Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Crystal Grover and Linsey Burritt, the designers behind Indo, a company in Chicago’s West Loop that creates window displays and installations out of reclaimed materials. Read on to learn more about what they have to say about their company, their influences, sustainability -- including their own experience “going green” and how other companies can, too -- and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere: The whole idea behind Indo is a pretty original concept. From the little bit that I’ve read, sustainability was an interest of yours long before this. Ideally, it would be on everybody’s radar. Unfortunately, there still are those people who seem to be in doubt as to whether climate change is even real, as if it is up for debate. Was there anything in particular that emphasized the importance of living sustainably for you? Was there a certain point at which the issue came onto your radar, so to speak?
Linsey Burritt: One time I distinctly remember that feeling things weren’t going right in the way we were treating the environment -- I used to visit my sister in Boulder, Colorado when I was in high school. They’re really progressive there, and back in the early 2000s they were already bringing their own bags to the grocery store and stuff like that. So that was when it really resonated with me.
AD: I think that just now some chains are catching on to that.
LB: You’d think that would’ve come to Chicago a little faster.
AD: I know that in one town -- I think it was in Canada -- that I heard about on CBC [Radio] a couple of years ago in which they actually banned [the use of] plastic bags.
LB: I think that’s coming here very soon.
AD: It’s funny, but then of course you’ll have people who complain that the government is telling us what we can and cannot do. I don’t get that. If it’s a positive thing for the environment, then it’s a positive thing for you. The health of the planet and our own health is inextricably linked, so there are things that the government says or does that are beneficial for all of us. To me it’s a little frustrating.
LB: I think that with the bag thing, it’s still a struggle with people even understanding the concept behind it because when you go to any store, you have to say very quickly that you don’t need a bag, because they do it so fast. Even if you’re buying just one little thing, they throw it into a bag. I’ve had moments where they’ve done it too fast, before I could catch them to say I don’t need it, and then they’ll take the bag that they’ve put one product in and throw it in the trash can.
Crystal Grover: So, the root of it is it’s an education thing, because they weren’t raised that way and don’t understand and they haven’t had the experience to care. So, when you say you don’t need a bag, you’re showing the people around you, you’re setting an example. It’s not their fault that they don’t know any better sometimes, until you show them the right way and then they still don’t do it. I don’t think there was a certain point. I was just raised in a way where they do some things that are good and some things that are bad. When they teach you a good thing and then they do a bad thing, you’re like “Why are you doing it that way? I don’t really get it.” My parents compost and they recycle, but then they use paper plates that they can’t compost or recycle. So, people do good and bad, and then once you’re taught something you just start to question why that’s right and other things are wrong. I think that a lot of it is how you are raised and the community you are around.
LB: There are stages of it, too, I’ve noticed. With my family, they’ve always been really good at recycling, and I think that part of that is the community is really good about it. So they separate everything, and they leave it on the curb, and then people come pick it up every week. But, I think because they’re recycling they feel okay with using disposable items and that’s another part of it. There’s a whole other level, where it’s like you don’t have to drink out of a plastic bottle every day. You can just drink from the tap.
CG: After the Taste, and seeing all of the recycling in the trash, I really think that Chicago and most cities need to ticket people who aren’t [recycling]. The recyclables are really valuable, and in 50 years they’re going to be even more valuable, because we’re going to need those resources. So, it’s like throwing away a valuable resource.
AD: I will say that even when it comes to littering, which seems to be a problem in some communities, if the police see something like that, maybe ticketing them isn’t a bad idea.
CG: When I said that -- I don’t want people getting tickets left and right. There has to be some step first to tell people to do it the right way. You know, like there’s a recycling bin right next to the trash bin.
AD: I think that with some people it’s just literally whatever is easier for them, especially If they’ve been doing it the same way all these years.
CG: That’s why a system is really important -- how it’s designed, so that it is easier for people. The easier it can be, the better.
AD: Did either of you do anything like this before? That is, did you do any sort of installation with recycled materials?
LB: Small personal projects...but nothing like what we do now.
AD: When someone comes to you to create a display, how does that work? Do they come with a clear concept? Especially when it comes to someone who doesn’t have a background in design. Is it some definite idea that they have, or do you come up with the concept?
CG: Usually people have a loose idea, like “I want this thing.” Somebody said “I want a paper installation.” That doesn’t really say a lot to you, and then we develop it. Or, they come to us with nothing. They go “We’re going to feature this product,” and then we develop the concept.
LB: They want something inspired by that product and something that’s engaging and beautiful.
AD: I would guess that working with somebody who comes from more of a design background, versus someone who isn’t at all in that field, would pose a different set of challenges. Does it?
CG: The projects are definitely more successful when we’re developing a concept and doing all of the concept work, because we’re the ones building it in the end. We have been approached the other way around, “Can you use this?” and “We want it this way,” but then by doing that they’re eliminating all of the study and prototyping and research that we would do, and that’s a really valuable part of what we do.
AD: The clients who come to you are pretty varied, too. You did work for the Taste, the theatre [the Script Wall at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre] and the showroom [the Brizo/Delta showroom at Merchandise Mart]. It seems that there’s this huge range in terms of clients that come to you. Using those three examples if you’d like, does that in and of itself pose different challenges, having them in different industries?
LB: I’d say there’s a different amount of people involved in each of those projects. For Brizo we were working with a lot of people. We’re working with the Brizo team and the Delta team, and then with the current window we also had Jason Wu’s input. People live all over, so a lot of times those meetings happen on the phone, and a little bit gets lost when there are a lot of people involved. It makes the process take longer. For CAC -- that’s the Taste [of Chicago] job -- that’s something we developed and pitched to them. That development was all something we did internally, and the process was a lot quicker because of that.
AD: It’s probably easier to work with people you know, and people who have the background.
CG: We do like having the varied people, though. That’s really important for us.
LB: It is fun. It definitely takes it to a place it wouldn’t have gone.
CG: Then we’re reaching different audiences. The more people we can reach, the better.
AD: Speaking of which, I was just thinking that since you did the wall at Steppenwolf, it would be interesting if you could do an entire set with recycled materials.
LB: We’re trying to get into different avenues than we’ve done already, and sets are definitely something we should do.
AD: Who are your influences?
LB: I really like Andy Goldsworthy. He works with the natural environment, and his installations are similar to ours because it’s temporary and doesn’t stay up for very long. The natural environment morphs and changes his work. It just kind of dissipates into the ground. Our work is similar because we put something up like CAC and that was only up for a week and then it comes own and the material changes because of the environment. I think that’s really interesting.
CG: That’s hard. I feel like there are a lot -- one of my first influences would be Maya Lin. She’s an architect. She’s very conceptual, but everything she does is very simple. She appreciates the setting in which her work is. She doesn’t want to disturb it. You also have this profound feeling when you enter one of her spaces. She’s done a lot of public art and memorials, and it’s just this very conceptual, beautiful thing. She takes you on a little bit of a journey with the things that she does.
AD: One of the things that I find interesting about the company is how it came to be. It seems like the two of you really came up with this out of something you care about, something that the you’re really passionate about. I don’t think that everybody does that, takes that risk. So, to me that was pretty interesting, taking this passion for environmental sustainability and making a company out of it. When did you realize this is what you want to do?
CG: We should say that’s not what happened. We had one article come out and it said that we had a business plan and then we started this business, but we actually started doing windows at City Soles / Niche , and we just kind of did it how we would do it because we live our lives in these ways and we appreciate these things, and it built from there. So, it was already integrated, but it was never a plan to integrate it. We never were like “Let’s create a sustainable art window display business.”
LB: It evolved organically to the point where we are now and how focused we are on it. As Crystal said, it started very integrated, it was just part of the work. Before we were using props and stuff from a salvage shop. Then it started to just emerge where it became the real focus. The focus was on the material. It’s interesting, because the displays we used to do were more like scenes or sets.
CG: When I think about the Touch one, I feel like that one still was a scene, but it was a totally different feeling.
LB: It was more abstract.
CG: It was more abstract, but it still has that integration because it’s still talking to each other within what it’s doing.
LB: There was a dialogue.
AD: I stand corrected. I didn’t realize --
CG: But that’s good, because a lot of people approached us after that and said “Oh wow. How’d you think of this business?” We didn’t. Neither of us are business majors or anything, so we made a lot of mistakes.
LB: Sometimes that’s how a good business idea is born, when it’s not like you’re sitting with this blank piece of paper and thinking “What sort of business should I create? What will be the best business ever?” I think it just comes from your passion and what you love doing.
CG: What people connect to.
AD: And that’s great, because I think that if it’s something you care about, then you put that much more thought and care into it, and you’re that much more devoted to it really, rather than going “What would produce the greatest profit?,” as you say. That’s great to really find out what you want to do. What sort of advice do you have for someone who would want to start their own business? What did you learn from it?
CG: Don’t quit your job right away. Try it out. See if people like what you’re doing. Take feedback. Really take feedback from people, the good and the bad. Get some honest critics.
LB: I think what I would’ve said a few years ago is different from what I’d say now. I think what I would’ve said a few years ago is just to take risks. Just do it. You have nothing to lose. I think how I would say it now is take a calculated risk, because when we started there was no plan. There was a beauty in that, but I think doing a little bit of calculation before you jump in is good, too.
CG: Do what you’re good at and do what you really enjoy doing, because once you’re doing it everyday -- some people are like “I’m thinking of opening a store,” and it’s like “Okay, cool. You have to be there 9 to 5. Are you cool with that?” and then the idea of being in one place at those times is terrifying, you know? Think about what you really like and what you can do with that.
LB: And keep going.
AD: It may not always be easy to get started, but I think it’s proof that if you do come upon a good idea, it really can work out.
LB: I think that building a portfolio was pretty crucial for us, too. And gaining that credibility. I think that if someone is trying to start out in the creative field, I think it’s okay to get out there and build your portfolio, even if you’re not making the money yet.
CG: Last piece of advice... you should trust the process. You have to make a process, but you have to trust it, too.
AD: Since yours is an environmentally conscious business, obviously what you do calls into question this whole thing of what really is waste. A lot of what you use in your installations would be “waste” -- for example, I saw the styrofoam cups -- and it seems like it would make people more aware of our patterns of consumption. In our society seemingly everything is single-use, almost everything is disposable, designed to be thrown away after a relatively short period of time. What sort of advice do you have for business owners who want to adopt eco-conscious ways of operating themselves?
CG: Some people should get a consultant or talk to a friend who is really interested in sustainability and start that dialogue with somebody that can help them. Then there are all these tools online, and just be your own mirror. Reflect on what you’re doing. To get really deep into it, you might need somebody else to show you -- If you’re a store, and you’re ordering this product, and the product is made in China, well... your whole business is built on a product that is made in China in a factory where workers aren't paid living wages and are overworked. How are you going to change that? That’s a really big job, and you should probably get help to do something like that. It’s funny because people can do so much to just think about what they’re using every day. It’s really easy to not print as much, to go paperless and to do all the little things, but I wonder what people would do if they’re like “My whole business is founded on something that is not sustainable at all.” How do you make them feel like they don’t need to commit business suicide? You can source things differently, and there are companies around the world that are doing things in a good way. You can start asking questions and create a dialogue with the people you’re ordering from. I think that a lot of it is based on communication and dialogue, and on telling people what you would prefer. What are the conditions in the shop making all the stuff? If you find out they’re horrible, or if you find out nothing at all -- which doesn’t mean anything good -- you can source things differently, and there are tools out there to help you.
AD: I guess that in some places, especially overseas, there isn’t always adequate supervision. Some companies will release environmental reports, the impact that the shipping and manufacturing has on the environment. Some even release reports as far as what is going on in the factory with respect to how their workers are being treated, their wages and all of that. Then you look at some of these other companies that don’t release any information, and it seems like they don’t really look into any of it themselves. As long as they can maintain the sort of profits they would like to have, it almost doesn’t factor in. Those are the so-called “externalities” that aren’t reflected in the price.
CG: That’s why, as a consumer, every dollar you spend is a vote for what you think that people should be putting out into the world. We have the power to choose good and bad stuff, things that we believe in or not, every time we buy something... everybody has the power to do that on a personal level.
LB: I think good advice for businesses is they can start small, too. For instance, if they have castoffs, they can donate that material to Creative Pitch. They’re a not-for-profit that gives materials to schools and artists to reuse. Doing a complete overhaul all at once can be expensive and overwhelming, so by starting small it gives encouragement to continue to improve.
AD: When I talk to people, even about something like an LED lightbulb, there’s often a misconception that you have to put a lot of money in to be environmentally friendly -- or that’s certainly one of them. I don’t know what your experience has been as far as any sort of misconceptions go among business owners or in the business world.
CG: That’s tough, because we’ve never had to invest in anything big. For us it’s been very economical to create these relationships and use the materials we’re using, but I can think of a lot of examples for other businesses when they’re moving into a new location and they need to invest in HVAC. That can get really costly, but when it comes to the future repayment or preserving our natural capital -- people lose sight of that for what’s happening right now. So, it takes a little bit of strategy and planning to be comfortable with those decisions. Hopefully someday we’ll be able to make some of them.
AD: I agree. I think people really lose sight of the fact that if you are talking about something as simple as a LED lightbulb, you are paying more upfront, there’s definitely an initial investment. You are definitely going to pay more than you would for your average incandescent, but, at the same time, you’re going to generate far less waste, and you’re going to see savings in terms of energy costs. I don’t think that they think about that. I think that they just see the price tag on the shelf at their local hardware store.
LB: It’s about educating people about quality, I think.
AD: Do you have any ideas about how to go about dispelling these myths about going green and how it’s difficult or costly?
CG: I mean for us it takes a lot of work. When you’re doing things in a new way, or having a business that’s not the normal system. We can buy a bunch of paper, and that would be really easy for us. So, it takes more time for us, but we get more back by doing it this way, and we just wouldn’t do it any other way. But, that’s a really hard thing because sometimes you just have to believe in it and say it’s going to take a little bit of time. But that happens with any change. It’s going to take a little bit of effort before it’s really day-to-day easy. It’s like there are really simple answers, and then there are really deep ones, like “this is a societal problem.” Part of what we like about what we do is that it’s a fun, interesting way to get people aware of their consumption as a society. Once people start doing it as a team, together -- and I think that is a huge part of sustainability and where things are going -- if we’re doing it together, it makes it so much easier if we’re all on the same team. When you’re part of the same team, you just feel okay, you know?
AD: Definitely. I too feel that addressing these issues as a community, versus trying to address the issues here-and-there is more effective.
LB: I think that what the styrofoam cup installation that you brought up before did really well is that it was this very simple idea. All these styrofoam cups came from the dumpsters, from the trash cans, and we highlighted this material and see it in another way. So, on the window displays it told people where it came from. When somebody is commuting and they’re walking by that every single day, at a certain point it becomes embedded in them and they’re like “Wow! This is really wasteful.” There was actually a girl who said that she was inspired to buy a reusable cup because of that window display. I think those small changes can be effective, too, as much as the larger ones.
AD: Particularly when you factor in how many other people probably saw it and had the same idea. Speaking of sourcing material, what is that like? Is there one particular place that provides some of the material? You mentioned a place that provides some.
LB: Creative Pitch. They donate material to not-for-profits and educational institutions and stuff like that, but we source our material from all over. We started out sourcing from recycling rooms and dumpsters in alleyways, but we’ve grown and now we go to big recycling companies, and we also talk to businesses. There are a lot of companies that have castoffs that they don’t know what to do with, and so occasionally we’ll collect those.
AD: This being Chicago, and seeing as you’re both in design, if there is a favorite piece of architecture or a favorite architect, or perhaps a sculpture, what is it or who is it? I feel like the article would just be incomplete, us being here and me not asking the question.
CG: I love Jeanne Gang. She’s amazing.
AD: She’s actually someone who’s been on my mind lately, too, because I recently discovered she’s designing the new theatre for Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe.
CG: She does a lot of material exploration, and she’s not afraid to do new things, totally different construction methods.
AD: When Aqua was first being built is when I first became aware of her. So, when I saw she’s designing the theatre -- they probably have some information online, but I am definitely anxious to get to see it in person.
LB: I have a big appreciation for really old buildings, also for Sagmeister’s work. The piece that drew me to his work was Obsessions Make My Life Worse and My Work Better. It resonated with me on a deep level. Being able to work with ones hands is is a very primal and meditative act. What can become the most difficult is to maintain from becoming too consumed by the work. Life is just a balancing act isn’t it? And I adore how completely obsessive the execution of that installation was. Which leads me to want to mention another favorite artist, Miranda July. A common thread between these two is participation from the community by either contributions or public interaction. There is nothing better than an extremely simple idea executed well, and ideas that so simply and effectively inspire a mass of people. Miranda’s work is so casual, human, thoughtful. Matthew Hoffman, a local Chicago artist and friend is another artist whose work really gets me excited for all the same reasons. He’s the man behind the “you are beautiful” stickers, which he has also done installations for that project.
CG: I have a sculpture. I like the Shit Fountain. I don’t know who it is, but whoever did the Shit Fountain on Wolcott and Augusta. It’s really funny, and people love it. That’s like really funny street art.
To learn more about Indo, visit their website, www.theindoprojects.com, where you can view some of their work, including the “Steppenwolf Script Wall,” the Taste of Chicago “Celebrity Chef du Jour” tent, the Brizo/Delta showroom and much more.
Photo Credit (Images 1-4):
Julia Stotz (www.juliastotz.com)
Photo Credit (Images 5 & 6):
Photography | Julia Stotz and Brian Guido
Fashion | Hound
Hair and Makeup | Sara Jean Stevens
Model | Courtney Stone courtesy of Ford Models