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Q & A with Color Maven Jessi Arrington

Perched near the tippy-top of the pantheon of all-time color fans you’ll find Jessi Arrington, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based design studio WORKSHOP. Jessi debuted in The New York Times in May 2011 as a member of Studiomates, a co-working collective gathering some of design’s most up-and-coming types, including Swissmiss founder Tina Roth Eisenberg, typographer Jessica Hische and Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova among others. Jessi has thrown innumerable (and increasingly large) rainbow-parades with marching bands, given a memorable TED talk about wearing only recycled clothes, plus designed for Etsy, UNICEF, TED, the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls and the New York Philharmonic among others.

I first met Jessi when we invited her to speak at Print’s Color Conference in 2011; her talk gave an intimate, searching and funny glimpse into color’s power to fascinate us. Naturally, she led us in a marching-band rainbow parade after. I accidentally swiped a green fabric flower I was wearing that day, and I carry it in my favorite purse (mustard yellow) still. It reminds me of an ideal Jessi embodies: combining smarts with joy.

From http://www.luckysoandso.com/. Photo by Julia Robb.

First let’s discuss one of your more enduring claims to fame: you’re the awesome color-mama who births many excellent rainbow parades. Can you recap for us how the first rainbow parade came into being? Why have you chosen to repeat it on bigger and bigger scales ever since? Is there any aspect of the rainbow-parade idea you haven’t yet succeeded in plumbing, but would dearly like to?

It was the week of my birthday a few years ago. [Jessi’s husband and Workshop co-founder] Creighton was asking the other Studiomates: what should we do for Jessi’s birthday? Jessica Hische suggested a rainbow party, in which everybody would come dressed head to toe in one color. We’d end up making a rainbow, more or less. I tried to find an outfit that was all one color and was really surprised to find I could make a head-to-toe outfit in many different colors. I had such a hard time choosing, in fact, I packed up all 11 outfits and carried them to the office. I started the day in one outfit and changed every hour, and we photographed each outfit as we did this. Josh made http://rainbowbirthday.com that same day.

The next year when my birthday rolled around, we asked ourselves: what would the next iteration of this be? Is it just bigger? We wanted to get the party outside of our studio, so others could participate. I also wanted a marching band; lining  everyone up seemed so absurd and fun. All the Studiomates pitched in, and the first rainbow parade was born.

That first time we had the parade, it was freezing out and pouring down rain. But we managed to march down the streets and smile the whole way. You have to give yourself permission to do stuff like that. No day is so bad it can’t be made better by that memory.

Still by Wild Combination

For a solid year, every time I was asked to give a talk, I ended it with a parade: in New York, Cleveland, Orlando. Last year we partnered with Recordsetter to throw the largest rainbow parade ever: 179 people and one dog, marching in colors over the Brooklyn Bridge. We’re trying to beat that record again this year.

As for unrealized ambitions, I’d really love to throw a parade with lots of teenagers involved. That’s a time in your life when you’re self-conscious; the last thing you want to do is to stand out. This is such a definitely uncool thing to do, it might help them get outside themselves.

Another of your claims-to-fame is your TED talk on recycling vintage clothes and your penchant for wearing bright color and pattern. When you hit a vintage store, what does your eye first seek out?

Photo: Michael Brands for TED

What you put on your body everyday is an opportunity in two parts. There’s the internal side: how might this outfit make me feel, and change my emotion or how I walk down the street today? Externally, clothes are a chance to tell somebody you’ve never met something about yourself. I love taking advantage of that. People know I like having a good time, I’m light-hearted, I don’t take myself too seriously.

To me, the organizing principle for much of this is color. It’s easy to be overwhelmed in a gigantic Goodwill, but you can weed out 70% of the stuff by skipping all the solid black, everything khaki. If it’s super-bright, or has a fun or funky pattern, I pull those things off the rack. If it fits me and doesn’t have tears or holes, and it’s a bright color then: score. The only problem is: there are so many clothes like that. I have to stay super-picky and think: is this something that really pushes the envelope? Will it make someone laugh or come up and say hi to me? Wearing bright color and pattern gives people an excuse to talk to strangers.

Let’s switch gears to Workshop. Last December you designed Etsy’s first pop-up holiday shop in New York. Can you tell us about that? 

Photo by Sara Kerens

We helped Etsy to build their first physical shop in Soho in 5,000 square feet of space. That was amazing and I could talk about it forever. It lasted 10 days, with over 300 different product SKUs you could buy in the store; when you included vintage stuff it totaled 3,000 products on sale. We attracted 20,000 visitors, half of whom had never purchased from an Etsy seller before.

We were trying to create a magical experience where you could encounter unexpected joy around every corner. Every day we had live music and creative programming all day long: everything from workshops on handpainted wooden dolls to hand lettering and ceramics. It led to moments that were really beautiful. For instance Starlee Kine from This American Life led a cookie-making New Year’s Resolution workshop. You really had to envision yourself in this resolution, and see it concretely enough to make it as a cookie. So that filled the store with the smell of fresh-baking cookies, while a banjo player’s music floated overhead. It was a sensory immersion into a brand most people have only experienced online.

Etsy wreath-making class, hosted by Grace Bonney and the Design*Sponge team. Photo by Sara Kerens.

The curator’s wall. Photo by Sara Kerens

This is one of those hopelessly big essay questions: Can you put your finger on some reasons color fascinates you? 

I spend a lot of my life wondering that. I see color everywhere, and I don’t understand why others don’t. It’s the first thing I see, the colors and the contrasts between them, plus the emotions they hold for me. I wonder about that in myself, but more I wonder about other people and why they don’t use color to its fullest advantage.

I remember a patchwork quilt my grandma made when I was little. I loved how how one fabric was juxtaposed right next to another, with no separation between two starkly contrasting pieces. Maybe that had some sort of early influence on me. I don’t honestly know why my filter on the world is color, but I’m glad it is—it enriches in my life in so many ways.

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