Bird co-founder and art director, Magdalena Wielopolski, shares her lifelong dream of living in New York City. From Australia to London to Montreal to the Big Apple, it's been a long and winding road full of love, laughter and adventure.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I do. It wasn’t great. I had just moved from Montreal and was staying in downtown Brooklyn in a hotel, and I was also starting work that week. Staying in downtown Brooklyn wasn’t particularly pleasant.
The whole experience was really overwhelming. I was really worried that I had made the wrong decision. I had wanted to live here for so long, it was my dream, and the first week made me think, ‘What if this isn’t it?’ Everything I had done since I left Australia 7 years ago was to get here, and if it goes tits up I don’t know what I’m going to do.
What was it that made you want to come to New York?
Ever since I was 7 years old I wanted to live here. I was always obsessed with America as a kid. I remember I made this little book about America when I was home sick one day from school. I had a write up about every single state and I cut up travel guides and put the photos in the appropriate states.
I don’t know really, I think it’s because I grew up on a lot of American television, a lot of American music. I love the humor, my favorite show is Seinfeld, which is actually (sort of sadly) a big part of my life and how I see things.
The first time I came here when I was 18, I was like ‘yes, this is where everything is happening’. And now I’m here!
You said everything you did in the last 7 years was to get here, what were those steps?
My goal was always to live in New York. I finished my studies in Australia, which were in media production, because I wanted to work in TV. I wanted to be a producer, but in Australia there isn’t much opportunity for that.
I finished my degree and I was thinking, ‘what am I going to do with this?’ There was no way I was going to be able to get a job in the US at that time. I knew I wanted to go to London to get some international experience, but before moving I stumbled upon graphic design through a job interview I had, which I found in the paper. I didn't even know graphic design was a thing.
I went for this interview, and the guy was like, ‘You clearly have no experience, but I can see you’re really interested in it, I’ll give you some work experience’. I really enjoyed it, so I went back to university for a year to do a Diploma in Graphic Design.
Once that year was up, the plan was to move to London with my boyfriend… but things happened, and he couldn’t leave Australia at that time. I was getting really restless, it was time to go. I didn’t want to be in Canberra anymore.
So at 23, I packed up and moved to London on my own, I knew only 3 people there who were my parents’ friends. I moved in with one of them for a couple of months, and I started looking for jobs. I had never lived out of home, and here I was in London, one of the biggest cities in the world.
I eventually got a job in a publishing house, in a small in-house design team. The people there were awesome. I made a conscious effort to avoid Australians, and in the publishing house it was about 99% people from the UK. We had an absolute blast.
My boyfriend came over five months later, and we eventually broke up. I had to start again from scratch, so I moved into this flat with three random people, and we just hit it off. It was my saviour. The four of us were this band of merry men. I had a great crew at work, these great people I lived with, one of my best friends from Australia moved over. London was a friggin’ blast!
But after a couple of years I realized, while it was fun, it wasn’t New York. I started to panic about how I was going to get to New York. How was I going to get a visa? I still didn’t have a huge amount of work experience, and I couldn’t afford to just fly to New York for job interviews. My friend suggested getting a visa for Canada, and moving to Montreal because I have a lot of Polish relatives there, and it was really close to New York so I could just work my way down.
Just edge closer [laughs] …
I thought, ‘What a brilliant idea!’ I applied for a visa, not really thinking much about it, and before I knew it I was packing up and getting ready to move to Montreal.
I realized that I didn’t speak French so I was worried about being able to get a job in design. The panic set in. A cousin of mine had a friend who owned a digital agency and said that I should talk to him about working in Montreal. So I reached out to him and we had a little Skype chat and at the end of the conversation he said, ‘Well, we really like you and the stuff you’re doing, let me talk to my partner and get back to you’. This was about a month before I left London. He emailed me back and offered me a job! I was like, ‘Yes please, I’ll take that’. It was sorted out before I moved.
So I moved to Montreal, and was living with my aunt and uncle for the first couple of months. I started working at Dynamo the week after I arrived. It turned out to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I learned everything I know in digital design there, and I met a ton of phenomenal people.
It was definitely meant to be that I moved there. I was there for two years, and it was a blast. I had my own apartment in the trendy Plateau neighborhood, I had great family and friends, loved my work … hated the winters with a passion. I still don’t understand how people live there and go through these winters every year. It was brutal.
But again a couple of years go by, and I still wasn’t in New York.
Was there any desire to stay in Montreal? Was it hard to push forward towards New York?
It was a hard decision, because of my set up there. I remember having this conversation with my mum, saying, ‘I am in the best position possible right now, yet I want to leave it all and start from scratch again, not knowing anyone, and most likely moving into an apartment with fifteen other people’. But my mum knew that I had to do it, and a lot of my friends who had known me a while said I had to do it too. I’d always regret it if I didn’t.
It was really hard to leave, especially Dynamo because I loved the people there so much. I made this list of agencies in New York that I liked, and started reaching out to people. I had a couple of interviews, and ended up doing a Skype interview with Huge. I didn’t think I was going to get it, but then the next day they offered me a position, and said that they would take care of all the visa stuff, help with my move and that I would start in six weeks. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. After all these years of stress, the last little step was easy.
I landed in New York, and as I said the first week wasn’t great. But I found my feet, and I feel the best I have in my life for a very long time. Right now in this moment. Not necessarily because I’m in New York, I suppose that is part of it, but just in general.
Was New York what you thought it was going to be?
Yes and no. In some ways it’s more than what I expected it to be, especially from a personal perspective. I feel like now I can adapt myself to anywhere, and be this person that I am. I think getting to New York was a big part of that.
Everyone would say, ‘New York is so hectic and everybody works all the time’. And now that I’m here, yeah it is like that. There is a lot of work, it’s tiring, and it is challenging. I know everybody says it, but it’s true. I don’t think it’s sustainable for me for a long time.
Is that just New York though? Or your work?
I think both. New York is expensive. My work/life in Montreal was much more balanced, and here you work a lot, and you go out a lot, and then you have to fit in all the mundane stuff you need to get done as well. There isn’t a lot of down time.
So what is your job role now?
I’m a Senior Visual Designer. In my role, I work with a larger group of designers. Closely with the Art Director, and help execute the vision. I also support younger designers, who help us create that vision. It could be a website or a campaign. I also organize drinking outings. [Laughs]
And we’re drinking mimosas now! Of course, you’re also a co-founder of Bird.
It is true. Let’s talk about Bird and our friendship/relationship. [Laughs] The other co-founder, Stephanie, and I went on a blind friend date a few weeks after I got to NYC, which was organized by a mutual friend of ours in Australia (shout out to Jess for the intro). We met at Taqueria in the Lower East Side, and hit it off.
I was quickly welcomed into Steph’s group of Aussie buddies. We started hanging out regularly and last summer, the two of us were spending a lot of time in Central Park because unlike our other friends we live further uptown.
In the cool part of town!
[Laughs] We would spend many an afternoon there, discussing our lives and our woes. One common thing we talked about was not having a creative outlet, something to call our own. Steph is a photographer, but was finding it difficult to find the time to practice her art.
Part of all of this, we have an Australian friend, a fellow bird named Kath, who would always tell us stories about ‘birds’ she knew. She would use the word bird and we thought it was hilarious. Such an old English man thing to say.
Somehow we started thinking about how great it would be to interview women in New York. We both had the mutual thread of loving New York, and it would be a great opportunity for Steph to photograph, and for me it was a great opportunity because I love people, and I love hearing their stories. It evolved, we put this site together and started interviewing our friends. We thoroughly enjoyed it, so we just kept doing it.
Now it’s great, because we’re getting people recommending their friends, or random people writing in who see the blog. It’s exciting now because we’re interviewing people we don’t know.
This year we’d love to merge with other blogs, get some exposure, and really diversify the Birds we interview. With more exposure hopefully we’ll get access to more women.
You do have a really great connection to people, you genuinely love people …
I do, I also hate them. [Laughs] Something I learned from Seinfeld, people are the worst. Yesterday, going through my Facebook birthday messages, I realized how close I am to so many people around the world.
I’ve said this so many times, at the end of the day when you’re old and grey, it’s the people that are what's important in your life. It’s not that you worked 18 hours a day, no one cares about that. If you have no one to share that with, then what was the point?
I do think that’s a really big part of who you are …
I’m realizing that more and more. Maybe in my 30s I’ll bring that ability to connect with people more into my life.
I want to talk about your Polish heritage … you’re full Polish! Do you identify strongly with your Polish heritage?
The older I get the more I do. When I was a kid, I always felt weird about going back to Poland. Whenever I was in Poland I was like, ‘I’m not like you, I’m Australian’, but then when I was in Australia I was like, ‘I don’t identify with you, I’m Polish, and I speak Polish at home’. It has always been this conflict within me.
My parents moved to Australia in the ‘80s with my brother and sister already in tow. I was the only one born in Australia. We have no real family there, so I grew up hearing about all this family we have around the world, and the war, and the communists, things that were such a big part of my parents' life.
It was weird because I’d obviously never experienced it but I somehow still felt very impacted by what happened to my parents and their family. My parents did something similar to me, moving to the other side of the world, and my sister did the same moving back to Poland.
It’s funny, she did that when she was 23, and my brother moved to Sydney at 23, and at that age I moved to London. We all left, and my parents were sort of stuck there divided by Poland and Australia. Now that they’ve retired they’re spending more and more time in Poland.
The Polish culture is interesting because so many people have stayed connected since they left Poland, even if they weren’t family. I feel like there was this strong bond between people who had gone through what happened in Poland, and had then left. A lot of my family ended up in Montreal, America, Venezuela, Europe, even in Kenya. So whenever I traveled I always had somewhere to go. It’s a community that’s so close.
Do you think it made it easier for you to leave Australia, having that tie to somewhere else?
Definitely. Even now I sort of feel like I don’t know where I belong. The more you travel, the more you meet people who are in a similar situation. But in Australia, while it’s definitely multi-cultural, people don't leave that often. Here, you meet people who were born somewhere, then left, then traveled, their parents are somewhere else. It’s sort of the same as me. Expats from everywhere.
You introduced me to Polish food …
Yes! Karczma is this Polish restaurant in Greenpoint, it’s delicious. I highly recommend it if you want good Polish food. Greenpoint is interesting, it’s funny walking around and seeing signs in Polish.
I remember the first time I went there, and there was a sign up which said ‘apteka’, which means pharmacy. In my head I was like, ‘Oh, a pharmacy’, before registering it was written in Polish.
You live in Murray Hill, which I feel gets a bad rap. But it’s not that terrible! How do you feel about living here?
I feel it’s very convenient. It’s easy to get everywhere. Where I live is not very far east, which is where I know a lot of students live, and there are a lot of sports bars, over near 3rd Avenue. I don't often go that way at night, so I haven’t really experienced that apparent ‘douchy’ student vibe.
Where I am is a much older demographic, which I kind of like. I work in DUMBO, and a lot of people I work with live in Brooklyn, which is very hipster and cool. Then I leave and come here and it’s a totally different world.
Do you have any favorite places in the neighborhood?
There is an amazing brunch place called Penelope.
And they deliver!
What? That is really good to know.
Obviously if you want good Indian food, Murray Hill is the place to go. But I don’t often go out much around here, but I can name a few favorite places around the city.
One of the struggles of growing up in Australia and moving here is trying to find good Thai food, in Australia we are spoilt rotten.
The struggle is real ... [Laughs]
There’s a place in Hell’s Kitchen called Pure Thai Cookhouse, it is the bee’s knees. The staff are awesome, and they have cute old film posters on the walls. I highly recommend it. Everytime I go I try to get something different.
For drinks I do enjoy the Highlands in the West Village, which is a Scottish gastro pub. It’s a fancy pub.
Also where I’m celebrating my birthday tonight, Zablozki’s in Williamsburg. Probably the cheapest place to drink in the neighborhood, it’s a divey bar with a pool table and a dart board.
You can’t go wrong! How do you feel about turning 30?
I feel reassured knowing that most of my friends are 30 as well. [Laughs] I feel very positive about my 30s.
And you’re in New York, I feel like that was your main goal …
Yep, I made it. It was definitely not a small feat getting here. Now that I’m here I want to sit on my comfy couch and watch Netflix.
It’s funny because when I was around 16, I went to Montreal for four weeks, and I came back with this renewed sense of self. I was so positive, nothing worried me. I feel like for years I’ve been remembering that person I was when I came back from Montreal, and trying to bring some of that back.
I feel like I really tensed up in my 20s, and I would get dark very quickly. What surprised me the most is that I was striving so long to bring that person back, and I feel like I have but in a more mature form. I know when to step back and not be so obnoxious (hopefully), but I feel like I have that energy again. I’m back baby!
Knowing that, what advice would you give your 18 year old self?
Chill out a little bit. I always wanted to do everything, I wanted work, I wanted to have friends, I wanted to relax. I wanted to travel. It was always so stressful trying to fit everything in.
Now, you know what? There is time. I didn’t have to cram it all in during my 20s.
Now you have a fresh decade in New York. So what do you think about when you think of New York?
To me, New York has always meant possibilities and the unknown. In a really exciting way.
Something my mum said when she was here is that it’s the ‘city of sirens’. It’s true, but I think that reflects that there is something happening all the time. Everytime I leave my apartment I think, what could happen?