coterie creative co.

Bridge Burner: Alex Day, Proprietors LLC

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

New work, originally posted on the Bridge & Burn blog. Photos by Erik Prowell.


If any one ever tells you that bartending isn’t a real job, just mention Alex Day.

Alex was on a course towards a distinguished life of letters. In the midst of a degree in European Studies—thinking he’d become a professor or maybe a diplomat—the Bend, OR, native was working at Manhattan dive bars to pay his way through NYU.

With his sharp intellect and love for history, academia seemed like a sensible career path. Except for one thing. “I like being in big cities. I like being deep within culture. And at the end of the day most professors teach in little shitty towns and don’t get to live where they want. Only the best ones get to live in New York and, let’s be honest, I’m not going to be the smartest professor in the world.”

So when faced with the decision to pursue graduate studies or make a career out of mixology, he chose the latter. It was a decision that came with plenty of self doubt, but as the joint-owner of four (soon to be six) bars on both coasts, a successful consultancy, and the co-author of one of the world’s best-selling cocktail books, Alex has no regrets.

“You go from thinking you’ll become a teacher or pursue diplomatic service—like these things that really matter in the world. And you think, well, I’m serving somebody a drink… does that matter? And it’s certainly a crisis moment.”

It turns out, everything he wanted from education or foreign service—to travel, to teach and to learn as much as possible about people, culture and ideas—he’s been able to do through the lens of bartending. “And I might even make more money,” he concedes.

But unlike the career path of a diplomat, in the cocktail industry there are no rules—no boxes to check, no four-year diploma that churns out lemon squeezers, cocktail shakers, swizzle stirrers. There’s no Masters degree in mixology. And for Alex, there was also no one telling him he couldn’t just do it.

His success breaks down to one part right-place-right-time and nine parts ass-busting-hard-work.

“Now that mixology has gotten more credit, people are trying to skip the steps of working hard, working at a lot of places, not having much of a social life for a while and not getting much recognition. That’s really the only reason I got to where I did—because people saw I was working hard.”

A career in mixology, it turned out, offered the vibrant community Alex knew he needed to thrive, but also the intellectual stimulation he originally sought through academia. When he first got hired at Death & Co—one of the bars he now owns with business partner David Kaplan—he says, “I was around some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met... The demand for attention to detail, and the focus on history, accuracy and creativity mean a certain kind of person is corralled within that culture.”

It also deeply engaged his love of history and society: “There’s all this lore and culture wrapped up in cocktails, and since the world of drinking is about drinking, it’s hard to pin down accurate details. That element of mystery also appealed to me.”

Alex fell into his first bar manager role at the budding age of 22 and bounced around a few New York bars making a name for himself before landing a role at hot spot Death & Co. When Kaplan invited him to partner up on a consulting project—designing the bar for Philadelphia’s Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.—they went into business together and formed Proprietors LLC. “I started becoming an owner based on my sweat equity and it built up from there,” Alex explains.

Today, Alex doesn’t spend that much time behind a bar. Though he maintains a presence on both coasts, these days he’s most often at the lab-like Proprietors office in downtown LA: developing new drinks and the craft of mixology, advising and designing bars for clients and more recently, overseeing construction of their most ambitious project to date—two adjacent cocktails bars, each with its own ambiance, below ten rooms in a Koreatown hotel, all set to open early this year.

“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t an identity crisis. My career is based upon my bartending—what I’ve done and what people have been able to take pictures of in a glass. Moving from that to a responsible business owner who spends the majority of his time looking after nitty gritty details of a business is challenging. Because it’s not technically why I got into this industry.”

There’s a funny thing about the service industry hierarchy: good servers and bartenders can do really well and typically make more money than management. And as Alex himself admits: “It’s hard to make a living off one bar as an owner.”

So why not stay behind the bar, pocketing a comfortable wage and enjoying the freedom of leaving work behind you after each night? “You do it because you want to have more influence and responsibility and to grow as a person. It’s incredibly masochistic, but I’ve always been drawn to making larger decisions, of taking on more responsibility.”

Does he ever want to throw it off and go back to tending bar? “All the time. Every day.”

But, he says the beauty of running a business is he really can do whatever he wants.

“Maybe this is way too sociological, but there’s something in how I was raised that let me entertain the idea that I can do anything. Since no one has really put up much resistance to the idea, it’s constantly a test of what’s possible. Is it possible to open up three bars in one year? Yeah, seems that way. Will people respond? Yeah, they do! Can we make a cocktail book that compares to coffee table books and makes you feel you’re walking into a New York bar? Sure. I mean, what hubris! What a ridiculous thing to do.”

But done it, he has. Because when there are no rules, you go out and make your own.

New work: White T Supply

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

This spanking new Vancouver company ships fresh, flawless white Ts to your door, every quarter. Thanks to my own adulthood-long quest to find the perfect white t-shirt, I have plenty to say on the topic. Can't wait for them to release a ladies boyfriend cut (hint, hint).

I worked with White T Supply owner Hans to develop smart, punchy copy through the site. Take a look.

New work: Another Feather x Bridge & Burn

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Jewelry maker Hannah Ferrara has a flawless aesthetic: clean but rustic, timeless but so on trend. I could waste hours on her whitewashed Instagram feed. She was the perfect collaborator for this shoot with Bridge & Burn.

I kicked off the project while I was still in Portland and put together the copy for it just last month. Love, love, love her layered, muted approach, inspired by Japanese housewear.

[photos by Cara Denison, HMUA Patty Harding, model Serena Killion]

Musician Bio: Zaac Pick

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

As my incredibly talented friend Zaac Pick gets ready to release his (BEAUTIFUL) new full-length album in 2015, I've been toiling away at a new artist bio for him. It's a fun and surprisingly challenging departure from my usual corporate content. You'll have to wait until the new year to read Zaac's new one-sheet and listen to his lovingly crafted folk tunes, but in the meantime, here's the last bio I wrote for him when he released his EP Whitewater:

[Rachel Pick photo]

[Rachel Pick photo]

When Zaac Pick sings about the inconstancy of time, you can’t help but believe he has the experience to back it up. The Vancouver singer-songwriter brings an older-than-his-years wisdom to every melody on his new four-song EP, Whitewater.

Zaac’s brand of rootsy folk-pop earned acclaim after the release of his first solo EP, Fierce Wind in 2009. The album’s six elegantly layered tracks gained him a reputation for compelling lyrics and singable melodies. Among them, the elegiac ballad, ‘My Century’, also won him the top prize in Vancouver’s Shore 104FM Song Search. Three other tracks earned spots on popular TV dramas, One Tree Hill, Degrassi and Ghost Whisperer

His graceful sophomore EP, released in late November 2011, upholds this eloquent narrative, but brings a maturity and seasoned tenor that reflects two steady years of writing and touring. Fierce Wind’s summery ease gives way to Whitewater’s autumnal maturity. What the songs retain are the same layers of meaning and unapologetic romance. 

Whitewater’s title track opens with a quiet momentum and fleshes out into a toe-tapping reflection on time, moving on with or without you: “Time is a river, moving so fast / Over the banks of the bodies we have/Time is a river, don’t know how deep/We wade in and get swept off our feet.” 

Time is the thread that holds together each of the four tracks as they settle into nature-driven metaphors and gospel-inspired refrains. The album saunters on, revealing Zaac as a poet, first and foremost, and exposing the influence of favourite 20th century troubadours like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, and Paul Simon to name a few. Recorded primarily at Nimbus School of the Recording Arts, Whitewater was produced by Canadian industry giants GGGarth Richardson and Shawn Cole (Yukon Blonde, Hannah Georgas) and was made possible in part by Zaac’s Song Search win. 

Zaac spent much of 2011 road-testing tracks on stages across western Canada, while breaking ground in Toronto with a top spot during Canadian Music Week, and in the US with two shows during SXSW in Austin, TX. Along the way he has shared stages with the likes of The Civil Wars, Yukon Blonde, Aidan Knight, and Leeroy Stagger.

2012 has seen the Whitewater EP nominated for a West Coast Music Award for Best Solo Roots Recording, the title track added into regular rotation on CBC 3, and the accompanying video on MuchMusic. With a cross-country tour behind him, Zaac is currently working on his first full-length album.

Bridge Burner: Ryann Bosetti, the Tropics

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Just a note: Maybe it was the austerity of her stark white studio, or the steamy Portland summer day, but I think it was the cascade of unexpected insights that made my August morning with Ryann Bosetti so magical. She's a sage, and a joy to interview. Telling her story for Bridge & Burn was such a treat.

When Vogue’s editors declare you gave them the best haircut of their lives, you might expect it to be the impetus for a fanfare-heavy LA salon opening. Or a barrage of invitations to style shows in London, New York and Milan. Or prime credits in glossy fashion magazines.

But for Ryann Bosetti, the recent write up from fashion’s who’s-who is freeing her up to do the exact opposite. The hairdresser is in the process of moving her practice from a sparse white-washed Portland loft to the high desert art community of Marfa, Texas, population  2,000.

It’s a far cry from the New York office job she started out in.

A practical teenager, Ryann pursued a business degree. “I wanted autonomy and I thought I’d get it by being a business person,” she says. “Ironically, the reality is that more often you’re just a cog in the wheel.” But optimistic about the lifestyle a corporate job would offer, she moved to New York after college for a covetable position in finance at Bumble and Bumble.

“I was immediately aware that this 9-to-5—excited on Friday night, suicidal on Monday morning—was not for me. I was 21 and was just like no way, I don’t want to get used to this. The only person I wasn’t depressed by was the creative director.”

With a keen eye, she observed that he was the guy taking research trips to Paris and three-hour lunch meetings. And it was he who spotted Ryann’s restlessness in the corporate environment. “He told me, ‘You’re so antsy. I think you need to be using your hands. Go to beauty school.’”

And to beauty school she went. Then, license in hand, she apprenticed with Bumble and Bumble and began to refine her craft. She took her practice to Portland because it seemed like the one city that afforded the space—physically and financially—and the support for a small business like the one she had in mind. It seemed like a natural incubator, and it was.

Despite learning from the best, Ryann started to sense that there was more to cutting hair than following a formula. “I was taught blueprints to replicate on people, with mathematical precision, which feels irresponsible to me,” she says. “It’s not culturally relevant because you’re not acknowledging the individual’s identity and personal culture. My method is really about throwing out the blueprints, and structurally addressing each person in a new way every time.”

Not that learning mathematical foundations weren’t essential. She compares it to fine art or architecture—you have perfect the framework before you can flip it. “It’s not just being punkrock and tearing shit up,” she explains “It’s reassembling this mathematical equation, factoring in subjectivity and human response.”

Hers is a truly empathetic approach to hairdressing—debunking the notion that hairdressing is a shallow practice. She describes an almost selfish selflessness that comes when a hairdresser is really living out their calling. “It’s almost like a rush that you get—when you know that you made someone feel better about being themselves.”

Referencing Susan Sontag’s essay “An Argument About Beauty,” she explains: “The term ‘beautiful’ has been desiccated. It’s been made shallow, feminine, almost evil. But what’s evil is that we’ve made one standard for beauty.”

Defying that standard and acknowledging the beauty in each individual is what drives her craft and pushes her to keep stepping away from societal expectations of what a successful hairdresser is meant to be or do.

“The power of aesthetics is the depth of aesthetics,” she explains. “When you give someone the sense of feeling beautiful, that is not a shallow experience; it goes down to the very core of their existence. I didn’t have to go on a mission to make it depthful—it is depthful. Acknowledging it and talking about it is all you have to do to be a responsible hairdresser.”

“It’s like a holy experience: having a practice and taking care of people,” she says.

Ryann takes a suitably post-modern approach for someone who’s setting up shop in a post-modern art community. And that’s not lost on her. She spent in her first months in Marfa developing her critical theory for the art of hair and the concept of, what she calls, a “culturally important haircut”. She felt compelled to articulate her method—breaking apart the map of the skull and moving through each section to define it in a series of essays. The unanticipated result was a book: Regarding Head Shape: Acknowledgment Of The Haircut As Form. “It was an exercise I wanted to put myself through and then it blossomed into this little orange animal,” she says, referencing the book’s fluoro cover.

That initial trip to Marfa was just as unexpected as the outcome. Literally on her way to spend a summer in London, she made an impulsive decision to switch her flight from New York, and instead spent three months with friends in the remote desert town. As the lone hairdresser for miles she suddenly found herself with a small but consistent practice. She fell in love with Marfa and just kept coming back.

Four years later, she and her art director boyfriend resolved to make it their permanent home which, in such a small town, meant finding a way to combine their skills to build something sustainable where they could both thrive professionally. “We do very different things but we’re both curators,” she explains. She’s also, by trade, a natural caregiver, and he, a creative.

Seeing a limited number of high-level opportunities for their network of emerging artists and musicians, they created a space to nurture the arts in a very practical way. Their Marfa property, dubbed “the Tropics” will host an ongoing rotation of monthly artist residencies.

“We want to give artists an opportunity beyond just a spot in a magazine—and actually support their development,” she explains. The fledgling project, just like the town of Marfa itself, is largely supported by New York art patrons. Their official start date is July 2015, but they’ve been hosting unofficial residencies on the property for a year.

It’s a project designed to give space to bourgeoning artists but, combined with her recent high profile media exposure, it’s also one that gives Ryann the space she’s desired all along.

“After the Vogue article came out, the New York fashion kids all asked, ‘Why aren’t you here? Why aren’t you doing fashion hair? You could do whatever you want. Why aren’t you doing more?’ Because, I don’t want to do more.”

Instead, she’s scaling back and gaining some balance. That means reducing the number of cuts she does in a day, allocating a few spots for fashion-inclined tourists so she can keep rates low for locals; the Marfa salon doesn’t have a phone number so booking takes some commitment.

“I feel like I’m always seeking out space so that I can expand and kind of push it—push boundaries. That’s why I left New York to come to Portland and that’s why I’m leaving Portland to go to Marfa—because I want to have more room to grow.”

For Ryann, that growth means doing less, but doing it better. Giving more, but to fewer people. And taking the time to acknowledge the individuality of each person who sits in her single salon chair. Regardless of what Vogue says.

Originally published by Bridge & Burn. Photos by the incredibly charming Cara Denison

A Story for November 11

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

In so many ways, my grandfather was everything a great patriarch should be: handsome, clever, strong, resourceful, self-made, and a wonderful storyteller. But, because of complicated family dynamics he was also totally inaccessible.

Miraculously, a few days before he died he shared these stories with me—spanning his WWII days in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Remembrance Day always brings me back to them, and it seemed like a good time to share:

Story of Origin (originally published in This Great Society)

Family lore says he once faced off with a Bengal tiger (and was left unscathed); that he landed a B-24 Liberator with two failed props, halfway across the Atlantic, in a wall of fog; that he had wrestled down an escaped convict who hijacked his car.

We never hear these tales firsthand, of course. They are locked up with the rest of his past in the vault of his broad chest. The chest of a man who hauled lumber for two decades. Broad, even now, frail as he is—almost a cliché in his hospital bed.

A long time ago he was a storyteller—a keeper of the past. But time and loss have silenced him.

His sweetheart died in 1965. Agnes was 16 when he began his quiet courtship in a rowboat off the North Shore. She was nearly 40 when lung cancer ended their happy marriage. Agnes had never smoked, but these things happen sometimes.

Their six children remain, a testament to affection. But the loss left an aching void he was desperate to fill. A neighbour widow moved in three months later. They had made new vows in a Waikiki wedding chapel, and she has since worked tirelessly to erase his past and reign in his present. But though she has burned his letters, locked away his journals and had the dead woman’s name removed from the tattoo on his forearm, she is contending with a memory, and Allan’s is incorruptible.

She presides over his hospital visiting hours, but for once we grandkids needn’t wait for a rare invitation to see our granddad. The ward is our access point. We keep coming to call, hoping for those blissful gaps—when she goes to make a call, get a cup of tea, walk out for air—and in her wake he reveals cheeky snippets of those ancient tales that have only ever been hearsay to us.

Then one blessed night she is absent. And, old as he is, he is very present. An intuitive twinkle in his eye meets the one in mine as he signals me closer. I close the curtain around his bed, suddenly complicit in breaking an unspoken rule.

He parts his cracked lips and begins with the War.

Ceylon. A bomber pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he and his crew had been thrashing through swaths of jungle for days and finally bivouacked in an interior village. A local child disappeared a few days prior and nearby trees bore telltale scars from giant claws. No one questioned the child’s demise and all slept fitfully in their stilted huts—little more than gazebos with hammocks, exposed—finding plenty to fear in the cacophony of nighttime sounds.

His gunner, a metre away, finally took to snoring and Allan flipped in his netting to block the sound. A monkey at the window ledge who had been nattering for an hour scampered away at last. But in its place the wind carried a gruff wheeze. It came from the left and then it came from the right, and from the left again until, with a huff and the thud of a thousand pounds of flesh and fur, it was immediately behind him. Hot breath condensed on his back, carrying the stench of decayed meat. A long tongue smacked against a damp muzzle. Coarse whiskers tickled him through fine mosquito netting, but Allan remained still, releasing a slow breath—picturing the single curl on his little girl’s head, the green trim on the white house he’d painted just before he got the call, Agnes’s small waist and the lavender dress she wore rowing that fine summer day. His final memories would be his best ones. Suddenly a light punctured his reverie. He turned, squinting in the beam of his gunner’s torch and witnessed the black tip of an orange tail slip away from the window ledge.

Here Allan smiles. He tells me that in the morning, when his men saw paw prints encircling his hut, they were sure of a bloody mess. But he and his gunman emerged triumphant, regaling them with a yarn about outwitting the beast through their own sheer cunning.

On he goes, chuckling to himself as he remembers childhood shenanigans: convincing his younger brother to eat slugs as a remedy for an earache; charging the neighbourhood kids a penny each to witness a boxing match between his sisters, unbeknownst to Mae or Grace; towing his polio-crippled friend in a self-fashioned wagon so he’d not miss a stitch of fun.

He tells me the miraculous tale of his first cross-Atlantic flight. From their base in Ontario his crew flew a bomber south and fuelled in Florida for the first leg. Trouble began over a vast stretch of ocean, with heavy sleet and lightening and then wind that flicked his Liberator like an eyelash off the cheek of a roiling black cloud. His radar failed and then his compass. Flying blindly through tar skies, one engine sputtered to a halt and then the other. The fuel gauge pointing firmly at E. Allan was a man of great faith and, within his crew, great authority, so while he manned the controls he directed his men to their knees. And as they prayed, a beam of sunlight broke through the fog. Like a searchlight it shone, not only toward the cluster of Azorean islands where they were due to refuel, not just at the very island that held the fueling station, but on the airfield itself.

He’s getting tired from all this talking, and also from drawing on the memory he’s always worked to subdue. But finally, he tells me a love story.

War was over—had been for over a month. He was already weeks overdue on his promise to be home for Christmas. He had a son who he’d never met, a daughter learning her first words, and Agnes, of course, who had stopped writing weeks ago lest her letters pass him on the journey.

In Southampton, soldiers and war brides clogged ship decks bound for New York. Cunard’s twin ocean liners were converted to carry 15,000 soldiers each—30,000 homecomings a week between them. But there were millions of soldiers in England. The wait was months.

Not an idle man, Allan passed the time visiting his wife’s Irish relatives, and then his own in Cornwall. There he was riding his bike one day when he met a man trying to fell an ancient oak in his garden. Allan rested his bike against the low stone wall and offered to help. For two weeks he returned every day to chop that behemoth into stove-sized tinder.

His departure date came, at last. He and his crew sailed aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth—once again clothed in her Cunard colours after years of gunmetal grey.

Raising a finger, he clarifies: “Not named for the Queen Elizabeth you think of now. The one before that.” He licks his lips and smiles, “And Winston Churchill sailed with us.”

He says it so casually that I make him say it again. And indeed, at dawn on each morning of the four-day sailing, England’s indomitable leader paced the upper deck—taking air and shouting greetings to officers on the deck below.

Elizabeth was met in New York by hordes of jubilant civilians. “We knew the fuss was meant for the Prime Minister, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying it.” Those ordinary-looking men soaked up the praise, finally feeling like the heroes they were. He pauses in his storytelling to catch his breath, and in spite of his frailty, I don't struggle to picture him in uniform with flawless posture and an assured grin.

The Canadian National Railway facilitated the rest of Allan’s journey—making stops in seemingly every town between Halifax and Vancouver. “We had men from each province in our company. As each one stepped off the train we were pretty sure we’d never see each other again.” He faced near-death alongside these men in those thick black nights gone by. These were not insignificant goodbyes, but even as he told of them, it was clear his mind was only concerned with the journey’s end.

Finally, finally, finally, the steamer rolled into Vancouver’s old Central Station. Military transport was relegated to the lower rails, far below the main commuter platform. Soldiers rushed from the train only to find their journey further prolonged—a hefty flight of stairs remained between them and the objects of all those muddy trench reveries.

“It was a winding staircase that wrapped around and around in a square. We all had heavy kit bags on our shoulders, but we ran up those steps.” He details the climb so carefully, reliving the agony of such superficial separation, knowing she was at the top of those stairs.

Wives and girlfriends, the finest they’ve ever looked, scanned the uniformed stream for the face they loved. “Your grandmother was there. She was wearing the felt hat I had sent her for Christmas, which was the fashion back then. It was covered in flowers.” He falters then, determined to hold his composure, but chokes briefly as he says, “She was so cute.” An unfamiliar smile emerges, showing his teeth, his real ones mind you, not the perfect enamel most men his age trade up for. It’s an embarrassed smile—shy to be still be so in love after so much time.

“I don’t know what happened to my bag. I must have dropped it at the top of the stairs. I didn’t even notice where it had gone, I only saw her in that flowered hat.” Another pause, this one much longer, accompanied by tears he fought off before, and again those impetuous words tumble out, “She was so cute.”

In the hospital bed he works to compose himself as I suppose he had to that day so long ago. They embraced. He tells how he picked her up with such abandon that that flowered hat came right off her head and tumbled down all those many flights of stairs. Another officer was kind enough to climb down and up again to retrieve it—Allan was far too engaged and couldn’t bear to leave Aggie’s side for even that long.

Fifty-five years have past since the end of that great war and Allan’s great separation. Until today he has never shared the tale of that reunion, but he doesn’t stumble over a single detail in the telling—as if he has recalled it every day since.


Cotton x Bridge & Burn video

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

A gaggle of New Yorkers descended on the Bridge & Burn studio mid-August to make this short film—the clever work of DDB on behalf of Cotton.

I helped create B&B's talking points and even make a cameo at the 0:57 mark (drinking Heart coffee, obviously). In fact, I'm pretty sure this was my exit-interview, captured on video. 

A Good Book Drive 2014

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Books! There aren't too many things I like more... in fact the only thing I like more is a crew of good people (and possibly a fresh pack of Mango Hi-Chews).

So this month I'm teaming up with these punks—the hearts behind A Good Book Drive—to collect favourite kids books from smart, interesting people all over the city. Chances are I'll be hitting you up, so start narrowing down your list of childhood faves.

We met up recently and I took some promo photos outside 33 Acres. Some outtakes:

Learning from the Masters: Real life UX lessons from Magritte and Van Gogh

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

We went to Europe! And somehow, immersed in the works of the Continent's greatest artists, away from data roaming, I still managed to have my mind on the web... I recently shared some thoughts on the Domain7 blog.

I’m a sucker for modern art and, for me, no travels are complete without spying a local collection of 19th and 20th century greats. A recent visit to Brussels and Amsterdam offered a deep dive into two of my favourites: Magritte and Van Gogh, respectively.

Truth be told, I favour Magritte with his hyperreal detail and his way of challenging our perceptions of reality with accessible wit. I had the museum mostly to myself, and I had splurged on an audioguide. It was a diverse and interesting collection…. and yet I couldn’t wait to get out.

The experience was jarring and unmetered—and it was nothing I could blame on Surrealism.

Its shortcomings were only further illuminated when I visited Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum a few days later. It was packed, and yet, like everything in Amsterdam, the crowd followed an invisible but understood rhythm—a natural flow. I absorbed more; I didn’t feel like I was constantly backtracking or missing key pieces; I didn’t feel overwhelmed or impatient.

This is user experience design.

As I considered what made Van Gogh a delightful seamless experience, and what made Magritte frustrating and disorienting, I realized these museums offered valuable lessons we can apply to digital experiences:


Brussels and Amsterdam are both international cities where English is the lingua franca. Where Van Gogh caters to the English majority, putting greater emphasis on English wall text and labels than Dutch, large swaths of display text at Magritte are only in French and Dutch. Know your audience and understand their needs—don’t cater to a niche at the risk of alienating a majority.


Magritte’s curators bog visitors down with detailed biographical timelines—elaborate histories that force art lovers to loiter and jockey for a view of tiny text. Van Gogh’s pull out the relevant highlights, making them bold, concise and visual, so you never need to linger in one place reading too long. Focus on the essentials. If there’s one thing you want users to do or know, don’t let them get sidetracked by superfluous details.


At Van Gogh, floors are organized by theme, rather than chronology, so you can visit them in any order, to avoid traffic-heavy areas. Smart. Magritte’s prescribed chronology directs visitors through dark rooms where paintings are set against striking black walls and illuminated by megawatt lights. While it evokes the same sense of drama inherent in Magritte’s paintings, the reflected light makes it impossible to view paintings face-on—forcing visitors to stand at an angle. You never know how users will access your site. Reduce barriers at every potential entry point. Chances are they’ve come to do one thing—make it as easy as possible.


Both museums feature works by other artists who either inspired, or were inspired by the museum’s namesake. Magritte’s curators intersperse these with his own works. The styles may be complementary, but they are clearly different, which is confusing until you read the label. Van Gogh’s curators, by contrast, devote specific rooms to works inspired by the artist. Consider where users expect to find things. Don’t subvert their expectations. This often means grouping like-objects together in ways that are easier for our brains to understand, according to the Gestalt principles


In a room devoted to his process, the Van Gogh Museum gives a glimpse at the tools and techniques the artist used: infrared technology reveals how he repurposed canvases and used perspective frames to capture depth and proportion. Don’t rely on smoke and mirrors. The best web experiences are often the most transparent.


A bonus lesson from the artists themselves: both Van Gogh and Magritte are famous for their prolific self portraiture. They didn’t hide behind technique or preserve enigmatic status—they put their authentic selves on display. As should you.

originally published on

Bridge Burner: Tight Club's Keighty Gallagher

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Now here's someone super rad: for September's Bridge Burner profile I got to spend a morning with Keighty Gallagher, the ebullient force behind Vancouver's Tight Club Athletics.

A few weeks ago I went back for a personal training session and she kicked my ass—targeting all the core stability stuff I always forget but totally need as a runner. Keighty knows her stuff and coaches in such a calm, confident, direct way.

She's a total babe and she makes fitness look dead cool. 

Once again my talented friend Rachel took photos while I interviewed. Check the finished story on the Bridge & Burn blog.

Emmadime + Bridge & Burn

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

One of the things that kept me incredibly busy during my summer at Bridge & Burn was connecting with bloggers, and getting our clothes into their pretty little hands.

Obviously I used it as an excuse to connect with ladies I admire, whose blogs or Instagrams I've followed for a while. Emma Robertson is one such lady—she's a super talented designer and art director with amazing personal style. Teaming up with her was ace, and the final product she created, along with photographer Ashley Batz, is just perfect.


5 Characteristics of Great Content Marketing

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Recent writing, originally posted on Illustration by Will Mullery:

Several years ago, in dark and dire economic times, I landed a job keyword-stuffing at a dubious SEO firm in Toronto. They made big promises about Google pagerank and lectured clients about cultivating inbound links once their static template sites were live.

There was nary a mention of blogging, and if it did come up, the principal would warn the client against the time and energy of upkeep—“better to invest in keyword optimized web pages and inbound links.”

Thank heavens those days are over. Marketers have learned they can’t outsmart Google, and have wisely shifted their focus to giving customers great, relevant content designed to keep them coming back.

By now, every company worth their salt is on board the publishing train. Whether you call it brand publishing, content marketing, plain old blogging, it’s the new baseline measure. But that doesn’t mean everyone does it well.

As a reader, writer and publisher working in marketing. I’ve made it my mission to wade through the pap and root out the truly delightful—excellent journalism, thoughtful curation or clever community-building that doubles as advertising. It turns up in some unexpected places.

I’ve discovered, there are 5 things great content marketers have in common:


Your goal as a content marketer is to build a lasting relationship with your consumer, and the best relationships are built on trust. Many companies have existed for years as a closed company and now technology and consumer expectations are calling them to be more open. Like a first therapy session, opening up can be terrifying, but transparency forges a bond. That might mean giving customers a peek into your operations, or publicly acknowledging and accepting responsibility for a corporate foible. It might be as simple as describing your process or introducing your CEO.
Nailing itEverlane. The online retailer sells high quality clothes at affordable prices, and tells consumers exactly how they do it. Those savings don’t come at the cost of factory conditions. But rather than just saying so, Everlane shares stories and photos of every single garment factory they use.


Maybe the only thing worse than veiling your company process and culture is insincerity. The story you tell needs to align with your real life values. Two very different brands come to mind. Neither are particularly sexy, and both wanted to reach a younger, hipper market. Fried chicken giant, Chic-fil-a, recently launched an online lifestyle magazine, called Let’s Gather. At first glance it looks like a Kinfolk magazine parody: heritage-inspired, over the top sincerity that encourages readers to go a year without groceries, or to fill their diet with superfoods. But you won’t find any salmon, kale or chia seeds on the menu at Chic-fil-a, and fast food has no connection with a waste-free lifestyle.

By contrast, Ziploc embraces their position as a functional, crafty and budget-friendly product, and teamed up with popular crafty young blogger, Joanna Hawley. She took over the Ziploc Holiday blog, posting just the sort of baking and decor ideas that will resonate with Ziploc fans, occasionally incorporating Ziploc products. Great content marketers don’t try to be something they’re not or latch on to a brand direction just because it’s cool or of the moment.
Nailing itArcteryx. The outdoor apparel company’s moody evocative online magazine Lithographica not only offers behind the scenes glimpses into process and production, it shares beautiful adventure photography, reviews of relevant titles, and thoughtful writing, all in sync with the company’s ethos.


Whether it’s engaging their fans to produce original content, curating it from customer feeds, or featuring real users, the best content marketers keep their community front and centre. They invite engagement and source content from an existing user base. Portland-based outdoor gear company Poler Stuff has capitalized on their dedicated community—replacing catalog shoots with adventure documentation, and pulling from their seemingly endless user contributions, collating them under the #campvibes hashtag—appropriated as their own. They’ve even recently parleyed that content into a sold-out print magazine
Nailing it: Visual Supply Co. This photo-editing-software-turned-popular-mobile-app is famous for their curated Grid of user photos. They also feature in-depth profiles of the fascinating creatives who already use and love VSCO products. Taking it a step further, they recently introduced a million-dollar scholarship fund to support their artists. All recipients need to do is document their progress on the VSCO Grid. 


Excellent writing and beautiful imagery will always find an audience. But here’s the thing: great content isn’t cheap. The best content marketers invest resources and time into their content and don’t cut corners on quality. Thanks to the wonders of analytics, you can treat it as a revenue centre, and track the impact on your bottom line. In fact if content is good enough, consumers will pay for it. Swedish clothing brand Acne captured this early on with their large format print journal Acne Paper—a publication so lovely I’ll gladly shell out $20 for it.
Nailing itRandom House Canada. The book publisher’s Hazlitt blog is a trove of quality reading material for lit geeks, often supplied by notable name Random House authors. Aimed at a smart, edgy customer, it’s packed with original short fiction, snarky advice, and cheeky social commentary. It’s Vice for people who read. just really smart, thoughtful content. Oh, and a line of Hazlitt Original ebooks, available for $2.99. 


Theres a level of altruism in great content marketing. It’s not just reaching out to pull you in; it leaves behind a gift—fills a gap in your skills or knowledge, fuels dinner table conversation, inspires you, or engages your curiosity. Great brand publishers never leave a reader thinking “so what?” And if a reader can answer that question, they’re very likely to pass that gift along.
Nailing it: West Elm. I already love this clean simple home line, but when they gave me cute desktop wallpapers and taught me how to make my own sourdough starter and to fold a fitted sheet, I loved them even more.

Elizabeth Manor, Vancouver, BC

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

I'm home!

Spending whole summer Portland was blissful but sleeping on a pullout couch for four months was not. I missed my curated (and comparably expansive) South Granville pad. In honour of my return, a little tour:

Bridge Burners: Bestie

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Bestie has been a Vancouver foodie favourite ever since they opened their doors last summer… actually long before that, thanks to a pretty adorable Indiegogo campaign video. When I popped home for a visit in July, I took the opportunity to interview Bestie’s charming proprietors, Dane Brown and Clinton McDougall.

This is the third of five Bridge Burner articles I created for Bridge & Burn in the course of my four-month internship, but this one was extra special because I got to bring along my super talented friend Rachel Pick to take photos.

Watch for the next two coming up in September and October!

Washougal River, WA

Added on by Amanda Lee Smith.

Just off the Columbia River is a glut of icy swimming holes, perfect for the non-stop steamy days we've been having in the Pacific Northwest. My twin sis was down to visit in July and we nested down on the river rocks with some rosé and tortilla chips, as you do.