what's in your toolbox

What’s In Your Toolbox: Lise Gulassa

by Annie Werbler

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A creative bond between siblings can encourage each to make their most challenging and intimate work. Lise Gulassa is the Santa Cruz, CA-based half of design team Sisters Gulassa co-founded with Vienna-based sister Cyrille. The two share a passion for color, pattern design, and making art. They work independently and also collaborate on bespoke art and pattern design projects. Their designs are licensed and sold to a variety of clients for a wide range of products, including many in fashion and interiors. “We grew up in a big family with much art and creativity around us, and have lots of talented brothers!,” Lise shares. For her, the design process is like an adventure. “I like to be open to the possibilities, the discoveries that come along the way — this is when or where interesting things start to happen. Often the idea of what I want to accomplish involves constraints that make the creative challenge exciting to me.”

Whether she’s experimenting with materials or traveling to absorb inspiration, Lise advocates creating one’s own opportunities by being present in the moment. “The creative process is a funny, emotional roller coaster ride, and I try to show up and hang on to my hat and enjoy the ride,” she says. “The more often I show up, the more things happen; it’s wonderful in that way.” —Annie

What's In Your Toolbox: Lise Gulassa, on Design*Sponge

What’s in your toolbox?

I love to experiment and try out out different types of paints, inks, and painting surfaces, so I have quite a variety of paints — from oils and acrylics to gouaches, watercolor paints, inks. I just got a new Japanese watercolor set, which is beautiful just to look at, not to mention paint with; each color is in a little porcelain pot. There is nothing like a beautiful, well-crafted tool or paintbrush or a good quality paint — absolutely a pleasure to use — so I do invest in some quality brushes (Russian, Japanese, Chinese), and tools and paints, but at the same time, I am not a purist; my purchases are often random, inspired by a color, a new product, or a great price. How can you appreciate the difference if you don’t know how various paints feel and how they behave? Or how the color looks straight from the tube or when you mix it?

When I paint, many times I’ll say to myself, “I want that Holbein orange acrylic because it’s so nice to paint with, or that red because I love its transparency, or that blue oil watercolor made by… because it’s the loveliest color as it is, straight from the tube!” I’ll buy art supplies when I find them at garage sales, too. I like mixing mediums, and using additives in paints. I recently bought a canvas stretcher tool to be used for canvas and also for silk on silkscreens; it grips canvas and silk alike (if you stretch your own). I also use a cheap Leatherman multi-tool for everything, and also plain old scissors and tape. There is also my hasami (Japanese clippers for cutting flowers — absolutely the best tool ever!).

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Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel ____________.”

Open to possibility and excited by the challenge. Creative work is a dynamic process that must be allowed space and time. I always walk into the studio with ideas about what I’m after — but painting or developing a concept or a collection is a lot like traveling for me: I may have what I want to do in my mind’s eye, but once I begin, I’m on an adventure that could take me anywhere. So I like to be open to the possibilities, the discoveries that come along the way — this is when or where interesting things start to happen.

Often the idea of what I want to accomplish involves constraints that make the creative challenge exciting to me. It’s always great when the outcome is something I’m happy with — that is when I feel alive, and excited and having fun! Of course it can be daunting at times — I may not be happy with the results — but that’s also part of the process. The creative process is a funny, emotional roller coaster ride, and I try to show up and hang on to my hat and enjoy the ride. The more often I show up, the more things happen; it’s wonderful in that way.

What's In Your Toolbox: Lise Gulassa, on Design*Sponge

What’s on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?

I like to have variety, so I usually have a stack of books. Right now I’m looking at a few favorites, (though I confess I have many favorites). On my chair is The Omega Workshops by Judith Collins and a small book of Cy Twombly’s The Natural World by James Rondeau. I also love Patrick Heron by Mel Gooding — his art and color sensibility are amazing. And because I love gardens and like to cultivate wildness in my own, I’m reading The Artful Garden by James Van Sweden — he looks at gardening from the perspective of making art. I also have Anna Spiro’s book Absolutely Beautiful Things. I adore her! I love her interior design sense and how lovely she is. Print & Pattern by Khristian A. Howell is great inspiration (SistersGulassa is featured in it). Outside of my inspirational design reading, I’m reading The Rise by Sarah Lewis.

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How do you keep yourself organized?

My calendar and a notebook I carry everywhere to jot down my thoughts, ideas, make quick sketches — which I then use as an organizational tool for my calendar. The big ideas, the small, it all gets in that notebook! From a studio perspective, flat files for paper can be a challenge, so I repurposed an old shelf/cabinet to be used for flat work. I like having a big surface area to work on, be it wall, floor or tabletop, so I created my worktable from an old door and an abandoned office desk. I also have binders and notebooks of collages of inspiration and imagery I’m particularly inspired by. These are great tools for me.

What's In Your Toolbox: Lise Gulassa, on Design*Sponge

If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?

Right now it would be a magical power to help heal mother Earth. There is so much beauty in the world! Restore the balance of our ecosystem. That would be POWER!

What's In Your Toolbox: Lise Gulassa, on Design*Sponge

What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist, maker, or designer?

Maybe this isn’t the best advice but it always works: Scoop Nisker used to say on the radio, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!” I always liked his “crazy wisdom,” and there is truth in planting your own seeds of opportunity!

My advice to a young artist, maker or designer would be: whatever you think it is that you want to do, begin it, and devote time to it — ideally every day, because time has a way of moving along, with or without you and it’s very easy to get distracted. Sometimes one creative pursuit will lead you to another, and in this way you will find the one that is right for you. The discipline to devote time regularly, with focus and intensity, to your passion is what takes you where you want to go.

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How do you combat creative blocks?

Distance = Perspective

Absolutely the best thing for me is to do something away from what it is I’m working on — even though when I’m struggling, I swear that if I just do this one more thing, I’ll figure it out, or work my way through it. But if I take a break I’ll get away from it, and by clearing my mind (usually by some active pursuit like a bike ride or a walk) I’ll get a fresh perspective and often a lot of great ideas. Field trips are the best. This works for challenging computer work, too. Away from it I’ll get an idea that may be so simple, but if I had tried to work my way through the problem I would still be sitting there, frustrated. Traveling is great for creative blocks — life blocks too — always!

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Where do you like to look or shop for inspiration?

Oh there is so much to be inspired by… traveling and experiencing different cultures is always high on my list — that includes the food, too. Being outdoors is the best; I love going to the beach, the parks, gardens. I’m always inspired by other artists and designers and the folk art of other cultures. I also love spending time in bookstores. There are some favorite shops tucked here and there that I like to go to: Tail of the Yak in Berkeley, Stripe in Santa Cruz, and Burnt Sugar in Seattle.

What's In Your Toolbox: Lise Gulassa, on Design*Sponge

If you could peek inside the studio or toolbox of any artist, maker, designer, or craftsperson, whose would it be and why?

Today, right now, I think it would Roberto Burle Marx, the Brazilian painter and landscape designer. I’ve been in love with him for years. Among other things he is responsible for the the graphic walkways along beach fronts like Ipanema in Rio de Janerio. I would like to be in the ceramic studio with The Omega Workshop artists, too. I love their style and sense of freedom. I am working on some ceramic ideas! But I think if you ask me every day I would tell you a different person!

What's In Your Toolbox: Lise Gulassa, on Design*Sponge

What’s on your inspirational playlist at the moment?

I have been listening to Bach’s suites for cello, Pablo Casals — it is so beautiful that I keep listening to it again and again. I have also been listening to DJ Cheb I Sabbah’s Maha Maya and lots of Cuban and Brazilian music. I listen to books and also Spanish lessons. I just finished listening to Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. She has a nice reading voice and some ideas and stories about creativity that are so entertaining! There are times too when I just like to listen to the birds or the sound of the waves if I can hear them, and if it’s raining, the rain!

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