Sara Combs, Artist, DesignComb
Welcome to the dreamy town and country life of artist Sara Combs. Sara was kind enough to let us hang out in her S.F. residence, and we couldn't help but fall in love with this lady's eclectic pad resplendent with cacti and the kind of flea market finds one can only dream of (Hello, Matisse?!?!). And just wait till you check out the Joshua Tree House that Sara and her husband recently whipped into shape — weekender's HEAVEN. From playful watercolors to intuitive design, it seems like everything that Sara touches turns to aesthetic gold, so today we try and discover the secret behind this babe's fountain of creativity. Read on!
Hey, Sarah! Can you walk us through your path? What kind of stops were on the way to where you are now? Tell us about your first steps in California?
After graduating from art school (Maryland Institute College of Art), I had an urge to move to California even though I’d never been before. As luck would have it, my boyfriend (now husband) got a job in San Francisco before we even made the move. That job made the decision of which city to live in easy, and we spent the next week driving cross country with our two cats in the back seat.
My very first steps in California were on Mission and 6th as we pulled off to the side of the road to unpack our new apartment (a Craigslist find). A homeless man welcomed us by yelling ‘You don’t belong here!’ as we turned the key to our new ground level apartment. Though a bit of a rough start, I’m so happy to call California home seven years later.
You’re a little bit of a black sheep in your family. When did you know a career in the art world was for you?
I honestly didn’t even know that art was a career option until high school. I had an amazing art teacher who got me excited about all of the possibilities. I remember it clicking in my mind that everything around us is designed… every product, every sign, even every experience. I quit playing volleyball my sophomore year of high school so that I could come home earlier to paint. I was incredibly lucky that my non-artist parents supported that direction, and even encouraged art school.
What is your mission with DesignComb? How did it get started and where do you see it going?
When I moved to San Francisco, I started a jewelry line called Gold & Citrus. I wanted to inspire people and show them how the jewelry could be styled, so I started a blog that was originally called StyleComb. That evolved over time as my focus became more and more about design… I wanted a place to share designers that inspired me, and to share some of my design work as well. DesignComb has now evolved even further since I left my full-time UI/UX job to create a design studio with my husband, Rich. We now design both web and app experiences for start-ups and mid-sized companies who are looking to create new products or rethink existing experiences.
This year, we’ve started thinking about what other mediums we could use to create experiences. With a strong urge to take a step away from our computers, we’ve also started an Airbnb business. We took a majority of last Summer to buy and renovate a Joshua Tree home. We thought of the experience in the same terms we use to design apps. When we got the house, it had been previously rented as an Airbnb. There were little post-it notes all around the house saying 'don't touch this switch' or notes like 'this doesn't work' on the ice maker. We made it our goal to remove all of the post-its by solving the problems that existed rather than informing everyone about them. I think design should be quiet in that way.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
One thing I love about freelance life is that I’m always working on a variety of projects at once. Lately, my time has been split between communicating with and designing for UI/UX clients, working on pattern and illustration work and planning for future product lines, and managing our Joshua Tree Airbnb.
Since I don’t have a dedicated studio space right now, I spend a lot of time at coffee shops. I love the change of scenery, and feeding off of the creative energy at places like Saint Frank in Russian Hill.
Tell us about the mediums you choose to work with and why? What was your process when creating the “Gah!” images for us?
I’ve realized that I love creating experiences, and I use a lot of different mediums to do so. This can make it difficult to explain to people exactly what I do though, ha!
Some of the experiences I design are digital… for example, a client may need me to design the best online shopping experience. For UI/UX work, I use Sketch, which is an awesome program for this type of design.
An experience I created for Lisa Says Gah was about opening a special gift with a Lisa Says Gah item inside. For that experience, I illustrated a wrapping paper patterned with little ladies wearing LSG items. I painted this using watercolor for a loose, playful effect.
Another medium I’ve used recently to create an experience is Interior design. I’ve always been interested in how our surroundings can affect our mood, and this year my husband and I bought a house in Joshua Tree. We’ve since renovated and designed it to be what we think of as the perfect desert retreat.
Can you speak to your relationship with creative struggle?
For me, a huge struggle is staying focused. Though I’m always working on many projects at once, I’ve been teaching myself and making a point of focusing on one task at a time. It’s so easy for me to get distracted… so often I start a project and find myself working on another one an hour later with both projects only partially complete. I’m a master of starting, but not of finishing. It takes a lot for me to wrap up those final details, and learning how to focus has been key for me.
I also think it’s incredibly important to allow yourself space from projects. Sometimes if I hit a creative block or road bump, taking a walk and getting away from it for a while is the best thing. In the moment, it feels counter intuitive… like I’m extending the process. But creativity does need time and space to breathe.
What do you have to say to those trying to “make it” in creative fields? What does it mean (for you) to combine art and work?
I think it takes a blend of emotional and non-emotional decisions to combine art and work. By that, I mean that there should be quite a bit of emotion in what you do. You should have a passion for it, and a need to create this kind of work. But, I’ve learned that it’s also important to inject some non-emotional decisions in order to make it a business. Most of the decisions I’m talking about are the ones involving money. After all, that’s what makes it a business, right? Once you decide what your rates are, the only thing to be negotiated is your scope of work.
Tell us about your home in SF. Is there a story behind all the STUNNING original artwork gracing the walls?
Yes! The Alameda flea market is one of our favorite places to go. Probably half the things in our apartment are from there, and almost all of the artwork. For a while, the Sunday flea market was one of my favorite dates with my husband. We had one specific vendor who was a favorite… He had met Matisse at three years old and had a wealth of art history knowledge. We would visit him at the flea market once a month both for stories and, of course, to buy some drawings and paintings from him. Eventually, our collection grew… and our apartment did not. So now our walls are covered!
Joshua Tree House! Tell us all about it! What sparked the idea and how did you make it happen? How do you envision it evolving?
It began with a month long cross county road trip. We got in a routine of driving a few hours each morning and spending the rest of the day hiking a National Park along the route.
This was our first time to Joshua Tree, and it felt different than all the rest of our stops. Something about this place pulled us in and stayed in our thoughts. We found that real estate there was quite affordable, and exactly one year later we found ourselves looking to buy a home in Joshua Tree. As soon as we stepped foot onto the property of the Joshua Tree House we knew it was special, and the perfect place to share with others who needed a place to reset, reflect, and create. We bought it directly from the owner (a Craigslist find - again!), and spent the Summer painting, renovating, and furnishing the space.
We’ve now been renting it out on Airbnb for about two months, and it has been so incredible to share our house with photographers, painters, musicians, designers… and the list goes on! We’re quickly finding that this home is going to be much more than a vacation rental, and we already have some exciting plans for the space for next year.
Where do you find inspiration and how do you organize it?
Different cities and towns offer me a lot of inspiration. I find that having a fresh perspective of a place definitely helps with this. Going somewhere new is incredibly inspiring… I find myself noticing small details in the architecture, the landscape, people’s personal style, etc., and that all somehow finds its way into my work. After living in San Francisco for years, I left for the majority of last year to experience living in Brooklyn and travel Southeast Asia. When I came back after all that time, I had a whole new appreciation for the city’s aesthetic and found myself snapping photos at every corner. I especially love San Francisco’s color palette, and I actually created a whole series of patterns inspired by San Francisco earlier this year.
I wouldn’t say that my inspiration is especially organized, but I do refer to photos on my phone quite often, including screenshots I’ve taken of artist’s Instagrams that I find inspiring. Of course, Pinterest is also a great place for organizing inspiration.
What is your relationship with fashion like? How do you see fashion intersect with art?
My favorite kind of design has always been functional. I believe in function over form, but with fashion I expect both. I’m not interested in suffering for fashion, but I also won’t let myself go near certain items (like Crocs). I don’t even want to know how comfortable they are!
I love that fashion can influence your mood, like any good piece of art. There is so much to experience with fashion… how a piece of fabric feels against your skin, or the way it moves with you. I also love the way my purse sounds when it clicks shut. It’s those details that bring joy to mundane everyday activities. Simply opening and closing my bag is an enjoyable part of the day. Who would’ve thought?!
What are requirements when it comes to an article of clothing? Do you have separate wardrobes for work and life, or are the two one and the same?
My wardrobe is all one and the same, but it has certainly changed since I’ve been contracting full-time. Now that I spend most of my time either working at home or in coffee shops, it’s become much more casual than when I was going into the office every day. I love a piece of clothing that can keep me either warm or cool depending on the season, be styled multiple ways, and feel right for my body.
We know that an artist's work is never done but when you take breaks, where might one find you on a sunny day off?!
When we’re in San Francisco, one of my favorite day trips out of the city is to Sonoma. I don’t have a bad memory there… just sunny days and a bit of day drinking. ;) If it weren’t already obvious, I also love Joshua Tree, and the National Park is another favorite place of mine to explore.
Is there anything special in your studio/home neighborhood that we should check out? How about in Joshua Tree?
I live in the Marina in San Francisco, and have found that more and more interesting things are happening at Fort Mason. They host Off the Grid every Friday through the warmer months which is where a lot of our local food trucks park in the same area to make an event out of the evening. They also recently hosted West Coast Craft. In general, I feel like that area has had a lot of gallery shows recently and seems to be supporting the art community which is pretty cool! I also love Causwells which is a great little restaurant with the most delicious lavosh and house ricotta. I like to pair it with their Viogner - my current wine obsession.
My list of Joshua Tree recommendations could get pretty long, but some of the highlights are brunch at la Copine, hiking Joshua Tree National Park, concerts at Pappy & Harriet's, getting a sound bath at the Integratron, walking through the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, and drooling over the beautiful goods at BKB Ceramics.