What Matters to Elan Cole

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Elan Cole is the Executive Creative Director at NYC & Company who also serves on the Board of Directors for the independent non-profit NYC x Design. In both roles, he gets to help elevate and amplify the voices and great work of his fellow New Yorkers.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Cooking dinner for my daughters. It’s the most direct connection between my urges to make things and to provide for my children.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

I wrote and illustrated my first book when I was about five. I drew it with my mom’s design markers— she was a textile designer. I still have the black marker I used (it still works!!), and it’s so old it doesn’t even have a bar code on it. I made it because I saw my mom making pattern drawings and embroideries. It was called Elan the Dinosaur. It was an explosively raw and vulnerable autobiography that clocked in at an astonishing four pages. The big reveal in the end was that Elan liked to watch birds. He was a stegosaur.

What is your biggest regret?

Hard to say. I’ve been through phases of life where regret was a constant overtone, but not so much now. I mean, I can look at any choice I’ve made in my life and wonder about the alternate outcome.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Endurance, because I know I can outlast it. I remind myself that before I know it, it will be six months in the future. I put myself there and imagine looking back from a distance, having gone through it. I also have this hero of sorts, Sir Henry Worsley. He was a British explorer who perished in 2016 attempting to cross Antarctica on foot, alone and unaided. Before he died, he took a selfie. It was a gloriously clear morning, and you can see the tundra before him reflected in his mirrored goggles. Despite being malnourished and frostbitten, missing a tooth, and sensing he won’t make it, he’s ecstatic. In this photo that hangs in my apartment, he’s got a big cigar clamped into his giant, glowing, triumphant, transcendent smile. The way I like to imagine it is in that moment, he understood the expedition was doomed, or close to it, but that wasn’t important. Worsley’s selfie reminds me that it’s going to be okay, even if it’s not.

What makes you cry?

Depends on where I’m at— different things at different times. At this moment, I’m in mourning. We lost my mother in May. My brother and I are now sifting through all the stuff of our lives as a family. In doing that, I’m piecing together a picture of my mom and dad’s life from their POV. I’m being introduced to two people who I didn’t fully know, but who I loved so deeply, and who loved me. I can’t know who my mom and dad are anymore, but I’m understanding who they were, beginning, middle, and end. It’s a lot to take in; it feels like the raw stuff that emotions are made of. When it becomes too much to hold in, that’s when I cry.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Half-life of about a day. But then when I revisit it, or get to talk about it— or in the case of something I made, wear it or use it— I get a nice dose of pride and joy.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I don’t think I do. I think there may be something persistent about consciousness, but it’s our physical form and circumstance that gives us the life we have. I like to think that we “borrow” what we experience as life, just like we “borrow” all the atoms that make us up. Maybe I’m wrong. If I am, then I hope it looks like someplace I can pick up smoking again, but without any consequences.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I don’t— not anymore. I used to, but I survived it.

What do you love most about yourself?

That I can imagine and make things with my brain and my hands that never existed before.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Chicken Curry Katsu from Katsuhama on 47th between 5th and Madison. I’ve been eating there for almost 20 years, same dish. Warm, velvety Japanese gravy on one side of the plate, sticky sushi rice with a jammy lotus root relish on the other, and bringing them both together on top is a perfectly panko-fried chicken breast. For dessert, it’ll be my mom’s baklava, hands down. She could’ve served that at the Camp David accords and brought peace to the Middle East.