Public Relations Director in 1995. By 1998, Todd decided he wanted to move away from fashion, and I made the move with him. The studio started working on projects ranging from book design, interior design, textile design and photography. It was natural for me to move from one area of creativity to another just as I had at SAIC. I was allowed to throw my creativity into the ring on any and every project, with photography and textile design being my favorites. I was also allowed to build the studio’s first website, something I had never done or attempted before — I didn’t even know how. I was allowed to learn and produce it on the job. I was the in-house retoucher for all of Todd’s photography — again something I had never done, but something that came naturally to me from painting.
John, I understand your creative interests originally started with music, but you turned to graphic and interactive design in a way that has kept you close to that world. What have been some key turning points for you along that way?
(1986) Third year of high school, when I discovered I had a knack for drawing and was encouraged by my teachers to pursue it. I wanted to be a chef or a private investigator up until that point.
(1988) Realizing that the album covers I loved were considered art, which led me to enroll as a Graphic Design major in college.
(1991) My internship at SPIN magazine was key because it got my foot in magazine design. I eventually ended up as a Senior Designer there out of college. Up until that point, I thought I was going to work at a fancy design studio.
(1999) Feeling like I was stuck in a rut of the magazine design world and seeing an emerging new visual media take hold, I took a risk and pay cut and joined a design studio specializing in web and interactive design called Funny Garbage. The pay cut was in order to enter in the studio at a lower level to learn the ins and outs of designing for the screen. This led to forays in animation art direction and book design as well.
(2006) Moving to Maui. Fueled by many reasons, most importantly the need to explore new territory in every aspect and to challenge myself to take another risk to see if I could make it work.
You both have a fondness for vintage patterns, color combinations, forms, and so forth. What were some of your early visual impressions, and how have those influenced your work now?
John: Growing up, I had a poster of the flags of the world on the back of my bedroom door that I would look at almost every day and try to memorize. I loved how some flags were just stripes and others were more ornate. All very bold colors. This is one of my earliest design memories.
I was obsessed with the opening titles for Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels and all the Bond films’ opening titles by Maurice Binder, which led me to be interested in opening titles in general. Loved the comic-book-come-to-life aspect of the Wonder Woman title, also those shooting stars and the colors — so patriotic and trippy. Charlie’s Angels had a graphic quality with the iconic silhouette, and I loved the contrast of the clean-lined silo with the fiery explosion. And the Bond titles are legendary. I remember trying to photograph the screen! That led me to look into Maurice Binder’s work later on in my life. He did beautifully evocative titles for a lot of Stanley Doner films like Charade and Two For The Road. And the album cover design for Duran Duran’s RIO by Malcolm Garrett and New Order’s CORRUPTION AND LIES by Peter Saville. This was major for me. It marked a turning point where I was making my own music choices. Not based on things my parents or older brother and sister listened to — ’80s New Wave was the music for my generation. These two designers made not only interesting and bold covers, but the whole package was complete — inner sleeve, back cover, record label. All of it was a designed graphic identity for the album and the band itself. I was obsessed with band logos and recreating them on my school notebooks. I learned a lot about typography by copying what I saw.
The House Book by Terence Conran:
I would go to the local library in the back woods of the Catskills and pour over the Arts and Architecture section. I have wonderful memories of hunkering down in the stacks and discovering the works of Aubrey Beardsley and pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. But the interior design section is where I got the biggest thrill. The House Book by Terence Conran left the biggest impression on me.
Art and films of Andy Warhol:
I found out about Andy Warhol’s film from an old pic of Duran Duran. Nick Rhodes was wearing a “Bad” t-shirt. So I found it at the local video rental and it literally changed my life. It introduced me to avant garde film and that whole crazy New York scene. I’m inspired by everything involving Andy Warhol. His philosophy and technique was so forward-thinking and modern.
Old Magazines from the ’50s and ’60s – Esquire, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Fortune, Holiday:
My mom is a self-professed magazine junkie, so I grew up with a lot of old magazines around the house. I love them for their throw-away aspect. They weren’t meant to be masterpieces, yet they tell us so much about our culture at any given time. The ads alone are little testaments to our consumption. To me they’re priceless. I started collecting them in college, and they gave me new fuel for my design engine at a time when I was running low.
Conn: I find that I am drawn to the clean lines and color combos of mid-century design more than anything else, but baroque, arts + crafts, and deco are also favorite influences. Finding ways to combine those elements is when it gets exciting. A perfect example is the Louis XIV chair series in 1990 by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. A series of Louis XIV style chairs void of all opulence with a seat and back braces made from brass slats. The only thing missing from these chairs was comfort.
Some of my earliest influences came from watching TV as a kid. Standout movies that caught my attention early in terms of visuals were Pillow Talk, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Mon Oncle, The Pink Panther, and What’s Up, Doc? As I got older, I discovered more movies like What A Way To Go and Sweet Charity. Pretty much anything that had Shirley MacClaine in it seemed to be highly stylized and a great source of inspiration.
Another big influence was going to the airport with my grandmother to watch the planes take off and land. This was the early- to mid-70’s, and the interior of the airport was clean, sleek and modern. I always felt like I was somewhere much more exotic than Indianapolis, Indiana. There was a special observation deck where you could go back then to watch the planes, and I was never happy until I got to see an Eastern Airlines jet go soaring into the sky. I got an Eastern model plane for my birthday one year that I coveted. The combo of the two blues and the font were, in my young mind, perfection. I would later go on to paint a version of these stripes all over my bedroom walls.
I had never actually flown anywhere, but from time to time they gave tours of new planes introduced to the fleet. This is when I got the chance to see my first stewardess, as they were called back then, in uniform. It was my first taste of seeing a logo printed all over a fabric. I was also intrigued by the way the outfits had been put together and how they matched the interior of the planes. Crisp, clean, and somewhat futuristic. They were far better than the uniforms I saw at Dairy Queen or Burger King!
Then I discovered illustration in the form of posters, printed fabrics and patterns on dishes. We had the classic Corelle Dinnerware with the gold butterfly and flower border. We also had a set that had a thin gold line painted around the edge, which was my favorite. I had an early knowledge that I liked my food to be presented on a plain white plate, but a small outer pattern or stripe was fine! Today my favorite dinnerware is our white Paul McCobb Contempri with a 1/4″ red line.
You do a great job in your Cuckoo for Coconuts blog of documenting your new life, your home remodel, decorating, cooking, and gardening. Did you begin this blog as a way of keeping friends and family updated or was it more just a natural tendency on your part to create something?
Conn: The blog began in July of 2006, right after we decided to make the move to Hawaii. I would say that it started out as a way to show things that we loved and found interesting, but we knew it would turn into a way for family and close friends to keep up with us and our new adventure. We had no idea we would meet so many new people through it. We have readers from all over the world that send us email with questions about Hawaii and what to do here. It really took off when we “rescued” a baby ring-neck pheasant that we named Kekoa. He won the hearts of many readers over the course of a year and was by far our biggest attraction. The cooking/food/garden posts also seem to resonate well with our readers.
What was your vision for your new home, and what are some of your best tips for redoing your home inexpensively?
Conn: I’m not sure we really had a vision when we bought it, except to just enjoy and be surrounded by nature. Of course, being designers we just couldn’t resist a few good remodels and upgrades to the house. In the first year, we completely redid the kitchen and bath. We also knew that we would want a studio where we could work, so two years after arriving we tackled that project and are just now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on that. Cost-cutting advice would be to hire people to do the big jobs like framing or drywall. It will cost you less to hire professionals to do the big jobs right the first time and in a timely manner. Then do the smaller projects like tiling a shower, installing a new lanai, painting or hanging light fixtures yourself on weekends or evenings. Do research on the best way to tackle these projects before beginning to save time and money and to avoid frustration.
John: In regard to saving money, a lot is our willingness and know-how to do things ourselves. Also, resources like Craigslist and Restore (or any used building material seller) are great. We bought insulation on Craigslist for half the price and white globe hanging lights at Restore for 50 cents. If you see your local home improvement store having a sale on something you might not need right now but could see needing three months down the road, then place your order. Keep your receipts — places like Home Depot and Lowe’s take merchandise back, no questions asked — sometimes even if a package has been opened. Conn’s always insisting we buy more than we need, which saves us from making last-minute trips into town and makes for a smoother project. Then we just return any unused items. Finally, we aren’t ones to encourage gifts from family and friends, but just before we left the mainland, it was Christmastime, so we asked folks if they had planned on giving us anything to make it gift cards from Home Depot, Sears or Lowe’s. This had a big impact and help out a lot.
What’s next on the horizon for you two?
Conn: I would love to get a plant nursery up and running soon. I have a good start, but it is a lot of work. Starting out small is ok. I really want to divide my time between design and being in nature equally, if possible.
John: When we tore down an old shed in order to build the office on the existing footprint, we saved all of the framed walls, siding, windows and roofing, and we’re gearing up for building a 180 sq. ft. garden/tractor shed out of those materials this summer.
What kind of advice would you offer to others just getting started in a creative field?
Conn: Love what you do and learn the history of the field. Follow rules when needed and break them any time you can to create something new. Be willing to do work for free from time to time, especially for non-profits — they can be some of the most rewarding jobs you’ll work on. Be flexible to a point but not so flexible that you are taken advantage of.
John: This is going to sound cheesy, but follow your heart and your gut. Also, it’s important to take criticism with a grain of salt — what you do with it is solely your decision. If you’re uncomfortable, it means you’re learning.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work directly or just make you happy?
Conn: Birds, absolute silence, rain moving across the ocean, comedy, anything with or by Amy and David Sedaris, our vintage Charley Harper prints, black and white photography, the smell of fresh cut grass, the smell of tomatoes on the vine, humpback whale season in Hawaii, the sound of water filling up our catchment tanks, hiking the jungles and mountains of Hawaii, our royal poinciana in full bloom, sunsets from our front yard, baking, a finished project, surinam cherries and, as corny as it sounds, daily rainbows.
John: Our Charley Harper prints and books. Our photos from our trips to Hawaii. My old magazine collection. Our garden when it’s fruiting and pest-free. Roselani ice cream. My design book collection. Our endless blooming flowers throughout the yard. A nice long hike. Catching a good old movie on TCM. How the full moon here makes all the foliage turn silver. The sounds of the ocean from our house. Our photovoltaic panels that make our electricity. The feeling that you get at the end of the day when you’ve done what you planned to do (very rare!).
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