Jean Chandler loves to build things—whether that means sketching the perfect workspace, getting under the hood of her beloved ‘67 Ford Econoline, or teaching other women to use power tools through her Womanufacture workshop series. For Jean, design isn’t an abstract concept, but a hands-on way to bring ideas into the real world.
What brought you to New York?
I’m from a really small town in upper Michigan; it’s very woodsy and country. I grew up as an artist—always making, thinking, doing, reading. I came to New York when I was 17 for a school art-club field trip. I just remember lagging in the back of our group, trying to pretend I wasn’t with them and that I was actually a person who lived in New York. [Laughs] That was the moment I really fell in love with the city. Ever since then I was trying to find my way back.
I ended up going to college in Wisconsin to study interior design and architecture. It was actually an arts degree, so you could also dabble in fine arts. So I could do sculpture, painting and drawing, as well, but I knew that I wanted to be able to do something practical with my art. I’ve always been more of a technical artist. I’m attracted to how things work and come together. Pretty much everybody in my family is a mechanic except for me! So the way I look at design is similar: How can I make a space work differently and more efficiently?
After college, I hit the streets hard looking for work in architecture, but because I had a fine-arts degree instead of an architecture degree, I had some trouble getting hired. I finally found a firm that would hire me, and started to work my way up the ladder. It actually turned out to be an amazing place to work. We mainly designed interiors for businesses. The boss there was very entrepreneurial, and if I had a creative idea or concept I was allowed to run with it. My boss recognized that we were working for clients who wanted to capture a younger demographic, and so it made sense to listen to the younger people who worked in the office. That was something that other women my age weren’t getting.
I stayed there a little too long, because I was really fulfilled by being able to make something, and have my ideas heard.
So what made you finally leave?
For me, it has to become really obvious that a stage in my life is over, and the next part needs to begin. I tend to overstay my welcome! Change is hard for me. The writing on the wall happened during a client meeting. We were re-branding and designing the interiors for a credit union, and we were showing our designs to the president of the company. She was young, and really progressive and cool. I had created an amazing space that was really forward-thinking. A lot of clients previously had thought my concepts were a little too progressive, but I was sure that she would go for it. We had put together this amazing presentation and I felt like I had convinced her, but she backed out of it a couple of weeks later. She said they needed to go with a more conservative look. I knew I needed to move on to find my ideal clients.
My work had evolved, and I wanted to push the envelope. I want to take people where I think they need to be. I thought about where I could do that, and New York was the obvious choice. It’s the hub of the design world, and the type of clients I wanted are here.
As a workplace designer, the number-one topic on the client’s mind is staff retention. How do we get the best talent working here? How do we give them something they value? What do they value? And how can we roll that out into the design so that it’s an experience to work there and not just a place where you have a cubicle?
So I filled out a lot of applications online, looking for work in New York. It was in the middle of the recession, and I was having no luck. But I knew I needed to just get out of Wisconsin. I needed to be in New York. I took the leap, quit my job and moved in 2010. I stayed with a friend in Harlem, and lived out of a suitcase. The first night, I had this moment of fear, asking myself, “What am I doing?” I knew, though, that it could only get better.
I spent every day looking for work, but nobody was hiring because the work just wasn’t there.
Firms weren’t getting clients, so they weren’t hiring. People were downsizing. I started to consider other opportunities, and ways I could use my skills and passion for design. I rewrote my resume and sent it to furniture dealers, and got an interview. After talking for a few minutes, the guy who was interviewing me was like, “This isn’t what you want to do, is it? You’re overqualified, but I’m not going to give you this job.”
I reworked my resume again, and started looking for bar work at beautiful bars and restaurants. I thought, “If I have to do other work, I at least want to do it in an inspiring space.” There’s a David Rockwell hotel called Ink48 and I ended up getting a job there. I bartended at their restaurant and rooftop bar for a year. Even in a recession, people will still go out for a drink. [Laughs] So it actually worked out quite well; I was able to pay my bills and continue searching for opportunities.
Eventually, I got a job with a consulting firm that would place me temporarily into jobs since architecture firms weren’t hiring full-time staff. It was a still really tough to be able to even just get an interview for a full-time job. I also felt like the quality of my work didn’t match the quality of the work here, because I wasn’t working for clients in Wisconsin that would allow me to showcase the full scope of my talent. You are what your portfolio is. I was able to eventually get an interview with the Rockwell Group design firm, and the woman who was interviewing me asked me one of the most important questions of my life: “What is your personal design aesthetic?” I had no answer for her. Everything I had done was designing for a client, for somebody else. Obviously, I didn’t get that job, but I’m so glad she asked me that question. I went away and really thought about it. I created moodboards and researched until I had an answer.
So you kept working with the consulting firm during this time?
Yes. And eventually I got placed full time at a firm. At that point, I was able to let go of the hospitality work. Over the next couple of years, I was able to work my way from being a task-driven designer to more of a creative designer and thinker. I made a series of job moves—each time I’d move into a new position thinking, I want to work here, I feel inspired by these people, I’m inspired by this work, and I think I can add something to it. But then I’d get a new opportunity to go somewhere else and do even more. Which, to my surprise, came so organically after this really hard start in New York. Currently, I work at a place called STUDIOS Architecture, and I’ve been there for two years. I get to have a creative voice there and I’m a lead designer.
What sort of design do you work in currently?
A lot of us who work there are called generalists, so we do architecture and interior design. I mostly still work in workplace design; that’s my wheelhouse. I’ve been doing that in some form since I started working. I find it endlessly fascinating. What’s cool about my job is when we sign up a new client, I have to learn everything about what they do and how they do it. So I’m working with a client right now where I spent three weeks meeting with representatives of each one of their departments and traveling through their work neighborhoods and, like, looking in each file cabinet, looking in every storage room. If they have a particular room that they use a lot, how many people use it? Why? I have to learn the ins and outs of their company. I have to be a little bit of a chameleon, to get my design voice through but also to appeal to them and design for their workplace.
When you learn about what every single person and organization does and how they do it, the space designs itself. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle at that point.
I’ve never thought about that, but now when I walk into a workplace I’ll be noticing the design!
So much goes into it. Aside from the general design and creative concepts, you have to also work with building and government code regulations. There are Americans with Disabilities Act codes, and fire safety codes. The door width, corridors, restrooms, lighting—it’s all regulated. For example, even the amount of lighting watts per square foot are regulated, which means you can’t just put lights anywhere you want.
Your personal space at home is also amazing. Can you talk about how you came across it and the significance of the van?
At some point living in New York City, I felt the need to have some sort of a homecoming, to go back to my roots. Motor sports are in my blood. I wanted to get a van that could be my escape hatch from the city. I wanted something I could drive to the state parks, and also sleep and cook in. I searched for a long time, and one morning I was scrolling through Instagram and found the van! It’s a Ford, and there’s a nice family connection because my grandfather worked for Ford for many years in Detroit.
I messaged the van owners, and said, “I need this van, I’ll do whatever it takes.” My cousin, who lives in Southern California, picked it up and I went to meet her in San Diego to drive it back to New York. I sent out an email few weeks ahead of time inviting friends to join me along the way. So I picked a few people up, dropped a few people off at airports. In retrospect, it was tough to bring a 50-year-old vehicle that I wasn’t familiar with cross country, but it worked out.
What’s most special is my nephew, who’s 22, came with me from San Diego to Chicago. He’s a mechanic, as well, so it was amazing to work with him on it during the trip.
It’s an amazing-looking van, but it doesn’t look like you could sleep in it.
It looks more like a passenger van, but the whole back piece pops up so you can stand up in there. And the back seat folds down into a bed. I’ve scheduled camping trips the whole summer.
It’s brought me so much joy. I’m a person who needs to be with nature. Living in New York City, working in architecture, being surrounded by everything manmade, I really do need that contrast of nature to feed my creative soul.
How did you find this space where you could live with your van? It’s like nothing I’ve seen!
I bought the van without really thinking about how much money I would have to spend to keep it. [Laughs] At the time, it was the middle of winter so I needed to find a garage so it wouldn’t rust in the snow. Because it’s an oversized vehicle, garages were charging me $500 a month to park it! I had to suck it up, though. So, at the end of my lease, I started looking for other options. I wanted to live in Bushwick for ages—I love the industrial vibe, and the people that live here. There are so may working artists.
I was looking around at so many places and nothing was right. I was also reading this book about manifesting, and the main rule of the book was that you shouldn’t speak negatively about that which you wish to acquire. I was having a conversation with my brother, who was like, "I don't know how you're living in a city like New York, and also dealing with a van?” And I was like, "I don't know, I'm not dealing with it. It's driving me crazy." And he said, "You need a space where you can put your van inside and just have one big space." I laughed at him, because that seemed impossible! Then I caught myself and I was like, "Maybe it's not; maybe it is possible."
That day, I was looking at apartments and I ended up turning down a space a few blocks away and the broker was getting a little frustrated with me. I showed him a picture of the van and I told him a little bit about what I want to be doing in the space. So he drove me here and showed it to me. I fell to the ground because it was so perfect! I was maybe being a bit dramatic. [Laughs]
When I first moved in, it was just an empty space. I slept in the van inside of the space for a good while until I could get things together to build the loft. I had some friends come help me out, and we built it together. People who wouldn't normally be up for a project like that chipped in and I taught them how to do simple construction. By the end of it, they were telling me what to do!
I’m so fortunate to be able to build this space around the way I want to live, cook, clean, work, and sleep. The whole space is also completely movable, so I can park the van outside and use the space for community. I’ve had people host mediation in here, craft parties, yoga… I want this space to be just as much of a community space as it is a living space.
Did building this space with friends inspire you to start Womanufacture?
It actually started before I moved into this space. A couple of years ago, a friend and I were sitting around talking about how sweet it is to be girls who aren't afraid to make something or operate a power tool. We were talking about where we got permission to act like that, because in our culture there are so many gender trapdoors to navigate. For me, it came from my family. My dad never really distinguished whether I was his son or his daughter. If he was stuck under the car and he needed a half-inch wrench, whoever was around would go get him that wrench. He taught me about cars and building. He never said, "Go back into the house with your mother." Not once.
It's really empowering and I’ve seen how it transforms women. A friend who helped me build the staircase is an attorney. She hadn’t built anything before, and she actually texted me the other day to tell me she’s resurfacing her kitchen table herself. One little thing can spark something inside of you, and then suddenly there are no limits.
So all of that leads to Womanufacture. I want to empower women by showing them how to build something, to operate a power tool or machinery. It gives people such a sense of achievement and fulfillment. Doing something with your hands, seeing tangible results.
That’s also something people crave, I think. Everything is so digital, it’s satisfying to do something with your hands.
It creates a real, authentic experience for people. I want to create once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for people.
How do you balance that with your job and the van?
It’s crazy how much time goes into having and maintaining a career in New York City. Finding time to escape, though, is important. After work, I’m working on Womanufacture, messaging people to collaborate with. I recently met with Jess Banks of RockPaperRobot, who makes kinetic furniture. She's one of the coolest people I've ever met in my life.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
In the past couple of years my advice has been, don’t take advice! And don’t limit yourself. Don't talk negatively to yourself or others about what the possibilities are. Because if you’re telling your friends, family, and support network that you’re afraid, what else are they going to say but, "Stop hurting yourself. Just chill and go to bed; tomorrow's another day." I had to really do a lot of growing up to get this apartment, because it was hard to find and difficult to build. I would complain to people and they would say, "Just find another place. Get rid of the van and take a few logs off the pile." Hearing that made it harder to do the thing I knew deep down I wanted to do. It’s cliché, but you have to do you.
What does New York mean to you?
It means ambition. People come here to be the best in their field. You learn from the best here, and are surrounded by it. When I leave New York for an extended period of time, I start to feel like I'm missing out on what's new. There's some places in the world where new things start, and this is one of them. You can feel the vibrations of it and it energizes everything.
New York is also about community. I love that there are so many people here that no matter what you do, you can get people behind what you’re doing. It could be this very specific thing that you think no one else is into, but you can find an event or a group for it. That is so powerful.
Don't forget to check out Womanufacture.