8 Things
Jade Lai, Owner, Creatures of Comfort

If you ever have the privilege of chatting up Jade Lai, who owns the bicoastal cult fashion emporium Creatures of Comfort, don’t be surprised if she tells you that, after returning from a trip to Morocco last year with no less than 15 carpets in tow, she was struck by the notion that she could totally see herself in the rug business. And when this is followed by the revelation that she’s looking to expand the Creatures of Comfort brand to encompass food, or that she’s been taking pottery classes, or that she hopes to run a bed and breakfast sometime soon, resist the urge to raise an eyebrow — these may sound like the ramblings of a dilettante, but make no mistake, Lai is both hyper-creative and legitimately driven. Consider, for example, the year she spent working as a product developer for Esprit in her native Hong Kong: She took the job after having graduated with an architecture degree, freelanced as a graphic designer, and started her own stationery line in L.A., but proceeded to become so good at it that she could eventually identify a fabric’s contents by touch alone — a useful skill for someone who now designs Creatures of Comfort’s in-house fashion line, and one that would certainly come in handy for any aspiring carpet slinger.

To some degree, Lai opened the first Creatures of Comfort in West Hollywood six years ago because it seemed like the only tent big enough to hold her multifarious interests. Despite the fact that she quickly became known as the go-to for emerging clothing brands like Mociun and Rachel Comey, “I didn’t intend for it to be so fashion-focused at first,” she admits. “I knew it would start out carrying clothes, but I also designed the space and the furniture, invited my friends to build it, and did the graphics myself. It was an outlet for me to do all the things I wanted to do.” Early on, Lai began eyeing the three-story building next door — owned by an older gentleman who ran a framing service out of its ground floor — and dreamed of taking it over and turning CoC into a multi-disciplinary lifestyle shop in the vein of Bless or Margaret Howell. She’d been obsessively reading design magazines, for one, and wanted to stock more of the objects she loved. Strangely enough, it was New York that ultimately offered her that opportunity.

Despite the obvious economic drawbacks, Lai spent years looking for a larger space in downtown Manhattan than the one she had in L.A., hoping she could open a sister store with room to do more than just sell clothing. Two years ago she found one that was big enough to encompass both a store and a small gallery, a space where she could host rotating art shows and creative collaborations like the pop-up shop she devised in partnership with the Japanese design boutique Playmountain. Recently, the storefront held a temporary bookshop courtesy of the indie imprint Textfield, and Lai took it as an opportunity to learn more about publishing and printing presses. “In a way, the gallery is my own form of schooling,” she says. “I’m still constantly finding new things I want to learn about.” Meanwhile, Sight Unseen interviewed Lai about eight of her current and most-enduring interests, and they’re presented in the slideshow at right.

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’80s Issey Miyake: “My mom was always wearing avant-garde designers like Byblo and Yohji, and she loved Issey Miyake. One of the first pieces of designer clothing she gave me was an Issey skirt. He's amazing for what he was doing in that country at that time: peasant clothes, baggy things, geometric shapes. His clothes were very unisex. You could be any shape and you could wear them. It was always about movement. This was before he started on the pleats, and he was already developing his own fabrics. The designers I work with now are similarly trying to invent something new for this period. Anntian, for example, experiment with form and make bold moves, and Zucca uses amazing textiles. And yet I like that Issey’s clothes aren’t fancy even though they’re well designed. They still function.”

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Indigo boro jackets: “I’ve always been really into farm clothing, things old French farmers might wear. I’ve also getting into quilts and other handicrafts lately. These are actually farmers’ jackets from a region in northern Japan, probably made in the late 19th century, and they embody the whole functional aspect of workwear. They’re from a region where it’s hard to grow cotton, so many of them are made from hemp and indigo, and a lot of times these quilting techniques have been passed down throughout families for generations.”

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Indigo boro jackets: “I love how all they age and yet still last; it’s all about the wear that gives each jacket character. And as a pigment itself, the more you wear indigo the it the more it changes, in a really nice way. I have a few really small pieces of Japanese indigo fabric, but I’ve also started collecting textiles from gypsy tribes, which has similarly intricate needlework: jewelry, little pouches, camel bags. Other than Morocco I’ve never been to Africa, but I want to go, because they have really nice textiles there, too.”

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Sheila Hicks: “Two years ago a friend gave me her book, and ever since then I’ve been captivated by her work. I love that she was a painter and then started developing weavings that were an extension to her paintings. They’re so delicate and textural, and they use so many interesting materials, it’s super inspiring to me. I also like that she incorporates a lot of found objects; her work is very organic and free. Nothing is overdesigned. I tend to be drawn to people who know how to balance texture and color.”

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Sheila Hicks: “I think the closest equivalent to Sheila Hicks in terms of the designers I work with is Lauren Manoogian, because she uses knitting machines a lot, and her sense of color is very similar. There’s a very organic and crafty feel about her work. Whenever I visit Lauren’s studio it’s so much fun there, with all these colors and yarns, and I’ve been thinking myself about making some hand looms. I would love to have a life that’s that simple, where all I do is make pretty things — that’s my ideal.”

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Koenig houses: “Most modernist homes have a lot of integration of nature, but with Pierre Koenig in particular, he uses a lot of pop colors in his architecture. I’m always attracted to the combination of wood and pop colors. When I lived in L.A., every time there was an open house for an Eames, Schindler, or Neutra, I would go to check them out — that’s something I did a lot in LA, driving around looking at houses. Sometimes when they weren’t even open I would climb in the backyard and look in. I lived in a lot of modern homes before I moved to New York, and the last one had a lot of nature, open spaces, an indoor-outdoor fireplace that becomes a fire pit. Now that I live in a loft space in New York I try to make it really bright, and I put a lot of plants inside.”

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Koenig houses: “When I was in school, my favorite architect was SANAA, always liked their work. I was very intto the whole minimalist movement. You design a lot and then you take away and take away and try to make very subtle things happen. I always envisioned myself in the space and thought about how I would feel in it. Even with the store we took away everything and made it a very flexible environment, where everything is on wheels, there’s a curtain system, you can open the space or close the space. It’s always about flexibility and change for me, and I think Koenig’s homes are also open for interpretation. He always designed a house for its occupants.”

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Judith Seng’s Trift series: “I think I found Judith’s Trift pieces on a blog last year when I was preparing to open the New York store, and I contacted her wanting her to design a display for me. I love working with natural materials like hardwood and marble, and what’s so great about the Trift pieces is that they’re so natural and yet it’s nature that’s been imposed on by people. It’s very poignant. I like that although it’s very graphic, there’s something really subtle about the bleached wood, and something very soothing about it as an object, like nature slowly fading into our modern life. I think we’re going to carry the series in our New York shop soon. For the store, my sensibility is really about using generic materials but adding colors to it to make it different, and the Trifts really match that sensibility.”

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Ann Woo sunsets: Ann Woo is a photographer friend of mine, and she’s best-known for her sunsets. It’s a series of seven pictures, but it’s basically one photograph she manipulates in the darkroom. Her new works are about playing cards shot on top of fabric, and they also emphasizes texture and simple graphics and simple colors. It’s all very minimal. I own a few of her pieces, and we’re planning on having a show for her at Creatures of Comfort in New York at the beginning of next year.”

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Imi Knoebel: “He’s a German artist from the late ’60s, and part of the minimalist movement. While he’s considered a painter, he uses a lot of found objects, like painted pieces of plywood stacked on top of each other. Everything’s whimsical and yet very simple and unpretentious.”

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Imi Knoebel: “When I was in school for architecture we always talked about dumb design, and the modernist box, and stacking those boxes together to create a space — I always loved that, and it’s part of why I find Imi Knoebel’s work appealing. What dumb design means to me is being able to look at a piece and think, that’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that. It’s these constructions that are so obvious they tend to be overlooked. Ahh, I just want to be an artist.”

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Crystal collection: “I starting collecting crystals a few years back, little by little, and then it expanded into a rock collection. I get them every time I travel, instead of buying souvenirs. I recently went to Greece and brought back a big back of rocks, and at the airport they all wondered why my suitcase was so heavy. When I first started collecting crystals, it was because I was interested in their properties; it’s thought that if you go into a crystal store you’re naturally attracted to whichever type can specifically benefit you. Now I have about 70 that I keep on a shelf at home with the rest of my weird objects: rocks, pompoms, and for some reason I really like tops and dreidels. It’s their shape and symmetry. One of my ex-boyfriends was a woodworker and I always had this idea of making a really really big top, the size of a chair, for the store. It’s going to happen someday, though maybe we could start with one the size of a head.”

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The interior of Creatures of Comfort's New York store, located at 205 Mulberry Street in downtown Manhattan. Photo by Mark Iantosca