Living with Leta & Wade
Words: Sam Wittwer
Images: Maggie Shannon
August 10 2016
Tucked behind a nondescript door in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is the home of Leta Sobierajski and Wade Jeffree. Partners in both work and life (and married in the eyes of New York State earlier this year) the duo are so perfectly complementary that it is hard to imagine that they weren’t always a package deal. Upon our first meeting, I noticed they were dressed nearly identically – happenstance as Leta explained, but certainly not an uncommon occurrence.
The duo are probably most readily recognized by their self-portrait project Complements. Together, in front of a solid backdrop, Leta and Wade perform ever more contorted variations on traditional couple’s portraits: sitting lovingly next to one another completely wrapped in foil; sharing an embrace while covered head-to-toe in temporary tattoos. Despite the idiosyncratic scenarios, their design sensibilities are both razor sharp – for Leta and Wade there is no-half assed approach to fun. Knowing this about them, I should’ve been able to anticipate that within an hour of meeting the pair, I would be sitting on a rug in front of their supremely well-stocked book-case, paging through rare monographs and trading Japanese Surf-Pop recommendations.
After chatting with for a while – and rummaging through most of Leta and Wade’s worldly possessions – I realized I’d been caught in their orbit for a while without realizing it. We share a few mutual friends, we like the same designers. And, while they are of course just as talented and ambitious as they seem, they’re also delightfully warm people. The world that they have created, one of kindness and directed play, is as well appointed as one would expect. Their home is a living archive of contemporary design; an Alavar Aalto vase sits beneath a classic Lawrence Weiner poster; a cheeky Doug Johnston pot sits in the shadow of one of Greg Bogin’s neon canvases.
Hey Leta, Hey Wade. I’d like to start at the beginning – of this phase of your lives at least. How did you end up in New York City?
LETA: I grew up in the Catskill region, in a quiet, secluded green town called Jefferson, where I attended a K-12 public school with a mere class of 18 (many of which I knew since Kindergarten!) But because I had family living in Long Island, my parents and I visited New York City frequently. I would attend museums, operas, and Broadway plays. Whenever it was time to go back upstate, I always dreamt of moving there, where I wouldn’t have to drive 15 minutes to get anywhere and I could walk to the museums I loved. I went to Purchase College, about an hour north from NYC, to study graphic design, and four years later I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I haven’t left yet. It’s been 6 years now!
WADE: Well it’s kind of a long story, but here you go; During my final year at university I, like many other young Australians, wanted to head overseas. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, but I believed that a change in scenery would yield positive results.
At that point I was still unsure of where I wanted to head, so I compiled a list of studios from around the world and determined the relative pros and cons of each, factoring in the locations among other things. The options that were most promising were London and New York. I had become aware of the J1 Visa (knowing that the rate of acceptance was very high) and a New York summer seemed like too good of a thing to pass up! I received my visa, scheduled a road trip from the West coast to the East and went from there, knowing I would be in New York as of March 2012, ready to see what would happen.
I got here and fell in love straight away. It’s the cliché, but it was just all energy. Melbourne couldn’t compare and I feel in love and took the dive and did everything I could to land a job so I could stay!
I found a job that allowed me to live in New York instead of just visiting in New York. ‘Things’, whether they are personal experiences, personal insights, or inspiration come from the places you visit and the company you keep. My relocation here has influenced and inspired me in many a way Melbourne would not — the power of travel is immeasurable and the people I have met are going to be influential for years to come.
I now know what my professional success is defined by, and that my successes are based upon a set of parameters I have set myself. It has helped me to distinguish who I am professionally and personally.
Long story short, coming here changed everything.
Also – can you tell us about a bit of the music you’re playing? There are some great vibes in here.
L: Shintaro Sakamoto is a Japanese rock artist who used to be a part of psych rock band Yura Yura Teikoku. After his band separated, he wrote this album (Let’s Dance Raw) on his own, referencing Hawaiian steel guitar, Brazilian chic, and banjo. It feels as much 2014 as it does 1960’s. Our friend Ellen Dusen turned us on to him.
You two live and work together out of your apartment – what can you tell us about the space?
L: Our home is a cozy, rent-stabilized spot on the outskirts of Williamsburg — East Williamsburg, if you will. We have been living together here for the past 3 years roughly, and before Wade moved in with me, it was quite bare. We have made it our own by decorating it with our own and our friends’ artworks. We’re particularly proud of our bookshelf, which is loaded with a lot of sentimental gems that have been found on our international travels or in eBay wormholes.
Do you find it easy to share space – both between two people and two uses?
L: We got a studio space in Greenpoint in January 2016 and have been able to create a little more separation from our work. Instead of having photo shoots in our living room, we have an entire studio which we can devote to our projects. While our work vernaculars are certainly different, the space is conducive to both of us.
W: In the last year we have actively been working together on projects, both personal and client-based that have made us feel more at ease with getting space. That being said, it has also been amazing to finally start working together more on client projects — it’s been a busy year.
We also feel that work and life are intertwined, so we will generally talk about work-related things all day. Whether it’s to talk through a client issue, brainstorm concepts, or double-check budgets, we love what we do and since we are now working together it only helps us strengthen our working relationship by being open and honest at all points about all topics — it’s one of the benefits of being a working couple, because at this point we just say what we think. We are always upfront and honest.
Do you have rituals that you use to draw the line between work time and living time? Do you feel the need to?
L: We don’t typically draw the line between work and living time. It doesn’t fit our personalities. Saturday is one day we don’t work, though it’s inevitable that we still talk about work. On Sundays we are nurturing side projects and catching up on other work. In general, Saturdays are devoted to galleries or movies or catching up with someone and getting in trouble. Then Sundays we are back at it. It’s part of the process of being here in New York — everyone is busy, everyone is working. We are so accustomed to working all the time. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all addicted to our work, and that’s what makes New York such an infectious place to live in.
You two have a pretty archetypical twenty first century meet-cute, do you feel comfortable sharing the story?
W: We met on OkCupid, an online dating platform. I always tell people to go on it, but no one wants to do it.
L: After a night of drinking with my girlfriends they were telling me, ‘You have to join OkCupid!’ as a reply to me complaining about men in New York. I made an account and within that week, Wade got in touch with me. I had written in my bio, “I am a graphic designer, and if you don’t know who Josef Muller-Brockmann is (a Swiss graphic designer with a loyalty to gridded design), I don’t want to talk to you.” I only wanted to date graphic designers — I wanted to be with somebody who had the same interests as me. Maybe some people see that as stifling. As somebody so like-minded, he efficiently wrote, “It seems like we have very similar interests. Here is my phone number — contact me if you want to meet.” And that was it!
L: We went on a date two days after he wrote to me. I was more nervous than I have ever been in my life — not even for a job interview or for a test! The notion of meeting an absolute stranger via the internet with barely any expectations is incredibly intimidating. I was shaking and I had to take a shot of vodka before I went to meet him because I was so scared and needed to calm my nerves, but the date ended up being amazing. We talked for an hour and a half before we even got our first drink. We spent the entire evening together — conversation turned into drinks, drinks turned into dinner, and dinner turned into more drinks. We didn’t want the night to end. Once we said goodbye, I turned around to begin walking back to my apartment and after no more than 10 steps and I got a text message saying “So when are we meeting again?” I never thought that something like that would happen in my life — it felt too cinematic. When I first began talking about my relationship, I felt embarrassed when I admitted to using OkCupid, but honestly it is the best way to meet someone. I guess I was involved in so many shitty little flings and relationships that I didn’t think that something like this was possible, and that falling in love could be so quick and easy. It was hard for me to believe at first.
W: I will take all the complements.
L: He was so confident and straightforward about everything. I mean, I have met a lot of guys in New York who just completely beat around the bush or don’t call you after two dates. For this guy to just text me after I walk 10 steps away from him, it was a totally different type of feeling.
W: Straight shooter.
I ask if you are comfortable because I know a lot of people feel weird about the fact that they’ve met their partners online, but the two of you have fairly active online presences. What would you say is the relationship between your digital and analog lives?
L: I’d say they go hand in hand. A lot of our work is made in an analogue process which will ultimately exist on digital platforms. We are real people and strive to make real work that demands a presence. Emotion is analog, and if we can create an emotional resonance in a digital realm, I think we’re doing our job properly. We don’t seek to create false personas that we can hide behind — we try to be as true as we can with the content that we share.
Your apartment feels like an archive of your work and influences – do you have a philosophy for how you select the items that you bring into your home?
W: You are the company you keep you know? Our biggest inspiration comes from friends and family. We find such joy in seeing friends really come into their own and start kicking goals with work. To have them on our walls is a constant reminder of our community and what it means to truly be inspired, as it’s all about relationships.
All the other things (posters, sculptures) are both art and design inspirations, both through formal beauty and conceptual prowess. It’s why we have so much Lawrence Weiner I guess. Anime is also a huge influence for us. I like to hide little characters in spots around the apartment – like our Vegeta chilling in a flower pot (Dragon Ball Z). I expect us to go a little crazy on toys the next time we head back to Japan – it would be accurate to say that Japan in is one of our biggest influences. We fucking love it and visit once a year, we are actively counting down he days until we venture back (currently it’s 38.)
A mutual friend of ours once described Graphic Design to me as ‘creating tomorrow’s bin liners’ – a rather cynical take on the ephemeral nature of much of the work that Graphic Designers do. Yet your home is filled with the physical artifacts of generations of design work, do you have thoughts on the permanence of the work that designers do? (I would retort that there is a permanence in both Object and Concept.)
W: Without those bin liner they would be sitting in there rubbish no? That’s not ideal is it?
I think you nailed it with the word concept. Thinking is something that can be timeless — why else do people collect books and literature? It’s about the manifestation of a thought. As we all know, big things can have small beginnings. Our collective consciences would be about surrounding ourselves with the things that inspire us – as it can also be seen as an aspiration. One again, that’s why Lawrence Weiner is everywhere – he is the coolest mother fucker on the planet! Closely followed by Yohji Yamamoto, for me at least!
In a similar vein, what do you think it takes to ‘set down roots’ in a city as kinetic as New York?
W: Confidence. I think if you feel like you belong it will just figure itself out. If you know what you want you can set your sights to get it – this place is incredible in the way it just all happens on a whim. Everything is achievable if you bust your ass and set your sights high. At least, that’s how it happened for me. This place will eat you up and shit you out otherwise…
I think it’s time to wrap this up, but before I do – where’s the best place to eat in your neighborhood?
L: Okonomi has the best Japanese breakfasts in New York, hands down. Ore Bar for a laid back drink on any type of night. Sage for coconut curry and drunken noodles. For coffee, Variety Cafe. You’ll run into everyone you know there, even if they don’t live in your neighborhood.
Maggie Shannon is a photographer based in Brooklyn.