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Creating Community Through Craft: An Interview With Karen Kimmel

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Everything in Karen Kimmel‘s office is there for a reason. There is a large, white table-desk that acts as the room’s anchor that has a bouquet of warm flowers, a cube of white pens, the Geoff McFetridge designed Spring issue of Zoetrope, and even a giant silver white Yves Béhar Jambox. There is a bookshelf with geometric bookends by Waka Waka and color blocked vases and a few Modernica Eiffel chairs. A hybrid bulletin board/mood board covers a wall with boldly colored gods eyes, flower stencils and keychain prototypes tacked onto it. Everything in this room is within a very specific color palette too: lilac, coral, sand, silver, and white.

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Her office isn’t the only room this meticulously staged: her entire building has this much care put into it. Every room appears to be themed, and the tiny details–from David Weeks’ Hanno Wooden Gorilla Toy to an Elyse Graham Geode, neon dream catchers to pots and pots and pots of succulents–help fulfill the Karen Kimmel world of beautiful whimsy. When you work to shape identities and direct creative projects for large brands, having a precise eye for visuals is a sixth sense. That’s Karen’s job and she has made an entire lifestyle out of beautification.

“I just love to make things pretty!” she says, taking a seat at her desk. “And I don’t think aesthetics are wasted on people: everybody responds to beauty. Kids, families –everyone appreciates a well-designed environment!”

“We just opened our offices about a month ago too,” she adds. “We have our production studio around the block, where we make all of our assets for events and our bespoke Karen Kimmel line of accessories and art tools.”

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Karen’s practice comes from a background in fine art and a dedication to making. It is also incredibly ironic that Karen is now based on the West coast, as she is a dedicated Northeasterner. “I’m an East coast girl, born and bred. The fact that I made it out West is kind of part of the adventure. I grew up on the beach, in Jersey, and went to prep school in Pennsylvania. I went to college in Vermont and grad school at Tufts in Boston.”

“So, when I say East coast, I mean East coast,” she says, smiling.

“I lived in New York for a lot of years, which is where I met my now-husband James. He kind of had a harebrained idea to travel and see the world and I agreed to it. We sold all of our possessions and we went to Southeast Asia and we learned how to surf.”

This trip became more than an escape from normal life and became a rerouting of Karen’s path: their trip is the reason why she ended up in Los Angeles. “On our way back, my husband said, ‘LA’s pretty great. We should stop there!’ I said, ‘Okay…but I’m an East coast girl!’”

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She laughs. “We stopped here and we felt it was a great place to start a business. Unlike New York, there was just more room to take chances. It’s a more forgiving city for taking risks and entrepreneurialism is more embraced. There aren’t the pedigree pressures and background checks of East coast business culture –where you’re from, who you know… it’s not rigorous in that way.”

“So, we packed our bags and moved out here and started a life. We opened a store called KBond, which was a lifestyle boutique for men on Beverly Blvd. Then we had some children and I decided that I wanted to go more behind the scenes and return to the creative process. James took all of the pieces from KBond and started a sneaker store called Undefeated.  He’s really culled his retail experience into a line of clothing. I went back to being mama, and back to the art practice, which is where I come from.”

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“I have a love for art and social sculpture. I love that dynamic of creating something incredibly intricate, like a sculpture or installation, and then opening it up to the public to have it come apart or be reinterpreted through their eyes. I took that passion for that immersive, experiential way of making artwork and turned it into a business practice. My passion for artists and the process of making, defines the worlds that I build.”

These experiences have led Karen to where she is now. She has married her artistic skills with the practical knowledge gained from running a retail store. Karen Kimmel Studios is a one-stop shop for creativity, a sprawling enterprise that applies Karen’s art-making ethos to creative direction for corporations, social media management, event marketing, and product design. A good example of this is her yearly family fun Palm Springs pow wow, Crafting Community. “A lot of what we do goes into Crafting Community, which is an annual event for families at The Ace,” she explains. “Crafting Community has evolved over the years into a branding and marketing company for the family space. We partner with some great artists and sponsors to come in and celebrate with us. This year, Target and Kid Made Modern are coming on and they’re bringing Todd Oldham.”

“Isn’t that super exciting?!” she exclaims giddily. “I can’t wait to meet him.”

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“Creating environments and making things visually speak to each other is a passion of mine,” she continues. “I love it, I loved engineering all of the components of KBond’s space and curating the products. When I did installations and performances in New York, I loved the minutia of the execution. I’m a complete sucker for the details.”

“Where it’s hard for me is letting that go, which is why inviting the public in is really great. There’s nothing like inviting the human condition into something to create a degree of unexpectedness. Like in creating a Crafting Community, I can be super meticulous about the details and then–when you invite kids and families in–something is created that I never would have considered. It’s creating that structure and control that allows others to come in and feel free to explore their own creativity.”

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A lot of this willingness to collide worlds and share art-making came from her graduate studies at Tufts and the Museum School of Fine Arts. Not only was it a formal education for Karen, but it opened up intellectual possibilities through play, many of which she still draws upon today. “Where it came from is my interest in sculpture. I guess that’s what grad school really does for you: it lets you immerse yourself in the making,” she says. “It’s super indulgent in hindsight. Grad school is so super indulgent! You get to sit around with people who you really like, discuss your thoughts and make art for credit. It was an amazing experience for me. A lot comes out of that non-uniform, loose time.”

“You see the same thing in kids: when you give them time to utilize their imaginations and be free, they go into a different mental space. I remember when I was young–and I see it in my kids now–but they just get into the creativity of things. Grad school really let me indulge, creatively. I started to work with people collaboratively then and realized that I’m just someone who loves to collaborate. Don’t get me wrong, my quiet alone-time is crucial, but I feel that working with other people brings out the best in me. I like to hit up against other people and see what sparks.”

“I’ve been lucky,” she says. “For KBond we made a lot of great connections, we sold a lot of amazing products, and my husband was able to take some of those relationships and build it into Undefeated. For me, the relationships I made at that store led to creative direction jobs with brands like Nike, in a space that they have.”

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“I think in some ways, I still make social sculpture too. It’s just under a much more immersive, dare I say corporate, umbrella. I feel like art can live anywhere: I’m not super attached to it being either fine art or corporate art. I just like making.”

“To get paid for thinking up ideas and being creative, I feel super lucky,” she says. She has a special twinkle in her eye saying this, too. “I’m very fortunate.”

As mentioned, a lot of her successes she has had can be attributed to being in Los Angeles. She came here at a perfect point in her life and at a point when the city was ripe for imaginative people to play. She took advantage of the opportunity and has built a brightly colored empire with it.

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“When we came to LA, it was waiting for some big creativity to move in,” she says. “I just think there is a resurgence of the local creative zeitgeist that was once here during the California craft movement. That creativity from the sixties and seventies has been rekindled, giving current Angelenos a whole new way of thinking about indigenous craft- art forms that are truly Californian and of this place.”

“I feel like LA is such a great place to be right now – I feel far less encumbered here than in New York. I don’t know if this is reality or not but when I was working back east, there seemed to be very strict parameters on the kinds of artwork considered relevant. There was such a fascination with conceptual art, with work that had some sort of ultimate content. The pieces had to act like some kind of container for a larger meaning, and I felt like design and making things that are unapologetically beautiful was taboo. Things couldn’t just be pretty, they had to impart a message.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I love content and conceptual art! I just want it to look beautiful too,” she clarifies.

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“I found a sweet spot in this design world we’re creating now, because it moves much more fluidly now into the realms of fine art. I think LA is a little bit more free with its categories and distinctions. Also, when you have kids, you’re not really in that practice of being in a scene. In New York I was going out a lot, in a scene and in galleries. Here? I’m a mama. That discourse doesn’t affect me or own me in the same way it did when I was younger. I just make what I want to make! And I don’t get super worried or hung up about it. Turns out that’s okay!”

Karen does see some influence of Los Angeles as an environment on her but, realistically, that influence is the same as it was when she was back East. “There’s nothing like the shore and there’s nothing like the ocean. The thing I like about the East coast is the same thing that I adore about the West coast: they both have such natural beauty outside the city.”

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“What I love about LA is that you can be in nature and still be in the city within twenty minutes. In fifteen minutes, you can walk up a hill or be at the ocean. That nature experience is pretty accessible. It’s probably not super original but nature fortifies me creatively. Seeing so many of the details mastered effortlessly and so un-self-consciously is pretty yielding as far as inspiration goes.”

Karen and her studio have found their groove. They have a new space, they have a steady flow of work, and they want to spread this mentality of smartly beautifying the world through artistry. “Being a lover of making environments, I want to continue to build them,” she says, “I also want to stay conscious to stay present and focused on where we are today. Like any business, I want to be in that measured place of embracing where you are, being kind of settled and strong with the work, and yet always having an eye to the future.”

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“I also think the family space has enormous potential. A lot of brands and companies really are embracing family and a lot of people are revisiting what authenticity means to them. Inevitably, that brings you back to how important family is. So much of the work we do there really celebrates that space and celebrates creativity, the community, and how people kind of gather together under the umbrella of creation.”

“To be able to do that in a bigger way? We got some plans,” she says laughing. “We got some plans.”

For more on Karen and her work, be sure to check out her website, follow her on Twitter, Like her studio on Facebook, follow her on Pinterest, and be sure to peruse—and buy!—her goods from Etsy. Find out more about Karen Kimmel Kids here and Crafting Community here. The event will be taking place October 4 through October 6 and you can purchase tickets for it here.

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