We sat down with Joanna, Sean and Grant - the talented trio behind both Portland-based maker AOK Supply, as well as the independent agency, OK Studios. There’s a lot of things we love about them. They have the quintessential bridge burner story of leaving the corporate world in order to pursue their creativity within the bounds of the definitions they wrote. This exit led to the formation of their agency OK Studios. A desire to bring artfulness into the people’s everyday experience and re-inspire people that don’t need that many material things, but instead to think more about choosing the right things that they’ll love, cherish and even pass along to the next generation lead to the formation of AOK Supply. So many things about these three resonate with our story here at Bridge & Burn, so we sat down to learn more about them. Read on below!
Grant (left) is wearing the Austen jacket, Joanna (middle) is in the Nyssa chore coat and Gladstone pants, and Sean is wearing the Crest overshirt with the utility-inspired Wallace pants.
We love your personal story about leaving the traditional agency hustle to go on to found both an independent agency, OK Studio, as well as AOK Supply. Can you tell us more about what that transition looked like for you?
Sean: It’s a challenge to go from one specific, specialized role to having to do the job of every person that would typically be in an agency setting. There was and is a huge learning, but I’m so thankful to finally have an opportunity to make my own dream job instead of hoping I get hired into it one day.
Joanna: It was a subtle act of insanity, but we were ambitious. We had wanted to have our own company before knowing exactly what that would look like or who we would work for.
Grant: It was definitely a leap of faith. We didn’t feel like we had much to lose when we left our jobs. The first year, we scrapped our portfolios entirely and that was really important to start fresh. We wanted OK Studio to truly reflect our collective work. In the first year we learned so much…
Joanna: Even that first day of the first year, during a photo shoot we art directed, I felt like we had learned so much. Organizing that was more than we had ever been given opportunity to do in our many years of agency life.
Sean: And so much more interesting.
Joanna: Exactly, which is why we wanted to start OK Studio, because we wanted to be inspired and remember why we became designers to begin with.
Grant: I think the transition has been a continuous journey since we started. I feel like we are still in the transition, it is never ending, but that is what makes it so fun. It’s a constant adventure and every day presents a new challenge. We’ve never gotten bored because of that.
When charting the trajectory of AOK Supply, what helped you to distill your values?
Grant: Coming from a brand strategy background, the challenge was never determining our values. In part, we are the brand and the values are simply our own. The challenge lies in how to run our business in a way that lives up to those values and actualizes them. Knowing we care about sustainability is not the challenge, it’s how to make a new product in an ethical manner. We ask ourselves — does this need to exist in the first place? How do we determine what material or producer to use? Answering these questions is especially difficult as a small business with limited budget and resources. We are constantly trying to improve.
Sean: Yes, because we want to maintain accessibility as well. Making products that are affordable, sustainable and aesthetically appealing.
Joanna: In regards to sustainability it feels like many “luxury” products don’t make an effort to consider their environmental impact. Often in their choice of material or packaging it is all about excess. We set out to create things more consciously that are also beautiful, timeless and bring joy to everyday experiences.
Sean: We want to bring artfulness into the people’s everyday experience. We hope to encourage an intentional approach to objects and ask people to consider what they bring into their lives a bit more consciously. It is important to understand the story and the maker behind something because it adds to the richness of one’s own life. People ultimately don’t need that many material things, so it’s really about choosing the right things that you’ll love, cherish and even pass along to the next generation.
Grant: I feel like we are designing for ourselves in that regard. Of course we have Ikea furniture that we want to phase out, and we ourselves are on a limited budget, but ultimately we want to live our lives around objects with meaning.
We love your ethos of being globally inspired, and Northwest made. Where do you draw your greatest sources of inspiration and how do you pull those two concepts of global and local together?
Sean: We always keep tabs on what is happening globally in design while tapping into our local resources for manufacturing and production as much as possible.
Grant: Having grown up in Portland it has been interesting to see the city develop its own global persona… Portlandia hasn’t been around that long! The idea of Portland having its own brand and what that means to other countries and people internationally is really interesting to explore. Pulling inspiration globally is just as important as showcasing Portland and PNW design.
Joanna: During our travels we naturally get inspired by everything. The fact that we are focusing on Portland has more to do with our goal of celebrating the community we reside in. We want to be connected to what’s happening locally by cultivating relationships with fellow designers, entrepreneurs, makers, and manufacturers.
Sean: The Northwest is such a special part of the country. I feel a need to contribute by helping build a strong local economy, using all the amazing resources in our backyard.
Joanna: I think that is why looking beyond American design is inspiring because it is often less commercial and has achieved a timeless quality. America tends to foster a linear throwaway economy that focuses heavily on trends. To combat this, we want to do our part, helping make American design more focused on timelessness and enduring quality.
Sean: We also want to get beyond the idea of NYC or LA as being the only centers of culture in the States. We want to represent so called “second tier cities” with first tier design and export our sensibilities on equal footing.
Grant: It’s interesting that Portland is already competing on a national level in terms of cuisine, and we want to add another dimension to the city’s creativity beyond food, which is a huge inspiration for us. We all love food!
Sean: That is a huge inspiration for us, it shows up in our brand work and our desire to be involved in that industry. All of our local chefs and restaurateurs inspire us. Tapping into the ethos of sharing good food and drink with the people you care about and having a strong sense of community. What better place to gather than around a table.
Your product line up consists of ceramics, prints and vintage apparel. What led you to crystallizing those physical goods as the articulation of your values?
Sean: Definitely the idea of getting people together to enjoy food, art and conversation. The last decade has been such a hectic fever dream with the advent of smartphones and technology. We want to help create opportunities for people to get together…maybe smoke a little, drink a little, laugh and remember what is good in the world. We want to celebrate humor, love, and all those things that have been diminished by all the negativity circulating in the world right now.
Grant: We don’t just think of ourselves as a ceramics company, or a print company, or an up-cycling company. It really is about the ethos and the process we apply to each product. Each product is a collaboration between the three of us in terms of ideation and making. Our aspirations also go beyond those three categories, we have many more ideas for products that we can’t produce right now with our current infrastructure. These initial products are what we can start on with just the three of us.
Joanna: Everything we produce is a thought starter - each design is meant to provoke some amount of curiosity. All the vintage clothing that we sew and hand dye, was once owned by someone else and hopefully causes the new owner to consider those inherited stories from each individual garment.
Grant: The form factors of our ceramics are a good example… most people don’t recognize our pipe as a pipe until they walk up and interact up close. The story of its shape, inspired by smoking from an apple, is built into the design but yet it is still very unassuming. Even with the vintage clothing, they are objects we have found and are giving a new life. It is not necessarily important people recognize they are vintage at first glance or know that we have altered the sleeves, indigo dyed it, and replaced every button. When someone sees a shirt it appears that it has always been that way but we have that added layer of meaning we get to share. Getting into events like Portland Night Market and West Coast Craft lets us see those reactions and understand what people gravitate towards.
Sean: We also aspire to have a space as well, to sell our own goods and others linked with our ideas of aesthetics and production. We’d love to run a cafe out of the space and get people in for events, or workshops to help other small businesses tell their stories better, or lecture series… all grand aspirations that get to the same idea of building camaraderie and reminds us all of a greater good. Focusing on that rather than being overworked or over exposed to news or social media… Want to get out from behind our screens and talk to people, this last few years we have met such an amazing network of motion designers, videographers, writers retailers…
Joanna: All of which are so inspiring themselves. It has been nice to get inspired by fellow humans vs. pinterest, trendwatch newsletters or instagram feeds. Being inspired by conversation feels like something that rarely happens anymore but feels so important because, how else did we manage to evolve as humans? We rely on each-other. We have met so many interesting people we wouldn't have otherwise met at our more corporate jobs.
As a trio, how do you find ways to allow space for each one of your unique talents and abilities to shine, while still carving a clear trajectory for each of you to work towards at the same time?
Sean: We all have very unique skill sets.
Joanna: I feel like so much of it sounds slightly annoying to say, but it happens organically. All of our experiences and skill sets are so different from one another it’s been easy to allow each other to take the lead on things, respect each other's space or collaborate on something.
Grant: None of us have ego and we all respect each-others perspectives. We haven’t had any huge disagreements around who should handle what. I think that is because we all trust each-others opinions and are good at communicating where we are at. We have met a lot more with regards to bigger picture planning, kicking off the year with a retreat and scheduling quarterly retreats. We have always had a long-term plan, especially with AOK, even when we weren’t working on it from the beginning we knew where we eventually wanted to end up. Now that we are getting into the details since launching, it is a balance of regularly checking in and agreeing on where we are headed for the next year and breaking that down into quarters and our individual responsibilities. We have calendars for the next four months and goals for the year up on the wall and honestly that helps a lot knowing we all want to get to the same place. I've never had doubts about us not being on the same page which is a bit absurd and pretty special.
Joanna: Having experiences of mis-alignment within previous work places, miscommunication just isn’t worth dealing with. Our process is constantly evolving. During our retreats, we aren’t just talking about how much money we need to make or what clients we want to work with, but also how fulfilled we feel in our responsibilities and the work we are doing.
Grant: What is funny about all three of us is that we came from the creative side of things so we have been surprised about our organization with regards to business. We plan everything out so intensely. But that creative passion and fulfillment is what brought us to this endeavor originally — none of us quit our day job with the aspiration of becoming lavishly wealthy — we are focused on our work. Our responsibility towards each-other is making sure we are fulfilled and living at a quality of life we are happy with.
Sean: So much more than just money. Being an entrepreneur lets you make your own rules. What we have given up in terms of consistency is a freedom to structure our time. Our lives are so much more intertwined with our work in an enriching way.
What do you love most about your work? How has that shifted since you burned the bridge with a more conventional career path for the one you have now?
Sean: Even the most mundane of tasks from my past professional life seem more exciting when I am doing them on my own terms because I feel like I am building something bigger. I’m more fulfilled in general because it isn’t for somebody else.
Joanna: What drove me crazy before was when I was given a project or task with the expectation that while being alone at my desk or in a room I would explode with rainbows and radical innovation within an hour. For myself personally the isolation couldn’t have been less inspiring. Since moving on to our own business, the connections we have made externally and the relationships internally between the three of us is what I love most. Even when we talk about the most mundane thing, like what color post-it to use, we are all so invested in it. I absolutely love that, we are all crazy together.
Grant: The three of us collaborating has been the core of everything we’ve done and has made it all more exciting and fun. Understanding relationships are the foundation of the business is key. When you have experienced a work environment with poor culture, almost any good work will be diminished by that negative environment. It is the opposite when you have a positive environment, even the mundane tasks become exciting and new as you have a greater purpose that pulls you along.
What do you hope people experience when they interact with your brand?
All: Joy! Reflection, connection, an experience that piques curiosity and inspires.