When we think about care in our communities, it always comes back to gathering together over good food with good people. To celebrate API Heritage Month, we collaborated with artist Gica Tam on a limited-edition tote and designer Jennet Liaw on a limited-edition tee designed with this theme in mind.
And to keep the care going, 10% of revenue of sales will go towards sustaining the work of our friends FIG, a New York City based multi-racial grassroots coalition working to transform the food system.
Based in New York City, Jennet is a multi-disciplinary designer and graphic artist that makes apparel, graphics, murals, branding, and "generally draws for good people across the globe."
Inspired by tablescapes that mirror the cityscape, Jennet's tee design for our Take Care Collection evokes the raucous togetherness of the city and the intimate togetherness of gathering for a meal.
We’re honored to feature Jennet’s work and her design practice, full of hopefulness for coming days filled with more joy, healing, and shared food once more. In our conversation, she shares with us the beauty that is, despite of and because of it all, the people coming together.
How have you arrived here with us today?
I think it's an interesting time for people who work, which is everyone. It's an interesting time for Asian Americans. It's an interesting time for all of us, who've gone through the pandemic. I think we're kind of at the edge of something, but aren't sure where the next thing begins. A lot of the projects that I'm involved with now come from a place of wanting to be of help, whether that's to my personal community or my locale or my neighborhood, or just people that I know. I think there's this urge that I have to bring something people tangibly need. I think especially coming from this last year, that's just kind of a desire that I have and however that manifests, I'm not always sure, um, you know, how to proceed.
When good things come my way or when people with great intentions or we're aligned in terms of wanting to kind of offer whatever skills or perspectives that we have—when those people come my way and when projects like this and on my desk, I feel an urge to prioritize being able to give my time to those things, and also to be able to connect with people that think similarly.
I think we just need to come together to heal so many different aspects of our personal lives and our communities. Sometimes other people have the great ideas and other people have the teams or the infrastructure to make something happen.
Personally, I love being able to kind of share what I have and let them make the plans in terms of like what they're able to do. I think even in the weirdest times, if we come together, there's something good that could come out of a mixture of our skills and perspectives and so on. So I think that's how I feel about how I've arrived here with you guys and with a lot of similarly minded brands and individuals last month. I have increased openness to basically be really open about my time and listen to people's ideas and struggles. I think that's how I've arrived here.
I saw that you recently moved from being a larger brand designer into doing more of your own projects and freelance work. What has that transition been like?
Throughout my personal journey, I've always self-authored things since the beginning. And I've also been in and out of working for bigger companies. So it's kind of been the natural flow for me. I started out my career working for different small agencies, but I also freelanced really regularly on the side. I think I've just always had a really strong energy to want to pursue my craft in all different types of directions basically, and also mingle with different types of people, and those two kinds of worlds gave me the opportunity to do that.
I worked for Nike for a while. And then I moved out here to New York for my own career pursuits, but in a New York specific way, since I was really interested in doing environmental things like murals. And then I started working for Bravado, which is Universal Music, and I did a lot of music merchandise for different artists. And that was a great experience, but I also freelanced on the side. So I've been in and out and I've always given myself the opportunity basically to connect with people that I personally feel like either resonate with me or just excite me in terms of what the brief is. I never wanted to strip myself of those even when I was working for bigger companies.
This past year, I naturally left my Universal Music job, but I don't think anybody noticed one way or another because I've just been on my own things. So I think it's not so much my transition away from my job at Universal Music to my freelance job that's changed the nature of my work. It's more of experiencing the changing world. Regardless of if I had stayed or left, we're all going through this collective experience together. So naturally, my work has changed to reflect that. I couldn't really just go straight into, say, working for big brand campaigns that had nothing to do with the reality of what was going on.
I think that made me feel really crazy, to receive briefs like that or requests for doing projects that probably pay a lot, and add another brand name to my portfolio, but it just felt like insanity to prioritize those things, above the realness of what was happening around us and the things that people were feeling and perhaps suffering from, or just needed to hear kind some kind of visual hope, I suppose. And maybe that's exaggerating what my work is, but I just wanted to at least be one of the voices in the crowd that was accepting the reality of what was happening.
How have you been able to ground yourself in the past year?
I think like anybody else working from home, I've had my struggles. I've had points where I wasn't great at taking care of myself or being present in the moment. Even in moments where I feel a little bit frazzled and wondering how that translates into what I should be doing, I find that oftentimes when you talk to other people is when it clicks. I see that the desire exists in all of us to try and make sense of what can be done about what is happening. And that gives me comfort, and in talking to other folks and seeing that we're all trying our best, and we have so many resources to be able to share the ways that we're trying with one another. I think that's been the most gratifying thing: being able to share my little bits and pieces of what helps me.
You said that your work has transformed a lot in the past year because of everything going on. How do you think you've transformed and why do you think that affects your work?
I turned 30 in the last year—so it might just be a circular thing, I know age is just a number—but then you internalize that you're 40 and so you change because you're aware of it. I think my intentions are changing. At every point you believe that your intentions are the best, but now I'm able to reflect on past intentions I had. And it's not that they weren't good intentions, but maybe they were a bit self-serving. Especially with my upbringing I grew up believing that if something needed to be done or if there was a hope that was had, I would have to do it. Otherwise, no one would. That sort of mentality in my more formative years pushed me to be very focused on singular goals and I didn't allow myself to rely on other people to give me perspective, or to lend a helping hand, or offer their skills where I was lacking. So I don't know if it's 30, I don't know if I'm tired now, or I don't know if I've just come to recognize the goodness of the people around me and the resources that are at our disposal, but I think I'm less focused on having to get it done on my own. I relaxed a bit about letting people in and recognizing that it could be better for everybody. So I think that filters through into my intention because that openness makes me want to give more as well. I'm less focused on my own personal goals and more interested in what people need, not in a deprecating way, but everybody has needs. So I'm more motivated by others' needs, what I need to be listening to, and have more of a security in the belief that that's for the best for myself and for people around me. I'm excited by this new motivation because that was not what was motivating me in my early twenties.
I think when you change your perspective, you can allow yourself to be transformed by others. It goes in a beautiful loop: you find that when you let others transform you, you can transform them. And that's what I'm more excited about in the long play than just grinding.
I'm looking at your shirt design, and keep coming back to the poem, which you decided to pen yourself. Why did you decide on that and what were you feeling?
Originally, I was looking at this Kitty O'Meara poem that was going around on social media. I had it stuck in my head because I think everybody throughout 2020 was trying to express exactly what this very complex feeling was. It stuck with me because it was real, but offered hope in a really simple way. She basically just says, this is what's happening. This is what we're all going through. And then we will heal after, which is so simple.
I think that's kind of this mantra that we've needed to say to ourselves throughout uncertain times: that this is what's happening, then we'll get better and who knows what will happen.
I designed the graphic for this shirt with that in mind. I came up with the idea because I had just gathered with a bunch of friends, we had people over. Somebody was drinking beer, I had a sake thing out. So there was cups around those like ash tray. That was like a bunch of things just like littered around the table. I just thought how nice it was when they left.
This little scene here was just evidenced that today wasn't like yesterday when we were by ourselves. Today we saw a bunch of our friends and we felt familial enough to kind of just leave things around and just ask for what we wanted.
It just left a very warm feeling. The idea was to mirror that in the New York skyline. I had a moment where I thought, wow this all makes sense. There is this through line of these scattered things, all coming together. People look at skylines and use them to represent the city and say, oh that's so beautiful. But it's not like someone sat there and curated these buildings together in the beginning of NYC. They all kind of came together, naturally, organically, just the way that people do. And so did all the cups. It was a poetic moment.
I thought I wanted to show that with a visual and then progressed naturally into the poem itself because the Kitty O'Meera poem was what inspired me to think around the lines of this warm feeling of the importance of people coming together and how healing that is.
Honestly, the reason why I wrote the poem was because I tried to put the Kitty O'Meera poem in and it didn't fit in the write way. So because of that, I wrote the poem and of course I thought to myself, duh, why wouldn't I write this? This is to benefit an Asian organization and I'm Asian. So I think I should just author the thing.
In the back of my mind, the context was always about experiencing anything as an Asian American. One thing to tie it to why I thought it was critical all the cups were different and it didn't look like there were place settings is because what's familial is sharing plates. WIth my friends, I'll be like, oh, this is so good, try my drink!I'm not going to be say, let me get up and remake it for you, I'll shove you the drink and then you'll drink it and then I'll be on your side and then I'll pick up this thing. So everything is shared. Nothing is preciously mine, nothing is in a perfectly spaced out setting. That's a small touch of my background that I wanted to come out in the design as well.
Are eating and cooking big in terms of how you care for the people around you?
Oh, definitely. I love to cook. I'm not an amazing cook, but I think I can cook. I know that I have no interest in cooking for myself. I actually grew up vegetarian. My parents were Buddhist and my palette is quite bland. My palate is bland and I really like healthy food that makes me really uncool, but I just like it personally, though it's not a good socializing thing. Like nobody wants to be with the girl that insists on eating nuts with you. So on my own, I like that because that's me treating myself. But I'm not pulling you into that., I promise. But I like cooking and I like flavor.
My point is when my friends are with me, I cannot wait to cook for them. I've always had this image of being the hostess, and food is at the center of all of it. I'm thinking of people as I'm cooking. I'm not thinking of what I like as like a priority because I like salads and that sucks. It's definitely a deep level of caring because I'm thinking about each person that's about to come. Are they Cantonese? Are they Vietnamese? Have they tried Taiwanese food? Cooking and eating together is the number one way to socialize in my eyes. You can talk about the food, complain about the food, and just bond on so many different levels.
It all ties back to the same theme we talked about in the beginning, of being in community and being attuned to other people's needs and what it means to live in that way.
I think designers are always attuned to people's needs in one way or another. It's a communication, just visually. And so I think I've always been interested in tuning that muscle of addressing needs and trying to fix things or solve a problem. But before it was just motivated by solving a need for like a company or something. And you use your intuition that way, and it's just so much more gratifying—or just gratifying in a different way, maybe it's good to have both—to think about real people in your life and how you can really be considerate of them. And maybe if it's not a need, just to make their day. So I think it's the same muscle similar muscle, but with a different intention.
What do you love about your city, neighborhood, community, and people?
Well, I currently live in Brooklyn. It's hard to describe what I love about New York that isn't generic, but all the generic things are true. The first thing that comes to mind is that there's these moments where I'm just out in the city and I can fix my gaze on any person near me. And I do this kind of often actually. I'll tell myself, this person really wants to be here and it could be the guy selling nuts, the corner. It could be someone who's cleaning the street, it could be someone who owns an up and coming fashion label. It could be anybody, and it's safe to assume that they really, really want to be here. Because it's not an easy city to be in. You could look at someone and say, you could move to Atlanta right now and get five times as much square footage as you do here. Why aren't you? And there's always a reason why, and I think that buzzing desire around us in the city is something that makes it so you don't take this great city for granted. I don't have to talk to anybody to recognize that they have dreams and hopes and things they're working really hard for.
Is there anything else important to you before we wrap up this interview?
I'm hearing the voices of the Asian community in a way I never have before and I'm just really excited by it. I grew up in California and not that I wrestled with my identity, but I think we all try to understand where we fit into the context of everything. And I grew up kind of with certain stereotypes of my own community that maybe at times I ran away from, or I didn't want to talk too much about it, because I believed that being too Asian would keep me from certain circles that I really wanted to be a part of. Usually for me, that was driven by work. I wanted to prioritize being able to be successful at my job more than anything else. And I didn't see how being "overtly Asian"—I don't know what that means—would ever be a help. Now I'm coming to understand it's not that being Asian is good or bad. It's just that we actually have a lot to offer as Asian Americans because of our backgrounds. We have this rich background, and rich family cultural values and experiences.
I am able to see so much of that right now from Filipino Americans, from Korean Americans, from Japanese Americans, from Chinese Americans, and I'm Taiwanese American. I'm seeing so many more layers to that now that I think someone who's not Asian would just think that I just know all those things. I don't know those things, but I'm able to see bit by bit more of the nuances that make up our cultural experiences now. And I just hope that continues.
For my last question: you talked in the beginning about how you feel like we're at an edge of this thing we're experiencing together and we don't know what is to come on the other side. What do you hope is coming for us on the other side?
I just hope for more empathy. Our perspectives have to shift after the things that have been going on in the past couple of years and longer. So I would hope that because of those perspective shifts, no matter what goes on tangibly in the world that we can have a more empathetic and just generally more human perspective to approach everything with. I was reading a book recently where the author said he had a nightmare that his wife and all his children died, tragically. And he woke up and it was fine, but then he looked at his family with this renewed love and appreciation for them. He started thinking about all the reasons why he loved them. That's kind of how I feel about perspective in the coming years, that we can prolong this feeling of wanting to be loving and empathetic toward each other as a response to realizing that we've taken it for granted. ∎