We met up with designer, sewer, and maker TJ Newell to talk through his story and wander through a very rainy Venice Beach.
Like much of Mr. Newell’s story, its beginning involves a lot of hard work with a dash of serendipity. And Instagram.
“So I would make something and post it to Instagram,” says TJ. “Someone would comment and they’d say, ‘I want this’ or ‘I want that’ and I would just say, ‘okay, well then email me on my Gmail account.’ I was basically taking orders one at a time, out of my apartment. I’m not sure how, but it just sort of happened.”
It wasn’t until TJ moved down to LA in 2012 to apprentice and project manage for a friend that something else just happened.
“After I moved to LA, I came to two conclusions. One, not everyone cares. Before I got here, I had so many friends that thought what I did was so great. But in LA, everyone is an actor or a director or an entrepreneur of some sort. So for the first time, I had to figure out if this was really what I wanted to do. And that was the second thing I learned moving down here. The answer to that question was yes.”
But that answer only meant figuring out how to deal with such adversity. LA simply wasn’t inspiring his creativity. After driving down to San Diego every weekend to visit friends and escape the scene, TJ decided that he would drive down one weekend and not go back.
“I was inspired by San Diego in a way that LA didn’t. Something about the pace and the vibe just helped me be more creative rather than less. I also knew that being in a community and designing around people that I respected would be better than going against the grain. It’s an art in and of itself – that two or three people can come and can contribute to one product.”
The transition didn’t turn to immediate success, however. Alongside of designing for a local agency, there were odd jobs. A lot of them. At one point, he was working lawn-mowing jobs and a paper route. “Oh and I was gardening for an elderly couple”, he says, with a chuckle. “But it got me where I needed to go.” Not only that, but moving to San Diego afforded him to spend a bit more time with one of his close friends. A friend that he now calls his wife. “There are a lot of good things that have come from my moving down here, but this one is certainly the best.”
Clearly, TJ has a knack for putting himself in the right place at the right time, and then capitalizing on an opportunity. Beyond meeting the future Mrs. Newell, TJ reconnected with Bradley Mountain, a company owned by his good friend, Tyler Axtell, when they moved into a warehouse next door to the agency for which he was contracting. TJ was invited by Tyler to join the team shortly thereafter.
“It felt serendipitous”, says TJ. “The space had just become available, and the guy who bought it had this dream of bringing young creatives together to, essentially, cultivate the San Diego arts district. The arts scene down here is still trying to figure itself out. So now there are 27 start up brands working under one roof. It’s exciting because San Diego has always been the younger brother to LA. Hopefully we can start to change that.”
And they are certainly making a strong effort. If the older brother harbors a competitive spirit, San Diego has, thus far, cultivated a haven of collaborative and creative respect. “I can design something I have in a concept. And I show it to one of the veteran sewers and it blows his mind. He says, ‘How did you think to put the zipper there?’ And all the while, I’m just thinking, ‘You’re about to sew this in perfectly in a tenth of the time it would take me.’ And that’s what I love. I’m working with people who have been doing their craft for 20 or 30 years. It’s a beautiful thing, and there’s so much to learn.”
And all of the learning has led to slowly defining his personal aesthetic, and what he, as a young designer, can bring into the world. While the heritage movement doesn’t appear to be slowing down, Mr. Newell has his sights elsewhere. “I want to stray away from that, and clean everything up. I’m all about minimal design. Complexity in design just confuses things. For me, the simpler I can design an accessory, the better. Someone should be able to look at it and know how it’s used.”
And thus far – he appears to be succeeding. With a focused line of clutches, wallets, and wool and leather pillows, his products (available on tjnewell.com) show a maturity of restraint.
So how did the idea of pillows come about?
“Tyler wanted new pillows for his house. So I made him a few, and then this store owner walked in and said, ‘Hey, do you make those pillows?’”
“I never planned on being a pillow maker so it kind of took me by surprise. But here I am.”
Here he is. The serendipity continues.