leigh batnick plessner
Leigh Batnick Plessner’s family has a rich history in the Brooklyn neighborhood she calls home. But although she’s stayed in one place geographically for most of her life, professionally she’s been on quite a journey. Her story illustrates how finding a fulfilling career can be a process of trial and error—and ultimately worth every moment along the way.
You are a New Yorker.
My whole family is from New York. My grandfather grew up in Williamsburg and worked at the Navy Yard, so we’ve been in this area for generations.
There’s a great story about my grandfather. He was a soldier in World War II. When he came home from the war, he was dropped off in Manhattan, so he hailed a cab to take him home to Williamsburg. When the taxi got to the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, the cabbie was like, "Alright soldier, you get off here now. Have a good walk to Brooklyn." You know the joke that taxis won’t go to Brooklyn!
My grandfather was a total gentleman, but also a big, tough-looking guy. He very calmly looked at the cab driver and said, "I've been away at war for five years. I've killed many men and I’d really like to not kill another."
Oh god! [Laughs] You’d better drive over that bridge!
Exactly. The cab driver was like, “Alright,” and he drove him home. When they pulled up in front of the house, the cabbie was like, "Soldier, this one is on me.” And my grandfather said, "Absolutely not," and gave him a big tip.
That's such a great story.
I do think about that every time I go over to Williamsburg Bridge.
Has there ever been a time when you haven’t lived in New York?
I grew up on Long Island, and then I went away for college at Bryn Mawr and Georgetown, but I came back when I was 22 or 23. I studied English and anthropology. Bryn Mawr is a prototypical women's college, and is one of the Seven Sisters schools. It's really beautiful. After freshman year, I went to Georgetown.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I went to college. I did a million things and went in many directions. As I got older, I definitely had a sense of the qualities I wanted in my life, but no sense of any practical way to get there. I’ve always worked, though. When I was 14, I volunteered at a wonderful camp for handicapped citizens near where I grew up, and even since then I’ve had employment of some kind. I’ve always known how to work, but didn’t know what job I wanted.
But you’ve always been a creative person?
I was a creative person without an outlet for my creativity. If I had any tangible creative skill, it was writing. I’m lucky that I get to do a lot of that now. But I never really had a lot of skills as a creative person.
When you finished university, did you always know you would come back to New York?
I stayed in DC for maybe a year and a half after college, probably because of inertia and fear—it was easier to stay there than it was to leave. But I always knew that ultimately I would go back to New York.
Was it fear of taking the next step, or finding a different job, or finishing university?
All of the above. [Laughs] It was the first time in my life—it’s the first time in the lives of most people who are born with privilege—that you really don't have a path set before you. I hadn't really thought about what that meant, and I was just stuck with this vague sense of what I wanted. After I graduated, I got a studio apartment in a neighborhood where I had friends and I had a couple of random jobs. I worked at a coffee shop, and was briefly a cocktail waitress but I was so bad at it.
Then I got an incredible job at this place called Politics & Prose. It’s an independent bookstore in DC, founded by two women who were grandmothers. It was the central meeting point for intellectual creative life in Washington. It’s still there and is so, so special. The people who worked there and all the customers were wild, crazy, brilliant people. I got a job in their children's room, which was amazing because I love children's literature. After a while, I became their sidelines buyer. “Sidelines” refers to everything other than books sold at bookstores. I loved working there so much. I feel like it was my second education.
I would go to the stationary shows, and around that time a lot of these small stationary companies were just getting started. People were doing a lot of letter press with illustrations or small icons. Seeing all of this was really exciting to me. I thought, “That’s something I could do.” I'm not a graphic designer, but I understand the marketplace. So I started a stationery company, and I moved back to New York. At my first stationery show, I met so many people; there was a real sense of discovery and comradeship. I got a bunch of really incredible wholesale clients, and my stuff was put into the ABC Home stores, The Frick Museum store, and The New Museum store.
That's amazing. Were you physically making everything in the range?
No! [Laughs] I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I knew some part of it. I was collecting these 19th century silhouettes and adding them onto stationary. But I was having a lot of trouble with getting my files right and sending them to printers. Ignorance is bliss! Everything at the time was very pale and white, so I was mixing it up with larger icons and candy colors. There was a narrative to each piece, with a title and story. I was young, though, and made a ton of business mistakes. I would get more and more people asking me to do custom work, which is where the money is, but I wasn't a graphic designer. I would take these projects and it was so stressful, because I would be in fear of someone asking me to do something outside of what I knew.
So during the course of all of that, I was doing freelance writing and some store design work for companies. Around that time I met Rony, who is the founder of [the jewelry boutique] Catbird. I met her during her first year launching Catbird and she put my stationary into the store. About a year and a half later, she put out an email about opening another store and she was looking for people to work there. I initially started working there for one day a week, then two days, then three and four. Eventually I was like, “I’m done with the other part of my life.”
I think I just turned the website off! [Laughs]
Was it a relief?
Oh, my god. It was a huge relief because I felt like I was never living up to what I was supposed to be doing. I was having way more fun working at Catbird. I loved that it was collaborative and the company was growing at the same time. I always thought of myself as more of a solitary person, so it’s been an amazing discovery to love that sense of community here.
So you were mainly working in the store when you started?
Yes, as well as taking special orders, unpacking, and merchandising.
How did you grow into the role that you have now within the company?
I kind of grew with the company. I couldn’t have applied for this job—it almost just became what I did. As the company has grown, so has my job and title. It organically grew.
Can you talk about what your job entails now?
What I mainly do is creative direction and brand identity. So that means that I work on developing and designing our in-house jewelry line, and I also work on sourcing new product for us to bring in from outside designers. I also work with our art department on everything visual.
Do you feel like you found the qualities that you were looking for when you started out but didn't know what you wanted to do?
What’s next for yourself and the company?
We've started to do more pop-up shops, and that's been really exciting as a company because we get to meet more of our customers. We’re still building a strong foundation so that we can continue to make things that really delight people. You can’t do that if you don’t have any structure in place.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
A really long time ago, I had a job doing retail displays and my boss told me that if you take something apart, you can also put it back together. You just need to sit and be quiet and look at what’s happening. I thought that was really incredible advice. With each stage in my life and career, I always try to understand what is before me, to sit quietly with it and digest before moving forward. And asking questions is so important.
What does New York mean to you?
I think it is a really big part of me. It definitely means home. It’s also a place with so many opportunities. Even as a homebody, you can have so many big dreams here. I love the idea that I could walk out my door and do a million things. It’s wonderful to have that luxury, to indulge that part of yourself when you want to. To have access to amazing culture, people, and creativity.