If it’s got anything to do with design, Basia has done it / is doing it / will do it. From Miami to Switzerland, to Poland, to New York City, it’s been one hell of a ride for this creative talent. If you want to know how to run your own business, work with the biggest names in the biz, redesign a restaurant on a reality TV show in 24 hours, raise a kid in the city, then this is the gal for you.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
That was 20 years ago! [Laughs] My first week was orientation week at art school, it was very exciting. I had arrived from Poland … but I may need to backtrack.
Let’s backtrack …
When I graduated high school in Miami, I knew that I didn’t want to study in America. I didn’t see myself at an American institution. Growing up in Miami, I felt displaced.
Because you are Polish?
Well, my first language was Spanish, then I spoke Polish and English. Miami has a very Latin culture. I didn’t feel I connected with that culture and I didn’t feel American.
So I thought, maybe I feel Polish or European? I’m going to go and check it out over there. I went to Franklin College in Switzerland. They have a travel program every semester. One semester it was the art history program, so we went to the Tate Museum and St. Ives in Cornwall to see all the artist studio's such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. It blew my mind and was such a great education, seeing things and travelling, feeling and touching rather than just sitting in front of a book. I was going to complete all my foundation courses for two years there and then go to Parsons in Paris next, and do a graphic design degree.
Then Hurricane Andrew happened in 1992. It hit Miami and everything was devastated. I had to take a detour from my plans to go back and help my parents. The house was a mess, there was a lot of damage.
I didn’t know what I was going to do. I took some graphic design and photography courses at the local community college. I then got a phone call from my aunt in New York who knew somebody who at the time was the art director for Cosmopolitan magazine. Her name was Linda Cox and she got a phone call from an editor in Poland who was looking for someone who could come and work for the summer. They had started a new magazine, and they wanted a summer intern with some "Western" influence. I said, “Send me, I’m ready to go!”. It ended up being a two year gig as the assistant art director for Twój Styl in Warsaw, it was their Vanity Fair. Translated it means ‘Your Style’.
It was amazing because it was such a small operation, I was able to basically run around and be assistant art director, do some graphic design and food styling. I hired my friends in America who wanted to be photographers, and travelled around the country. It gave me a working knowledge of what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to do magazine graphic design and layout, and then I saw it and thought I can’t do this. Every month it’s the same stories, and I got tired of that pretty quickly. I was also trying to help them from a design standpoint, I knew they were doing things wrong in terms of layout and type, but I couldn’t explain it to them. I realized how necessary art school was, because I had to be able to express my criticism in a constructive way. Art school would give me those tools.
It was an exciting time in Poland, communism had just left, and everybody was thinking “What’s going to happen? What is the future of Warsaw?’ But at the same time I realized how American I was there. The mentality was so different. I would be so ambitious, and I would want to stay late to work on my projects. At the magazine, when it was 5pm, people would get up and go home. They were not familiar with capitalism from that very base level.
All the employees had to wait in a long line to be paid every month. So much time out of the work day to just get your check. I was like “You guys, you know you can just put the checks in envelopes and hand them out to people, you don’t have to stand here.” It was weird, but then those were the sort of things I was there to help them out with. Things that I took for granted and were commonplace … like paperclips. They didn’t have paperclips.
After working there for two years, I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York for a BFA in Graphic Design which included 2D design as well as 3D design. I’ve always wanted to build sets and things like that. I went to Kevin O’Callaghan’s class, and he gave us crazy projects. We built a huge carousel for the school's 50th anniversary, I had to sculpt a giant Louis Armstrong where you could ride in his belly. I installed a whole speaker system and a moving trumpet, when do you get the chance to do something like that?
So that’s how I ended up in New York [laughs].
So you never actually had the thought in the back of your mind that one day you’d live in New York?
I’ve always loved New York. I never thought that I was closed off to any one place. Before moving here, I always had the travel bug, I wanted to keep moving around. I love to discover new things, and be completely inspired. But I think New York has that, ever since I’ve been here I’ve never stopped discovering new facets of this town.
New York must have changed a lot in the time you’ve been living here?
Oh, it’s completely changed. I came already at the cusp of it getting safer. Giuliani was here, making sure it was all happening. But I remember you couldn’t go past Avenue A when I lived in the East Village. As a young woman, there were certain border lines you didn’t cross. At the time Brooklyn was not interesting to anyone at all. Everything happened in Manhattan.
The first job I got out of art school was at a company looking for someone to do 3D design. They really sold it, it sounded like exactly what I wanted, a little bit of branding, a little bit of 3D, perfect. I was hired, and it was $50,000 a year with benefits. My mom was making that amount after 30 years as a flight attendant, and she was raising her kids on that. She was blown away that I was making that much. But after a week I was miserable. I was stuck in a cubicle with a woman who would blast Top Z100 on her radio, and my job was to center company logos on lucite cubes that they would give as awards.
Well, technically it was branding and working with a 3D object [laughs] …
When I told my mom I was quitting after a week she almost lost her mind. For her, this was it. I was in the best situation possible. I thought “I didn’t go to art school, and do all of the stuff that I had experienced to be in this position.” I wanted to use my brain and my creativity.
Then I answered an amazing ad, I wish I had kept it. It simply said “we need somebody really cool, and who loves film”. It was for the art director position for The Criterion Collection. They were remastering classic films for the new DVD technology, adding commentary, and redesigning the covers.
It was great because I got to work with amazing directors who would come in to the office and we would design the packaging that they dreamed of for their films. You know when you go into the business side of selling movies, the process is so rushed and not exactly always what the director has envisioned for his film. It isn’t creative because they’re trying to sell, they have to put the actors on the posters, it’s all contractual for theater releases. But we were coming from the side of respecting the art of the film, working with illustrators and designers to create an artistic rendition of what the film was about. I got to be an art director there for a year.
The first job that the owner gave me there was actually to redesign the entire office! They were moving, and I was told I was going to build out the office.
Were you shitting yourself?
I was totally game! This was what I’d been gearing for. He gave me a challenge, and I built it. We had to make it all out of plywood, we went to Home Depot and found construction grade material and built an awesome industrial space. That was my first experience figuring out how to deal with a space and working with contractors.
A lot of what you’ve continued to do has a lot of those elements …
It follows me a little bit. I found that with graphic design, you are stuck behind a computer. That’s fine for a while, but you’re not interacting with people or surfaces or materials. And I love that about production design. You have a little gypsy crew, you walk in and you’re instantly friends with a bunch of people from different departments, and you’re working very closely on a project that has to come together in a short space of time. Then I would go back to my computer and do graphic design. I like to bounce between both worlds, they both compliment each other. They both inspire each other.
You also made jewelry? How did you get into that?
Working on The Criterion Collection I was basically building little brands for all these films, and then they asked me to redesign the identity of the company. I really liked doing that, when designing an identity for a company you work on a lot of things, logos, tshirts, business cards etc.
I started up a company with a friend from art school, and we did branding and events. We got a lot of events by referral from our teachers at art school.
Then September 11th happened. I was in the East Village at the time. All hell broke loose, and I was very aware of being on an island and not being able to get out. There was no way to move. It felt very weird for me to be in that situation, I didn’t like it. It was the first time I thought, maybe I should check out Brooklyn. I didn’t want to be in that situation ever again. It was on total lock down, bridges and tunnels were closed, the subways were down, food deliveries couldn’t be made, even the basics like milk and bread. It was surreal. I didn’t like that I didn’t have a choice. I felt like a prisoner of the city.
At this point Brooklyn was still in early beginnings. I had a cousin who was living in Williamsburg, her space was huge, and it was so cheap. We were amazed. Our friends were working on a brand new restaurant in South Williamsburg and they had a huge warehouse space that they offered to share with us. It was a 3000 sq ft space, we could ride bikes in there! We threw huge parties, had photo shoots in there. The typical dream warehouse space. Now it's completely condo-rific over there.
I then got married, and at that point I had been doing graphic design for 15 years. I decided design was no longer making my brain sizzle. I like to be challenged, and I needed to separate myself from it a little.
I found out I was pregnant, and we moved to Greenpoint. I saw a little gift shop with a ‘For Rent’ sign, in my mind it was perfect. It was very little pressure, not a lot of foot traffic and it was close to home. I started to build this idea of a brand for myself. I also like packaging and products, and I wanted to see as a buyer/shopper/retailer how people interact with things. It was like a science experiment for me.
I called the shop Brooklynski, because ‘ski’ in Polish means ‘from’. The whole idea was that it was Brooklyn based, all local designers. I started creating a network of people whose work I admired, and I also wanted to create my own work.
It did really well for about a year. Then the building was sold, and we couldn’t afford to stay there and make money, and so we moved to Graham Avenue. I had a lot more space where I could work. I would repurpose old furniture and sell it. I became interested in jewelry. I could see what women wanted, but I couldn’t buy and source it fast enough. I knew what I wanted to put out there. The jewellery ended up doing really well, I had fun doing unique pieces and they were the top seller in the store.
Having the store was great, I got to know the neighborhood. I was a new mom. A lot of my close friends are people who came into the store. It’s a great filter, if you walk into the store and you like what’s in there you’re kind of going to be my buddy.
Unfortunately, due to an injury from giving birth to my son, I was dealing with a lot of pain. I had a dislocated pelvis and it wasn’t healing. When you have pain 24/7 for years, it starts messing with your mind. It starts changing you in terms of your behavior. The doctor told me in order to heal I had to not move for over a month, that I couldn’t lift my son or do anything. If I was going to ever heal this was what I would have to do. How was that even feasible? I was done with the pain. I needed to do it. We ran the numbers to see what it would cost to have somebody cover the store for more than a month and it wasn’t worth it. So I had to sell it. Literally the week we decided to sell it a girl walked in the store wanting to work there. I explained the situation to her, and she ended up buying it. It was that easy!
My sister was in France with her kids, and I went to stay with her for a month and a half. She was willing to help me with my son while I could totally chill. I had the best two months and it healed! It’s amazing the minute you feel better how quickly you forget. Even telling you this now I’m trying to recollect the pain, and it’s hard to draw back. It’s like I’m in denial.
Like what people say about having a baby, they forget how bad the pain was and that’s how they can do it again …
Yes. Part of your function as a human is to keep doing what you need to do.
When I returned, a friend of mine who is a successful interior designer on TV. She did all these renovation make over shows. She was growing her business and needed help with her product and brand. I had come from this background of branding, sets, and interiors. I designed a range of rugs for her brand with an American rug manufacturer. I developed all the patterns and it was one of their most successful lines. It feels nice to make something physical like that. That really drew me into thinking about doing more textile work.
I worked with her on a lot of the TV design shows. At first there was a lot of prop styling, where she taught me so much. She could design the interior of a space just standing there in 5 minutes, she had fine-tuned that muscle. I met Devin Delano through that gig and with him the opportunity to work on a lot of larger events, and our first job together, a Spanish cooking show "Aaron Loves New York". It was the first full kitchen and living room set we had to build.
After that we worked on a restaurant makeover show, "Restaurant Divided" with Rocco DiSpirito. The concept was two competing teams, one side would want the space one way, and the other team another way. For example a steakhouse and a sports bar. We had to design both spaces separately, a piece of tape was pulled down the middle of the set and we had to design each side of the space. Not only did both sides have to be successful, I had to do an equally good job on both with the same budget. But then they also couldn't look crazy next to each other. Then at the end the whole thing had to be renovated again. I still have those gigs but I can’t do them too often now because I’m a mom. I can’t be traveling and away.
On that note, what is it like raising a child in New York?
I love it. The challenge of course is outdoor space. He’s a young boy, and he needs to be outside, run and get dirty. I was lucky when I was growing up. I had a backyard and a pool, I feel like a lot of my creativity was grown from playing with all the elements, creating worlds with them. After the age of 10, you were kind of a prisoner of your back yard, until you were 16 and you could drive.
That’s what I love about New York with Niko, it’s so easy for us to go to a museum, or a cool spot where we are both excited about. I think that’s the struggle with parenting, you can only play legos for so long [laughs]. The challenge is for the both of us to be learning, and taking time that is valuable for us as well. New York offers that. You can just walk down the street and see cool things.
Just the other night when it was super windy, we were driving back from school and the wind was whipping plastic around a shipping pallet. We went down there and started filming it, Niko wanted to film it in “slow mo”. He was blowing my mind, already art directing! We were having a little creative moment with this plastic whipping around.
Do you have some favorite places that you go with Niko?
We just discovered ice skating at Prospect Park. It’s such a simple pleasure, always on the verge of falling, it’s exhilarating. Niko was so proud of the fact that he was trying to ice skate, he really wants to master it. Being challenged makes me excited to be human, it’s so important for growth. You feel better after a day like that.
Do you have any restaurant recommendations for Red Hook?
We just went to Sunny’s Bar last night. It is so amazing, they had a ragtime jazz band. If you go on a Saturday night, they have an open musician mic night. Anybody can come in and play. I love it.
Good Fork is an excellent restaurant, one of the best in New York. It’s Korean fusion, the steak and eggs is the all time favorite. Baked is an amazing bake shop, we’re very spoiled. Fort Defiance is a go to brunch place. And in the summer time you have Brooklyn Crab, it reminds me of my Miami past and you can see all of New York.
We usually wrap up asking about New York, but I want to ask if you still have that feeling of being an outsider that you had in Miami?
No. I think everybody is an outsider in New York, that’s why we all come here. New York is a band of outsiders, and you all know that for one reason or another you’re all open to different things. I love the fact that I can meet people from all different walks of life, I can walk into a subway car and have a conversation with a random man. It’s clear he’s in a parallel universe to me, but we can have a brief conversation about my backpack because it has speakers built in. We share a moment, then we get off the train and go into our separate parallel universes.
At the same time New York is a small village, you always bump into people who know people you know. I never got that from other places. I feel like New York and I are aligned. I think all people have a soul city, where you feel your most comfortable. For me Miami wasn’t it, Switzerland wasn’t it, Poland wasn’t it. I’ve loved being in so many cities, but with New York I can look at the city skyline every morning and think “yes, this is awesome”.
The saddest days for me is when it’s foggy and I can’t see anything. New York is my soul city.