After working for a number of years in New York city, designer Lesley Merola Moya moved out west to Taos, New Mexico where she started her own studio, hunt+gather. Her new home, with its wild beauty and famously pervasive art scene, has proven to be a successful incubator and endless source of inspiration for the vivid, original work that she has been producing recently.
Read on to learn how she made the leap from big city lights to multi-colored sunsets in the land of enchantment.
I have been interested in art for as long as I can remember. I loved doing anything creative when I was a kid and was always making something.
I was at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC) for my fine arts degree and a few weeks before graduation I was walking aimlessly around campus wondering what the hell I was going to do when I was done with school. I felt freaked out because we were only really trained to sell work in galleries and I didn't have the confidence at that point to be going around to try to get a show. I also felt like I wasn't 100% cut out for that type of art world—especially in NYC!
After having spent 2 years being really broke while putting myself through school, I didn't want to be a starving artist anymore. I needed a job but had no idea what else I would be happy doing other than art. While walking past the textile/surface design department at FIT, I saw the students' work in display cases and a huge light bulb went off over my head! That was it. It all came together at once. I had always been interested in fashion and interior design but I knew I didn't want to be a fashion designer or an interior decorator. I had always been obsessed with pattern, the Fibonacci theory. Tetris was my favorite game. I loved puzzles and making things fit. Surface pattern design seemed like a way to combine all of that together.
I applied for FIT's textile/surface design program, signed up for a few more years of being a starving student, and got a BFA. It was a perfect fit for me and the best decision I ever made! It's also great that I have my fine arts background—it helps with everything I do in surface pattern design. And, now that I have been doing it a while I am often more interested in creating an abstract watercolor design that can be transformed into a textile design rather than being so focused on patterns.
Please describe your first job in the industry. What kinds of things did you learn that you didn't in school?
I had a lot of jobs in the industry after school, all of them very different and I learned a new set of skills from each one. I graduated at a tough time in NYC, a few months after 9/11. Jobs were scarce so I took the first thing that came my way. I had interned with a very cool company that designs high end contract textiles. It was a great experience and I really admired my boss a lot (she is now the creative director at Knoll). She taught me so much. It was a lot of "listen, look, and learn." I just tried to soak up as much as I could.
After my internship, I worked for a furniture company which was owned by the same fabric company I interned for. It involved working with interior designers, helping them pick out fabrics and pulling colors. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to be doing, so I moved on to designing wallpaper, which I also wasn't so into. At that time, wallpaper was pretty boring. I designed mostly for hotels and businesses, and I still cringe every time I am in a hotel room. The wallpaper is usually all the same, unless you are in a really hip modern hotel, and it's usually not pretty!
It was at the wallpaper job that I started really gathering my CAD skills and getting more into digital design. Most of the work I did in school was by hand. I really appreciate my old-school education, taught by real industry people who had been in it for years, but there wasn't much CAD to learn then. The industry really turned around by the time I graduated. It made it harder to land jobs because employers didn't want to see as many hand painted designs. I had to work pretty hard on the side teaching myself extra Photoshop skills and learning CAD on the job.
After working on wallpaper, and then as an in-house designer for a home furnishings company, I moved into apparel and spent 5 years working for a big company in NYC. This is where I really figured out that I wanted to design for fashion. It's just more fun and fast paced and I had more fun thinking about the possibility of being able to wear a really cool print rather than have it on a duvet cover or couch.
The mission first came from necessity. I had moved from the east coast of the US to Taos, New Mexico where there is no fashion or home furnishings industry! My husband is from Taos, so when we decided to make the move out here I knew I would have to somehow continue to do what I loved or it just wouldn't work. I started freelancing the second I got here and a month or two later started up hunt+gather and it's just been growing ever since. I started the studio by creating about 60-100 of my own designs and then began working with other artists to beef up the collection and get a few different styles into the mix.
What markets do you design for? Do you have a preference?
Mostly women's and juniors' apparel. We have been getting a lot of attention from swim and active wear companies lately which is kind of cool. And, the skate/surf brands seem to like us a lot--I love that! Occasionally we will sell to home furnishings and other areas. I just sold some prints to a company that makes stuff for dogs!
I currently don't have any employees or freelancers, but I do have a really awesome assistant in Taos who helps when I need it the most, like when I'm getting ready for a show or sending a big batch of fabric out to my rep.
In terms of artists, I work with a lot and they are based all over the world. They work on a commission basis, so when a print sells they get a percentage of the sale. I work with them mainly through email and give them trend direction and help tweak the designs or colors. Everything else I do myself, so it can get to be a lot sometimes! Eventually I would love to grow to have a few people in-house doing various jobs.
After spending many years working in the industry in New York, you relocated to Taos, New Mexico. How has living there affected your work, both artistically and professionally?
It's been an interesting change for sure! You can't get much different from NYC than Taos, but I am in love with this town and New Mexico is such a beautiful state.
I was really burnt out after all my years at school and working in the industry in NYC. Not so much burnt out from work—I loved what I did. I was just so burnt from commuting, and the city started to feel really claustrophobic. It had been the only place I wanted to be from the time I was a teenager until just a few years ago. Once that feeling started to change I figured maybe it was time for a break. I didn't want to start to hate the city I loved so much and that had done so much for me. Now it's really nice to visit and I can appreciate all the little things that I never did before—like stopping on the street to look up at an old building with gargoyles and all those cool details that make NYC so awesome.
I think living in Taos has affected my work a lot. The town is an artists' community—there is art everywhere! I think there are literally about 30 galleries within a few blocks of my house. I never get sick of the landscape, we are up in the mountains. It's just beautiful all the time here and there is so much inspiration. I am also really inspired by the Native American culture in so many ways, especially since my main inspiration for any kind of art has always been nature.
Other than that, to stay in touch with the industry and fashion, I look at a lot of blogs and subscribe to way too many magazines. In a way it's good, because I think being away from the industry in NYC just gives you a totally different perspective so you aren't designing what everyone else is. It helps you to put your own spin on things and your work looks less cookie cutter. I think if I were in NYC work would be easier in a lot of ways, but I have a rep who constantly shows the collection all over, so it gets around. That way I can just stay here and focus on making more prints.
Are you involved in Taos's renowned art scene?
I try to be involved in as much as I can! There is really always so much going on here. It's fun to spend a Saturday just walking around all the galleries, museums, and shops. My husband and I know so many artists and people with their own businesses—literally almost everyone we know, so it's really inspiring to see people living and doing what they love, really focusing on what is important to them and not always worried about the whole rat race. It is so much slower paced out here. I definitely dream of having enough time someday to start painting on canvas again or do some weaving on a loom, maybe learn to make jewelry. I have dabbled a little but haven't figured out how to have time for it all. The University of New Mexico Taos branch is nearby and it has so many great art classes. Occasionally I try to sign up for them and do what I can.
Definitely too many and for many reasons! I have always loved Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keefe (mostly her landscape paintings, not so much her flowers). I still need to get down to Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch. It's so obvious why artists were so attracted to this area. Just seeing one sunset will blow you away—the colors are ridiculous.
I love artists who were obsessed with details or create sort of an allover flow of abstract texture. Yoyoi Kusama has been one of my favorite artists since college. I love her net paintings. The illustrator Ernst Haeckel has also always been a huge inspiration. To this day, I can still sit down with one of his books and be totally mesmerized.
Of course I am always attracted to art that looks like it could be a textile design, or artists who use a lot of pattern in their work. I like Ross Bleckner and Amy Wilson Faville. I also love artists who use a lot of nature or even actual organic objects in their art like Jennifer Angus. She uses these beautiful bugs in her work which I totally admire because I used to do a lot of art with bugs. You can find so much pattern and color inspiration for textile design in a moth wing or the pattern on the back of a fancy beetle!
This list could go on forever...
Now that you've been in the industry for some time, how have you seen it change over the years?
To me it felt like it changed overnight with everything going to CAD. With all the new technology there is just so much more that is possible. I don't think I could run a studio from Taos, New Mexico without having the ability to have a website and for my artists all over the world to be able to send me their work in a matter of minutes. It makes me feel really old to think about because when I was in college none of us even had cell phones, and that wasn't that long ago!
I think one of the main things I am noticing is that the designs that are being purchased are in layers or color separated. Some are even being done in repeat. This wasn't the case until recently, believe me! I was a CAD artist for years and a huge part of my job was to take the designs we purchased from other studios and put them into repeat, color separate them for the mill, and make any design or color changes necessary. I don't think I ever once got a file that was in repeat or already color separated. Sometimes there would be layers and I would be SO excited about that, but for the most part I was either given a flat digital file to work with or just a piece of artwork to scan in and work from that. I think many more studios are now putting all their files into layers and making it a lot easier for the in house CAD artists to work with them. I am glad I had all that experience though, it just means I can pretty much take anything you give me and put it into a repeat and color separate it if necessary. You get really good at it when you do it every day for years like that!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own surface pattern design studio? Any pitfalls to avoid?
I would say the most important thing is to have some industry experience in the area that you would like to focus in. If you are really into home furnishings or paper products, get a job in that industry for a while. There is just so much to learn and soak up that you won't necessarily be able to learn on your own. Almost any business class or book will tell you this.
Attend lots of textile/surface design trade shows if you can! It's hard to really get in there and ask questions if you are not a buyer, but it's a great opportunity to see whats going on and how this crazy industry works. If you are in a position or living in an area where you can go to school for textile/surface design, even better! There are so many online resources for learning new skills these days too. Pattern Observer is a great one. I really respect Michelle because she has worked in the industry and is constantly getting out there learning new things so that she can help her students.
Really really do your research. There is so much to learn and even after doing this 2 years I still learn new things all the time. There is no manual for any of this really, I can't pinpoint any pitfalls to avoid. Just make sure you know your clients well and know what they want—even the fabric or paper you are printing your designs on could be a total turn off to them. Sometimes what's required can be so much more than just having a good design. This is a crazy industry and there are so many secrets!