Hell's Kitchen

Erin LeForce

 

Growing up in Oklahoma designer, Erin LeForce, was always encouraged by her grandma to be creative. With a desire to explore the wider world she found herself in the big apple working at one of America's most powerful design agencies.

 
 

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How did you get to where you are today?
I was always encouraged to be creative by my grandma, Lilian. She would take care of my sister and I after school while my parents worked. We spent a lot of time with her, she was a very creative person. All the quilts around my apartment were made by her. She churns them out like crazy. We were always encouraged to be creative with her, so I think that’s how both my sister and I ended up being in creative fields.

At college I wasn’t really thinking that I wanted to be in art or anything visual. I wanted to be in nutrition. I was always big into track at high school so I thought nutrition fit into that interest. But I was horrible at biology, so I transitioned into Engineering. My dad was an engineer and I’ve always been good at math and physics. I also did foreign language and literature, but I was encouraged by my college advisor not to pursue those things!

Why did your advisor encourage you not to pursue them?
Yeah because he wanted me to work at Walmart. In industrial design you’re dealing with efficiency and flows of traffic ... how high you can put something on a shelf so that people can still access it etc. Walmart is a really big business where I grew up, and they have a great relationship with Oklahoma State. We were sitting in his office and he was being very encouraging of all my grades but at the same time killing all the dreams I’ve ever had.

That’s when I decided to go into graphic design. My sister Katie, who’s an architect, was always very encouraging of it. So at college I went from nutrition to engineering, and then changed again to graphic design. I ended up being in college for five years. It set me back a little bit, but it was worth figuring out.

Now I am in New York because of my husband, Wes. It was his dream to move to the city. We both went to school in Oklahoma, where I was born.

Did you always want to leave Oklahoma?
It wasn’t something I thought about. I’m from Tulsa which is in eastern Oklahoma. I really enjoyed growing up there. It’s very city-like, there’s plenty to do. There’s a really big jazz following there and a really great gay community.

As I went to college things started to change though. Conversations changed and I really started to see the community that was representative of Oklahoma and it was one that I didn’t really relate to.

In what way?
It’s blindly religious. Not that religion is bad at all. It’s just a very close-minded state. Going to college and meeting different people really broadened my horizons.

Were a lot of the people at college from Oklahoma or interstate?
The majority were from Oklahoma and Texas and a few international students. But no one really challenged anything. No one was saying ‘there might be a different way of looking at this’. I think that even our education reflects that. It’s very much ‘here’s how it’s done’ versus ‘discover how you want to do it.’ That lack of conversation made me question whether I wanted to be a part of it.

There are nice parts of living in Oklahoma though. I wouldn’t be upset if we moved back to live in Tusla. I really did enjoy it there but it has changed a lot. You see how the environment shapes peoples’ worldviews compared to being around people in New York. Here in New York it is very rare to run into people with similar views to the magnitude of other places like Oklahoma, where everyone has a similar thought and few people question it.

In New York there are so many voices and points of view that would make it very hard to go back at this point.

 
I think [my parents] appreciate us moving out here because it’s fulfilling that passion they instilled in us.

How did your parents feel about you leaving?
I think they both recognized that there was a lack of creative opportunities in Tulsa. There are a few boutique firms doing some interesting work there but there’s nothing like a digital agency in Oklahoma. In terms of architecture, Wes’ options are also limited.

I think they appreciate us moving out here because it’s fulfilling that passion they instilled in us. But there’s always the conversation ‘what if you came back and had your own firm?’

How was it finding work here?
I applied to a bunch of places over the summer when I first arrived, did some freelance. But my first job was in PR through my best friend from high school. She worked for Urban Zen which was Donna Karen’s production company. It worked out in the end but I hated it at the time. I worked from home and started to realise what I was missing out on. I wanted to work with people and be influenced by people. So when I applied at Huge I was really open about what I wanted and I think that really spoke to the Creative Director who interviewed me. I said I wanted to be able to learn from people and be in an industry where there are lots of different ways of solving problems.

 

How did you find your first year in New York?
I was really homesick. It was much harder for me than it was for Wes. I worked from home so I was very lonesome. I would sit at my desk and cry. Wes had all these things he was doing that were keeping him busy.

It was a transition. I find that it’s really important to stay busy when you do something new. Spending all day on your own, you get in your head about it. Especially when you’ve come from a place where you know everyone.

You’re still at Huge now, how do you feel about it?
It’s really good. I had no background in digital design before I started. I find it completely fascinating. Everyday there’s something new. I feel like it’s a very relevant thing to be doing so I could not be happier. I really enjoy the people. I think it’s an interesting culture in the way we present our work and ourselves. It’s an interesting place where people can say and do what they want and they’re still the best in the industry.

What is your job title?
I’m a Senior Visual Designer. I started from the bottom as an intern. Then I was in the Huge School for 3 months and that was a bit higher than an intern. It was basically training for an Associate Designer role. Then I was an Associate Designer and now a Senior Visual Designer.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
After Wes finishes grad school we’ll talk about what we want to do, if we want to stay in the city or not. I think it would be cool to go to another place, I don’t know where it would be though. But I think there’s still a lot more I can learn from being at Huge and I want to take advantage of that. I think it would be really interesting to take that bigger agency knowledge and apply it on a smaller scale, a start-up or something like that.

Digital is such a fast-paced industry that I feel is very fleeting, for some reason. I wonder if I’ll be able to keep up. I get a lot of anxiety about where it will go and how I’ll fit into that. So I haven’t thrown out the idea of being a closet organizer (laughs).

I don’t know if I see myself staying in New York for five more years. It kind of spoils you so it’s hard to see where else you could go ...

Do you like living in Hell’s Kitchen?
Yeah, it’s really nice. The proximity to Times Square is a bummer though. You reach a certain boundary where things are overpriced and you feel like you are being ‘hood-winked’.

Do you think it’s changed a lot in the last 3 years?
Not a whole lot, there’s been a few restaurants coming and going but not any big shifts.

I love being close to the park. It’s a super surreal thing to be running in the park and think “I’m doing my morning exercise in the nation’s biggest man-made park”. And we’ve started to explore a lot more of the Upper West Side. There’s some great stuff there too.

 

Any cool places you’ve discovered up there?
There’s Max Soha, it’s a little Italian place that’s about 2 blocks away from Columbia. It’s really really cute, really good food.

Do you remember the first album you ever bought?
It was either Disney singles, or the Alanis Morissette CD.

I loved that one… Jagged LIttle Pill?
Yeah, duh!

I had a little boombox that I played it on. We had cassette tapes and we would play the poet, Shel Silverstein. Lillian would always play him for us. They were hilarious.

Did you guys sit around making quilts and listening to poetry?
I think if you heard this poetry it wouldn’t sound so idyllic … it’s very crass. Lilian taught Home Economics and she’s very by the book. You had to do everything right.

She wouldn’t let us open up our happy meal toys because she thought they would be collectors items one day. She’s very eccentric. She’d walk around talking to herself. She had a bunch of cats.

What happened to the happy meal toys?
She kept them. They’re probably in her garage somewhere. Her house is full of all sorts of stuff. Old things from when my dad was a kid and stuff from when she was a kid. She lives in the same house that she grew up in.

Do you have any shames or guilty pleasures?
I’m addicted to beach novels. They do have some character to them, they’re not just totally trashy. I don’t like having headphones on the subway, it makes me feel really anxious, so that’s what I do on my commute.

 

How many books a week do you read?
It depends on how mindless it is. If it’s really compelling and very easy to read, then I can do one book in two days. I can get through a 200-300 page book very quickly. But sometimes I go a little bit slower, depending if I’m socially more active that week.

Drunk, let’s be honest.
Yep (laughs). I probably average about 2 or 3 books a week.

You also have a weakness for sweet things …
Yes. I constantly eat candy. I’ll never turn down anything chocolate. If I go to Dewey's Candy Store in DUMBO, then it’s all about the gummies. I’ve been known to eat meals of candy. The other night Wes called and I was at Whole Foods and I had gotten a chocolate bar, watermelon and eggs for dinner. I also picked up some powdered sugar because I thought we might need it later ...

For what?
I don’t know (laughs).

We’re not allowed to make chocolate chip cookies anymore. Ever since I was little, my dad always made Nestle Toll Househose cookies, so I’ve memorized the recipe. But I like the cookie dough more than the actual cookies. Same with Wes. We’ll eat the entire batch of cookie dough. It’s shameful.

What gets you excited about New York? Or brings you down?
The people bring me down. Getting on the subway is the worst.

Where’s your favorite go-to place in the city?
Central Park or the West Village. What I really love about New York is that it does everything well. When a new restaurant opens it has to compete, so it’s going to be the best. That’s really exciting about this city. I like that it’s fast-paced. There aren’t a lot of lolly-gaggers here.

What is a lolly-gagger?
Someone who is without drive … standing around, wasting space. When you get on the plane in New York everyone puts their stuff away, sits down in their seats and that’s it! Everyone’s quiet and not talking to each other. When you get off in Oklahoma everyone’s just standing around talking, asking you what you’re gonna do. It’s like ‘I don’t know you, you’re a stranger. Leave me alone.’

I like the anonymity of the city for that reason. You’re doing your own thing, which can be good and bad. I do think it’s amazing that so many people can be this close and yet do their own thing.

Any specific places in the West Village that you love?
Tartine, it’s a little French place. There are six tables in there so it’s tiny. But they make French Onion soup which is to die for. Wes and I go there a lot in the winter. There’s another place, Doma Na Rohu, but we just call it Doma. It’s Hungarian. We go there for breakfast and they do everything in those little painted ceramic pots.

 

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Photography by Stephanie Geddes ©


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