Keilli Anderson is an interactive designer – which seems too unassuming a label. Her crafty sensibility and distinctive palettes have been seen in the New Yorker, The New York Times and Wired. She is also about to publish for the first time: This Book is a Planetarium; which is a book that is also a planetarium.
You have described how political and social activism as a gateway for you into discovering the power of Design. Can you expand on this?
As a kid, I learned about the environment movement (somehow this slipped into my awareness… my family and I do not agree on politics) and became super-dedicated/obsessed with it.
I was making protest posters in elementary school. I read Animal Liberation in fifth grade and stopped eating meat. Design began to appeal to me as a teenager for the same reason—design can do so much with (impressively) little. Its economy and minimalism belies its power: I’d see a record cover and it would make me feel cool and excited and joyful and: I was like “how is it doing that?!” So, I got swept up in that power. How this has translated into adult life: as a designer, I realize that each work I invest-love/effort-in is an act of advocacy. So I pick my clients/projects based on what I believe should be in the world. I make work for entities, organizations, people, and ideas whose side I am on. This isn’t always the most glamorous work (luxury brands certainly pay more) but it keeps my spirits high, which cannot be purchased.
My favorite type of “activist” art/design projects are those that demonstrate (they convince by way of firsthand evidence.) Since seeing is [actually] believing for most people, showing-rather-than-telling can be very viscerally persuasive. In 2008, I worked with the Yes Men and others groups in covertly pulling off a giant hoax: we blanketed NYC with a fake version on the NY Times that contained “news” from a utopian future. We wanted to show how great the world could be if we, the people, simply wanted it enough to pressure our elected leaders to represent our interests. The action later went on to receive the Arts Electronica Prix and was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum last year.
Is it important to have a strong personal interest in the work for the client you are designing for?
I can’t imagine there being any other way. But if someone out there has found it, please enlighten me!
Can you describe your creative professional route to your current position?
I was an book+art+sciencenerd kid who became a book+art+science+musicnerd teenager, who eventually went to grad school for studio art, then again for art/design history. (I wanted to be a student for forever!) As an adult, I worked as a collections photographer at the American Museum of Natural History for five years—digitizing their glass plate negatives and rare natural science books—until the point when my paper record player wedding went kinda-viral on the internet. This was the moment when I realized I should call myself a designer. My interests and activities have always been pretty diverse, so I’ve always felt a bit feral. It was nice to find a home in being a “designer.” And so I’ve just been running with it and have been lucky enough to experience several meaningful, life-changing because of this career. I helped one of my all-time favorite musicians re-enter music, I designed an entire restaurant for a beloved NYC institution, I’ve travelled the world speaking at design conferences, I built an installation for the NYPL, I made a music video for one of my favorite bands, and I’m now publishing a book. I’m extremely lucky.
Is there was one project that represents a breakthrough moment for you?
I recently self-published (then distributed, then sold-out-of, and then reprinted) a pop-up book — entitled This Book is a Camera — which I didn’t know was possible. In fact, when I presented the prototype for this book to my publisher (which features a functional pop-up pinhole camera), they rejected it on the grounds that it would be impossible to produce. My heart is still one of a rebellious teenager, so then I was super-determined to get it done myself. So I struggled through finding a printer, learning the ropes of book distribution and promotion… and just made it happen. And it worked! We got them produced in about 8 weeks (from completed prototype, to production prototype, to 2000 copies in the first print run.) Now the Museum of Modern Art (in NY) is going to re-release it, so a whole other (wider) audience can enjoy it.
Tell us more about the “This Book is a Camera” project?
Happily…This Book is a Camera is a pop-up book that transforms into a fully-functional large-format pinhole camera when opened. The book’s pages show how this simple device can isolate a light beam to create a photograph (while providing complete instructions for the image’s development with household chemicals.)It makes the case for the physical world being host to all kind of invisible magic because… physically—there’s just very little to it. Normal tech devices are complex and opaque. When you engage with your iPhone, it is unclear where the functionality “comes from.” But with the camera book, it is clear there is nothing there besides you, the paper, and physics, essentially. A thin piece of paper is all that separates you from the structural forces that underlie action in the world. I find that there is a very intimate type of intellectual joy in this—in touching/tinkering-with these fundamental forces, which are normally described as intangible abstractions in science textbooks.
Your work is full of so much humour and wit but also it exudes sense of joyful curiosity. So when a new project lands on your desk…take us through your initial process?
Ah, thank you! I take my humor very, very seriously these days 🙂
I know this sounds like I’m dodging the question, but…most of the time some-sort-of-magic transpires (which I do not fully understand). The “joy” comes from legit surprises I discover along the way (I do my best to smuggle them to completion, so others can experience these same joyful discoveries.)
However, sometimes the process works like this: I maintain a sketchbook with a backlog of orphan ideas in search of a home. Everything goes in there—anything that makes me think “oh, wouldn’t that be cool…”. The best things are the ones that seem cool, but I have no clue why.
The sketchbook is something of wishlist of dream ideas, which I hope to one day match with a project and develop. Eventually, a project may come along that is a good match, and I proceed to flesh out all of the details (given the specific needs of the newly-specific circumstance+the grit & complication of reality.)
However, if it isn’t immediately apparent how to solve the problem, I latch onto the angle that interests me and think/sketch/read until I find an approach that excites me. (And sometimes I fail to find a good solution, which is disappointing, but… you know… this happens to everyone at some point.)
Can you describe the layout and structure of your studio? How does the space affect your working practice and how has your practice influenced your space?
Because I work on many physical-world-projects, I need a lot of surface area. I built a 16’ long convertible sitting/standing desk with some help from metal-expert, Dustin John, and my other-half, Daniel. The base of the desk is constructed from IKEA kitchen cabinets. This helps hide the clutter (I have a one room live/work space. I like keeping things simple.) The big desk also contains my Graphtec cutter/plotter tool, which I use for creating paper graphics and for prototyping pop-up books. The corner of the studio, houses a 1919 Golding Pearl letterpress. I collect tools like a hoarder. It makes me nervous to not have all of the tools onhand to produce a project in the middle of the night. Nothing that makes me happy like super-specialized tools. (They are the physical embodiment of perfect, elegant logic!)
Do you have much interaction with others, creative or otherwise in the area where your studio is based?
I swear that I really do enjoy the company of others (invite me to your party!), but have been a lifelong loner-type. I collaborate with friends and clients on projects, but that is usually over email. My other-half, Daniel, and I occasionally work together. However, I live in Brooklyn, so I couldn’t live in a vacuum if I tried… I walk down the street and run into friends, see design, get into conversations with like-minded people. I would, however, really like to work in a science/engineering setting, though—where I could learn things from people who explore the physical world from a completely different angle. I’m really inspired by what Manu Prakash’s lab at Stanford has done in creating the Foldascope (a cheap paper microscope) and would be thrilled if my career could go in that direction.
What is your essential studio toolkit? Are there any new (or old) technologies that are having a big impact or shaping your practice?
I most frequently use my MacBook Pro and mostly am glued to Adobe’s products. For coding stuff, I use Espresso. I really love my Graphtec cutter and wish I had a laser-cutter in-house (for now, I am ordering laser cuts from Fabberz — they are amazing.) I do have a 1919 Golding Pearl letterpress, but when I want to print I normally go down the street and print at community print space, The Arm (on N 7th Street in Williamsburg.) Dan, who runs it, is one of the best people I know and it makes me happy to hang out there and use his pristinely-maintained Vandercooks.
Do you still have time to produce personal work? Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
Yes, I am finishing that book I’ve been making with Chronicle Book entitled This Book is a Planetarium. Additionally, I’m trying to turn the paper record player into a legit, consumer-friendly pop-up book. So those are my (expensive!) personal pursuits this year. My hobbies include listening to music, podcasts, and audiobooks. When I’m outside of my apartment, I enjoy riding my bike around NYC like a crazy person, eating food with friends,, and “climbing onto the roof”/breaking-and-entering.