Kelli Anderson: New York state of mind

From paper record players to interactive cookbooks, New York creative Kelli Anderson delights in the element of surprise.

In a loft apartment in a former knitting factory, surrounded by an array of creative contraptions (including a paper cutter, corner rounder, Craft Robo Pro and, most prized of all, a 1919 Pearl Jobber letterpress), Kelli Anderson is redesigning her desk. "I'm a very visual person and also forgetful," she explains. "I keep crap on my desk as a physical aid to memory, which makes my workspace a bit spiritually degrading."

In a loft apartment in a former knitting factory, surrounded by an array of creative contraptions (including a paper cutter, corner rounder, Craft Robo Pro and, most prized of all, a 1919 Pearl Jobber letterpress), Kelli Anderson is redesigning her desk. "I'm a very visual person and also forgetful," she explains. "I keep crap on my desk as a physical aid to memory, which makes my workspace a bit spiritually degrading."

So she's trying to build a new desk - "the best ever" - with the help of a friend who runs a metal shop. "It's part Ikea hack and part electronics work and, if we play our cards right, it will look like a perfect minimalist object. I'm going to post the trials and tribulations of this industrial design experiment on my blog."

Anderson's endeavours aren't normally so straightforward. The 31-year-old designer and illustrator enjoys surprising audiences, and likes to find new twists on old ideas: "I feel I've truly succeeded when I make a project - whether interactive, digital or physical - that does exactly what it isn't supposed to do." Such as making a paper wedding invitation that turns into a record player, amplifying a song when folded in just the right way. Or the spoof edition of The New York Times she created in collaboration with culture-jamming activists The Yes Men, which was filled with articles from a Utopian future and won the Prix Ars Electronica in 2009. "Both of those projects were incredibly surprising for the recipients," she recalls. "I was even more astounded that they ended up working."

'Handkerchief Map Invite' was printed on fabric and housed in a letterpressed Kraft paper sleeve. The "handkermap" doubles as a functional map and memento for guests

In Anderson's view, the everyday materials we take for granted, such as paper, are just waiting to be reimagined. "They're low-hanging fruit for subversion. They're most ready for an intervention because we barely even notice them any more - they're so ordinary they become invisible," she explains, recalling a quote from the astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan: "If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."

She continues: "Behind the apple pie you're making 'from scratch' is this vast underlying infrastructure that made the ingredients possible. Everything we make is like that apple pie. A piece of paper has manifold possibilities - we can engage it on an everyday level or we can bring out some of its more surprising features," she adds.

While Anderson grew up in New Orleans, her mother's side of the family were "true New Yorkers" who had moved to Louisiana - her great-aunt watched the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from her office window. So, she says, she knew all about bagels and 'egg creams' and musicals from when she was small. She studied for a BFA at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and an MFA and MS at the Pratt Institute of New York, writing her master's thesis on nuclear waste markers, and spent five years working part-time in Special Collections at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "I digitised glass plate negatives and rare books, and listened to audiobooks. It was a dream day job," she remembers.

An infographic for a presentation by start-up AirBnb – an alternative accommodation community marketplace – likening the flow of resources within AirBnb's business model to energy resources in a natural eco-system

The push to leave and focus full-time on freelancing came late in 2010, when she created a wedding invitation for some friends - a map printed onto fabric and finished as a handkerchief - and posted it online. "The ensuing response and demand made it clear that it was time to switch to doing design full-time." Now, she enjoys the way freelancing enables her to stay in control of her work. "It's a way to live by my own powers. I'm always happily surprised that people appreciate my work, and that there's a demand for it."

She describes her client base as a good mix of friends-with-projects, idealists-with-projects, magazines and people in the creative, non-profit, museum and start-up world, and enjoys working on diagrams, editorial illustrations, identities, physical contraptions and websites. "I like projects where I really learn something about how the world works. I like diagrams a lot, but what I love best are projects that work like undercover demonstrations. I'm inspired by the fast feedback afforded by 'making' - if something doesn't work in design, you just keep iterating until you find it."

'The Economics of the Super Bowl' was created for Hemispheres magazine. Designed to mimic stadium seating around a field, the statistics were dropped into a circular graph

When she's not working at her desk, or indeed redesigning it, Anderson goes to galleries and tries to soak up as many first-hand art experiences as she can. Like many freelancers, she says she often forgets to stop working.

"I have the luxury of not having a ton of responsibilities right now - I'm a girlfriend, a cat-owner, a friend... and a designer. So I'm in a position where I can devote myself almost fully to my work." But when the output exceeds the input, she knows the balance is off. "If I don't hear about a major news story for a few days, I start feeling like I'm living under a rock."

Indeed she sees keeping up with the news as part of her creative remit: "Because I'm an eager citizen and a member of different communities, including the design community, my responsibilities include reading the news, understanding a little about how the world works, participating in protests I believe in, voting, sharing practical design information and articulating ideas about design. The work I do has an exchange with the world."

Two big print projects are next on the cards: one for an upcoming MoMa exhibition of Martha Rosler's work, the other for a new magazine focusing on long-form journalism. "I'm designing it from the ground up - identity, all art direction and page layouts - and I'm getting to collaborate with some really smart people that I admire."

Then there's the desk redesign, one of two projects ("perhaps quixotic, perhaps impudent") that aim to create an "ideal" version of something. Anderson is collaborating on what she hopes will be "the best cookbook experience ever" - a video recipe app where people can see, and follow along with, the techniques of master chefs. "Both of those projects are in the mode of reinventing the wheel - questioning everything a desk or a cookbook should be, which is exciting. I like working from the ground up."

Anderson's highly innovative 'Paper Record Player' wedding invitation. When folded the right way, it plays a song recorded by the bride and groom. The disc is foil-stamped with a partial render of the couple, revealing four different stages of their lives as it turns

She's also hoarding a stack of potential ideas that need to be nurtured into creative projects, all of which use materials in unusual ways. "My goal is to get that inspiration pile organised and create some self-initiated pieces," she smiles. "I'm in a mode where I want to be open to creating new possibilities."

This interview first appeared in Computer Arts magazine.

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