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Tell us about growing up in the Australian outback. What were the important gateways to culture and design for you? The first thing that comes to mind is the sky. The vivid blue and other hues of the Australian sky are unlike anything else in the world. This fluorescent blue is full of optimism and promise. Then there’s distance. Australia’s a country defined by its bigness. I grew up in rural Australia, and traveling anywhere took hours.

The palette of Australian artists I’ve studied and deeply admire, like Ken Done, is bright and very much inspired by the Australian landscape itself. This expanse of time and space nurtured my imagination. When you’re stuck in a car watching the landscape go by, you’re given the gift of time. There’s an element to travel that’s meditative.

My thinking and perspective were also shaped by the idea of necessity. My mother and father are farmers. Like all farmers, they work incredibly hard. And like many Australian farmers, my parents struggled to make ends meet with sugarcane and avocados. They were forced to find new ways to provide. They thought creatively.

At the time, many Japanese tourists came to Australia looking for an “authentic” experience. So my mother and father pivoted and turned the farm into a tourist attraction. We had races with “wild” Australian animals—sheep—and my twin brother and I were tasked with stocking a section of river with frozen crabs. There’s a fine line between deception and illusion, and both can enhance good entertainment. The farm, which required creative solutions to commercial problems, was a great first study in the interplay of art and commerce.
The million-dollar question now is how commercial interests and environmental protection can come into alignment.”

You also studied law in London, United Kingdom. How has this informed the work you do today as founder and creative director of creative agency Chandelier Creative? I arrived in London the day Tony Blair got elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and there was a collective euphoria about the election. As a foreigner, I was especially fascinated with the media coverage and the marketing of the campaign. This peaked my curiosity in political marketing, which would eventually came full circle with some of my work, but at the time, I was dirt poor and living in a windowless basement apartment in King’s Cross. I was in my early twenties and painfully shy. I was gay, but had never kissed a boy, and at first, I was too intimidated to go to gay bars. Eventually I did, but instead of a date, I asked for a job. I needed to work to pay for law school. The next thing I knew, I was tending bar in my underpants.

As silly as it sounds, the time I spent tending bar in London was incredibly educational. As T.S. Eliot wrote of London, I saw “marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Besides pouring drinks, I found an emotional component to the work. I listened to people’s problems and tried to assuage their worries with stories of my own. Almost every bartender moonlights as a therapist, and those days taught me that everyone needs storytellers. The skills I honed then still inform how I approach presentations today.

Chandelier has beautiful properties around New York and in Los Angeles. Chandelier’s site shares the story of its Hamptons property, named Mermaid Ranch: “In the 1950s, an American jazz singer and her Italian artist lover had a torrid affair, causing a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic. They escaped to Mermaid Bay, where they built a private creative enclave, a place to entertain their artist, filmmaker, and musician friends.” What’s the benefit of imbuing Mermaid Ranch with this myth—why not just have a beautiful place in the Hamptons and call it a day? Reality can be boring. Storytelling can enrich all of what we do. Our perspectives can be guided and gilded by imagination.

Years ago, I interviewed Roman Alonso from Los Angeles–based studio Commune Design. He designed the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. Each of the architects I interviewed had very rational and technical explanations for the design. They talked about the brief, height restrictions, client preferences, et cetera. Except Roman.

He began with a fictional story. He described actress Mary Pickford’s affair with architect Rudolph Schindler and how their love child turned out to be Exene Cervenka, one of the lead singers of X, the famous Los Angeles punk band. He explained that her character became the design philosophy of the titular hotel.

Roman wove this into a 45-minute story, so I’m not doing it justice. But I remember immediately emailing my entire team about our meeting. His description of these design principles had a profound influence on me. I do my best to incorporate this philosophy, this idea of narrative informing design, in all my projects.

For example, we just collaborated on a new project in London with hotelier André Balazs. Like a writer must understand her characters to write them, we thought about the type of person who would go to this new place: What kind of clothes does he wear? What does he want to drink? And beyond that, what is he stressed about? What might his job be? The thing is, the power of story is transcendent. It’s not just what makes an incredible movie or a fantastic book. It’s an engine that should drive all design in all mediums.

Chandelier offers branded content ranging from articles on swimmer Esther Williams to interviews about perfume. What led you to create such content? Roughly two years ago, I had a minicrisis. We have an incredible amount of talent at Chandelier. But collectively, we felt we were punching below our weight. We’re all artists who want to use our creativity to make a positive change in the world, to involve ourselves in projects with more depth, purpose and meaning.

That year, I took the entire company to Tokyo for inspiration. We’d all worked like dogs the entire year, and I thought we deserved some time to explore and grow as artists and people. We injected a dose of Japanese culture into our thinking, and it’s been fascinating to see that inform our work. It also made me realize we need to start doing this in our own backyard. So now we have a culture team, led by the incredibly talented Alexandre Stipanovich. He’s deeply invested in creating beauty and spreading knowledge—not only on our editorial platform, but also in an array of weekly talks with experts in their fields.

We’re throwing all the resources we have at the things we love. We want to create a change in culture. We’re investing our minds and muscle to stand up for things we believe in and celebrate the things that make us happy. We worked hard to disrupt Trump. We also defend same-sex marriage and reproductive rights. Chandelier has collaborated with National Geographic and artists we love, like Marilyn Minter. We’re doing a big installation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I made a feature-length documentary about sex with Cindy Gallop. You get the idea.

Some of these projects fall into a category of our work that we call “Loved and Supported By.” These are pursuits in which we leverage our people and financial resources to nurture projects we believe in, regardless of profit or direct loss. The most extensive has been our work for Jane Goodall, the iconic environmentalist. We want to support her legacy and preservation of the natural world in any and every way we can. There have been some glitzy and guilty pleasure projects, too, like designing Jake Shears’s new album cover and Kylie Minogue’s latest tour.

This diversity has given the agency a whole new energy and the purpose we sought. We’re now doing everything we can to be a company that improves the quality of our artists, our clients and anyone who enters Chandelier’s orbit.

You’ve climbed Mount Everest and traveled to the South Pole. These don’t necessarily seem like the most creatively inspiring places at first—but what did you see and experience during your trips that proves this notion wrong? I disagree. Incredible creativity comes from necessity. There’s so much to learn from the craftsmanship of homes in the Nepalese villages at the base of Everest or the architecture of military bases in Antarctica. Think of the Tibetan fabrics required to keep warm in extreme conditions and how clothing there has a serious practical requirement, yet is realized with such artistry. How do you make people feel welcomed when it’s -40°C? And how do interiors and colors and the spatial flow of a structure help people remain sane when they’re stuck in often-bleak climates for long stretches of time? In my view, these places are some of the most visually arresting and inspiring on Earth.

What excites you about working in advertising right now? Using creative talent to progress culture. Finding the best system to guide brands and their resources to make their impact more sustainable and progressive. We all need to buy less and trust more.

A couple of years ago, I visited the factories of all the retail brands that Chandelier works with. I went to India and a few other countries in Southeast Asia to see the real cost of what we’re all selling firsthand. The trip helped me understand the human and environmental costs of what’s being sold at mass market. It gave me insight into Chandelier’s place in the supply chain. But it also offered tactile references to reflect on how to expand Chandelier’s function and contribution.

I came to terms with the idea that I’m participating in a destructive system. People like me create stories to sell people stuff they don’t need. But I’m an optimist. I’m encouraged by the modern trend—in the corporate sector and in individual lives—towards responsibility. I’m inspired by the steps that companies like Patagonia have made in this direction. The million-dollar question now is how commercial interests and environmental protection can come into alignment. We’re all trying to find answers.

What advice do you have for an advertiser who’s just starting out? When I first opened the agency, there were four of us working out of my apartment. We had no connections and no idea how we were going to find clients. I knew we couldn’t send an email because people would delete it. We needed to send people something too big to throw away. So I had this idea of sending giant pizza boxes with a collection of work from previous jobs, which would land on someone’s desk, stay in her or his office and become a talking point. Which is exactly what happened. We sent about 2,000 pizza boxes to every company we wanted to work for.

One of those companies was Nordstrom. Long story short, I went to Seattle and pitched a job. They agreed to give us work. At the time, I’d spent all the money I had in the world, and I couldn’t believe we might actually get a real paying job. The only hitch was they wanted to come see our office and meet the dozens of people who I said were doing the work. Obviously, we didn’t have an office, nor did we have dozens of people.

There was an empty office on the street I lived on in New York City. So I asked the landlord whether we could rent it for a week. We went to the flea market and filled the room with dining tables, all spray-painted black. Then we rented a few dozen computers from Tekserve on 23rd Street—even though we didn’t have enough sockets to plug them all in. So we turned them all toward the walls so nobody could see that they didn’t work. Then we jumped on Craigslist and hired people to sit at the computers and pretend to be working.

When the big day arrived, Nordstrom walked into the office. We had a room full of people I didn’t know pretending to be employees. Somebody stood outside with a cell phone, repeatedly dialing the one working phone in the office so it looked like we were really busy. The whole thing cost me so much money that if we didn’t actually get the job, we would’ve gone bankrupt. I was literally down to my last thousand dollars. But adequately impressed with our office, Nordstrom awarded us the work. We were finally off to the races.

I don’t share that story because I want people to lie about what they do. I share it because if you’re really determined, and if you want to succeed, you need to find a way to make that happen for yourself. Ninety percent of that is about optics and perception. We knew we were talented enough to do the Nordstrom job, but its team never would’ve believed it if they’d walked into my kitchen. You can never be backward about pushing yourself forward.
Richard Christiansen is a creative director, storyteller and adventurer. He is the founder ​of Chandelier Creative, a design studio and digital branding agency in New York City.
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