An Interview with Arielle Rassel

Today I'm chatting with Arielle Rassel. She's a theme park designer by day and also the designer behind the jewelry business Lemesto. Arielle's the first artist I've interviewed who approached me with the request to be included in my Artist series. The combination of her two creative endeavors was so fascinating to me that I was immediately curious to learn more.

Arielle Rassel, Lemesto

ab: I have to admit that I’m most intrigued by your career designing theme parks. I’ve known many jewelry designers and have even created jewelry myself, but I’ve never known anyone who designed theme parks. I think I always imagined it to be something more in the realm of engineers and physicists than artists. How did you ever arrive at theme park design as your career?

ar: Oh gosh - I think if you ask a lot of people, they'd say they fell into this industry by accident, or at least that it wasn't their original intention. But there are also those that have wanted to be Imagineers - the folks who design Disney parks - since they were kids. I discovered it in early college... I'd always had a desire to work in theater, and I was visiting Universal Studios Hollywood over winter break my freshman year. I was standing in the queue of the Mummy ride, looking around at all of the themed work, and suddenly thought "hey, someone has to do this... I WANT TO DO THIS." And the rest is kind of history! Sure, there are a lot of engineers, but there still have to be people to create the beauty - we have scenic designers, architects, art directors, writers, you name it - it's a lot like film in that way. I studied interior design in college, and interned for Walt Disney Imagineering right out of college. Went on to work for Universal Creative, and now I work as a design manager at an independent design firm, Thinkwell. We're the largest independent firm in the industry, with almost 200 employees, and we do everything from theme parks to museums to family entertainment centers to presidential libraries. It's pretty darn cool!

interior design, Starbucks, Arielle Rassel

ab: Can you share a bit about what being a theme park designer entails? What sorts of projects do you have? What are your job responsibilities? Are there other designers whose work you admire or look up to? Where do you find your inspiration? Do you get to travel and see your finished designs in person? I’m so curious about it all!

ar: It really depends on what you do! There aren't really people who "do it all" - we work together as a team to create the finished products. Anywhere from a team of half a dozen for a small project, to hundreds of people to create a full theme park. I've been an interior designer - which is pretty similar to interior design in the "real world," designing spaces and picking finishes. Only instead of an office, I might be designed a turn-of-the-century bakery (the Starbucks on Main Street USA at Magic Kingdom), or a military-inspired queue on a distant planet (Pandora, at Animal Kingdom). Now, I'm in project and design management, so I help bring all those disciplines together and work with the client to make sure we achieve their vision and deliver an excellent project.

There are definitely designers I admire. Mary Blair - a lot of people know her for her work in movies, but her art for Small World is stunning. Joe Rohde - the lead creative behind Animal Kingdom, is an incredible human being and the most intelligent person I've ever met, and a fantastic storyteller. He could tell you about his latest trip to Target and you'd be hooked. John Hench was a master with color. And I got to work with Alan Gilmore, who was an art director on the Harry Potter films, to bring the theme parks to life - he's an amazing person. Kind, intelligent, great vision.

A lot of our inspiration comes from history: architecture, art. So much of the time we're recreating familiar environments, which means looking to how it's been done in reality, and adding an element of fantasy to it. And I wish I got to travel and see my projects! I've worked on projects all over the globe, but sadly have still only seen many in photographs. I've been lucky to see a few, though, and getting to see guests experience something you've worked on is the ultimate in warm-fuzzies. Gotta get higher up the food chain before I get to start being a road warrior :)

jewelry design, rings, Lemesto, California Collection, Arielle Rassel

ab: To me, theme parks seem to be impersonal and very commercial. Your jewelry, on the other hand is simple, natural and very personal. How do you find balance between two types of creating? Are they two very separate parts of your life or do you find (or create) connections between them?

ar: We've got to get you to some different theme parks! I find them warm and joyful places - if a bit overcrowded. But yes, they are large. And working for big, huge companies like Disney and Universal, it's easy to feel like a cog in the machine sometimes. I felt like my work was such a small piece of the puzzle so often, but jewelry is something that was entirely created by me, by my hands, to be experienced and loved by another single individual. That's so different in scale from the mass environments of theme parks, being experienced by hundreds of thousands of guests. Sometimes my work could feel very clinical, doing detailed drawings on a computer all day - and jewelry was just so completely the opposite of that. I've always loved to create with my hands, and jewelry lets me do that.

Finding balance is a continual struggle. I love my day job, and have no desire to quit to focus on my jewelry full time. They both bring me joy, in very different ways. I keep them fairly separate, but there are definitely times when my research for projects presents interesting ideas that I end up incorporating into my jewelry, especially when delving into historical periods.

Lemesto, West Elm, Necklaces, Arielle Rassel

ab: You went to the Savannah College of Art and Design and majored in fashion and interior design. What was that experience like for you? How has your education and training helped you with designing jewelry and theme parks?

ar: I loved SCAD so much! Savannah is an absolutely beautiful town that's so rich with history, culture, and charm - and thanks to the art school, it's that much more vibrant. I started my studies there in fashion, but ultimately figured out that the built environment was more my calling. We had a jewelry department, but I think at the time it just seemed too daunting to me. I really wish I'd taken classes in the department when it was so available to me. But I got exposure to so many other things - art, fashion, graphics, architecture, interiors, management... those things really all came together to help shape me as a designer. With jewelry, it's about finding inspiration and abstracting it, distilling things down to their core shapes and colors and feelings. With theme parks, it's all about using design from all different eras and places to inform your design - borrowing a bit of this, a dash of that. Exposure to a wide variety of disciplines is so helpful. And SCAD also did a really great job of teaching how to collaborate with a variety of disciplines, which is so critical in my field.

Arielle Rassel, Rings, Lemesto, Jewelry Design

ab: Were sketchbooks part of your art school experience? I’m always interested in learning about (and sharing) other artists’ sketchbook practices. Do you keep sketchbooks today and if you do, do they play a part in your process when designing theme parks or jewelry? If not, why do you think that is?

ar: For sure - and I still have a lot of them sitting on my shelves in my studio at home! The first classes you're thrown into at SCAD are foundation drawing and design theory classes, and sketchbooks are a big part of that. Many of my classes had a sketchbook component that was part of our overall grade, requiring us to sketch regularly. I do still keep sketchbooks today, but I don't use them as much. I sketch jewelry some of the time, but I find I'd rather sit down with cheap materials and mock up a design by hand. I'll do a quick sketch of the look and feel on paper, but then when I move to material I may find that it behaves very differently than expected, or what works on paper just doesn't work in 3D. As for my job, I sketched a lot as a designer - one of my favorite things to do was head into the parks by myself for an hour or two with my sketchbook and find things to sketch - I'd always discover new details that I hadn't seen before. Living in Florida, where the parks where close, that was easy. It's a bit more challenging in SoCal, where it takes two hours to get to Disneyland in traffic. But I do sketch and doodle when I can - I always have a sketchbook on me, even if just for notes and quick thoughts.

jewelry, necklace, rainbow gemstones, Arielle Rassel, Lemesto

ab: Your jewelry is very joyful and it seems that the main point behind theme parks is creating happiness (or the illusion of happiness). With two such joy-focused careers, do you ever find it difficult to maintain your own joy? What strategies do you have for weathering life’s down times and how do you battle negativity?

ar: I'm glad you feel and see that - joy is absolutely my main motivator, in both jobs. I was told once, at Imagineering, that happy people make the world a better place. I absolutely believe that to be true, and I will always do everything I can to put more happiness and joy into the world. Generally, I have a pretty cheery disposition... I'm a cautious optimist and I really do try to see the best in everyone - I have a gift for finding silver linings. But I'm human and absolute deal with down times. Creating has always been a coping mechanism for me - when everything seems to be going wrong, it's my way to tune out the world and focus on creation. But I also turn to time with friends, my rescue pup Franklin, movies, books, exercise, and other craft projects as a way to keep myself balanced.

jewelry design, rings, Lemesto, California Collection, Arielle Rassel

ab: One of your jewelry collections is called The California Collection. Can you share a bit about the inspiration behind those pieces? You’ve stated that you are planning collections inspired by other states as well. What aspects of those upcoming designs come from regional inspiration? Other than those state collections, what’s next on the horizon for Lemesto?

ar: Moving to California was a big turning point for me in my life. I'd been in Orlando for a couple years, following college, and just wasn't super happy there. Until that moment, LA had always seemed so daunting - but through the help of mentors and friends, I was able to wrap my head around the idea of moving across the country, away from my family and everything familiar, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made. LA just immediately felt like home, so to pay homage to my new home state in my first curated collection felt really appropriate. The California Collection, to me, is that perfect mix of boho and classic that LA exudes. It's easy, carefree, and natural - which is why it's all raw gemstones. But I've also been lucky to live in some other amazing states: Florida, Georgia (for college), Washington (for work), and North Carolina - my home state. These will definitely all get collections... I'm working on roughly one a year, so I'm not too worried about what comes after those. Maybe France, where I lived for six months in college. I'm already underway on Georgia, which is a lot of moss agate and earthy stones - inspired by the Spanish moss and swamps around Savannah - with a hint of honeycomb, to pay tribute to my alma mater, whose mascot is a bee. Florida will incorporate a lot of sea glass.

Beyond the State Collections though, my big focus is sustainable growth, and an honesty in my materials. I want to keep working with raw stones, agate, and fine metals, and continue to hone my craft. I do my best not to follow trends, but create pieces that are timeless in their simplicity, made of materials that will stand the test of time. Finding balance between my day job and my shop will always be a challenge, but as long as they both keep me happy, I'll keep working at it. I'm coming up on three years in business now, and I'm still shocked it's made it this far. I can't wait to see where the next few years take me!

Lemesto, West Elm, Jewelry, Arielle Rassel

Thank you, Arielle, for sharing your story with us.

Dear readers you can find more of Arielle here:

The Lemesto Website
Her Etsy Shop

This is my last interview for 2016! I have some changes in mind for next year's interview series. Stay tuned.

*Photos in this post © Arielle Rassel, except photos 4, 5 & 8 © The Sabrina Photo. Used with permission.