James and Christine, owners of NYC design company Stewart-Schafer, are quickly making a name for themselves in the world of retail fashion interiors. Living and working together, this mild mannered Brit (James) and no BS midwestern girl (Christine) create concepts and environments for the fashion community; building spaces and furniture with an aesthetic based on travel, experience, and fusing the modern with vintage and classic sensibilities. We sat down to discuss their process, the business, their vision, and to settle once and for all who walked over and started talking to who (on that fateful day).
Jonathan Mayor: Describe a little about how you guys met and what you were doing career wise at the time.
James Veal: Christine, do you want to start this?
Christine Stucker: Sure. I had just left a (high profile) job doing the same type of work we do now and I met James at a barbecue in New York and we started dating. At the time, I was actively looking for another corporate job and he kind of convinced me that we should start something together. We were young(ger) and idealistic. I had the creative side covered but was definitely scared to run my own business on the financial side and James was really kind of like a support system in that way because he had a business degree and really understood how to drive a business forward. So we just took this risk and started our company together. We actually started it when we were traveling in Germany. We got a random call from a friend to help design a retail space while we were over there and that was it. We always kept clients while we were traveling, skyping in, doing what we needed to. Right time, right place.
James:(Nodding in agreement). And as a company, Stewart-Schafer, we create environments for the fashion community.
Christine: Yeah. Environments, furniture, art... anything creative. We offer creative and architectural services for fashion clients, that's really what we do.
JM: Interesting. So you were introduced by friends at the barbecue, or you just kind of met each other organically?
Christine: I actually went with a different guy that was friend of both James and I, and I turned to him the second I saw James (this is gonna sound lame) and said "who's that" and he said “James," and I literally said “he should be my boyfriend” (lamer). And then we didn't even meet. He was surrounded by girls and not paying any attention to me so I said I'm out of here, thanked everyone for having me, and turned to walk out, and as I did, he jumped up from the table (Christine reenacts this, in slow motion for some reason), and said I'll come with you. And then he just said "Hi, I'm James," and I was like "I'm Christine" and that was that.
James: I was instantly drawn to Christine. I was constantly aware of her, keeping an eye on her at the barbecue even if she says I wasn't.
Christine: Keeping an eye on me to avoid me!
James: No, actually I was desperate to talk to her but I'm not very good at doing that type of thing. But then all of the sudden I just got the courage to do it when she was leaving, it was like now or never. And I did it (smiling).
Christine: Wow. I never knew that.
James: I know you didn't, but now you do.
JM: How do you strike a balance between work and personal, or are there no lines at all? Was there a honeymoon phase when you first started working together or was (is) it always work?
James: Everyone says how hard it is to work with the person you're in a relationship with and it is hard. It requires awareness and balance but the truth is I wouldn't want it any other way. I love my job, and I love doing it with the person I love. We're very lucky.
Christine: I think in the beginning there was definitely a honeymoon phase where we had this kind of fantasy lifestyle. We met and like a month later went to Australia for 3 months and then we went to Europe and for the first year of our relationship we were basically traveling the entire time. You get to know somebody through that. I just immediately trusted James and his opinion while I'm not a very trusting person. Having a business together, you obviously have to have a lot of confidence in your partner and you have to really trust their opinion for it to be successful. And I do with James.
James: I was traveling a lot when I met Christine. And I kind of instigated it and was just like, let's go, let's travel, and then we got the call and the business started and we came back to New York and buckled down. I think we were honestly both aware that we were heading toward this business and the work that goes into it and were just like, let's get this traveling thing dealt with before we really get into it.
JM: How does traveling effect, or help shape, your work?
Christine: Traveling is part of what we do. An actual part of our process. You go to different places and meet different people, see different things, and you have access to these different sources you might not otherwise have if you don't go out and see things for yourself. Our business is about learning from experience and connecting with people. We really make a lot of contacts, and learn about artists, sculptors and other artisans, through traveling
James: You can get inspiration from anywhere, but when you're really out of your element, it's just like a whole other level of inspiration. Traveling gets you out of that element.
Christine: But like he said it can happen anywhere. Walk around Bushwick or other parts of New York. Exploring is really the thing that's helped us the most I think. Especially James. He takes it to another level. Like seriously all the people we're currently collaborating with, it's because James rode his bike around and met some sculptor or painter in some hole in the wall workshop by just walking in and introducing himself the old fashioned way and coming back being like, “you need to come meet these people” or whatever. That's definitely helped our business, I think. And inspiration comes from all of it, anywhere, when you least expect it.
James: That's part of why we live in New York. There's a spirit here where everyone wants to help each other out. Really. Despite what other people say about it, I feel that way, and we see it all the time. The perception of mean and jaded New Yorkers couldn't be further from my experience (besides Christine).
Christine: There are a lot of people who are out there for themselves but there are also a lot of people who aren't and when you meet each other, it just happens. We're really social people and we really appreciate art and the craftsmanship and when we see people doing creative things we never hesitate to engage with them or compliment them. Our intention isn't always to work together, it just happens organically. It's nice to get off on a good foot.
JM: I wanted to go back and ask another question about lines and the two of you, and how much time you actually spend together. Is there anything you don't do together?
James: We're together 24/7. All the time, literally, unless I'm on the toilet. I mean sometimes we'll have to be apart, with the way the work's laid out - we get so busy that we have to divide and conquer, but we don't like to. We actually like to be together as much as we can even when we're together all the time.
Christine: People think it's insane but it's right for us, it works! I don't know why, but it does.
JM: Describe a day in the life. Take us through a busy (but not over the top) day.
James: Here's a thing about our work. Every day is different. You cannot predict the days.
Christine: On a normal day, James (always) gets up before me, makes food, eats it, then by the time he's done eating I'm just getting out of bed. And then we're hurrying to get ready and running out the door for some meeting or installation.
James: It's very busy. Sometimes for me, work becomes so overwhelming that I have to just take a step back, too. And find time for that. We're on the go a lot!
JM: How many clients or projects are you juggling at any given time?
Christine: Like right now I think we're working with like six different clients, including 360 Sweater, J Brand (with Bloomingdale's), Delfina, and a few we can't mention, and that's just this month.
James: I'd say on average, we always have a handful of projects going at all times. We also think it's important not to overstretch. We've made the mistake a few times to take too much on, so now we really try to keep the right balance.
JM: What are the themes or trends that you hope come across, or what do you find surfacing, in your work?
Christine: We really try to avoid, or set, the trend. We create our own trends and we don't really follow anyone's designs, we just fuse stylistic identities and make them merge into a new feel. And we're definitely lucky that we have all these cool brands that let us take that chance. A lot of people are scared to go against the grain. We're lucky to have relationships with our clients where they trust us and we can help push them to become trendsetters. We also work with people for a really long time (in the case of J Brand 4 years) which helps us figure it out together through the process and the life of the relationship.
James: We have really great relationships with the people we work with. Hopefully that's a trend and theme.
Christine: (Laughing) Yeah, we don't have any bad clients right now. No such thing as a bad client? I think not, my friends... not that I'll be mentioning any names.
James: We might sometimes like to push our clients, and as anybody who collaborates knows, there might be tough moments, but we've never had an unhappy client and we continue to work with the same people and build relationships over the years. I think that says the most.
Christine: We take it really personally. We want everyone to be happy. We want everyone to feel good about things and to keep building on things we've all done before. It's a never-ending process.
JM: Personally or as a team, who/what would you say are your biggest creative influences?
Christine: I'm influenced by a lot of different art and music. Japanese art, Swedish design (it isn't all Ikea you know, not that there isn't a place, or a lot of places, for Ikea). I find a lot of inspiration and influence from different painters and sculptors. I started my career as a painter and through that learned a lot about what inspires and influences me still. We kind of set a mood for ourselves when we're creating and we make our own creative work environments, and that really helps us get in the mind frame of what a client might need and what they're about (since that is essentially the same thing we do for them). Surrounding myself with all different kinds of art and music and people is where I get the most inspiration.
James: I'm constantly learning and getting inspired and I know it's corny to say it but Christine is probably the biggest influence of my life, artistically and otherwise; but growing up, maybe a little different than Christine's, my influences are, probably, more business influenced. I was very influenced by Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, entrepreneurs who were being creative in business and successful. Those were always the people I admired and was really interested in. People building businesses, doing the kinds of things I wanted to be doing.
JM: Talk about pulling off your spaces (practically). Where do you find your materials?
Christine: I've gone to flea markets in Paris and throughout Europe, nothing too crazy. One time we found a lion's head with a client on a trip to Paris that he wanted to use in a U.S. retail space and I had to convince him that it was illegal to import, actually, it was a tiger's head that was mounted, not a lion, and he was desperate to have it in his retail space in (state omitted) and I had to walk the fine line between convincing him and fighting with him that it was morally wrong to have a decapitated tiger hanging off the wall of your retail store; that that might offend a lot of people. I ended up convincing him that it wasn't worth trying to smuggle it back into the United States. As if there would ever be a circumstance where it would be worth it.
JM: What was the brand for that one?
Christine: I don't…we can't say.
JM: Kellog's Frosted Flakes?
(it obviously was not Kellogg's Frosted Flakes)
JM: What's your house look like? Describe your aesthetic at home.
Christine: We have a really quirky house. It really has its own identity and we kind of just work with it. Cater to its personality. I think it shows our silly side, but it's cool though. You know we polish it, but we haven't changed it.
James: Yeah, it's very homey. It's funny because we're house hunting at the moment and we wanted to move into something sleek and modern but again (like our last place) all we can find are brownstone fixer uppers so we think we're just gonna buy a really old brown stone and rebuild it completely from the ground up, kind of add the modern to the old.
Christine: To me the best spaces are always that balance between new and old and that's the core of our aesthetic, at work and at home.
JM: So what's your dream, or dream project?
James: I know it's going to sound cliché again but every project we have, I feel like is a dream project. I just love challenges and every project has its challenges.
Christine: (Disbelief) Really? You don't know your dream project? Bullshit! My, excuse me, OUR dream project, for sure, is to do a hotel. We want someday Stewart Schafer hotels, a few of them, around the world. That is the dream, I don't know what he's talking about?
James: Okay, true, she got me. A hotel, or hotels. That would be cool. That would be a cool project.
Christine: A small, really sexy boutique hotel. That's the dream.
JM: What do you love about living and working in (or from) New York? What does it do for you creatively?
Christine: New York is such an exciting city with so many young and excited people, and to be here you really need to work hard. You really have to want it because it doesn't allow you to live here otherwise - if you're not going to put all your effort in. Everybody here that's working and creating... they are doing it to the max. Everyone lives and breathes the city and their work and it's a really exciting city to live in because of it. I think it's a really unique place to have a company and work.
James: Yeah. And I think for me even more so sometimes, coming from England, and traveling, I can definitely tell you that I think New York is the best city in the world. The work ethic is super high and everyone really is so willing to help each other out, it's such a communal effort. New York is a community of people trying to do great things. We meet so many amazing creative, great people; though we do have aspirations to go outside of New York to other amazing cities to do our work.
JM: If that could be anywhere besides New York, where would it be?
James: At the moment we're based here and couldn't really do exactly what we do anywhere else but who knows, we really do go kind of where things take us, and are willing to take those journeys together. So who knows? We both love Europe. Or maybe in ten years we'll just be consultants and live on the beach somewhere.
Christine: Sounds good to me.
JM: What's one thing that (still) surprises you about each other and your working relationship?
James: I guess it's that I don't get tired of working with Christine. Every task we have, every project we have, it's always something new and different together. It doesn't ever feel monotonous, it's just always an adventure. I guess that's what surprises me, every working day we have is still an adventure. It's always an adventure and we always solve problems together and I always love it. And that really does surprise me, still, that we're always on this adventure together.
Christine: What surprises me? Um. His body odor surprises me still. Honestly. His total lack of showering. Just kidding, but that is disgusting. What surprises me though, honestly, is James is always trying to outdo the last project we did. And it surprises me the lengths he will continually go to for different resources and different means for inspiration to do something great. The amount of effort that he'll put in to make everything fresh and new. He'll always push himself further and push me further to come up with new ideas, and that is still surprising to me. And amazing.
James: And it all spins directly into our personal lives as well, intertwined.