Alumni Spotlight: Heather D’Angelo & Kimi Lewis for Carta
Interview by writer and 2-time Art of Freelance alumna Hanne Steen
In her new endeavor Carta—a geographic and nostalgic journey through fragrance, Art of Freelance alumna Heather D’Angelo enlisted branding expert and designer (and Art of Freelance alumna) Kimi Lewis’ help to explore ways of merging scent, environmental awareness, storytelling and design. Heather’s talent to weave a narrative through scent—borne of her trifecta of passions for music, science, and perfume—and Kimi’s rigorous work ethic and strong aesthetic seem to support each other perfectly. Just as Carta’s signature fragrance macerates in a brown bottle in a dark room like a fine wine, the notes of each essential oil delicately supporting the other, both women’s strengths seem to lift the other up, each highlighting the other’s gifts and culminating in this unique, well-balanced collaboration. As Heather's first perfume prepares to launch on the wings of Kimi’s branding later this summer, we spoke about serendipity and self-sabotage, soil, space, and sushi. And of course, we spoke scent.
When you’re out in the world and someone asks you what you do, what do you say?
Heather: I am a perfumer. A budding perfumer, but I’ll take the title. Everyone has imposter syndrome but sometimes you have to just try on a title and eventually it fits.
Kimi: I’m a graphic designer. I have a small design studio and my focus is on branding and storytelling. I also am an illustrator, I create patterns for clothing companies, but my main focus is on brands. I partner with a copywriter [Dana Covit] and we’re about to start a studio together and offer both visual and written communication around a brand story.
When did it first occur to you that you could do what you’re doing and how did you get to that point?
Heather: People spend money on shoes or bags, I love to spend money on expensive perfumes. I have a background in environmental biology so I spent a lot of time in the lab. About three years ago I started buying essential oils and that can quickly become a complete obsession. I’m sure painters and other makers feel this—you start spending so much money on this hobby and then you’re like, ‘What am I doing with this? Am I going to make something? And if I make something am I going to sell it? Maybe this is just an expensive hobby, and I’m in no place in my life to take up an expensive hobby.’ After about a year of playing around with materials and getting to know them and making rudimentary perfumes and reading and looking at online tutorials and getting into the perfume community here, I was like, ‘I really love doing this and I really want this to be all that I do, and how can I make that happen?’ That’s the scariest part, when you’re like, ‘Shit, I want to do this all the time, now what?’
Kimi: I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know what type. When I was younger I was more of a fine artist and then I got into fashion design, and then I decided fashion was so wrong for me and I decided to major in illustration. I’ve always been obsessed with design and symbolism and language. When I graduated from college I worked at Disney as a textile artist, then I got picked up by MTV to work on their website so I went down the web design, product design path, then I worked at a pretty cool agency in San Francisco and that’s when I developed my process. I took what I liked from them and now I apply that to what I do today. I just love branding so much.
"That’s the scariest part, when you’re like, ‘Shit, I want to do this all the time, now what?"
What are your other jobs and hobbies and how do they inform your primary creative work?
Kimi: I have a part time job working for the Noun Project and I’m in charge of marketing and brand strategy there. It’s such a great group of people and I love the mission that it stands for. Traveling is always a way for me to clear my mind and get reinspired or recalibrate. I’m really inspired by everything in Mexico—from the colors to the textiles to the painted typography of storefronts, the pottery, the landscape. Even though I change style depending on my client and who they’re trying to speak to, I really love that aesthetic and I try to inject it into my design work or my textiles whenever I can.
Heather: I’m the editor of a website about astronomy and space. My three passions are science, music, and perfuming. My day job fulfills my science need, whether it’s reading articles or editing submissions from scientists. My hobby is music, the professional part of which is dwindling down since I’m in San Francisco and my bandmates [Au Revoir Simone] are in Brooklyn. And perfuming I do every day, in micro tasks. The process your brain goes through when you’re editing or writing, plus the process of writing music, plus the process of perfume composition—all three of those kind of need each other.
Kimi, aren’t you into space too?
Kimi: I’ve always been really fascinated by space. I was in the first Art of Freelance Course last summer and for my project I created a collection of patterns inspired by space. I’m so used to having a client who has a deadline and expectations and is holding me accountable, so when I have the time to work on personal projects it’s really hard for me to feel motivated without a deadline and no client waiting for the work. I signed up [for Art of Freelance] to keep pushing my textile design, creating more patterns that I can have in my arsenal to present to different companies. It reminded me how much I love making patterns and it’s something that I want to continue to do.
"The process your brain goes through when you’re editing or writing, plus the process of writing music, plus the process of perfume composition—all three of those kind of need each other." - Heather
Tell me about Carta, the project you’re working on together?
Heather: Nothing smells more amazing than freshly sieved rainforest soil. I thought I would love to create a scent that recaptures my love of the rainforest and my experience of working there. In my research I found that a lot of essential oils are unsustainable—that’s why a lot of synthetics are used, because they’re more environmentally-friendly. I wanted to create a scent that featured an essential oil that was sourced sustainably. Totally serendipitously I came across a really small farm in Peru in the exact region where I was when I first ever in the rainforest and I felt this incredible calling like, ‘I have to go back. I have to go visit this farm right now.’ That was the turning point, booking the flight to Peru, to just say ‘I’m going to get this essential oil, and I’m going to make a perfume that features it.’
At what stage in this process did you do Art of Freelance and how was it for you?
Heather: When I got back from Peru [last July] I knew I wanted to tell this story but I had no idea how tell it, how to launch a brand, how to start a company. When I heard about Art of Freelance from a friend I thought maybe this would be good for me, to be with other people who are in the midst of this birthing process that is trying to create something—whether it’s a company, a novel, a screenplay, we have all the same questions, the same struggles. I needed that community and that accountability. That was the high—finding people who are going through what you’re going through, realizing that the ups and downs and times of nothingness and blankness, the times of hyper-creativity—all these things are normal and not a judgment on you or your creativity.
How did this collaboration come about?
Kimi: My boyfriend is best friends with her boyfriend. Heather and I were talking about design and she said, ‘I’d love for you to take a look at what I have currently and possibly work on a new fragrance that I’m working on and rebranding it, helping me with a strategy.’ So I met her with Dana and we discussed the project and all of us really clicked. I'm not sure if she was so incredibly organized because of At of Freelance, but when we first got together she had moodboards and so much to share about how she saw the brand looking. It really helped me understand the direction she had in mind and it made it really easy to collaborate. I've never worked with a more eloquent client who I felt honestly cared as much as she did about the story of the brand. Usually, people see the story as a secondary component to branding but it definitely needs to be the primary focus before any visuals can be created. We have a really similar aesthetic and point of view. We are the target demographic so that helps too.
Heather: Kimi totally gets it and enhances everything, which is what a good collaboration does—take something that you’ve made and make it better. She’s the right person, and it’s hard to articulate how you know. Maybe it’s a subconscious aesthetic resonance. Art of Freelance helped me go through the process of refining what this project is about so I could give it to someone else. You have to have a very strong idea of what something is before you can share it so that the integrity of it can stay true, but still be malleable to someone else’s ideas.
How important is collaboration versus working alone for you?
Kimi: I don’t love working alone. I find that when I do, I question myself more. I work more slowly because I can’t bounce ideas off my collaborators. I’m also inspired by the people I work with—I like when an idea comes from a conversation. For Carta I’m working with the copywriter, Dana Covit. She’s not only an incredible writer but she has an incredible eye and marketing strategy. We talk about design, we talk about the story, she’s even involved in the packaging design. It’s so important to me to have someone to bounce ideas off. Collaborating with the client is really important too, so at the end of a project they’re not seeing things for the first time and wondering why you made certain decisions.
Heather: The way I am about collaboration in music is really similar to how I am with this perfuming venture. Writing music or making perfume is very private. There has to be this moment of going inside and getting it out and that’s a very private moment. But when I have a rough draft of a song or rough draft of a song, a rough draft of a perfume, a rough draft of an idea for a company—I can only go so far by myself and then I need to collaborate. I need other people to help me get all the way to the end, and that’s been true of all my creative endeavors.
"That was the high—finding people who are going through what you’re going through, realizing that the ups and downs and times of nothingness and blankness, the times of hyper-creativity—all these things are normal and not a judgment on you or your creativity." - Heather
How do you move past self-doubting moments over the course of working on a project?
Kimi: Ugh, that’s a really good question, especially as a freelancer. You’re alone in a room often and you’re like, ‘Is this actually working?’ Whenever I first start something it’s ugly, I just hate it, and I think acknowledging that it sucks and remembering back to projects where I was doubting myself and when I kept pushing whatever I was working on, and in the end it just worked. I remember that process: it sucks in the beginning and you keep going, and then it works out.
Heather: For me it’s friends. Friends more than family—it’s harder for them, they want you to be safe. Families don’t like when you take risks. I was having a low moment and one of my best girlfriends who has seen me through all the crazy things I’ve done in my life wrote me this beautiful email. She was like, “When you said you were going to be a musician I was like, ‘What? She doesn’t play anything, she doesn’t sing, he’s going to be in a band?’ And when I saw your first performance it was horrible and I was embarrassed. And then you went on and wrote an album and toured the world and I was so proud of you, and I was wrong. And then you said you were going to be a scientist and you were going to go to Columbia, and I was like, ‘Scientist? That’s absurd, you can’t just decide to be a scientist. You’re not even good at math!’ But you did it, and I went to your graduation and I was proud of you. And now you say you’re going to be a perfumer, and I’m going to hold my tongue, because you can make it happen, you just need to believe in yourself and keep going with this spirit of adventuring and risk-taking.” All of it’s been risky, but what else are you going to do with your life?
"I remember that process: it sucks in the beginning and you keep going, and then it works out." - Kimi
When it comes to your creativity and your process how do you hold yourself accountable?
Heather: I’m a Virgo so I’m very organized. If you see my to-do list, everything is a micro-task that gets me even an inch closer to my goal. If you put something on a list like, ‘Write Chapter One Today,’ you’re not going to do that. But if you say, ‘Name the Characters of Chapter One,’ that’s reasonable. It’s such a small task that if you didn’t complete it you’re not going to be like, ‘Well, the whole book’s fucked now.’ A typical day will be like: ‘Call dad. Decant four bottles.’ And I’ll feel good about having gotten one inch closer to making a perfume.
Kimi: Being really good at managing my tasks, and making sure I’m doing something I love, because I will go crazy if I can’t do a yoga class or walk around my neighborhood. Even if a client is like, ‘Can you talk at this time?’ and I have scheduled a yoga class or me time, I can’t break it or I will lose it.
How do you celebrate success? Do you celebrate small wins along the way?
Heather: God, I’m really bad at that. Nothing ever feels like success. No matter what I’ve achieved in my life, someone has to be like, ‘We need to stop and celebrate this.’ I’m like, ‘What’s the next thing? Need to keep working!’ It’s demented. I’m glad I have friends that can pull me out of that.
Kimi: Eating sushi? I feel really good when a project is done. I have Asana and it feels really good to check stuff off or cross things off. Accomplishing tasks is a really good feeling for me. But yeah, sushi.
"If you put something on a list like, ‘Write Chapter One Today,’ you’re not going to do that. But if you say, ‘Name the Characters of Chapter One,’ that’s reasonable." - Heather
What advice would your eighty year old self give you?
Heather: Hopefully my eighty year-old self isn’t destitute from so much risk-taking and not saving money and buying a house and having a normal job. But I’ve never met an artist that prepares for the future particularly well, I think most are very much living in the present. That’s probably not the wisest way to live, but I don’t know if we as a tribe know any other way. Hopefully it’ll work out for all of us. Fingers crossed!
Kimi: My eighty year-old self would say, ‘Chill out. Relax. Everything always works out.’