Leta Sobierajski came home from work one day and decided to quit her job at the design studio. She was in her mid-twenties, living alone on Grand Street in Brooklyn, and had no backup plan. That first week, she scrubbed her portfolio clean of all the projects that she had ever done at the studio.
“It was terrifying,” Sobierajski remembers. “When I went freelance, I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t have any work right now, but we’ll see what happens.’ I just made personal work, and I was putting that in my portfolio.”
Three short years later, she’s a sought-after multidisciplinary designer and art director with big name clients on her call list, like Kiehl’s, Refinery 29, Renault, and Google. The difference, this time, is that Sobierajski has the freedom to do what she wants. And, oh, what a world she has created.
I meet Sobierajski one afternoon at her Grand Street apartment, which she now shares with her boyfriend, Australian designer and art director Wade Jeffree. They keep the living room crisp and organized: There’s a cream-colored, leather couch; a basketball hoop resurrected as a coffee table; and a wall-sized bookshelf of their favorite volumes. Potted plants add touches of green here and there.
Sobierajski, to my surprise, is dressed entirely in black (a black dress, black leggings, and black booties). Her naturally dark hair falls straight past her shoulders and her bangs are bluntly cut an inch or two above her eyebrows. The look is not in and is not on-the-way—it’s just her own.
“I got really fed up,” Sobierajski explains of her decision to leave the design studio. “I wasn’t doing anything that I was really happy doing, and it’s frustrating when you’re always designing for somebody, in somebody else’s style, for the clients that somebody else has decided to take on. It’s really a negotiation of identity.”
Right before she quit the studio, Sobierajski put together a minute-long personal project with the help of three friends (who volunteered as hand models). In hindsight, the video—Applications—contains the early essentials that make Sobiejarski’s work so eye-catching today: bright colors, flat backgrounds, odd details, careful attention to each frame, and a neat feel.
“I was able to stay after work and use the equipment to shoot it,” Sobierajski says. “I edited everything at home, put it together, and that was it. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done, but it felt so liberating to be able to just produce something for myself,” she remembers.
How was that first month after you quit?
There was no guarantee that I would get work but just by being persistent and writing to different blogs and magazines, things started slowly developing. People kept on reiterating that doing personal projects is what’s going to help—that it’s what everybody has done in order to create a personal identity for their work. It’s true and it’s so easy, but a lot of people don’t take it to heart.
That sounds similar to being a writer…
I also think you have to make a sacrifice in some way. There’s money, there’s freedom, and then there’s social life or something like that. When I was still working at my full time job, I would go home at 6 and then just start working from 7 until 3 or 4 in the morning, either to produce my own work or to do a little freelance thing, where I was making icons or an illustration. I was abandoning whatever free time I had and pouring that into computer time. That’s the only way that you’re going to have the time to produce something for yourself.
How did you meet Wade?
Through OKCupid. I was on for less than a week, and I was also really particular about it. I didn’t want to meet any average ‘Brooklyn guy’ so I specified that whoever I was to talk to, they needed to know who Josef Müller-Brockmann is. [laughs]
Where did you go on your first date?
We went to The Counting Room, then we got sushi at Wasabi, and then we went to Beloved. Then we closed off the night at Manhattan Inn. I have a fondness for all of these places because of that first date.
Why did you start Complements project?
We wanted an opportunity to work together because we didn’t have any clients at that point who were asking for us to be a team. And, we wanted to create a project where one could not be without the other and both would have to be incredibly involved. We say it’s like ‘exploring the universal strangeness of love.’
How long does it take to do one portrait for Complements?
We can shoot a portrait in 15 minutes. Sometimes, they take a little more preparation so it will require a little bit more time, but we shoot everything just right here [in the living room]. We use a camera remote, so one of us will be holding it and we can rapid-fire shoot a bunch of different shots.
My favorite one is the one with the tape. It’s so odd to look at.
I think a lot of people like that one, but when we were doing it, we were like, ‘I don’t know if this is our strongest one.’ We don’t want to always be portrayed as beautiful people on the internet. I think it’s very easy to do that. It’s nice to be able to show that we’re not only just trying to create these beautiful personas, but also that we’re okay with making fun of ourselves, being ugly, or exposing ourselves more than we should.
Has Wade influenced your work?
Absolutely. Before him, I didn’t have anybody who I could send things to and say, ‘What do you think? What’s your advice?’ And, he’s definitely made things better just by giving me appropriate feedback. There isn’t a filter in any way, so it’s like, ‘That typeface is terrible!’ or ‘Why would you put that object over there?’ [laughs] It’s been really constructive, and with me for him as well—just having the dynamic where we can e-mail each other back and forth or call each other over to look at our computer screens and get a different perspective is great.
What effect do you think social media has had on your work?
Originally, I started posting my work on Instagram and it had a distinct style. If you looked at a photo or somebody re-posted a photo, you could see, ‘Oh, that was definitely done by Leta.’ Over time, I think it’s become built that way. I try to keep things curated, and I think it’s very important to have a personality or a voice in your work, visually, if you’re taking social media very seriously.
Is it worth it to take Instagram seriously?
Having an Instagram account is one of the most accessible ways for someone to see your work. It’s even better than having a website or a portfolio. Those things are still really important, but everybody has an Instagram and they’re accessing it through their phones—so you don’t end up limited to the community in New York or the United States, but you’re able to have a completely global presence because of that.
Are you seeing any trends in design now? Ones that you like or don’t like?
I’m guilty of this, but there is a huge Memphis movement from the ’80s—it’s this design movement that was started in Italy by this guy Ettore Sottsass and two other integral figures—where it’s a lot of industrial design stuff and patterns. I love all of the vases and furniture that were built during this period, but his bacterio print has become so popularized that everybody is using it right now, like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. It’s my love and hate, my good and bad trend.
In design then, how do you stay ahead?
I try to not look at blogs because it’s like looking at pornography, basically. [laughs]
What do you mean?
Looking at porn is like looking at sex without having sex; you’re getting the essentials that you need without actually taking part in it. It’s the same sort of thing with looking at blogs. You’re getting everything you need without actually having to make anything. I try to avoid doing that because it’s really easy to get sucked into looking at other people’s work as opposed to making your own. Instead, for inspiration, I’ll go to an art opening or a museum or will do something that’s art-related—or I’ll get out of New York City and travel somewhere.
What’s the next design trend?
Definitely something digital.
Like in virtual reality?
Ohh, yes. Something experiential. I think what’s important is keeping emotion in design. As we work with more platforms and new technology, it’s really easy to not have personal emotional experiences with this stuff. It can get very cold. That’s what I would hope would be in the future. And, definitely something with robots.
What are you working on right now?
Wade and I have actually started collaborating on client projects for the first time, so we just finished up a collaboration with Uniqlo Japan for their Instagram. We’re also branding a restaurant that is opening up very soon in Manhattan. What else? I’ve started doing lectures, which is interesting. I just came back from a lecture in Serbia, and I’m doing a lecture in New York in October. Then I’m going to Guatemala to do a lecture and a workshop there. And, also, teaching now, too.
What’s a good thing to teach students these days?
It’s good to teach students that they really need to have a more digital approach to everything. Not in the sense of making work that is for a digital platform, but just having a digital presence.
Like the Instagram account, so you can reach people in, say, Serbia.
Some of the people who I met in Serbia, for example, were limiting themselves to only getting Serbian clients. They couldn’t imagine having a client somewhere else in the world, but you have the internet so there is no reason why you need to limit yourself to your country. It doesn’t matter where you’re getting paid, as long as you’re making work for people and enjoying what you’re doing. Some of my clients are here and some of them are in London, Germany, or now Japan. It’s all being done via the internet.
You’re working on a planetary scale.
Yeah, that’s a crazy way of thinking about it but there really is no limit. There is an opportunity anywhere.