Designer Bryan Costello grew up in an idyllic small town in North Carolina, obsessed with soccer. A self-described “hopeless romantic” he found school a bore and felt that life really began once he left college and moved to Raleigh. He dabbled in graphic design, worked in restaurants, and enjoyed his freedom. Then, he got the job that changed everything – in an antique shop. Since then, he’s opened a retail concept with epic parties, created a deeply moving and insightful fictional magazine, transformed Heights House Hotel, and… discovered his creative animal.
Thanks to Bernhardt Design for sponsoring this episode. Learn more at bernhardtdesign.com.
This episode was recorded live at the NeoCon Podcast Studio Powered by SURROUND and Sponsored by SnapCab.
Amy Devers: This special presentation of Clever is brought to you by Bernhardt Design, and was recorded live from the NeoCon podcast studio, powered by SURROUND and sponsored by SnapCab. With special thanks to Master & Dynamic, the official headphone sponsor of the SURROUND podcast network.
Bryan Costello: Good design to me, good art to me is a reconciling of all the puzzle pieces. It’s scale, texture, color, lights, physical feeling, but it’s also the storytelling, the history of the thing, is it told? Does it have opportunity to sing for you? What’s its nature, what is its animal?
Amy Devers: Hi everyone, I’m Amy Devers and this is Clever. And today I’m talking to Bryan Costello. Bryan is a Raleigh, North-Carolina based artist and designer. He’s worked in interior design – both residential and hospitality, graphics, antiques retail, fine art and fashion. He’s also a bit of an uncategorizable creative alchemist who deploys story, essence, atmosphere, history and romance, as much as he does the more practical elements of material, color, texture, budget, timeline, and utility. He didn’t study design formally, and his path has not been premeditated, he found his way to this work by listening to his inner guidance system and trusting his intuition… a skill which he now bakes into his creative process as well. We recorded this talk during NeoCon 2023, where his art and design work was on display in the Bernhardt Design showroom. He’s deeply self-aware, wise beyond his years, and definitely a little bit magical… here’s Bryan.
Amy: Okay Bryan, we are just going to have a conversation. I’m going to learn everything about you, including your most vulnerable secrets…
Bryan: I’m ready, heart is open.
Amy: Yes! Good! I can see it, you’re right here with me. This is a very chaotic space, but we are sealed into this little moment of time where we get to talk. So we’re at NeoCon and we’re here for a very specific purpose. Why don’t you walk me through the main project that’s going on here and then I would like you to walk me through pretty much your whole life.
Bryan: Absolutely! All right, let’s start here, where we are in the moment, right? We are here at NeoCon 2023 because the kind people at Bernhardt asked me to collaborate with them on their showroom this year. And it was a really fun, open invitation to take a look at their room, to put our heads together and to make it feel right, to make it feel balanced and fresh for this year. So they invited me to come to the showroom, learn about what they do, about past shows, about what they love to accomplish and reinvent a little bit. So for us that meant looking at fabrics. It meant imagining what wall dividers could be like. It meant thinking about lighting and positioning. It meant bringing a little romance to the room.
Amy: There is romance in the room.
Bryan: There is a little romance in the room, yeah. And they’ve been so open with whatever those ideas would be. And for us we landed on, not only the room, the dividers, the fabrics, but they were kind enough to let me also show my paintings, show my visual art.
Amy: For the first time I understand, this work hasn’t been exhibited before?
Bryan: Yeah, it’s really special, it’s a new process.
Amy: What do you think it is that Bernhardt saw in you that they invited you in with this kind of open invitation for you to bring your magic to the space?
Bryan: Well, this won’t be the first time people hear this, but Jerry Bernhardt is so good at identifying people that just have the vibration, right? That want to create something special, that maybe haven’t been given this kind of venue to do what they do. And I think he saw that in me a little bit and saw that in my work, big credit to Victor Lytvinenko of Raleigh Denim, who took Jerry and after a long day of working on a photoshoot in Raleigh, drug him over to a hotel that I had designed in Raleigh, called the Heights House Hotel, which is a beautiful, interesting project, a nine room hotel in an 1850s kind of Italian mansion. And I think that really hit Jerry. I wasn’t there. He got to experience it without meeting me, on his own and I think the hotel hit him in a way that he wanted to follow-up and he wanted to start a conversation with me. So that’s how it happened. He reached out after he had that experience.
Amy: I love to think of Jerry as sort of like the Clive Davis of the design world. (Laughs)
Bryan: Well put! Well put!
Amy: It is quite a thing to have a client like that, but also for somebody to believe in you and see… not just see something, but feel something in your work, that they want to bring that in and give you the resources and the space to reveal what’s kind of flowing through you. How did this project differ from some of your others? Because you’re kind of hard to describe. I struggled in the intro because you do so many different things and I don’t want to put you in a box.
Bryan: As we’re inside this box!
Amy: Yeah, (laughter) I already put you in a box, dammit! (Laughter)
Bryan: The project nature are all very different, that’s what I like. I hope it always stays that way. I believe that each project, whether it’s an interior project, restaurants, museum, building a piece of furniture, painting a painting, all deserves its own focused world and attention. They are all individual living things and the idea is to identify what that project needs and wants and to bring the best out, so that I don’t get pinned to anyone’s style as a designer, any one type of project as a designer. I just want to find projects and find people, which is why Bernhardt is special, that understands that if you have the right collaborative partnership, you can bring those moments out of any type of project. So yes, a lot of different types. I’ve done some furniture work at the North Carolina Museum of Art. I’ve done the hotel project, a lot of restaurant/hospitality consulting. I’m building my first restaurant from the ground up with a wonderful team in Raleigh, brand consulting, fashion work with Victor.
Amy: Well, fashion, you are a clothes horse, a style icon!
Bryan: Yeah, that’s kind of a fun side quest for me. (Laughter) That’s just dress my mood and experiment-experiment.
Amy: Okay, so I’m still on the Bernhardt showroom, when you collaborate with a brand like Bernhardt and you have a mission to bring some romance, feel what you can bring to it, but in the course of this alchemy, when you two come together, what do you leave with? How does it change you as the creative when you have to marry your creative ethos together?
Bryan: If I’ve done it right, I’ve left with a lesson, because if you do it the way I love to do it, you connect on a human level with the people behind the work. And as floaty as that sounds, that’s what I leave with. I leave learning something specific about the way Jerry or Caroline or anybody at Bernhardt operates. The way they speak to people, the way they communicate their vision. The attention to detail that they have with their work. Maybe they look out for a detail that I’ve never paid attention to in my work before and that becomes a tool in my toolkit.
Amy: Okay, so give me a specific, what did you learn?
Bryan: Well, Bernhardt specifically, they just focus so far into details, an eighth of an inch matters to them at every angle. Whether it’s a piece of furniture, the way a photoshoot is set up, everything. It’s a reminder to me that stepping way back is incredibly important, but it’s also important to put your nose so close that you can see nothing else, to make sure that things feel resolved and considered from every distance.
Amy: Yeah! You’ve got to have an active aperture, so you can zoom in and zoom out.
Bryan: I love a little alliteration, yeah, (laughter) that’s exactly what I’ve learned from them. They have such a key attention to detail.
Amy: Well, I do want to just give you some compliments for a second because I think one of the things that works so well about the showroom is that the furniture is the star still.
Amy: But not in a way that feels like individual stars, like the ego of the furniture is battling each other. It feels like a family, but the space itself feels like it breathes. It feels like it has a kind of calm connection to something much more Zen than the chaos of the world around it.
Bryan: You’re nailing it!
Amy: And then it also feels like it has a soul. And I think that probably comes from the artwork hanging on the walls. Well, and the attention to detail and the designs. I know everything is really crafted with care and that gives soul to things, when you can sort of feel the care and attention. But I love that you allowed room for the viewer, the participant to be themselves in this space that gives you a kind of levity, like a transcendent kind of levity. And I feel like maybe those are big words for a furniture showroom, but you did it.
Bryan: Not when you see that showroom! The words make sense. I popped up quickly before we came down here to speak and the first thing I heard when somebody walked by is they’re like, “It’s an art gallery.” I mean and then they went, “Oh, I mean it’s furniture, but it’s an art gallery.”
Amy: But not stuffy.
Bryan: But not stuffy. There is space. What I didn’t realize before we set the show up and what I realized after, that the kind of happy accident was, is the balance of the room with scale and with texture is really, really lovely. There’s so much texture in that room, in contained fields. So each piece of furniture is a field and that fabric is a texture. Each table top is a contained field, that marble pattern, that wood grain is a chaotic texture inside of that field. My paintings on the wall, on a clean white wall, my paintings are chaotic and textured in a contained field. And because we took the time to make sure each area of the showroom had the same sense of balance and gravity; you get this controlled chaos. You get this interest, it’s not boring, it’s captivating, even though it’s minimal.
Amy: I love the way that you describe that, and as you’re describing it it came to me that the space is effervescent. And that’s a sort of controlled chaos, right? There’s like an energetic pulse…
Bryan: There’s a bubbling.
Amy: Yeah, there’s a bubbling. Okay, so clearly you’re gifted and I’ve seen your sense of style, I’ve been looking into your work, you do so many different things. I want to go all the way back to the beginning so I can learn how you got to be this wizard that you have become. (Laughs)
Bryan: Can the listeners hear my face getting hot? I’m a little bit rosy right now. (Laughs)
Amy: Yeah, so take me back to your home town, your family dynamic, all that.
Bryan: Sure, yeah, I grew up in Kernersville, North Carolina, a small town, middle of the state between Winston and Greensborough. Wonderful, lucky, fortunate childhood. Two supportive parents that maybe creative in business sense, don’t really have overlap with what I do. But in an empathetic, open, supporting sense, are very much in tune with me. And so was very fortunate to grow up in a cool little neighborhood with my best friend down the street, which gave me space to be myself. It gave me space to gush and talk about my feelings as a kid and set that tone where that thing didn’t get squished out of me, like it does for a lot of people I think.
Amy: Do you have siblings?
Bryan: I do, I have an older brother and a younger brother, I’m the middle child. My older brother is a couple of years older than me and is wonderful and talented. And my younger brother is eight years younger than me, and I’m getting to know him again as an adult because we had this age gap and he’s also just headstrong and brilliant and a wonderful dude. But three boys.
Amy: Three boys and yet it also sounds like there was a real emotional centering in the whole family dynamic.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah. You know, it was a calm environment. Dad worked a lot growing up, international business stuff. He traveled, which left us to our own devices at times. Mom was a school teacher, buckets of empathy in my mother and a best buddy up the street. I mean I spent more time at my buddy’s house than I did at my own, I think, growing up. So it was playland for us, it was inventing games, it was…
Amy: Lots of unstructured time.
Bryan: Unstructured time, playing soccer, riffing, joking, singing, just you know, goofing off and I got that space when I was a kid, which I didn’t know at the time, but now I look back and think, how lucky.
Amy: It is lucky and I see as you’re describing it to me, you kind of go back there a little bit and it does feel like it’s a warm, happy place.
Bryan: In my mind, when I was talking about that I saw the woods.
Bryan: I saw where we carved the footholds in the fallen down tree that we could climb up on and the forts that we built for paintball. We just had that space.
Amy: Oh, forts are the best! Forts were my first interior design projects. (Laughs)
Bryan: Yeah, maybe now thinking of it, they might have been mine too! A bunch of black tarp we found wrapped around trees and cut out holes and built a deck and all of that stuff and you didn’t think about it back then, but it was very much that.
Amy: So from this idyllic childhood, you were allowed to let your imagination run wild. How did that transition into the teenage years when a wild imagination is coupled with a kind of awkward or angsty explosion of undeveloped identity that you’re kind of forging anew?
Bryan: All of the above. My high school years, my early middle school and high school years, look, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life… I didn’t know that what I do now was an option in my life until I was in my 20s.
Amy: I hear that so often, yeah.
Bryan: You know, without going way too far into it, our system is not beautifully set up to identify the nature of a child, their skill, what makes them light and bright so that they can chase that down from an earlier age and understand what’s out there. So even though I had this beautiful childhood and a supportive group, there wasn’t much of a… anybody pushing me to discover what my animal was, what I was best at. And so in high school I had all the feelings. I was full of feelings. Great group of friends, super lucky, always chasing down a girlfriend because I was hopelessly romantic…
Amy: I believe it! (Laughs)
Bryan: All that, ignoring school, school was the least exciting thing in the world to me, class was nowhere in my mind. My mind was between class, my mind was where can I meet up with my friends next and have a conversation. Where can I meet up with my girlfriend in between and pass a note or talk about something interesting. I was happiest when there was action and conversation and a little bit of romance and school was a little bit of a bore in comparison. So that was the tension. My angstiness was very much pressure for school, pressure for grades, expectation to do the straight and narrow from the world, from parents, whatever. That was my tension, that was my angst. My love, the other side, the excitement was my friends.
Amy: Did you find a balance or was it more like a pendulum, you’d swing between angst and…
Bryan: ‘Pendulum’ is the word.
Bryan: Yes, it was oscillating between struggling to not understand why I was at… or felt like I hadn’t found my world yet, oscillating between that feeling and wonderful feelings of being on the soccer team and having buddies and being adventurous.
Amy: So we have a lot more, I think, understanding and tolerance and language now around neurodiversity and different ways of learning and embodied learning. I’m just wondering if you could redo your school experience, how do you think they could have found what was light and bright in you and encouraged it?
Bryan: That’s a good question. If I could redo my school experience, I would leave earlier. If I could reinvent the school experience, I would maybe seek out the teachers who had that skill. Because some of them are wonderful, don’t get me wrong. I had some teachers that I loved being in their class. I had a psychology teacher my freshman year of high school who I was just absolutely in love with because she spoke to us like equals and was talking about interesting ideas, things that weren’t concrete, things we could debate about. But honestly, the majority of my teachers were, at least to me, I feel like a little bit cold, there to do the job, there to do their particular job and not find the thing. So I don’t know how I could have changed that as a kid, how do you know where to go? My teachers were my teachers…
Amy: You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why I do think finding what’s light and bright in children at a younger age and encouraging it is… can you imagine how society would just blossom? (Laughs)
Bryan: If I got told what I do was a job back then, or that there was a place I could go and experiment with color, could I have taken a color theory class when I was 10? Could I have shadowed someone who was, you know, designing a living room? I didn’t know it was ‘interiors’ back then, but could I have been more immersed in the creative world then? There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for that in Kernersville, North Carolina, I went to high school in ’99.
Amy: Yeah, unfortunately I hear that from a lot of, a lot of people. You kind of have to find it yourself, which as you go through teenage years into young adult years, it can be a trial and error. It can be a discovery mission; it can also be… I don’t know, it can descend sometimes into a darkness if you feel like you’re just destined for a life where you don’t… you can’t really coalesce with society in the way that they’re expecting you to.
Bryan: That gave me a deep breath because that’s very much how I felt until I left it behind. After I left school, that’s when my life started. I was two years at App State out of high school in Boone, North Carolina, and no shade to App State or to the town, what a cool spot. It was not for me, it was depressing, it felt like I was going to high school twice. I wasn’t finding the thing yet. I spent more of my time not going to class and meeting people and playing the open mic at the student union or me and a buddy started our first company back then out of the dorm room, screen printing t-shirts and selling them to the sororities and it was anything not to go to class because classes sometimes stood still and nothing went forward. And the things that I learned I could have learned on my own and faster if I’d just gone and found it myself. So I left. I moved to Raleigh…
Amy: Was it difficult getting to that decision?
Bryan: Incredibly because of the expectations. I knew it was the right call, but you feel this pressure to go through the system and to get the degree, to get the piece of paper that gets you the thing, that gets you stability and makes you safe. And you feel that pressure. Even from loving parents, you just feel that pressure because they want you to be okay, so you want to go through that path that they went through. So it was a hard decision. But I knew it had to be made and I packed a bag and I left and I went to Raleigh only because my brother and my buddy were there, it was the only place I knew where to go.
Amy: I just got an image in my head of the fool, with is a tarot card and it symbolizes going off to seek your fortune, not knowing what you don’t know and the fool has a bad name because it implies the person is foolish, but it’s actually a really great card, because you don’t know what you don’t know…
Bryan: You’d be a fool not to.
Amy: Yeah, you’re excited about what’s in front of you and everything feels like an opportunity and an adventure and you’re not sort of “shoulding” yourself about what if this happens or what goes… because you don’t even have enough experience yet.
Amy: It feels to me like when you went off to Raleigh, this felt like the opening of a really grand life adventure.
Bryan: The opening of a door, the pulling of a band aid, the whatever you want to do, it was just time to make a change so that I didn’t feel like this all the time. And that didn’t mean I ran straight into the arms of what I knew I’ve always wanted to do. It just meant I was free floating and I had now to find what I wanted to do.
Amy: Did you feel untethered or did you feel liberated?
Bryan: Two different things, but both. That became my new pendulum. Mostly exciting, because you feel a lightness. When you shed something that’s just dark, anybody can think of that thing in their lives. You feel lighter and that feeling overrode any trepidation or fear, for the most part.
Amy: So now your real creative adventure begins and you start doing, I mean from screen printing t-shirts, where does it go from there? You’re entrepreneurial, but also creative?
Bryan: Yeah, so moved to Raleigh and had to make a buck. So there began a string of work to keep me head above water, while I found out what I wanted to do. So I had a string of different jobs. I was dabbling a little bit in graphic design, print graphic, I worked for soccer.com, Eurosport Soccer magazine, which was from where we were from and it’s the biggest soccer equipment distributor in the world, so that was really fun for me because that was my life too and did some work in their custom jersey department doing graphic stuff. Did some print advertisements for real estate agency, temp work, anything, making band flyers, anything I could do in between that felt some kind of step towards creativity. And also worked in restaurants, also bussed tables and brought lawyers ketchup at lunch, and expo’d in the kitchen and did what I needed to do. And back then in Raleigh, you know, I could pay 300 bucks a month to live in a house with some buddies right downtown and I could work four/five lunch shifts a week at the restaurant and make enough money to goof off. Not save a penny, but to live.
Bryan: And spend every night going to shows and seeing music and playing with my buddies and being just a little bit free and having the space to think, what is it that I like? And I did that floating thing for almost five years. That was just a chance to be free. That was a chance to ride bikes downtown in the middle of the night and to throw parties and gathering people.
Amy: Yeah, freedom is a wonderful thing, but also freedom can start to be tedious in and of itself.
Bryan: Enter moving across the country. I got to a point where it almost became a little too easy.
Amy: Big fish in a small pond?
Bryan: Maybe just, you know, to make enough cash to pay rent and hang. It became easy to just be. I played in a band, that is what I focused on. I was writing music and playing around town. Nothing big, nothing major, just fun and exploring that way. But at the end of doing that for five years, you grow up a little bit and you feel this feeling.
Amy: You need to challenge yourself.
Bryan: What am I doing? I didn’t find the ‘thing.’ I need to challenge myself. I’m getting stagnant. I was seeing someone at the time and she got a promotion in her work that gave her an opportunity in Austin, Texas. We had been together for only a year, and she said, “Look, I’ve got to take this, this is a step for me. You can come if you want. Don’t feel like you’ve got to, but you’re welcome.” So we packed a bag and moved blind to Austin. And that became a whole new level of floating out there. I didn’t have work, I went without a job and I also went with this thing in my head that I didn’t want to go there, nothing wrong with it, but I didn’t want to go there and just start working in restaurants again. I wanted to find something that made me feel like I was leveling up, like I was finding myself a little bit more. So I spent a few frustrated months holding out for that ‘thing’ in Austin. We moved in the middle of the summer, I think we moved 10 days into a 30 something day 110 degree streak in Austin, Texas. So I was in trousers and a button-up on the pavement with a resume, going place-to-place downtown, ducking into any bathroom I could, mopping myself off before I went and shook hands, trying to get a job.
Amy: Oh man!
Bryan: It was going poorly; I didn’t find the ‘thing.’ I was frustrated, I was cranky and my girlfriend looked at me one night and she was like, “Enough is enough, I’ve got to take a walk, you can come too, but you’re cranky, this is a thing.” I said, all right, all right, and we’d take a walk down South Congress Avenue in Austin, which is where all the fun shops are and everything at the time. And there was a hiring sign, an old-fashioned hiring sign in the window of an antique shop called Uncommon Objects. And I went in, I was just like, well, here’s the sign. I went in and had a great conversation, went through a couple of rounds of interviews because lots of people wanted to work there. And got the job and that changed absolutely everything for me. That was day one of learning that I love the story of objects and things in space. Steve Wiman owns that shop. He’s an assemblage artist and a brilliant, loving man and he sparked this thing that taught me that the value of an object lies in its stories, in the hands that touch it.
Amy: Its true! It’s true, and it gathers those stories the longer it’s around.
Bryan: And that is the value. Not its rarity, not its material…
Bryan: The way it was made. The hands that were on it, the time spent with it, that is value. And once I learned that lesson, it could not be undone. So it became four wild years of buying and selling antiques. Talking to collectors. Meeting interior designers that would come shop our collections. Learning about scale and texture. Learning how to put two unlike things together to make them sing. Doing window displays, meeting the quirkiest people I’ve ever met. All types came to our shop. It was kind of a hub for that sort of thing. And then there became the blowing of my mind.
Amy: I bet! And isn’t that… like you’ve been trying to grow, but you’re in the wrong medium or petri dish or forest and then you stumble into the right one and all of a sudden your roots, you’re shooting up and shooting down at the same time, like growing into yourself and…
Amy: Not only is it the subject matter, it’s the people, it’s the values…
Bryan: Suddenly I was surrounded by people whose brains buzzed the same way mine has always buzzed.
Amy: Oh, you found your tribe! Okay, wonderful, we’re at the point in the story where I feel like our hero…
Bryan: This is where it really begins. Forts in the woods at Kernersville were a lovely way to grow up, but this is where life began for me.
Amy: Okay, and how long were you there?
Bryan: I was there for almost five years, four and some change and I’ve never worked so hard and played so hard in my life. It was at the shop every morning building displays and seeing… it was a vendor system, right, so there were 22-25 vendors in the shop, so everyone is bringing in new collections by the week and we’re all talking about how exciting that is and everybody has a different style they’re curating in the shop. And we’re all curating to the level and expectation of Steve, who guides this thing. And so we’re just working. We’re working, we’re building displays, we’re in in the morning, we’re running the shop on Saturdays when hundreds and hundreds of people would literally come through this little antique shop wall-to-wall to see what we’ve done. It was theater and it was fun. And then at night it was shows and new bars and Austin booming and it was just work and play and work and play. And it activated all the things that had been dormant in me for a long time. I did that for over four years and then I got a phone call. I got a phone call from my buddy Sam Kirkpatrick who ran and operated with some of his buddies the coolest new little bakery in Raleigh called Boulted Bread.
He had a space open up next to his bakery and we had been in touch from being buddies in the soccer days in Raleigh. And he always knew that I wanted to start something, to do something. I’d always told him, “I would love to run a place, a gallery of my own or something.” So when the room became available, next to the bakery, he called and said, “Do you want to do something?” And it just made sense. As hard as it was to leave this wild adventure in Austin, I thought here’s an opportunity to take all these lessons that I’ve learned in Austin, all of this wonderful work under Steve’s guidance and make my version. And there packed another bag and hit the road. Came home and opened my first little retail concept, which was a hybrid part art gallery, part antique/vintage, part new home goods. Basically anything I liked in the room in a little, crummy little building on South Street in Raleigh, next to the bakery.
Amy: That sounds magical, but it also sounds like a lot of responsibility. So the creative part, I can feel it just emanating from you. The business part, did that come naturally?
Bryan: Yes and no. I think pretty adept at the basics of business because I am Tom Costello’s son. (Laughs) And he understands systems and always told us about these things and how to scale. That was the language. He took a lot of international calls when we were kids. He was taking a call at 10:00 at night on the other side of the world and I would hide in the room next to the den where he would take his calls, I would hide behind this little chair we had there and I would listen to him talk on the phone. And it’s how I learned how to talk business. It’s how I learned the tone and the language and how to control a conversation and how to communicate effectively what you needed done. And so I had that in me, that’s built in.
Bryan: From Tom. So when I did step into this role, there was a sense of excitement around building the business. That is absolutely a chunk of my brain, it’s the chunk I use a little bit less, because I enjoy the other side more and I trust other people more with the business side of things. But I was excited to do it and I had a great partner in Sam and a great partner in Meredith who was the other person in this business. But yeah, it was daunting, it’s daunting to do retail.
Amy: Yeah, yeah.
Bryan: Yeah, it was not easy.
Amy: In addition to all the buying and merchandising and sourcing and clientele relationship developing, there’s a lot of hours in the space just waiting. (Laughs)
Bryan: That’s ultimately why I left that. We had an incredible run. We were a big community presence. Our art parties, the art gallery nights when I’d feature new artists were our best moments. We did it for four years. I couldn’t tell you how many shows, maybe 10 shows a year, featuring a new artist every time. We’d collaborate with the local brewery or whoever to bring in the beer and the drinks. We would have tintype artists come photograph it. The parties were community moment. That was the beauty of that shop, and the retail just kept it alive. It just fed it so that we had our room, we had a place to play. It really became that. It became important as a place to play and the business side was very difficult. We stayed afloat for years, but to your point, being tethered to a space, having to be in that room day in and day out, over time crept up this feeling that I can’t be tethered to a room, I need to get out there and see what’s next, what’s next.
Amy: What’s next… that seems to be a common theme. So what was pulling… I can kind of see what was pushing, but what was pulling?
Bryan: In the last year of Holder, the business was called Holder Home, I started to get a little bit of a nibble from people to get help in their houses. I had a couple of people come say, “Hey, help me hang some art,” or, “Where would you put this if I bought it?” I thought, oh cool, here’s an excuse to do what I do site specific, to make art site specific. And it felt like building a window display again back in Uncommon Objects, which was a thrill for me. And I had a couple of people ask me to help and that led to a couple of my first interior residential projects, which was furniture and styling, hanging art.
Bryan: Basic stuff, but in beautiful places. And I got a client who has this gorgeous 1916 brick front house in Raleigh with a modern extension on the back, but these awesome architects built and he asked me to come over and reinvent his living room with him. And that was my introduction into the higher end market where I had the flexibility to play with designer furniture, real world art, powerful sculpture…
Amy: Oh man!
Bryan: Materials, and I thought oh wow.
Amy: That’s like a drug.
Bryan: At that moment I was like, well…
Amy: I’m high. (Laughs)
Bryan: Yeah, I’m not sure I can go back from this now. (Laughter) That’s another lesson I can’t undo, here we go. So because I got kind of a taste of that while I was still running the business it became clear that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be out there, site specific, seeing what I could build and those two things sort of naturally came together, retail is incredibly hard. We stayed afloat… I’m so proud of what we did. We were a community presence, but it was time.
Bryan: And lucky us, it naturally ended three months before Covid. It would have buried us anyway; we were a mom and pop. It would have been impossible anyway. So this thing came to its own natural end and I went freelance. We closed up shop and I went independent as a, I don’t know, fill in the blank, whatever you want to call me, interior consultant.
Amy: Alchemist is the word I’m using. (Laughs)
Bryan: Sure, yeah, yeah, and then the bites started getting more interesting.
Amy: Okay, you seem to have a magical sense of timing. And it’s also very in tune with your own soul, your own sense of self-evolution and growth. Have you always been this self-aware?
Bryan: I’ve always tried to be this self-aware, even if growing up in adolescence you think you are and then you find out you might be painfully wrong.
Amy: Yes! (Laughs)
Bryan: But I learned that lesson and became better and better at being self-aware. And as you said it, I realized what it was. I learned sense of timing because I think a lot of people will be able to relate to this. Things build up to a head. The stressors build up to a head. The need for change builds up inside your body. It builds up inside your life. And if you’re not paying attention, it builds up to a point where it pops and that pop is usually not healthy because that pop means you’re forced into change. And in that moment it’s hard to make a good decision. I learned that through romantic life. I’m a serial monogamist, right, girlfriends for three/four/five years at a time, multiple times. I stayed in those things too long sometimes. They came to a head and they popped. And from that I learned, well, if I can feel it building, if I can feel that anxiety, that unsettling feeling that something is building, the need for change is coming, and instead of being scared of it, I can ride it and welcome the change and do it in a healthy way. See the wave and jump on, then the decision making is clearer/better. The next step is cleaner and more authentic and it’s towards something healthy, not forced into something chaotic.
Amy: I love that you articulated it in such granular detail and I totally relate and appreciate and I think so often people resist…
Amy: They feel it coming to a head and they resist and they’re afraid of change, so they try to control and they try harder and harder to control things so that it doesn’t come to a head. But what they’re actually trying to do is fight their own destiny.
Bryan: Completely understandable. Why, right?
Bryan: Shit is scary.
Bryan: Nobody wants to pull the band aid off, it hurts!
Amy: But it also reminds me of the law of physics and momentum and when you describe it like surfing, you really…
Bryan: Which I’m complete shit at, by the way…
Amy: Me too!
Bryan: But it’s a good metaphor.
Amy: Yeah. (Laughter) But you’re really much better off working with the ocean than against it.
Bryan: Absolutely. How can we ride that wave and land on a healthy beach, right? I think it’s a few things have to happen. You just have to be more honest with yourself from the start. Fear takes over, that’s everybody. Fear takes over and makes you do some wacky things. So getting ahead of the fear. Being completely honest, i.e. as you can tell, I’m an over-communicator.
Amy: I love it!
Bryan: So being completely honest with what I’m trying to get out of anything, whether it’s romance or a business or an art installation, just from the start, from the moment I meet you, here’s what I think, here’s what I feel, here’s how this could be amazing. And then watching their eyes, watching their body, listening to their words back. You know if you are in the same place, if your heart and your lenses are lined up in that moment. If they aren’t, move on, and move on quick. Don’t get into the thing that isn’t vibrating for you. If you feel the thing reciprocated, ride that wave, see where it goes. That story might last a day, same as romance, right? It might last a night, it might last a week, it might last eight years, it might last a lifetime. But don’t decide before you do it how long it’s going to last and how it’s going to be and what the… don’t write the story before it’s written. Ride the wave, see the story arc for what it is and go with it. If it lasts a week, okay, make that week great. If it lasts a NeoCon collaboration of a year, great, ride that wave and do it well. Don’t make decisions out of fear. Just learn that lesson over and over and over and over again. It’s the same with romance, you just be honest about what you want and you read that person and see if they’re in the same space with you.
Amy: Do you feel that same way about objects, do objects come in your life for a story arc?
Bryan: Hmm-mm, yes.
Amy: And leave…
Bryan: I started writing these, I call them ‘object studies.’ And it’s me waxing poetic about an everyday thing because of the presence it has in my life and the life it lives inside my life. And sometimes it’s a pencil and sometimes it’s a Bic lighter and it lives until its empty. And there’s something romantic about that. I lit the grill with it, I lit my joint with it, I lit a candle with it, I tucked it in the band of my underwear and walked around the house for a month and it was my little purple lighter for that time and then it died, and I get another one and it lives that life. I get incredibly attached to the life and story of an object. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a collector. I don’t hoard these things; I just watch them. I just love their story. I just love the life they live. Grandma’s lamp…
Bryan: My partner’s mother’s necklace that I wear after she passed. A car before it dies on a hill because you drove it for 20 years since you were 16, whatever it is, it’s a beautiful thing.
Amy: So this seems like a good time to get into your creative process because as you’re describing the stories of these objects, it occurred me that I can see you as you’re composing… you’re not just composing for style and balance and proportion and color, you’re blending the stories together so that they make a new narrative.
Bryan: Yes, good design to me, good art to me is a reconciling of all the puzzle pieces. It’s scale, texture, color, lights, physical feeling, but it’s also the storytelling, the history of the thing. Is it told? Does it have opportunity to sing for you?
Amy: What’s light and bright in it.
Bryan: What’s light and bright, what’s its nature, what is its animal. That kind of brings us to what has been my last couple of years, which is finding your animal.
Amy: Okay, your animals sort of appeared in your latest works. You were describing to me that you’re working in a very intuitive style and I’d love to get into that because I think there is a process in which we can design something in our head, lay it out on paper, figure out the measurements, what materials we need and then execute it like working to a recipe, right? And in that way we’re designing to an idea that we’ve had and we’re making the materials match the reality that we want them to match.
Bryan: Something in our heads and we’re trying so hard to get there in the end.
Amy: Yes, but when you allow for the material to speak back to you or for the process to be a little bit more, spontaneous is kind of a good word…
Amy: Improvisational is kind of a good word…
Amy: But intuitive is really the…
Bryan: Guttural flow, runners high, every culture calls it something different, but it’s all the same thing.
Amy: So walk me through what that looks like for you, like in this great, vivid, graphic detail?
Bryan: Yeah, ooh, maybe I can tell you a little bit how it unlocked.
Bryan: So rewind a couple of years. I’m really getting a foothold in interiors, I’m getting to do my first public projects, the Heights House Hotel is happening, that’s a whole level up for me. I’m getting to play. And as this is happening I’m getting… becoming a little closer with Victor, who I mentioned earlier, and we’re starting to play a little bit more and he’s a wonderful mad man and he makes clothes and he likes to riff and make art. You know Victor?
Amy: Yes. (Laughs)
Bryan: And he’s also a perpetual wind in your sails too. He will believe that you can do anything, even if you don’t. Whether it’s wild or not. Whether it’s practical or not, you can do this.
Amy: And he has a perpetual glint in his eye as well.
Bryan: Oh my god, he’s got a sparkle.
Bryan: So we’re making stuff, we’re goofing off late night in his workshop where he makes his clothes and you know, I’m hanging out and he doesn’t want just people to hang out and watch him do these things, he wants you to make you and you to do you and be part of the process. So he’s goading me on, make something, do something. I was like, I can’t sew, I’m not going to jump on one of these machines, it’s also not what I’m super interested in. What am I going to do? Well, here’s a blank piece of paper and for me that was tough. I don’t do a blank sheet of paper. I visualize deeply what I want to do and then make a roadmap for it and then make it, like we were just talking about.
Bryan: But he goaded me on, he goaded me on, just make something, just make… and he said, “Make it today, decide if it’s good tomorrow.” I was like, hot damn, all right fine.
Amy: That’s brilliant advice, you know…
Bryan: How can you find yourself if you don’t do that? I now know that, but at the time I’m like, what are you… what are you talking about? I can’t do this. And…
Amy: I love people who can distill it down to those wise…
Bryan: Make it today, decide tomorrow.
Bryan: Bin it, don’t show anybody, whatever, but how are you going to know?
Amy: You need to put that in a fortune cookie.
Bryan: He’s sewn it into clothes and painted it on things and all sorts and I scratched it into the first piece of art that I ever made without thinking. So he’s goading me on…
Bryan: I haven’t cracked the shell yet. His birthday is coming up and I thought, all right, for his birthday I’m going to do the thing he’s been asking me to do, I’m going to make something, on a blank sheet of paper, on a blank canvas, without thinking. I go up to the art studio, I go to my office, I grab a little piece of drywall patch, because interior design, so I’ve got all these materials laying around. I’ve got this pigmented clay plaster stuff lying around, a wall finish, I’ve got some soft pastels, you know, whatever is up there. I go out to the porch, it’s a beautiful day, put it on my table out there and I go, go to town. I’m putting plaster on this little piece of drywall, I’m sanding it in, I’m writing on it, I’m scratching on it, I’m layering up, I’m sanding it away, I’m going 20-30-40 layers deep, sanding it, sanding it. Sometimes when you sand it, something is left behind, something has disappeared entirely, but it’s not up to me. This is for Victor, make without thinking, make now, decide if it’s good tomorrow. Making, I’m making, I’m making, I’m making, at the end I scratch, you know, something like that, good tomorrow into it. I run to the art store and grab a frame, build it, go out to his little birthday hang that afternoon, give it to him. It’s a beautiful moment, but for me it was the first thing I ever made with my hands that I loved. Because I could not see my decision making process in it. I couldn’t see the forced hand of someone trying to make something that might be successful, might be cool, might look good. I couldn’t see the forced decision making of someone who is worried about the filters of everybody else looking at it and thinking, shit, are they going to like it? Well man, if I put this pop of color on, maybe it’s just a little more palatable and more attractive. There was none of that. And because I couldn’t see that bullshit that we do to ourselves when we make things and when we try to be ourselves, those filters, I couldn’t see it, I was able to love it. There was nothing to hate. It was just love for this little weird, honest six hour expression. Again, I could not unlearn that lesson. Now I’m like buzzing, I’m buzzing from this thing now, and this is just lining up with these moments where I’m meeting new people, I’m experimenting with different mediums, talking to Bernhardt, and here we are.
Amy: You just described something that I don’t think I’ve ever truly experienced. I don’t always make specifically to a roadmap and I’ve done a lot of assemblage art, but my decision making was always very… some of it was intuitive, but mostly my decision making was evident in it. So I could never… I could be proud of it, I could think it was successful, I could deconstruct it from a theory perspective and you know, it could hold water, and there were all of these things. It could check my boxes, but I could never love it the way you might love something that didn’t come from you. (Laughs)
Bryan: My theory is, and I don’t know this for your work, that the root of your decision making, if you trace it all the way back, is maybe a mixture of good and bad, or maybe those are two boring words to use, but a mixture of intuitive in moments, but also wanting to create something successful, a pressure to reconcile this thing and make it what you think it’s supposed to be.
Bryan: Which is the roadmap, which is the thing in the head.
Bryan: Which is adjacent to intuition, but not there yet.
Amy: Yes, okay, so you can’t unlearn this lesson. I’m back with you there, it’s a gift for Victor and you saw something and felt something…
Bryan: Did I!
Amy: Now it’s your job to encourage it, to nurture it, to give it space.
Bryan: Yes, this became and is, in this moment, in this booth, my everything. It is my new lesson in life. How can I keep the river of flow, let’s call it, so close to me, at all times, that I can dip in and use it in the times where it will be most beautiful. Riffing on a construction site for a restaurant where we…
Amy: How you do that, that is definition of a roadmap…
Bryan: This is the beautiful thing…
Amy: Okay, I’m listening.
Bryan: This is the beautiful thing. It’s got to be both. So there are practicalities to this world, I’m building a restaurant from the ground up. We have an architect, there’s code, there’s budget, there’s timeline, there’s plan, there’s a concept, there’s something to honor. That is planning and that is valuable. So I’m not discouraging that. But it is incomplete. Not allowing space for you to be in the moment, and identifying something that’s not vibrating and not buzzing and making that change, not being scared to make that change when it lights up in front of you. Not you imposing yourself on it, but it lighting up in front of you and you saying, “It doesn’t feel right. What would feel better than this? What would feel more adventurous than this? What would feel like a buzz? We’re missing something.” And having the flexibility to make that decision. Practical example, the entrance to the restaurant that we’re building, that we’re almost done, it’s hard to describe but you walk in, you’re under this dried floral canopy, there’s tile, there’s a host stand, it’s really cool. And in front of you too there’s also this little curved wall that outlines a booth on the other side of it, but that curved wall is this kind of blank space and we’re looking during the process and the road map is made.
This thing is being built to a construction document. And we’re thinking, man, that’s going to be guest experience, that’s going to be the first thing your eye goes to is this big blank wall, it doesn’t feel complete, it doesn’t feel right. Well, let’s put a niche in it, let’s open it up, let’s give ourselves an excuse to put a beautiful object, to tell a story there. And in that moment, lucky us, one of the incredible people that was working on our space was able to grab a buzz saw and the wall was framed out, but no dry-walled yet and we just hacked a niche into this framing and went, that’s where it’s going. And decided in that moment, how big? Hmm, let’s just feel it out, about this big, about this deep, let’s see how it goes. It feels right.
Amy: So fun! (Laughs)
Bryan: And now it’s going to be this… the first thing you see when you walk into this place and we’re going to fill it with candles and let the wax drip down the wall and just make a mess and we’re going to put a little painting above it and it’s just going to be a moment. So leaving space for that thing to happen no matter what the project is, is my new life. How can I keep that river of intuition, that flow, that guttural thing, so close that it’s as important of a tool in my toolkit as sketch-up or…
Amy: It’s going to require a lot of protection because it’s the thing that gets axed first.
Bryan: It’s the romance, it’s everything.
Bryan: It’s why we fall flat in design sometimes in this world because of the pressures of timelines and budgets and planning and how hard it is to communicate your idea to the client sometimes or how that’s not necessarily their world, they haven’t experienced that level of intuition. It becomes your job to get them there and that can be pretty hard. But now it’s everything for me. Now it’s when I get an inquiry from someone, it’s a sit down and it’s this conversation that you and I are having, with a new client. And saying this is how I work and this is what I want to do for you and this is how I want to tap into it. Does this make sense to you? And if not, that’s okay, but it has to be done this way for me because it’s how my best work is happening.
Amy: Man! If this is your best work, is happening now, it’s…
Bryan: Oh, it’s right now!
Amy: There is nowhere to go but up baby! (Laughs)
Bryan: Yeah that’s right, look, I didn’t bring notes into this conversation, this is a riff too, it’s because I see you and you have that thing too and you want that buzz too and it feels good, right? Won’t we leave this booth feeling a little bit higher than we did coming in and a little bit more like anything is possible?
Amy: Yeah, I’m going to Raleigh too, I’m coming to visit.
Bryan: Come eat, you’ve got a seat at my table any time.
Amy: Okay, so when the restaurant is opening, you said in like 14 days?
Bryan: We’re doing soft opening in like two weeks, we’re test kitchen stuff right now, the furniture is in the room. I’m in that phase where I’m putting art touches and nailing dried florals to the walls and figuring out where candles are going and how to dial the romance and you know, full-blown crazy bathroom experience where all the lighting is different, different music soundtrack, different smell, different materiality to jar you. It’s a full…
Amy: Portal to another world.
Bryan: It’s a playland.
Amy: So with this showroom and that restaurant, it sounds like a very busy time for you as well. So clearly you’re hitting an artistic stride and a professional stride.
Bryan: I hope so.
Amy: Not to create a roadmap, but is there any place you’re hoping to take this or…
Bryan: There are places where I’m happiest playing.
Bryan: And so I think I can open myself up and walk into the room and hope those people feel it and they find me too, that’s the best way to go for me. It’s the classic of put out a vibe at the bar kind of thing.
Bryan: Put that thing out there, be open with it, talk to people about what you love and they’ll find you. And so for me hospitality is a big playland for me. I think about restaurant design, so far, maybe I’ll be proven wrong if I think about this harder, but restaurant design is the only interior design experience that I can think of that touches all five senses. So a lot of places, sight, sound, all the things, right, touch. Taste is specific to food and beverage. So restaurants are a venue where I can design with all five senses and that is a thrill.
Amy: You have more than five senses.
Bryan: Well, [flow?], is that our sixth?
Amy: Yes. (Laughter)
Bryan: It gives me an opportunity to touch all the things and so that’s a venue that I like to… I would like to continue pursuing as far as chasing down work and seeing what resonates next.
Amy: Okay, personally, are there vices, demons, bad habits, fears…
Bryan: Yes, yes, and yes.
Amy: What’s your current method of guiding yourself, being with yourself through those things?
Bryan: My fear is pattern. I am scared of cycles. I think cycles and pattern are the death of creativity, the death of growth.
Amy: Even the tide and the moons and the seasons?
Bryan: Here’s our lesson, right? I need to figure out what… I need to dial that in better.
Bryan: I’m in this moment, right? I’m scared of… what’s a classic example. Okay, you grow up playing the guitar, you did that a lot as a kid. I think a lot of people will be able to feel this thing. You take 10 years away from it, you pick it back up and you play the same three chords and the same three songs that you played back then. That kind of pattern to me is the death of a certain type of creativity. Now the flipside of that coin is that there are wonderful things with routine and pattern, keep you healthy, sleep…
Amy: Balance, yeah.
Bryan: Exercise, balance, that’s tied, that’s healthy routine, I think. So here we are again with this fear and healthy thing tethered together and how do you use it well? You can’t just use intuition all the time, you wouldn’t get the restaurant opening…
Amy: You still have to live in the practical world.
Bryan: You wouldn’t make a buck; you wouldn’t do it. So it’s all balance, it’s all how can we use the best of both worlds and ditch the rest. I don’t know if that answered your question or not?
Amy: Yeah, no it is, and I’m back to the pendulum and balance metaphor because I do think we sometimes waste a lot of energy swinging so hard back and forth, but we have to swing out to the edges so that we know what that terrain is.
Bryan: You’ve got to go over the line.
Amy: You’ve got to go over the line.
Bryan: Yeah, I’ve swung and missed.
Amy: And you’ve got to know what your line is and then you’ve got to be willing also to push your line if it needs it. But then ultimately you also have to honor that your system, your creativity also like seeds and vegetation, needs times of regeneration and being dormant and variation in order for the whole ecosystem of you to…
Bryan: For me it’s the variation.
Amy: Yeah, okay.
Bryan: I’m scared of doing the same thing day in and day out, so the variation gives me my energy and gives me my sanity. If I wake up and today I might work on the restaurant, we might be doing tasting, the next day I might be figuring out room layout for an office, the next day we might be doing a podcast. It keeps me feeling very alive.
Amy: Do you feel any fear over the economic viability of this way of…
Bryan: Sure, but I don’t spend any time dwelling on it.
Amy: I wish I…
Bryan: I do in the practical sense of like, I haven’t made money in my life, ever, up until recently. And even then it’s just for me it’s money, but it’s like I’m just happy to pay rent. I’m happy for some opportunity. I’m happy to be able to go out to eat and have a food experience without too much stress. So there is a worry, of course, of being safe and getting to save a penny and to build myself up to a place where I can build the dream house and yeah, there’s that.
Amy: But your sense of adventure is stronger.
Bryan: Well, look, if I dwell on that stuff, I’ll never make the things that get me there.
Amy: Make it today, decide if you like it tomorrow.
Bryan: Intuition is the best decision making tool we have.
Amy: This has been magical, thank you so much for sharing your process, your story, your heart, I felt the romance in the room. (Laughs) I know you’re partnered up, it’s not like that, but you did bring a lot of your soul.
Bryan: Oh, the creative romance is alive!
Amy: You showed up fully and thank you so much.
Bryan: You’re so welcome, this is my favorite thing to do in the world, is to share these ideas with people and to… you don’t feel so alone in it because you realize other people are looking for that thing too, so this is wonderful and I hope the people who listen feel a little bit of that thing and can take it with them.
Bryan: Bam! Yeah, thank you so much for the opportunity.
Amy: Thank you. Hey, thanks so much for listening. Thanks again to Bernhardt Design for sponsoring this episode. For more information visit bernhardtdesign.com. In this talk you’ll hear him refer to two key players in his story: Jerry Helling and Victor Lytvinenko – if you’d like to learn more about them, you can listen to Clever episodes 56 and 78. Also if you’d like to learn more about Jerry Helling or Victor Lytvinenko – we’ve got Clever episodes for you. For a transcript of this episode, and to learn more about Bryan, including images of his work, and a bonus Q&A – head to cleverpodcast.com If you like Clever, there are a number of ways you can support us: – share Clever with your friends, leave us a 5 star rating, or a kind review, support our sponsors, or hit the follow or subscribe button in your podcast app so that our new episodes will turn up in your feed. We love to hear from you on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter (X) – you can find us @cleverpodcast and you can find me @amydevers. Please stay tuned for upcoming announcements and bonus content. You can subscribe to our newsletter at cleverpodcast.com to make sure you don’t miss a thing. Clever is hosted & produced by me, Amy Devers with editing by Mark Zurawinksi, production assistance from Ilana Nevins and Anouchka Stephan and music by El Ten Eleven. Clever is a proud member of the SURROUND podcast network. Visit surroundpodcasts.com to discover more of the Architecture and Design industry’s premier shows.