Photographed by: Rachel Maucieri | Interview of: Torie of Cherry Blossom Creative, Washington DC
How did you get started?
My journey to being a creative business owner definitely took some twists and turns before arriving at Cherry Blossom! I’ve always had a passion for design, even before I really knew what that term meant. When I was a teenager, I would paste labels from products that I thought were particularly beautiful in my notebooks, and create sets and posters for local theater performances. You couldn’t get me out of the art room if you tried. But when I went to college at McGill University (a school decidedly sans art classes) I decided I had to ‘get serious’ and study ‘serious’ subjects that would lead to ‘serious’ job opportunities. I landed in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies, which brought me to Washington after graduation to work in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Two years of miserable office jobs later, I decided what I really needed was to get into the field. I spent a year working in Baghdad, Iraq with the US Army, working on interviewing Iraqeis to help the military understand how the occupation was affecting local communities.
You get a lot of alone time when you’re deployed, especially as a woman. I had time to reflect on my future, and realized I couldn’t see anyone in my field whose life I wanted in 10 years. I couldn’t picture myself jumping from warzone to warzone, working with people who viewed the world through the context of threat and conflict. When I looked into my heart, I wanted to be part of a community. I wanted to be creative every day. I wanted self-determination, and the capacity to live life according to my own rule set. Out of this came Cherry Blossom Creative, which I viewed (and ultimately still view) as an act of personal liberation.
I returned to DC and started handing out business cards. I was lucky enough to find a few amazing small businesses who hired me to do creative work for them. Within the first year of owning a creative studio, I’d designed logos, created marketing materials, drawn custom chalkboards, painted murals, built art installations, and developed websites. I got the chance to use my creative talents every single day, and it felt like a miracle. In my second year I’d hired my first employee and moved into a small co-working space in DC’s Union Kitchen. The work continued to pour in. By year four I’d illustrated a cover for the Washington Post, created a series of highly popular neighborhood map prints that were selling in over 20 stores around DC, designed custom packaging for products on Whole Foods shelves, branded and created the event design for DC’s TEDx conference, and countless other milestones that I couldn’t have imagined when I started out. We (it was a team of five, by this point) moved our studios into a storefront location in Shaw, and opened up a small stationery shop in the front of our office focused on design-forward creative tools and officewares. Cherry Blossom Creative just turned five years old last month. Sometimes I still can’t believe I took the risk to start a design studio when I did, especially given how little experience I had in the field, and just how well that bravery (or stupidity!) has paid off.
What influences you?/ Where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration is actually a really tricky balance. You want to stay informed about design trends, and what’s current. But at the same time, the more you absorb, the more you risk creating work that feels overly similar to what everyone else is creating. Same-iness is really worrying for me as a creative person. What happens to us as a creative community when we’re all designing in royal blue and the lovely dusty pink that my designers have termed ‘awkward peach’? What happens when everything has a split leaf philodendron on it? (True confession: I didn’t even know what that plant was called, I just knew it as ‘that trendy palm plant thing that everyone’s using in their design work’.) What happens when we’re all using marble texture, or widely-kerned sans serif’s in all caps?
That said, for all my fretting, I go to the same places as most for inspiration. I legitimately adore Pinterest. I try and pepper my Instagram feed with designers and illustrators whose work I admire. And ultimately, I try and search for work that takes my breath away when I see it. I try to absorb but not overanalyze. When I see something that makes my heart beat, and flushes my mind with delight (and, often, envy!), I take note. Recently, that’s been the illustration work of Mari-Laure Cruschi, the dark humor and stunning calligraphy of Nim Ben-Reuven, and the inky, moody storytelling of Nate Powell’s graphic novels. I do my best to avoid anything that won’t have staying power in my professional design work.
For maps, my main need for inspiration is in the color palettes I choose for each particular neighborhood, which is a process all in its own. It’s driven by emotion, and is certainly qualitative rather than part of any defined process. Sometimes I walk the streets of the neighborhood, and try to absorb the colors I see around me. Sometimes I think of the people I love in that neighborhood, and the colors that remind me of their personalities, or their houses. Sometimes I try and capture the vibrancy of a particular street, or the trees in the parks. I generally start with an idea of the colors I think I’ll use, but as each new block is colored in, I look for tones that will balance or enliven the overall palette. Each one is distinct, and I couldn’t cite a single source of inspiration for any of them.
How do you balance your personal time + work?/ How do you create separation?
You’re catching me at a tough moment for balancing work and personal time. The honest answer is that I’ve spent the past several years not doing a very good job of it, and in the past several weeks I’ve been taking steps to remedy that. Especially in Washington DC, where we tend to reward people for how hard their hustle is, it’s difficult to remember that there’s so much more to life than the work that we take on professionally. Building a creative business takes time. It takes long nights. It takes weekends. My business is my baby, to a certain extent, and I’ve been in a state of fairly constant stress surrounding it for the past five years. I’m lucky (or perhaps unlucky?) to also have a partner who’s also very devoted to his work and his craft, but this often has meant that we’ll come home from a full day’s work and pull out our laptops as soon as we get home.
At the beginning of this year, we made a pact to change this, and I can’t really comment on the results because the transition is still in process! Suffice it to say that I decided that the right decision was not to keep growing the size of my design studio, and we’re scaling back the number of designers we have on staff. I’ll be focusing more on creating products than managing clients, partially so I can make myself a little bit less constantly available. I’m hoping to enjoy my days more, have more time for individual create projects, and more bandwidth to devote my design skills to progressive work (especially in this political climate!) I don’t necessarily believe that total separation is necessary, but I do think that it’s easy to continue to take on more and more and more work, until the point that it overwhelms your resources and time, leaving room for little else.
It’s been an incredibly difficult decision not to continue to grow into a larger design agency, perhaps because that’s what you’re expected to do when you own a business - make it bigger, better, and higher profile. But my good friend Sharon, who’s a small business owner as well, gave me a nugget of good advice the other day: “The only truly good business decision is one that leads to greater happiness.” And greater happiness cannot be found at the end of a to do list that’s 200 items long.
What keeps you motivated?/ Why do you love doing this?
Motivation is an elusive quality, and one I try not to depend on too much. That said, there’s a lot of reasons I structure my life and work the way I do, and most of them have to do with maximizing personal freedom and choice. I love owning my own business because I am largely in control of how my days look, which includes everything from the type of people I choose to associate with to the clothing I wear to work in. John Waters gave an excellent speech at the Rhode Island School of Design a couple years ago, where he asserted that “real wealth is never having to spend time with assholes.” I love this. There’s so many toxic qualities that can come up in work situations, from condescending bosses to gossipy coworkers, and I’m glad to be able to avoid many of them by surrounding myself with people who’re solid gold. At Cherry Blossom, I’ve always worked to be protective of the kind of people we let in (colleagues AND clients) and to make sure we’ve got a culture of transparency and integrity. That ‘wealth’ is irreplaceable, and one of the reasons I love working for myself.
Creative control is a big motivating factor. I love having the capacity to take on the projects I want to engage in, build the skills I want to build, and experiments with new styles. I love getting to expand my artistic talent, and constantly work towards being able to create with my hands the beauty that I can hold in my mind’s eye. I’m always trying to close that gap, between what I can envision and what I have the capacity to create. To be able to share your vision with others is a truly wonderful gift, and something I think is central to our experience as humans. I like giving myself the space and the context to take that task of expression and connection on. In owning your own business, your working life becomes yours to design. That’s an incredible opportunity, and one that makes me lucky to be my own boss every day.
Where do you see yourself in 2-5 years?/ What's next for your brand?
This is especially challenging right now, because I think I would have given you a totally different answer if you’d asked me three months ago! Part of what’s magic about this moment is that I don’t necessarily know what my life is going to look like in two years (let alone five!) and I find that enormously exciting and freeing.
A few things I do know: I’d like Cherry Blossom to become a center for design and creative culture in DC. I’d like it to be a beautiful space that feels open and welcoming and that makers and designers know they can use it to launch their products or host their events. I’d like the maps collection to grow and expand to include other cities and neighborhoods. I’d like to take the time I’ve been throwing into building the agency to be redirected into creative activities that are more personally-fulfilling or more socially-driven. I want to find out what’s my part to play in the struggle against fear-based politics. I want to use art to break down walls between people, and help us understand and humanize each other. I’d like to work a bit less and play a bit more. Maybe more than a bit, if I’m lucky.