Sian Ballen, Lesley Hauge and Jeff Hirsch
Jesse James together with his husband and business partner Kostas Anagnopoulos(Gus) own and run a design think tank called Aesthetic Movement that provides a range of services including branding, marketing, designing and overseeing launches of products in the gift, home, jewelry and personal accessories market. They have been together for twenty years and grew up on the same street in Chicago although they did not meet until much later. Interestingly, they both chose a specific high school based on the fact that it would spare them the horrors of PE class.
Their home in Jackson Heights is full of warmth, texture, subtle color and beautiful but humble objects collected over time—we loved it and, judging by various comments online, everyone else loves it too. “I want their life,” reads one such comment, to which, when we asked them how they felt about that, Kostas answered, “Oh gosh. Well, we go to therapy …” He is also a poet and we have included one of his poems from his collection “What Works”, also entitled “What Works” at the end of the interview.
I know what you do but I want you to explain it without using terms like “branding solutions” and “selective creative retail collaboration.”
Jesse: Without using terms like that? Okay … well in a way we’re sort of making it up as we go along. Aesthetic Movement was based on a previous company that I was partner in—that was purely sales representation, representing designers [and] manufacturers to retailers. That was a company that kind of started small and grew to be national. When I divorced my ex-partner—my business partner that is—we were really thinking about what to do next … when we launched Aesthetic Movement it had at its core this sales and marketing element. And then we brought in the design element.
So do you mean you would present yourselves not only as people who could market something but that you could also design from source?
Jesse: Many things. For starters it was really about the ability to work with people who had ideas in their infancy and they wanted to have help.
What sort of help do they need?
Jesse: Sometimes it’s very fundamental, [things like] how to structure their business, how to manage the pricing structure and how much inventory to develop. But then it gets more interesting. What are people going to love? What’s going to speak to people today?
And this is based on your experience of knowing what things have sold in the past and how things have appealed to people?
Jesse: I think it was a cumulative knowledge that we all developed over years and years of working with so many retailers … and slowly realizing over the years that we wanted to focus on things we believed in not necessarily things that were guaranteed to sell.
What would be an example of something that was guaranteed to sell but that wouldn’t be interested in?
Jesse: You know … not really a huge fan of industrial designers who are just making the latest shape of a toothbrush that’s in bright plastic colors. To be honest, obviously for good reason, a lot of designers are focused on what’s new … that’s not terribly interesting to us. I think we look to the past a lot.
If you’re looking to the past but people are coming to you with contemporary designs, how do you approach that? I mean, you’re not antique dealers.
Jesse: No we’re not. But we’re not selling all of the, you know, big melamine collections. The other thing that I would just sort of go back to was when we launched Aesthetic Movement, part of it was being able to help people [hesitates] er … branding … maybe a re-brand.
Nooo, not branding!
Jesse: Well we’ve now partnered significantly in ways we do all of the creative. We name the brand, we do all of the branding, we art direct all the photo shoots, we design all the product, we oversee the quality and we do the sales and marketing of it.
I wonder what’s left for your client to do! Retail is changing so much, though isn’t it? All these stores are closing.
Jesse: Sure, but we also want to celebrate those that are doing it right. For a while there were just too many stores in the world.
I always thought that people liked going into a store and touching things.
Jesse: Well we’re tactile right? And it’s good to be able to meet someone, a proprietor.
Kostas: I think neighborhoods are becoming really important to the retail market. Retailers are supported by their neighborhoods. And the fact that New York is becoming less neighborhood-driven is a sad reality.
Is someone going to dismiss us all as being a bunch of romantics?
Jesse: There’s nothing wrong with being romantic!
I’ve heard the retro look that’s popular now described somewhat disdainfully as “Williamsburg kitsch” but it’s a look that young kids seem to love. What do you make of that?
Kostas: I think everyone’s always re-inventing the past.
When I was young, I only wore vintage clothes …
Jesse: Yeah! We all went to thrift stores. But it starts with affordability. And it’s often inspired by music or novels or movies that you’re watching and if you find yourself being pulled into a different era, it’s so much more interesting than what you see every day.
Is it more forgiving than the real life pressures of your own actual era?
Jesse: Well with [our daughter] Olympia, we went on this kick of watching all five seasons of “Call the Midwife” [a British show set in 1950s working class London] This was such an amazing lens for her. She is adopted so she’s really curious about birth and it de-mystified this process but because it was through the lens of the past, it kind of put it in a place where you could be separate enough to talk about it. It was so magical for all of us to curl up in bed every night and watch an episode.
But I am so tired of re-purposed wood slab tables and industrial … stuff.
Jesse: Sure, it’s run its course. But for us there is a reality at play and we have to put on the table for a broad number of people. We are really pulling away from heritage because it’s just so overplayed … you know this man in a rugged outdoors outfit who probably doesn’t spend a lot of time outdoors.
We also have to ask you about which is your respective names … living with the name Jesse James must be slightly annoying.
Jesse: It is annoying but it is my name and it’s been my name all my life. It causes daily conversations—it breaks the ice sometimes, you know at the desk at the airport or the bank. It was my father who gave me that name and my mother sort of let him. I actually have a long name: Jesse Hampton Nathaniel William Floyd Robin James. They all are these revolutionary folks. But now Jesse James is this like this motorcycle guy who Sandra Bullock was married to who is a racist. So that’s awful. I’m not very Google-able.
And your name must be annoying because people probably mispronounce it. How do you say it properly?
Kostas: Like Indianapolis.
Jesse: That’s a terrible, terrible way to pronounce it. He dumbs it down all the time. He’s been trained over the years to say “Anag-nopolis”. Somehow he believes people can say Anag-nopolis better than [pronounces it properly].
Kostas: They can’t.
I was reading some of the comments online where your apartment has been published and people say things like “I want their life. Everything is so beautiful, their work, their home, their family …” How do you feel about how you seem to others?
Kostas … Oh gosh. Well we go to therapy … er … oh my God conflict is everywhere even in domestic settings!
Jesse: I don’t think I think about [other people’s impressions] to be honest. I’m often thinking about other people’s lives. If someone is peeking into our window, there’s someone else’s window that I’m peeking into.
Kostas: And the house gets messy.
by Kostas Anagnopoulos
Friday will work
I’ll be cooking
Taking big steps
They sound bigger downstairs
Vibrating in my head
Until I put them on paper
I invited the people from the bus stop to dinner
An English couple, Gerry and Karolyn, and their two bright girls
Since I don’t have old ones
Seasons go by
Regrets of waking life at the window
With a view of the little wild mint patch
Avoid small talk
Even in Queens
Returning from the market unspotted
After rinsing the fruits and vegetables
A lot of peeling