Lea Redmond runs Leafcutter Designs, a creative workshop that makes objects and conceptual art projects, such as stamps, envelopes, etc., that seek to create a more playful, peaceful world. We talk about her work in the following interview.
ephemera: How did you become interested in designing conceptual art such as the World's Smallest Postal Service?
Redmond: Creativity works in curious ways. The idea for the World's Smallest Postal Service began when the simple image of a teeny tiny letter simply popped into my head while waking up from a nap last summer. The idea seemed to come from nowhere, but of course that's not true. I've always been interested in unusual things that might be found in old wonder cabinets, as well as the sense of care and craft that go into handmade letters. My tiny letters are a perfect combination of these two things. After the initial vision, one thing simply led to another and I began designing miniature stamps with ant and snail images on them as well as a tiny envelope pattern.
ephemera: What challenges or obstacles do you encounter as a designer? How do you overcome these challenges?
Redmond: One of the most important things to me as both a designer and a fine artist is making things and experiences that are accessible. Fine art and design are so often esoteric and expensive beyond most of our reach, including mine. For me, accessibility is about creating things that different people can find meaningful on many different levels. I like to create work that incorporates a range of simple and complex elements and possibilities. It is then up to my participants to go as deep as they can, or wish to. I try to make things that are both inviting and challenging. Of course, the fact that one of the primary themes of my work is "everydayness," helps. The references to the everyday in my work make it inviting through the sense of familiarity people experience when they encounter it. The World's Smallest Postal Service could easily be called a "socially-engaged conceptual art work," but really, why bother. It's more importantly a goofy and delightful customized letter writing service. I can wax poetic about the meaning of letter-writing and the significance of doing the kind of conceptual art that requires other people to complete it, or I can simply offer to transcribe a tiny letter for you. The deeper meaning is always there in the experience - and everyone understands it at least at some level - but there is no need to articulate it in order to participate. Everyone gets it and I can tell by their faces.
Another kind of accessibility that is very important to me is the financial accessibility of the things and experiences I create. This is about creating work in a spirit of democracy. I believe art should be part of everyday life and it must be financially accessible enough to participate and/or bring it home. As a designer, the challenge here is balancing quality with financial accessibility. After the initial spark of an idea, I spend a lot of time trying to whittle it down to its essence in a way that is as inexpensive to make as possible. For example, my first "matchbox theater" was made entirely by hand and took a few hours for me to make. I would have to charge a lot if I wanted to sell them like this. Instead, I spent months redesigning it for mass-production. One of the biggest design moments was when I realized I could package it for "self-assembly." Asking my customers to put the little puppet stickers on the matchsticks saved tons of time and cost on my end and let me price the theaters very inexpensively ($8). This insight didn't involve compromise either; I think people don't mind the self-assembly aspect of the product and are likely to even enjoy it. In general, I've found that my most important design strategy is playfulness, perseverence, and enlisting the help of my friends and family. There is usually a way (or lots of different ways) to do a lot more with a lot less.
ephemera: How do you see your work evolving? What are your upcoming plans for it?
Redmond: In terms of the items I sell in my online shop, I'm becoming more and more interested in offering things that are packaged up like normal "products," but are actually objects and instructions for activities. You buy something, but the true "thing" is actually an experience or activity that you cannot truly purchase. It's something that you yourself are responsible for doing. For example: "Paper Umbrellas: A Rainy Day Activity Kit," invites you to pass out paper umbrellas to passers-by in a public place on a rainy day. And "Tactile Poetry" is a little kit of wooden letters in a tin. You ask your participant to close his or her eyes and then you place each letter, one at a time, into the palm of his hand. He feels each letter with his fingertips to figure out what the little poem says. Right now I'm working on a new kit that lets you present a zen parable with props: plastic tigers, mice, and an antique strawberry container made out of milk glass. It will come with the story and ideas on how to present the story in a way that is interactive.
A new project in the works is my Teacup Lending Library. This is another mini-institution like the World's Smallest Postal Service. It is modeled after a public library, but people borrow teacups instead of books. They will apply for official TLL library cards, become members, and then be able to "check out" teacups for free. A little shop/gallery in San Francisco is going to be the first host of the Teacup Lending Library: The Curiosity Shoppe. I am currently making special carrying cases to hold the teacups as they travel to and from the library. On opening day, I will be there dressed up as a librarian.
http://www.teacuplendinglibrary.org (coming soon)
I have put a lot of energy into my online presence over the last two years so I am currently most interested in expanding the parallel "brick and mortar" versions of my products and projects. In addition to the WSPS and the Teacup Lending Library, I will soon be opening up a booth at my local farmers' market. In it I will not only sell my wares, but also engage people in my more conceptual art projects. One project I'm looking forward to doing in my booth is what I am calling "The Hand-made Make-shift Vending Parlor." A group of people will each create a vending machine (out of cardboard, fabric, anything really) and then they will hide behind their "machines" and operate them by hand. These machines could vend any number of things: toothbrushes, buttons, fortunes, relationship advice. It should be a hoot.
ephemera: What are some of your favorite things you've created? Why?
Redmond: One of my favorite projects is Care Instructions, my clothes tag exchange. It is part of a larger project called Changing Clothes in which I explore social and ecological issues wrapped up in the production of clothing. People give me clothes tags that they cut out of their gaments and I give them some of the poetic clothes tags that I designed in exchange. My tags embody a healthy way of producing and caring for our clothing. When this exchange is set up as an installation, there is a large world map where people pin their tags at the place of origin. It becomes a wonderful visual for the geography of the production of clothing.
Another favorite is my Living Trophy project. People can request an old trophy from me that has the person on the top removed and then they remake the trophy for someone they know that has done something wonderful. The recipient enjoys their trophy for a little while, and then they remake it again and award it to someone else. In this manner, the trophy keeps moving as people are honored. This project is another example of doing a lot with a little. And there are so many old trophies lying around!
I also have some favorite things that very few people participate in. But I offer them nevertheless just because I love them so much. For example, I offer Creative Wedding Consulting and Creative Courtship Consulting, which consist of an hour of creative brainstorming with me about how to make your wedding (or love life) more creative and special. It's worth offering for the "blue moon" person that participates. It's important to me to not just do things that there is an obvious market for. I need to also do the other things that are close to my heart - even if they go unnoticed or unappreciated by most.
And the "project" portion of CC that has examples:
ephemera: Thank you, Lea.