Jeff: When we were first married, we lived in a little duplex apartment. When we found out we were going to be having a baby, I made Shay a little kraft snack bag every day. And since we’re both designers/illustrators, I just couldn’t send her off with a blank lunch sack. So I would draw a little different something on there every day with crayons, a bird, a little animal, or a silly visual pun. People she worked with would see the bags, and many suggested (rather strongly, in some cases!) that we should make and sell them. When the baby was close to coming, we decided to upgrade to a house. The one we found (and were lucky enough to get!) had a small back-house in the yard. We were wondering what to do with it, and Shay suggested we turn it into a screen printing studio. Neither of us had ever screen printed, but we just went for it. I finished out the shed over the spring (put in walls, a ceiling, and power), and researched screen printing. We started, as planned, by screen printing snack bags, birds at first, and selling them on Etsy. I thought that since we were going through all the trouble of making printing plates and printing on bags, we should print a few extra images on paper and see if we could sell the images as prints.
Jeff: My nickname for Shay was always “bee,” and neither of us can remember why. That’s what happens when you have kids: you forget things like baseball stats, what actors played in what movies, or what it's like to eat in a restaurant that doesn't hand you crayons when you sit down. Anyway, Shay is an extremely talented art director and stylist (she’ll deny it but it’s absolutely true). For years, she’s always brought props from her shoots home, everything from little milk jars for flowers to Nelson lamps, and would rearrange the house accordingly to make a home for the new thing. It seemed like every week there would be another something in the house, and I would jokingly say, “there’s another bee thing!” When we started to actually collaborate on things (aside from our relationship, that is), I surprised her for Christmas, and had done our logo, stationary, and packaging for our new studio we were starting, and named it “bee things.”
Jeff: Even though we see eye to eye on just about everything, our backgrounds creep in there sometimes, and we disagree on style. Shay is an art director and a very gifted stylist – she has such great taste. I come from a design background, so I’m more conceptual in my thinking. Once in a while we’ll disagree on something, usually something I’ve done, that Shay will think isn’t cute or appealing enough. In the end, I always favor her opinion, and it makes me crazy when she’s right just about every time! But I’ve learned to trust her instincts. One of our all-time best selling prints is one where we argued a long time about the style, and she ultimately won out. One of these days, I’ll be right, just wait and see, she’ll be sorry. Ha ha. But to really answer the question, the only thing is that our work-life is so integrated, if we have an argument there’s no going home and cooling off – we are home! So we’re a little quieter at dinner every now and then, but it’s very rare when that happens.
Shay: I think the best thing is that your business partner is the person you love the most. For every great thing that happens (if we’re awarded a project, or some new prints do well), we’re there to celebrate with each other. And if something not-so-great happens, we’re there to make each other feel better. We’re both pretty sensitive people, actually, and we both need and have that immediate gratification and consolation.
Jeff: We loved working on our first bird prints together, where we got started. We loved coming up with new ways to interpret birds into simple shapes and patterns, we just had such a great time, it was a couple of years before we branched out into butterflies or other things. Other than that, we’ve been doing some product design for Crate and Barrel, and we are really enjoying it. It’s a challenge to think a little more dimensional which is different for us, and it’s been a blast working on those projects.
Jeff: It’s funny –we had every intention of doing prints in series of four or five at a time – a series of birds, bugs, flowers, patterns, etc. But once we had a few bird prints done, we just kept going. And we've heard the jokes: "Put a bird on it!" But we just love birds, I grew up loving them – I can remember looking the Field Guide to North American birds with him when I was a kid and identifying birds out of the window of our Colorado home: grosbeaks, flickers, cardinals, blue jays, magpies, red-winged blackbirds. And we haven't even explored the rest of the world's hyper-colored, exotic birds: Hawaii's honeycreepers, Paupa New Guinea's birds-of-paradise, South America's toucans and parrots. We love how birds can be interpreted into simple shapes and patterns, rendered very geometrically, or rendered loose and organically. We could probably keep making birds forever and never get tired of them (there are certainly enough species)! Inevitably, we've been compared to Charley Harper (who we absolutely adore), but never in a negative way – most people ask if we've heard of him. We really try hard to avoid doing anything too close to his style.
Shay: We are very much inspired by Ray and Charles Eames for two completely different reasons. First, their design aesthetic is marvelous, and everything they touched – be it furniture design, architecture, graphic design or textile design – just turned into gold. Secondly, the married couple created an amazing body of work together for all those years; they are our inspiration for creating a harmonious studio life and a home life together. We also love Jim Henson. Both he and his work were colorful, optimistic and exuded joy. The legacy he left behind is inspiring, and his ability to connect with people of all ages is remarkable. Lastly, we think Pixar is just amazing. Their craft and attention to detail is unparalleled. Their process is inspiring, as well. They sketch, brainstorm, joke, and sketch some more. I've read that out of the five years it takes them to make a picture, they spend three doing drawings, writing, and researching (before they even begin the actual animation). It’s amazing to us that no matter how big they are or how much they refine and refine, the finished product doesn’t lose a single molecule of the spontaneity and charm that the very first idea held. That is a very, very hard thing to do for anyone, let alone a project with hundreds of people involved.
Shay: Well, doing what you love to do for a living is a blessing, and a bit of a curse. We call our situation our ”work-life,” and we really do think of creating and making a lifestyle choice, not a job. Our dining room table is our bee things office, and our home is filled with prints and art supplies. Our laundry room is filled with inventory for fulfillment, and our hallway closet houses shipping envelopes, tubes, and mailing labels. We love our lives, even though our personal and work lives are an inseparable alloy at this point. And we have two boys. Anyone reading this who has kids will understand when we say that working IS what we do to relax!
Shay: We love color! Lots of color. I think we’re both pretty good at working with it, which sounds weird, but other designers and illustrators will know what I’m talking about. We’re always trying new and unusual color combinations, and any chance to use bright color we love. We also both love love love mid-century (60s) design. We love the products, chairs, lamps, fabric patterns, colors, whimsey, everything from that era. We even live in a mid-century modern house (built in 1961), which still has many of the original built-in lamps and fixtures. We just gush over the work of designers and Illustrators that were prominent in that period: Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, Jim Flora, Max Huber, Otl Aicher, Charles and Ray Eames, and Disney Animation during that time was just knock-out gorgeous (watch "101 Dalmatians" with the sound off, and keep pausing to look at the "sets" – it amazes us how beautiful that picture really is). We could go on all day!
Jeff: We usually work very quickly, especially for clients. We do spend as much time as we can on a project sketching and doing color studies before we jump on the computer. But when it comes to our own images (creating illustrations for the prints we sell), it can take a little longer – we go back and forth with each other a little more, I think. Sometimes, we love a sketch and it takes a while to get the final rending just right. I actually have a folder on my computer with illustrations that are still waiting to be “just right.” And others only take a day or two before we're happy.
Shay: Quite the opposite – they are so much work! No, we kid. Our two miniature dachshunds (mini-wiener dogs), no so much - they sleep around 22 hours a day. But the kids do daily. The things they draw are amazing – rarely do they draw “something” (like a dog or tree or whatever) – usually it’s just patterns and colors. And kids have no inhibitions with their amazing little art – they mix whatever colors, patterns, on whatever paper is within reach. We bought them a pack of Japanese tape – tape in bright colors with dots and stripes and patterns. They draw and stick other bits of paper on with the crazy tapes. Most times, it’s bedlam on paper. But sometimes, they amaze and delight us with something just gorgeous. We've framed several of their drawings. We're inspired by those – we’ve actually tried to capture that inhibition, and sometimes try color combinations and pattern combinations we wouldn’t normally think to put together. And don’t get us started on picture books –we have a huge collection. Some of the most amazingly talented illustrators working out there are doing picture books. We are in awe every evening.
Jeff: I think that students often assume that established illustrators and designers just "went for it" and are "lucky" to do great work for great clients. It's the same thing people say when you graduate from school: if you want to make it big, you just have to jump in the deep end and see what happens - just "go for it!" So my advice isn't advice so much as it is a road sign: "SLOW." It's not always best to graduate and immediately move to New York and live in a dump with nine roommates and eat ramen and scrape by. Sometimes it's best to get a good job, and do it well and be proud of that work, then do the other thing on the side, where you can afford to take your time, afford to make better decisions instead of doing anything to make the rent. You can be a little pickier about the projects you do, and can spend a little money on a website or promotions. Is it more work doing two things at once? Sure it is. But if you can be patient and work hard, it'll pay dividends – it sure has for us. Even though we love what we do, and we're lucky to make a living at it, we've both worked so hard to get here, doing this on the side of solid jobs that we were just as passionate about. We let bee things grow organically, and it's really worked out. Side benefit: you will be amazed at how doing two things feed off of each other and cross-pollinate. Our design work has absolutely benefitted from our illustration work, and vice versa.