Elise Birnbaum

[This interview is from Volume III]

Interview by Luisa Lacsamana, Austin Ledzian, and Christine Yen
Photographs by Luisa Lacsamana and Elise Birnbaum.

Elise graduated in 2010 with a degree in Studio Art from the School of Visual Arts (SOVA) at Virginia Tech. She spent a year screen printing for a non-profit organization before landing her current job as a Window Display Coordinator at Anthropologie. We talked with her about her student life and her working life.

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How do you come up with your concepts?
Anthropologie gives us kind of basic concepts that we work with and get inspired by, so it’s the perfect amount of constraint to give you enough freedom. Season by season we have different concepts. Anthropologie pays a lot of attention to what is going on in the art and design world. You could walk in and if you were paying enough attention you might have a view into some recent trends. For example, I feel like weaving was having a moment recently and we were all really excited about it.

Do you usually iterate your concepts or do you stick with the first idea?
As a designer a lot of times the first thing you come up with can be the right thing. If you have to think too hard it’s like you’re forcing it. That being said when you’re creating multiple installations within one space there are so many things you have to think about. There’s definitely a lot of going back and brainstorming and trying to figure out what makes sense with each piece interacting.

How long does a display usually take to make?
Usually we will sketch for a window for a few days, find inspiration, go over our sketches with our district bosses and our regional bosses and then we have a week to prep and a week to install. If it’s not a big installation and you don’t need to prep that much you can switch it up a little but usually a window will take two weeks and throughout that process it’s really collaborative at various different levels. It’s awesome because when you’re in school it’s different, there’s a weird disconnect. Now I might be stuck on something and someone in Ohio will say “hey why don’t you do this?” We definitely go back to it and refine it and keep trying to push it.

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How long are the windows up?
There are five or six windows each year and then three times a year we change the entire store. I encourage you to go into an Anthropologie in the spring. There are five or six installations in there at once so change is constant. We just finished a window and for the past few weeks, we’ve been planning for Spring.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
It’s challenging, in a good way, always trying to push yourself to one-up what you did before or come up with new ideas. Just trying to constantly get better and better, which is probably the hardest part of every job.

You mentioned someone in Ohio. Is there a community of window display artists?
Every store has an artist, which is really cool. A lot of bigger stores even have more than one, like Rockefeller Center has a team! We’re able to reach out to each other and talk about things and have conference calls. We also send big teams to open a store, for example in September a new store opened in Columbus. It was like a two-week summer camp of artists making things. It’s the best thing in the world but it’s also twelve-hour days. 

Do you have a studio?
I have an art room in Anthropologie. Each store has an art room. My room is one of the bigger ones, but whenever I show people they’re like ‘you make it all in here?’

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Is it nice working alone?
I like it, it’s a good balance. You’re working in an environment where people in retail are very social, but you can also close your door and blast the music, or listen to podcasts, and just really work. It’s awesome.

Do you know many other creatives in Pittsburgh?
There’s a great community here. There are so many colleges which means there are so many young people. Carnegie Mellon has an insane architecture and art and design program. We do internships and we get most of our interns from Carnegie Mellon and they’re amazing. So there are a lot of young creative people because they can rent cheap studios and buy houses.

Do you find that the community informs your work?
It definitely does. A good example is a window a few years back. It was an Earth Day window and the idea was making fake produce grow out of something recycled. What we came up with was all these bicycle wheels hanging on the wall which was informed by the growing bike scene here. There’s a bike store called Construction Junction and they have a program that teaches you how to build and fix your bikes for free, and you do labor to pay for it. So they gave us all their extra wheels. We also got to go to local farms to learn about eating locally and farming because we were using tomato plants that were growing through these bicycle wheels. And we actually put real tomato plants in the window and a tomato grew on them. I was really excited. The farm is called Grow Pittsburgh, and they provide tons of veggies for local restaurants. So we did this by speaking with these people who were teaching us about farming and then put it in our window. It was cool.

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Do you have a favorite window display?
One of my favorite window displays was during the summer when I had a lot of interns. We made thousands of those little Chinese fortune-tellers and dyed them. There was a whole panel of them, they looked like flowers but ombred. And it was all natural dyes—we used beet juice, blackberries, blueberries. We were all really excited about boiling down blueberries to make the dye. And the range of colors you could get was awesome.

Do you do any side projects? What do you do on your weekends?
Yeah, I do some side projects. I still do some screen printing. I took a woodworking class recently and I’m trying to get better at that. Also, I just took a metalworking class too and I’m trying to make spoons but I’m still learning. Anthropologie has been so amazing with how much they have exposed to me...it feels like I’m in three years of grad school. There is this community of sharing of techniques and ideas and I am trying to learn as much as I can.

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You were in SOVA at Tech. In what ways did your art education prepare you for this job?
Really wonderfully. I actually took a class called Professional Studio Practices. It’s like putting your portfolio together and applying for jobs for art students. They made you fake-apply for a job, and I fake-applied for the job that I have. I was here working a different job and I thought ‘I’ll just work at Anthropologie part-time and see if that’s really an option.’ The way my job is set up is very relevant to how school taught me to manage my time.

Speaking of professors, did you have anyone during school that inspired you?
Definitely Deb Sim. She still runs the gallery in the Armory. And Chris Pritchett—I have one of his pots over there. And Emily Callon. She’s not there anymore but she’s a really amazing fiber artist. I almost wish I could go back and do school again because I’ve learned so much that now I could be so good in school, I could be amazing!

Are there any life lessons you learned while in college?
Well I was on the track team which made me have to be really efficient with time management, and that’s a big part of my job. I’ve joked with other display coordinators that we’re the responsible art kids. This is where the responsible art kids end up!

Do you have any advice for graduating students entering the “real world”?
Put your foot in as many doors as you’re interested in. Do it for real. Get an internship. You have to put yourself out there! If you don’t ask for something, you’re never going to know that the answer isn’t yes.  I feel that has gotten me to a good place.

If you could give a lecture on something you know a lot about, what would it be?
Flea-marketing? [laughs] I could do that. I’d tell you where the good flea-markets are, and then I would tell you about all my sly techniques on how to get lower prices. I’ve been to a lot of flea-markets in foreign countries and figured out how to not speak the language but still get good deals.