Jon Setzen is quite at ease in Los Angeles. Speaking with him, you’d guess he could be from here or at least has lived in this city for years. He is currently the Creative Director at Media Temple and runs Los Angeles’ Creative Mornings series, a monthly creative lecture series that is the third city in a list of thirteen (plus!) cities internationally to have these local talks. He lives in Silver Lake with his family, can speak at length about different corridors to take to get to the West side, and has his finger on nearly every industry in the city. We sit in his bright studio, which he shares with his wife, artist Mindy Markowitz. He selects Air’s Moon Safari LP as the backdrop of our conversation.
Jon isn’t from Los Angeles. He’s actually only been here for a little over a year. He’s a bit of a traveller, with a few different places to call home. He was born in Johannesburg but moved to Toronto and then to San Francisco. When he wasn’t at either place, he spent time split between living with family in Vancouver or London.
London played a big role influencing Jon, as he grew up around the formation of modern punk. “When I was a kid in London, punk was really huge,” he says, clarifying the time period to the early eighties, “You used to ride around and see people with safety pins in their faces. I always thought it was amazing.” Living in London from time to time and living with cousins somewhat older than him, this influenced his musical sensibilities quite a bit. As Joy Division and The Smiths began to explode, Jon was quick to get out and buy tapes and records of theirs like his older cousins, buying into a culture far removed from suburban California.
The other end of his influences was his grandfather who lived in Vancouver that he split time as well. His grandfather was a bookbinder and photographer, who up until recently stop practicing (and gave Jon everything he used for his dark room). “I used to spend a lot of time in the dark room watching him do all that stuff,” he says, “Somewhere along the line I got really interested in photographing musicians. I was obsessed with music.”
Mixing music and visual art/design would lay the foundation for Jon’s future. He would photograph musicians whenever he could and had a hobby of drawing record covers, which influenced his design sense quite a bit. Like punk cover art, he became greatly interested in jazz covers as “It was simple design: photography with some typography.”
Jon went to school in Oregon where he got involved with the college radio station, serving as their musical director. “That was my life in college,” he says, “It was in the mid nineties. All these british bands were big, like Oasis and Blur, and they would come through portland and I would interview them. I wanted to be a radio DJ–that’s what I thought I would be.” It’s important to note he would make band posters for groups passing through the area, too.
Naturally, he pursued an internship in radio but quickly realized it wasn’t for him. However, while equally in love with music he had another love: HTML. “In 1994, my friend Scott Nelson knew HTML and taught it to me,” he explains, “I started making webpages before you could put images on a site. I can still remember how awesome it was when Netscape allowed you to change the background colors from that shitty grey to red. I was fascinated by it: I liked the immediacy of it. You could do something and look at it right away–and hundreds of people could look at it. You didn’t have to deal with printers!”
With this knowledge, after he graduated from school he moved back to San Francisco, where he worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as the design director for their online media. He eventually got sick of living in the bay area and moved across the country to New York City in 2001. In light of September 11, there was little work and he slept on a friend’s couch for some time working odd jobs off of Craigslist (like “moving furniture in Queens”).
Things quickly changed though in a collision of all of his interests. “I was still doing a music column for the Chronicle,” he says, “Then, I just started doing show posters for a local venue, which led to getting this contract with Sony Music. That started my company and I ran my own studio there for almost ten years.”
This is when things changed and Los Angeles came in the picture, as having a kid, a fourth floor walkup, and an overpriced city became quite taxing. LA wasn’t ever really an idea, as the SF vs. LA rivalry was somewhat embedded in his mind from living there. “Growing up in San Francisco, theres this resentment to hate Los Angeles because they steal our water, there’s no culture there, etc.” Jon says, “In SF, everyone thinks they’re so interesting and it’s not about TV and all ‘that stuff.’ But, with the Internet, San Francisco started becoming all those things we always thought LA was.”
He started coming out to Los Angeles for work several times a year, becoming a bit bi-coastal. He saw LA as a place where you can live and work and be happy. “One February, I was staying in an apartment in Marina Del Rey. It was seven degrees in New York and I didn’t know if I was going to make my plane because of snow plow stuff on the Eastern Parkway. When I got to LA and it was 72 degrees, I dropped my bags off at the apartment and got on a bike and rode along the beach to work. I just thought to myself, ‘Yeah…this is more what I’m looking for.’”
The more Jon came out to LA, the more he liked it. “I got to visit areas I hadn’t really been before like Silver Lake, Venice, etc.–those kinds of places. I fell in love with it. My wife had gone to grad school out here at Art Center and she had a bunch of friends here. So, we sold our apartment in New York and left.”
In July 2010, they made the move and are now in Silver Lake. He’s still getting his bearings (“I still don’t know where I’m going most of the time.”), but he loves it out here: “It’s wayyyy different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. It’s like a city but it doesn’t really feel like a city in a weird way. It’s just so diverse topographically, visually, and culturally.”
In LA, there seems to be more opportunity for him that he couldn’t afford in New York (mostly because of space). “I used to make and sell a lot of rock posters. That used to be a big part of my business,” he said, “We had a decent sized apartment, but I had very little space–that stuff takes up a lot of room. If I would have been doing this in LA and had a space like this little room, I could have printed way more posters. I think it just makes it easier.”
“You’re inspired by your surroundings,” Jon says, “In New York, I was much more inspired by the urban cityscape. Here, the light in Los Angeles is just unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s not just that it’s bright all the time, it’s this perfect kind of 1973 surf movie spectrum lighting that makes you want to do stuff. I always thought there was something weird with the verticality of the New York: you’re very closed in. It’s hard to think as weirdly as people do out here–the space and the lighting makes a big difference.”
With inspiration so readily available here, what does it do for him? “Being here makes me want to get back into photography,” he answers, “I’d like to get back into doing show posters and design for music. I really haven’t had the time, but I feel inspired in a way I haven’t felt in a long time out here.”
“It’s not just about the space,” Jon details, “There’s something about LA. I really think it goes back to the light, which makes you look at things differently. After it rains, the clouds are so unbelievable it makes me want to learn how to paint. I used to always have ideas about what I wanted to do but, now, I feel like I can’t really put my finger on what I want to do because there is so much going on in Los Angeles.”
Similarly, Jon has found being out West brings out something different in creatives. “I find a lot of people reaching out,” Jon says, “I feel like in New York, it’s the kind of place where–if you have an idea–you have to do it. But, in LA, if you have an idea there are ten people who want to be involved to help you. I don’t know if that’s an industry thing–but it’s kind of cool. Creative Mornings is great because I get to meet a lot of those people.”
“Ten years ago, I would have never ever thought I would be living here,” Jon states, explaining that it’s perfect for him and his family now. His wife, Mindy, is a painter and has taken the last few years off from working to be a mom: he finds Los Angeles is the perfect place for her to start working again.
“The art scene here is so much better than anywhere else in the country,” he says, “It kills New York. It all goes back to NY being so established–Los Angeles doesn’t have that feeling. LA has this freedom about it. There’s a little bit of that wild West mentality here. In New York, they’re older and it’s really hard to get in there. The LA art scene is way more conceptual.”
“I think there’s a really good foundation here for me of people I will always work with,” he says, rounding out the conversation, just in time for Moon Safari to come to a close.