LIFE LATELY: A CONVERSATION WITH WILL & EMMA ON STARTING EAST OTIS STUDIO
Over the years, any time these two would wander into the shop it felt a bit like three’s a party and the store became exactly what it’s meant to be: a place to gather, catch up and admire beautiful things together. Their taste level in all things is exceptional, so when they opened up their design studio, East Otis, we knew good things were in store for them. Whether you’re familiar or not with this duo’s design work, read on for the conversation we had on life lately. Including what led them to start East Otis, their current home reno projects, as well as where to see their gorgeous pieces out in the world.
Many of us around here know you two from when you lived around the corner from the shop in Fishtown and would stop in on your way home from work – we miss those days. What’s life in Lancaster like and what’s your equivalent now, how do you decompress at the end of the work day?
EH: Gahhhh, we miss you guys too! I sometimes feel funny when I come into the store now because I’m always like, “where do I find this?" and, "do you guys have any of this left?” I’m one of those people who loves to see things IRL so becoming an online shopper has been an adjustment!
Life in Lancaster is more wonderful I think than we could have ever expected. We both knew it was the right move for us, but you never really know, especially taking on such a big project out here. There have definitely been a few moments of, “What are we doing? Are we mad?” But being here has allowed us to slow down a little; we both mentally feel healthier and better than we ever have. We’ve also made great friends and there is a really special community of creative people in Lancaster that we are enjoying. It's a fun place to be, not to mention, Will's Mom and Dad live two minutes down the road and WE LOVE THEM!
Lancaster's best gift of all has been the feeling of 100% being in the right place to start a family, so decompressing looks a lot like chasing our little guy around the house and just soaking in his pure joy. Kids have a way of making everything seem simpler.
WH: Life in Lancaster is a slower pace, in some regards, and faster in others. Our wind down normally involves making dinner as a family, talking through our days and spending time with our son Billy and dog, Celine.
You both have diverse creative backgrounds – What led to starting East Otis and how do you each contribute?
EH: I think Will will say the same, we wanted beautiful things in our home. Handmade and well made, beautiful things but couldn’t afford them at the time. I had this dresser that I think I made Will move about four times. Every time it needed another screw put in here or there just to keep the thing together. Eventually he put his foot down and finally said, “No more, I’ll build you a dresser.” And that's where it started. I still have that first dresser he made me in my studio and I love it. Will hates it but it will always be symbolic of something special to me.
WH: It was a simple start in many ways. We both wanted furniture we could feel proud of and was functional, and that survived more than one or two moves. When we lived in Philly, we were constantly on the move, and also constantly in need of spaces that made sense to how we lived. Making our own furniture was cheaper in many ways because we were so specific about what we wanted. It normally started with a need, then a conversation about how best to do it, and then we both spoke through the design before making it. Home is very important to both of us, and making a safe and inviting home has been a priority from early on in our relationship.
What was your first job – ever?
EH: Pizza Hut. Stuffed crust for life! LOL!
WH: When I was twelve I started mowing lawns and doing yard work for some houses in my neighborhood. I continued that through high school and then worked construction before heading off to art school.
Where did you learn how to build?
EH: I love being in the studio with Will. He's taught me everything I know, which is still not very much. But I think I got my particular-ness for finishing from my dad. He would walk me around furniture showrooms as a kid and he would feel every hutch and dresser in the place and say, “no good, feel that?” Ha! I do the same.
WH: I would say that fundamentally I learned the basics from my father, who had a background in cabinetry and construction. There was always something to fix or improve around the house growing up, and we all had to pitch in. It's impossible not to absorb when you’re around it all the time. I studied sculpture at Tyler School of Art, and although that program was more conceptually minded, there were still foundational building courses. After art school, I worked for artist, Alex Da Corte, which was very pivotal to my understanding of material, art history and contemporary sensibilities. I then landed a job working for Tyler Hays’ company, BDDW. I worked there for 8 years, and it's where I learned the lion’s share of my building knowledge. Anyone familiar with his work understands the amount of attention and perfection that goes into each piece. Emma and I met through a coworker I had there so it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Can you share a little about your house reno project? What’s on the to-do list next? Or maybe less daunting, what are you most proud of that you’ve done so far?
EH: OMG where to start?! (Insert nervous laughter.) We bought an old farmhouse that, over the years, the previous owners made into a “fancy” house. We're slowly removing all the old 80s “fancy” (lots of wallpaper) and stripping it back. I kid you not, the outside paint job makes it look like a gingerbread house, but not in a cute way.
"Will winces every time I have that look in my eye, staring at a wall or a room but he is amazing and really gets behind my crazy."
I can’t wait to strip the floors, I hate stained wood floors. Strong words, I know. Wallpaper on every ceiling. We’ve stripped 7 rooms so far and have 3 left. It’s slow progress but so worth it. Will winces every time I have that look in my eye, staring at a wall or a room but he is amazing and really gets behind my crazy. It's hard to pick a favorite reno in this house so far… I think maybe Billy's Playroom, but I also have a fondness for our kitchen. We painted it nacre white, blush and a scullery yellow which honestly sounds a bit wild for us, but I just love it. It's kind of a band aid until we can really do the “dream” kitchen. Originally, I wanted to move the kitchen but now I’m not so sure. Will sighs with relief, ha! Also, must add, the new vision for the kitchen involves an extension and a fireplace. Dream big or go home!
WH: The to-do list is never-ending, but we have made strides already. We are habitual house improvers, even in apartments in Philly we rented, we couldn’t help ourselves from improving the space. The scale of our Lancaster farm house is a bit daunting, but so far we have managed to make up a few rooms that make the house feel a bit more like us. We have an outbuilding that used to serve as a schoolhouse that we are currently renovating into an AirBnB that will also function as a small showroom for some of our East Otis pieces. It’s been a practice in patience all-around because our last house in Philly was small enough for us both to be able to do a room on a weekend. Everything takes a bit longer here, but we wouldn’t have it any other way!
You are both incredibly multi-talented designers and artists: from painting and designing/making clothes, all on top of creating beautiful furniture. Am I missing anything? What’s your biggest source of inspiration and is it different for each medium?
EH: Will is going to be way better at answering this one. I get super inspired when we travel. It can even be just driving down a new road I haven’t been on before, so maybe it's more a case of when we move. I love architecture and sculpture which sounds really vague and broad but recently I got to take Will to one of my favorite ever museums in St Ives, Cornwall, UK. (My family vacationed there every year since I was cooking in my mum's tum!)
The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is incredible and if you're ever lucky enough to find yourself in that beautiful and wild part of England, I highly recommend a visit. I chose her as an artist I wanted to study in school when I was 15. Wow, she was so cool. Anyway, I love to see how these people created and lived. The utilitarianism of it is really impactful, I think, on how we design together.
"In our furniture, it’s always a conversation between me and Emma. We start with a simple idea, for a table or chair, then it's a back and forth between us."
WH: It’s hard to pinpoint one specific source of inspiration. In my painting work, I often think of a quote my professor John Dowel told me. He said, “you got to play jazz with the paintbrush.” It stuck with me for whatever reason. In our furniture, it’s always a conversation between me and Emma. We start with a simple idea, for a table or chair, then it's a back and forth between us. We have lists of pieces we want to make, but it’s just us two right now, so we have to pick and choose which projects get our attention.
Maybe this answers the previous question, but favorite art show you’ve seen in the past year?
EH: Alex Katz: Gathering at The Guggenheim was amazing! The book is on our wishlist. <3
WH: Emma, our son, Billy, and I were all there. It was really special to be in that space as a family. Both Emma and I are real fans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and Alex Katz’s paintings are uniquely special.
If you could go back in time and give your young creator selves one piece of advice what would it be?
EH: I think people can be scared of creative people; they can sort of put off or try to downplay your ideas and make you feel crazy, even. So I guess my advice is listen to your gut. The easy decisions usually aren't the most rewarding.
WH: Be relentlessly optimistic.
Favorite wood to work with?
EH: I love the simplicity of Maple. A good solid American hardwood, always has a really easy beautiful figure. My favorite finish is bleached.
WH: Wormy Maple. It’s often seen as a defect at lumber yards, so there is something inherently poetic about using it to create beautiful furniture that will get handed down to younger generations.
EH: Old fashioned everytime!
WH: Manhattan. It pairs perfectly with Christmas music, which starts the day after Halloween in our house.
Asking for personal reasons – what’s a good first investment piece of furniture to start with?
EH: Ahhhhhh, I’m between a mirror and a dresser so I divert to Will…
WH: I think a mirror is always a good investment. It can make a room feel larger, brighter and will get used every day of its life.
Can we see East Otis in person anywhere?
EH: Yes, Soho Home Studio in NYC. They have a few pieces in there at the moment and Harmony and her team are amazing! Definitely check out that space if you're in or around the area. And of course, our favorite store, Vestige, has a mirror that's great for selfies!
WH: Ditto above.
Anything else you want to share with the Vestige world?
Thank you both for taking the time to share, we love what you're creating and can't wait to see what's next!