Q&A with Carrie Brownstein

by Grace Bonney

It’s hard to know where to start a post that involves someone you’ve admired for longer than you can really remember. I was first introduced to Carrie Brownstein’s music at an all-girl’s summer camp in West Virginia, and I’m pretty sure that mixtape is still kicking around my parent’s house back in Virginia. Being able to hear bands like Sleater-Kinney (and other favorites of that era like Bikini Kill and L7) at that age was something that seemed almost necessary, like a lifeline to a world that made more sense and felt more relatable than everything else in my hometown.

Since Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus, Brownstein has written for NPR, started writing a book about her life and music, volunteered with the Oregon Humane Society, acted in independent films and created yet another amazing band, Wild Flag. Her relentless pursuit of creative outlets is endlessly inspiring to me, and I’m so honored to share an interview with her today on D*S.

Earlier this week I got to ask her some questions about one of her current projects, IFC’s Portlandia. Ever since the words “Put a Bird on It” were uttered, the entire design community has been talking about (if not instant fans of) the show. I’ve anxiously awaited Season 2, and today the wait is over. The first episode of the new season airs on IFC tonight, so if you haven’t seen the show before, be sure to tune in and get ready to laugh. Also be ready to recognize yourself in at least a few sketches. What I love so much about Portlandia is that the show both mocks (in a friendly way) and celebrates these artistic and cultural sub-groups that we’re all a part of. Whether you’re a slow-food devotee or find yourself drawn to turn-of-the-century design, it’s pretty hard not to see a quirk of your own onscreen (and laugh at yourself).

For this interview we focused on the design of the show and talking about Carrie’s (and Fred’s) personal style. Bonus point? Carrie likes gray paint. As if I needed another reason to think she’s the greatest. Thanks again to IFC and to Carrie for taking the time to talk. xo, grace

*All photos courtesy of IFC unless otherwise noted

The full interview and photos from Season 2 of Portlandia continue after the jump . . .

Design*Sponge: You’re on the road so much these days with Wild Flag and the Portlandia tour and promotion. When you come home, what sort of things do you like to surround yourself with?

Carrie Brownstein: I think because the act and nature of traveling has a certain level of chaos and inconsistency, I prefer my surroundings at home to be very minimalist and austere. I really don’t like messiness in my house; I’m very fastidious in terms of cleaning. I also tend to have a lot of clean lines, you know, mid-century design, most of it is vintage. But I also like books and records and things that are sort of edifying and also lovely to look at. I kind of just like a harmonious space. There’s very little clutter and no knick knacks. I tend to have a lot of cool tones — very light grays. It has a slightly peaceful quality to it, but it’s not like hippied out; it’s peaceful but not overly comfortable.

Carrie’s living room, via Oregon Home Magazine. Photograph by John Valls

D*S: How would you describe the style of Portlandia, and how does it differ from the “real” Portland?

CB: I think the Portlandia aesthetic has a saturated quality in terms of hue and color. There’s a vividness to it that is kind of enhanced — and a sunniness that the real Portland doesn’t always possess. But I do think the colors that were maybe more pronounced do really exist in Portland. Portland is a very verdant city. People who havent been to the Pacific Northwest before can’t believe the density of the green and the permutations of the color green here. It’s very lush. So it’s not a contrast to Portland, but it’s as if you visited Portland and then left and it had left this indelible quality. It’s the way you dream about the city; everything is just a little bit brighter, a little bit more pronounced. It’s the idyllic aesthetic.

D*S: I love the idea of mixtapes. If you had to make a design version of a mixtape to represent some of the best Portland has to offer, what designers or shops would you include?

CB: There’s a store called Tender Loving Empire in Portland — they’re purveyors of all things local: music, clothing, jewelry. They’re an aggregate of that. It’s just a beautiful store and a finely curated version of all the local artists. They also happen to run a record label; it’s a real embodiment of Portland.

There’s a great cluster of shops on East Burnside (Haunt, Stand up Comedy, etc.) — they’re these sort of minimal stores where they stock just a couple items by each designer.

There’s also a great bookstore called Reading Frenzy. It’s one of these micro-niche of stores where they carrie indie pubs, small press items, fan zines, great magazines. What’s great about Portland is that these types of stores not only survive, but thrive. People want stores like this that feel tailor made. You walk in and feel as if the store has been arranged to your taste and style. Sort of like the way people arrange their iPhone icons — you cut out what you don’t want. So many stores and restaurants in Portland do a real-world version of that. You wonder, “How did you know I wanted my coffee that way?” It makes it feel really special.

D*S: How big a role do the aesthetics of the show, from the costumes to the sets, play in shaping your performance?

CB: They’re very intreral to our performance, because we shoot two to three sketches a day and we’re vacillating between those characters and story lines and we need a shorthand and a fast way into this world.

The art and costume designers provide us with these clues and shorthands as a way to find out who these people are, quickly. Sometimes all it takes is a pair of glasses, or a certain pair of shoes, or a certain thickness of a sock or sweater. That can say more about that person — their desire for comfort or discomfort — and how a person lives and what sort of choices they make. It’s very integral to the show. I think of those guys [the art and costume designers] as also helping write the show.

D*S: Were there any characters’ homes that you were excited to see come to life this year? I remember you saying you wanted to see inside the feminist bookstore owners’ (Toni and Candice) homes. Did that happen this season?

CB: We didn’t end up creating Toni and Candice’s homes. We found that they’re best at the store. The store in itself is a character and that functions better for their dynamic. We have a lot of houses shown on the show, so it was nice to sort of marry Toni and Candice to the store.

Peter and Nance, they’re this kind of syrupy couple who perform their sentimentality to the world. Their house definitely had a level of that — things reflected that. Things were really comfortable: chairs you could sink into, mugs that felt good in your hands. Everything in their house had a story about a trip or a talking point. It’s one way of decorating; everything was very sentimental.

D*S: If last season was kind of dominated by “Put a Bird on It,” what sort of styles/trends can we expect to see lovingly mocked in Season 2?

CB: Artisanal knots, pickling . . . there’s also a modification to “The Dream of the 90s.” We got it wrong last time, and I think our new take on the 90s is more accurate. I think that will strike a chord with people. We’re also talking about “cool weddings” — having the most unique wedding where all the guests are basically at a circus. We also tackle the idea of how long people will wait to get into a restaurant.

D*S: I’m curious to see how much your style and Fred’s style overlap. If you had to design a house or a space together, what would it look like?

CB: It’s interesting because we’ve both been to each other’s houses. Fred’s home leans, aesthetically, to the gothic. Which I don’t. I love his aesthetic, but my visual art and my house are more abstract and muted, color-wise. I think where we overlap is in that kind of minimal, clean-lined look. Whatever house we had wouldn’t have a lot of curves or rounded edges. I think we would have a lot of records. We’d overcompensate with the media storage area. It would be overwhelming. I think we both like having a couch as a centerpiece, having that be an anchor. So there would be a giant couch, but not too comfy. Not with a bunch throw pillows on it.

He decorates with more metal than I do, sort of more industrial. I think we’d cross over with the music and cleanliness and media storage. It would basically just be books and records, and we’d fight over what artwork to put up.

Tune into Season 2 of Portlandia tonight on IFC

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  • I love this! We have the same red record player at home. Also, Tender Loving Empire is my fave store in Portland. I discovered my fave jewelry designer there (Betsy & Aya)

    • robin

      i’ve only traveled only a tiny, tiny percentage of what she has in her lifetime, but i totally agree that a minimal home is really nice to come home to. after i got back from book tour i got rid of most of the things i owned. i wanted to come home to complete emptiness- it was the only thing that let my head relax.


    • I’ve noticed the more projects I take on the simpler and more pared down my surroundings get. I can only imagine how busy she is – and how much you’d need simplicity in that case.


  • Oh my goodness, thank you for this interview! I just watched the first season the other day via Netflix and now I am hooked so this could not have come at a better time. I had no idea that the second season starts today!

  • i love, LOVE that you started this post talking about sleater kinney. when i lived in seattle and would drive down to pdx or ocean shores, i’d always see the sleater kinney exit sign and would get so excited. simply awesome article and interview, grace!

  • I love this show! After seeing “put a bird on it” I just laughed out loud at myself! I was on my way to becoming a cliche….Anyway, it helped me change my work a bit, but there are those times when I just want to put a little bird on it..

  • I have always been a person that finds comfort in clutter. I had a design professor who was always telling me to “Clear my visual field.” His words always ring in my head when I am under a tight deadline, or have a particularly difficult project to accomplish. It must be human nature.

  • So fun to read. I have loved her work for most of my life! In fact, the first piece of original art I bought was a painting of Sleater-Kinney, and I look at it every day. thanks so much for checking in with her.

  • I banned cable years ago, and only just discovered this show via netflix a couple weeks ago. Adore it! I did graduate studies in Western Mass in the 5 college area, and its funny to see how much similarity there is between the folks there and in Portland. I think similarly to the essence of the show, I consider myself to be a part of that whole progressive “indie” culture scene, but somehow very self aware of just how humorous it can be. Especially when any of us are caught taking ourselves a little too serious.
    Great interview. Great show. Cheers!

  • Re: someone asking where the ship pillow comes from, I’m not positive but it looks like it could be from Thomas Paul.

  • Love the show. I’m waiting for them to make fun of this fascinating trend that invades so many works on blogs and Etsy: Geometric shapes/patterns! It’s slapped on paintings, photos, on pottery, on fabric, made as pendants and ornaments… It’s everywhere! I love it and heck even tried it myself but every time a little part of me feels guilty and lame for imitating something that stopped being original so I always picture those guys popping out “put a bird on it” style.

  • Thanks for this interview! Having lived there (and grown up near there) — I instantly became a fan of Portlandia. I’m moving back to Oregon later in the year — can’t wait to check out the places she mentioned.

  • Sleater Kinney shows have always been my absolute favorite. I only just watched the first season of Portlandia. “Put a bird on it” sometimes pops into my head and makes me chuckle.

  • Saw the first episode of the second season. Loved it. I kept shouting at the t.v. “I’ve seen those people; I’ve met them!” even though I couldn’t think of their names and I live in Baltimore. I can’t wait to see the episode with the wedding parody, especially if it includes pennants and things covered with chalkboard paint in the decorations.

  • Nice questions, Grace – thanks for the interview. I just moved back to the U.S. and am a recent compulsive fan of the show. Watched all of last season in a few days on Netflix so this is a fun way to wind down the Portlandia craze.

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