Incu Edition - The Producers Issue

In Conversation with Murray Bell, Founder/Director of Semi Permanent, Kelly Sawdon, Chief Brand Officer at Ace Hotels & Mike Mills, Director & Graphic Designer.


Words by Elisha Kennedy

Photography by Hugo Sharp, Mike Piscitelli & courtesy of The Ace Hotel. 


Murray Bell had just entered an elevator in The Standard Hotel, LA, when Mike Mills first called. “I had been waiting for him to call for over a week,and I was just on my way out of the hotel to the airport to fly home to Sydney,” Bell says, “I had just gotten in the elevator, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were in there too — and my phone rang and it was Mike. I picked up and then it just cut out.” Bell was gutted; he had long admired Mills’ work and a friend had set up the phone call so he could talk to Mills about his design festival, Semi Permanent. “I called back and he answered, he was so relaxed, I was really nervous. He asked what I was up to . . . I totally lied about having a plane to catch and said ‘Nothing’, then he asked if I wanted to have tea with him. I don’t drink tea,” Bell explains, “but I will drink tea for Mike Mills! So I missed my flight and we went out for a cup of tea that evening.”

Such is the nature of collaboration; communication can flow easily or it can be awkward, with technology playing the role of great facilitator or likely hindrance. For longtime friends Murray Bell, Mike Mills and Kelly Sawdon, engaging in collaboration is the cornerstone of their work and the key component of “stuff getting done,” says Bell.

Murray Bell, Kelly Sawdon & Mike Mills

What is in production for each of you right now?

Murray (MB): I’m just tweaking the curation of our next live event which is happening in Sydney at the end of May, and coupling this with the running of the overall business and a new family member who has kept me pretty occupied for the last couple of months. That said, I’m massaging things into a nice place where everything is not so segregated — I’m a bit of a believer that each of us can’t go through a day without having an impact on the world in some way, so I feel like everything should try and work a little more harmoniously together.

Mike (MM): For the last sixish months I’ve been doing just enough press on my film to not really be able to get into anything else. Just enough travel and time commitments and thinking about this project that took the last five years to really move on. The six months before that were in the finishing of a film, which is very technical and demanding and kinda the opposite of creativity. In fact there is nothing that is more opposite to creativity than lots of press, because in order to do press you end up talking about your project and your process as if you know all about it; it’s the most interesting and alive and powerful when you don’t know about it. So, the answer is, I have no idea what’s next, and more than that, I have to, like, rebuild my creative self to learn how to be creative again, to be OK not knowing, to be cool just sitting with the unknown, with nothing real to bolster yourself up, and wait patiently and muddle through until it becomes something down the road.

Kelly (KS): We’re really looking forward to opening doors in Chicago’s West Loop this fall. We’re working with the LA collective Commune Design to actualise the vision of the space, which is inspired by the ever-evolving design history of the city and the heroes that emerged from it. The hotel will have over 150 guest rooms, a restaurant, a rooftop bar and a café by Stumptown. The team in New Orleans is gearing up for Six of Saturns — ten days of arts and music programming in our venue Three Keys during New Orleans Jazz Fest. And in four cities, we’re hosting Coding Cognitive, a series of workshops with IBM intended to open access to AI technology to everyone.

Semi Permanent 2015

When you’re making something from scratch, how do you begin?

MB: The first Semi Permanent event I brought together was in 2003 so that’s really starting from scratch. We booked a venue, sold a few thousand tickets, picked up Banksy from the airport in my old Jeep — and I had no idea what I was doing . . . All the events we’ve done around the world since then feel like they’re a continuation of the narrative, so it’s felt more like a renovation. But I love the experience of rethinking a specific element of our business, and letting go of comfortable habits.

MM: My films are a long, long process of accumulating memories, and details of people’s lives and thinking and historical moments or objects that I think can talk about those people, and then slowly figuring out how these pieces could be put together to tell a story. While it’s fiction, there’s a lot to the process and just the pro- cessy-ness of it, that reminds me of documentary work, in that you slowly and incrementally discover what kind of story you have on your hands and how to make it into a film. When it’s a shorter project, a graphic design problem, I just jump in, and allow myself to be bad. Not worrying about it and just keeping on going is the key for me. Sometimes not knowing what you’re going to do at all is the best thing, it’s kind of exciting.

KS: We begin by allowing our intuition to drive us to new places. We look for cities that have a strong voice and that speak to us. Once we begin a project, we spend time in the city really absorbing its spirit: the architecture, the people, the art, the stories behind things and the cultural and creative movements that have helped define the place. We do a lot of experiential research for moments that can act as inspiration for the many different aspects of a hotel, from a key card to a doorknob to a drawing in a stairwell. It’s usually more a process of coaxing out what already exists.

Murray, Semi Permanent is an ongoing conversation about design. What kinds of conversations are taking place in 2017?

MB: This year we’re going to focus around the theme ‘Designing for Change’. I think creatives and designers are in such a unique position to have a positive impact on the world — be that making an engaging sign to hold above your head at a rally, growing a clothing label where ethical manufacturing doesn’t exist as an afterthought, redesigning transportation with something as inconceivable as the Hyperloop, painting artworks in a three-dimensional virtual reality space — so we’re bringing together people and technology with design at the centre to try and stimulate that conversation and get people’s hands a little dirty.

Mike, your latest film 20th Century Women is set in 1979. Can you tell us about the significance of telling a story then, what kind of historical consciousness occurs from a design perspective?

MM: Being a design student, you’re made very aware that every little object in our world is designed by someone, and all this work has a worldview embedded in its design, and this speaks volumes about culture and people and life.

It’s set in 1979 largely because that’s when I was a teen and my mother was in her late 50’s and I was talking about our relationship then in a very real and direct way, and how that moment in history — the end of the 70’s — shaped and impacted the kind of relationship we had. It’s also a funny contradiction: that time is the beginning of now to me; the surge in personal computing, oil crisis, energy crisis, recession, Islamic revolution, the beginning of the end of working class-middle class power and the more socialist version of American democracy that grew from WW2 till 1979. It’s impossible to separate from now and it’s a time that we can never return to; a pre-digital world, a world with only 4-6 TV stations, a world that was still bound to physical reality and a world with boredom.

Kelly, can you tell us about some of the design choices made by Ace Hotels that work to promote a sense of place?

The goal of our hotels has always been to foster a sense of connection — to each other and to the place you’re in. All the cities we are interested in have enormous creative potential and deep, abiding cultural histories. When we begin work on a project, we seek out people who are doing and making great things in the community, and try to find ways to collaborate. We want to make spaces that are not just for the neighbourhood, but by the neighbourhood as well — where locals have a say in what the space becomes. It’s for them, in large part, after all.

For our most recent hotel in New Orleans, we worked with 29 artists from the South and around the New Orleans area to create hand painted custom armoires for our guest rooms. And local potter and activist Osa Atoe made the ceramic pasta bowls for our restaurant Josephine Estelle. This philosophy also carries over into our programming, where our venues, event spaces and lobbies become gathering places for the community.

Ace Hotel Downtown LA

Each of you works largely in creative collaboration — so what makes an idea/project good for collaborative and creative work?

MB: Our entire business, what excites me the most and what my life has become so intrinsically linked to, is collaboration. Largely, [with Semi Permanent] we present ourselves as a canvas and platform for people to collaborate on. We bring together all the ingredients you need to open your mind, and start creating.

MM: Films are beautifully collaborative, in a way. They’re also very hierarchical, with the director being the General in a way. But the projects are so complicated and difficult and big, like building a little city, several times over, so it’s just totally necessary to collaborate. It has become one of my favourite things in a way. Funnily, I find that by the end of a film, most directors I know kinda can’t stand their film. They’ve just worked on it too long, seen it too many times. So as a filmmaker you’re giving away or throwing away the film. And what you get in return are these relationships and memories and comrades who helped you, and I love that.

KS: We’re drawn to collaborating with people and brands who inspire us, who are doing work that fills us with curiosity and energy. Sometimes we approach them, sometimes they approach us and sometimes we are old friends already. It’s all very organic. We are fortunate that our business model allows us to collaborate with people from such a wide spectrum of fields — everything from technology and design to food, beverage, art, music and product design can cross our desk in a single day. Typically, if we’re excited about working with an individual or group and there’s a meaningful purpose behind the collaboration, the project itself will be robust.

How do you manage the challenges of collaboration? What kinds of tools do you use?

MB: I think a lot of it is knowing when to speak up and when to stay quiet. A year or so back we created a retrospective, or I think it’s actually called a survey — an installation of every piece of Radiohead’s artwork. There are over 2,500 pieces of artwork that have been created by Stanley Donwood over some 25 years, and working with him to excavate this, plus Thom Yorke who did the soundscape, along with management, the venue etc. was really a process of letting each person’s voice be heard at the right time. Working with a group like that, who are very protective of what they align with, was also very much about growing trust, and once you establish that, things get really fun.

MM: Seems like it’s mostly about communication. And being process orientated. It’s not about getting something right the first time, and refraining if you can from knowing everything up front, and letting things flow along their path . . .

KS: We feel fortunate that our hotels can act as platforms to activate our cultural and creative obsessions, which often take the form of inspiring work other people are doing. Our spaces are ways for our friends and like-minded creators and collaborators to engage in cultural communion and share their work with the city. We’re always engaged and determined to support and contribute to what an organization or individual is already doing well. We want their point of view to lead the conversation. Working across different industries, or disciplines, allows for a cross-pollination that pushes each party into new territory. When determining who to work with, intuition is our greatest tool. Aside from physical space, we use our blog to amplify the events and partnerships — to offer a digital platform in which artists, collaborators and community figures can tell their own stories.

Gregory Crewdson, Semi Permanent 2016

Kelly and Mike, can you tell us about your experience with Semi Permanent?

MM: Well, I’m afraid I haven’t been in person, which is a crime at this point. I enjoyed doing a live Skype chat for Semi Permanent from my studio with Murray in 2014.

KS: The whole host of creatives that participated and attended Semi Permanent was impressive. It was the best-in-class from so many different industries and each one of them had something insightful or eye-opening to contribute. And the ‘zine! The collaboration with the Semi Permanent team was so inspiring.

Murray, what do you want to ask Mike?

MB: For me, when I’m curating an experience or developing an idea, I sometimes feel like I need to close my eyes and listen to my instincts or the heart because there is so much out there that can influence my decisions, or pay particular attention to certain people’s opinion, how do you recognize an idea that’s worth making into a film or artwork or piece of design?

MM: There’s not one answer to that question . . . By any means necessary I guess! As I get older, it’s been interesting, my stomach is totally ahead of my brain on decisions, if I feel this tension like I’m not breathing right in my stomach, I have a good indication that something’s not right or is being used in the wrong way.

And Mike, what would you like to ask Kelly?

MM: So as I admitted, it would be not enjoyable for me to watch one of my films — I’ve just worked on it too much, I’m looking at all the seams, all the tape and glue that put it together — is it the same for you staying in one of your hotels?

KS: When I stay at any of our hotels I’m often times so focused on what can be updated, changed, tweaked, what new project can we start, how we can improve service. I’m always thinking about what we could do better and how we can improve; it’s not always the best place to try to go and relax for a weekend. That being said, I also love staying at our hotels because I’m reminded of the process and people that participated in the creation of it or our reasoning behind specific design decisions.

Kelly, what question do you have for Murray?

KS: If you were to host a small dinner party for anyone in the world, who would you invite and why?

MB: The last dinner we all shared in LA with Miranda July, Pamela Shamshiri and Sonia Killmore was fun . . . but if I had to exclude present company and not be reminded of how wild-fun dinner is with my one-year-old son, I’d invite two people who I always seem to run short of time with — Neil Kellerhouse (Creative Director, who works closely with David Fincher) and Brian Message (Manager of Nick Cave, Radiohead and PJ Harvey) and let them bring some friends, and so on.