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Hayley Sarno on painting, missing parties for work, and paper mache pigeons.
Hayley Sarno is a New York based illustrator, designer, and all around lovely human being. Her beautifully cheerful work charmed us from the moment we first laid eyes on it, so we sat down and spoke with her about how she creates magic with paint, paper, and a little bit of imagination.
Q / Hi Hayley! Hope you are having a good morning! How do you usually start your day? Any routine that gets you up?
A / I get up between 7 and 7:30. I make hot water with lemon and do yoga for about 20 minutes. Then I have breakfast and read the paper or look at my favorite blogs. Half of the week I am an accessories designer at a large fashion company and the other half I work from home as an illustrator. If I am going to the office I usually leave a little before 9:00. If I am working from home I start work a little later!
Q / Do you have a daily uniform? Anything you carry with you every day?
A / White blouse and skinny jeans, and I always take my pocket agenda with me – I write down all my appointments, to-do lists and notes to self.
Q / You mentioned recently that you just moved. Do you feel like this move has changed the way you work?
A / I have more space in the new apartment and more light which is great. I still work out of the living room, which isn’t ideal – I like to have all of my paints out and inspiration pinned around, but I can’t take over our living space. I do need a bigger desk and eventually a studio or separate room. My work is still pretty small scale, so for now it is okay.
Q / How would you say your environment affects the quality and kind of pieces you produce?
A / I could work in a blank white room. I don’t need to have inspiration around but probably like any artist or designer it makes me feel more comfortable. If I am working around people talking and doing other things then I work slower, but I am pretty adaptable.
Q / Is there a time of day that allows you to feel most productive?
A / Yes! It actually took me a while to figure out! My most productive hours are 3pm – 7pm. In the morning, I usually start out with emails and small errands…then sometimes before you know it it’s lunchtime – by 3:00 everything is usually squared away and calmer.
Q / How do you keep yourself organized with all the projects you have going on?
A / I am always making lists. Just the act of writing something down helps me to remember things even if I don’t look at it again! I keep a piece of paper on my desk with all of my projects and am always crossing jobs off and adding new ones – when everything is finished on that page I start a fresh one!
Q / What is something you are good at? Something you struggle with?
A / I am good at coming up with a lot of ideas and concepts. I struggle with time and due dates. I always underestimate how much time a project will take me to complete. I am working on drawing more from imagination and not always relying on visual references
Q / Is there anything you will never take seriously?
A / Well I think one of the most important qualities a person can have is the ability to laugh at oneself. It would be hard for me to have a great friendship or working relationship with someone who isn’t able to have a sense of humor about themselves and their work.
Q / Where do you go to be quiet and think?
A / In the bathtub.
Q / What is your favorite way to disconnect and relax?
A / Lying on the sofa reading books and magazines..
Q / What was the last adventure you went on? Did it inspire your work in any way?
A / My honeymoon in Sicily. We rented a convertible and drove all around the island for two weeks. I didn’t think about work at all but I do think the colors will end up inspiring me. The beautiful colors of the sea and the faded pink and red plaster on the old ANAS roadside municipal buildings stayed in my mind.
Q / What do you like most about designing? What is the most challenging thing about it?
A / Designing jewelry and accessories is a clear process that I really enjoy. At the beginning of the season, I start gathering inspiration and images from magazines and online and then I print everything out. With all of the pages I find commonalities and separate everything into groups, which become concepts. Then I start sketching. You always have to be careful not to heavily reference other designers too much and to take elements of things you like and apply them in an unexpected way – to take inspiration from a vintage chair or an architectural detail. Something that is completely new in a specific application.
Q / How do your illustrations factor into your work as a designer?
A / I don’t think my illustration work factors into my design work as much as vice versa. I’ve found that my background designing metal objects has helped me to excel at drawing shiny metal things outside of jewelry design. I love to draw cars and that surprised me but then I thought “oh it’s just a huge piece of jewelry!” It makes sense. I didn’t go to school for illustration. For the past ten years I have been designing jewelry and accessories and I have only done hand sketching and renderings. For a couple of the companies I worked for I needed to do full color gouache renderings and I mostly learned how to do that on the job. I realized I needed a little training in the beginning and took a course at SVA which helped me immensely. I picked up a few invaluable tricks that I still use all the time. So I have become very comfortable drawing and painting at this point and it is due to my background as a designer.
Q / You grew up in Connecticut and then went to school in Vermont. What led you to NY and how is it different working here than where you grew up?
A / I was born in New York – my mom and dad lived here for a long time. When I was little we moved to Connecticut but we came to New York very often and I didn’t feel very far from what was happening here while I was growing up. Where I lived in CT was a working suburb of NYC and it was always a part of what people were doing. I never thought I would live anywhere else after school.
Q / You’ve designed for amazing companies like Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and Lorraine Schwartz, but you also spent some time working as a goldsmith after college. How did that education in metals help shape your career?
A / I think it gave me a little credibility as a new designer. It meant I was serious about what I was doing and that I knew about construction. I think that helped me to stand out from other candidates. I worked with a wonderful group of people when I was a goldsmith who were very supportive of me and encouraging. I think that is very helpful to have when you are starting out.
Q / Was there anyone in your life who shaped your career in a formative way?
A / Yves Buisson was the foreman at the workshop where I was a goldsmith. I worked 9-5 on the company’s projects and a few nights a week I would stay late to work on my own pieces. Yves always had enormous patience to help me and talk through the best way to put something together, and to tell me about the history of craftsmanship and the old fashioned hand made way of doing things. After Buisson Jewelers, I got my first job designing for Ralph Lauren. The head of the accessories department was John Calcagno who put together amazing concept presentations. I learned how to pull inspiration and put together concepts from John. I think I really learned to be a designer from John.
Q / How important do you think it is to work as an assistant or apprentice?
A / I think it is the only way to truly learn how a company works and how business works and to learn a trade. When I started as a goldsmith they took me on as an apprentice for three months. School is an important part of building who you are, developing social skills, and learning facts and history, which is invaluable too.
Q / How did your parents feel about your career path? Does anyone in your family work in the same industry?
A / My family is very artistic and they have always supported a career in the arts. My mom was a freelance textile and dinnerware designer when my sister and I were growing up. She had a studio at home and would often take us with her to New York for her meetings, and she teaches middle school art now.
Q / Do you have anyone who works with you now? If so, in what capacity?
A / In accessories design I work with a team of people. For my illustration work I don’t have anyone that works with me. I generally just have to do the drawings. I have a line of stationery and prints but the scale is still small and I can organize going to the post office all in one day generally. I don’t have enough errands quite yet to hire an assistant.
Q / Your illustrations are so cheerful and really feel like an extension of the rest of your style. Are there any specific references that inspire you?
A / My favorite illustrator is Ludwig Bemelmans. His drawings have a lot of personality and I try to emulate that. He has more of a gestural style, which I am also working on.
Q / Do you keep any collections? If so how do they inspire you creatively?
A / I collect nail polish and lipsticks. I love makeup colors. I just love to look at them. I collect design books, Bemelmans books and old cook books. I collect images on my phone. I take screen shots of things I like and I constantly reference things I’ve saved in my artwork – sometimes subconsciously and years later I will use something.
Q / How would you define your work?
A / I think it is a little old fashioned.. It is positive and colorful and I hope stylish. People describe my work as whimsical sometimes and I don’t really like that word…whimsical is for children and it’s not very chic.
Q / How does your career affect the rest of your life?
A / When I am working in the office my time is pretty cut and dry. Having the security of a steady design position gives me freedom to take on only the projects I am really passionate about. The split really works for me and I enjoy both. The days I am working from home can sometimes be hard to correctly manage time-wise but in the last year especially I have gotten a lot better at organizing myself. I think it always takes a while to figure out how to be your own boss. There is inevitable trial and error! Very often I have to work evenings and weekends to make a deadline. I miss a lot of social events with my friends, which can be frustrating, but in a way I like the struggle and figuring it all out on my own…I like to have flexibility with my schedule.
Q / Do you have a system for creating or it is more of an organic process
A / I have a very organized system in my design career. As an illustrator the jobs always change. Generally when I start working I make a file on my computer and start gathering reference images and pieces that I can use to inspire me for the project. I usually put rough sketches together to show the client and then we agree on a direction. After that I do the final artwork.
Q / How do you find that living in New York affects your work?
A / Everything is here – living here you are hyper tuned into fashion and design and new store openings, gallery openings, shows at all the big museums. I think all of this seeps into your unconscious.
Q / Social media and the internet play such a huge part in the fashion industry. Do you find them useful as tools? How would you say they factor into your work?
A / I had never been on social media until recently and have always tried to avoid working with technology or computers as much as possible but in the last two years I joined Instagram and it was really great to gain an instant audience for my drawings. I started my illustration business right around the same time and I think it gave my career a little boost and got my work seen by people who wouldn’t have known me otherwise. I also love seeing what other designers and artists are doing and what inspires them at the moment.
Q / Is there anything you find problematic about them?
A / I think it can get a little out of hand to share so much of your private life on social media – everyone knows what everyone is doing around the clock. I like a little mystery and try not to share too many personal things on my account.
Q / How has the internet changed the way you work? Do you find more inspiration online than before?
A / Even ten years ago, I think designers went to libraries and referenced old and new magazines and books way more than they do now. I guess it’s hypocritical to say I avoid technology since I love to use the internet for inspiration…
Q / Do you use the internet on vacation or do you prefer to completely disconnect?
A / I don’t use the internet on vacation! When I travel abroad I keep my phone on airplane mode and never bring a computer. I do check email though.
Q / Is there anything in particular that you do to take care of yourself and relax?
A / I love taking baths and I like to have tea breaks when I am working. I love to have a massage and a spa day – but that is only a couple times a year. I also love to have a pedicure once a month or so and read all the gossip magazines.
Q / What is your first memory of work? Of success? Of failure?
A / My first real job was when I was 16. I was the stock girl for a Joan & David shop and I sometimes worked selling shoes. This was in the 90s and it was a very ladylike clientele – I liked to talk to the ladies and see what they were wearing. I thought they were all so elegant! Coiffed blonde ladies with camel ensembles. I think my first big success was getting the job at Ralph Lauren – I was over the moon. It was a huge dream of mine to work there – I had always admired the brand. A medium size failure of mine was the first collection I designed for Marc Jacobs – I went overboard with complicated materials and plastics and used a lot of fine jewelry techniques on factory-made costume pieces and it didn’t translate. A lot of it was dropped. But thankfully I was given another chance and the next seasons were great – sometimes you need a season to get the hang of it at a new company.
Q / What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? The funniest?
A / The worst job I ever had was as a camp counselor at the YMCA where we had to sing horrible songs with the kids. I liked lunchtime…
Q / Do you ever collaborate with other artists or brands?
A / I haven’t collaborated with other artists exactly – I would love to. When I first started my illustration business I worked closely with two interior designers. I met so many future clients through both of them and am very grateful. A lot of my clients are interior designers and furniture companies.
Q / What part does beauty play in your work?
A / Well I love make-up and beauty packaging. I love soft powdery colors and beautiful lipsticks. There is such a romantic idea around makeup and beauty and thinking of past glamorous eras. I love looking at old beauty ads too. A lot of time I will save images of beautiful girls and incorporate their face or pose into an artwork.
Q / Do you enjoy the solitary aspect of your career? How does it factor into the rest of your life?
A / I do like to work by myself quietly. I think I am lucky that my week is split. If I was just by myself the whole week I would be a little lonely and end up talking to the people at the grocery store too much.
Q / What makes you most excited about your work? What gives you the most anxiety?
A / I am excited to push myself and work outside of my comfort zone even though it is hard. I am trying to work in a looser more gestural way and to use more vivid colors. Pushing myself gives me anxiety and I actually always get a little nervous when I start a project – usually once it gets going that feeling goes away and it is just excitement. That special feeling when you are in the zone and feel like you are doing something really great is so fulfilling – it doesn’t happen all the time but it is great. When I am working on something I am really excited about I can’t wait to get up in the morning to look at it again – it’s the same feeling when you were little and can’t wait to get up and see your new toy or outfit.
Q / Who are some of your clients and in what capacity do you work with them?
A / In the past year I have done a lot of illustration work for magazines, which has been really wonderful. I have worked for Town and Country, House Beautiful and Veranda. I have worked with nationally recognized interior designers on interior renderings, hand painted text for marketing, and made illustration for online presence and marketing material. I work with furniture companies to illustrate online newsletters and print announcements and to sketch furniture concepts. I am currently working with a former Hollywood producer and director illustrating his memoir about the 1960s, which is a dream job. For the book project the author sent me the first group of pages and I made notes and quick sketches to show where the drawings could go – we’ve developed a nice friendship and have worked together to figure out which scenes to illustrate – sending rough sketches back and forth through email and text.
Q / What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
A / I love making something that hasn’t existed before that draws people in and makes them dream. I like when I have tried a new approach and surprise myself. I think successful illustration is fantasy with just enough realism for the viewer to imagine inhabiting the page.
Q / Are there any particular projects or adventures you’re looking forward to this year?
A / I am really excited about the book! And I am traveling to Columbia this winter!
Interview & Photography