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A conversation with the founder of Portland Design Week, Tsilli Pines

A conversation with the founder of Portland Design Week, Tsilli Pines

Published by Marina Muroyama

Portland. We’ve been obsessed with this city for quite some time now. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, this city pretty much has it all. Amazing cuisine culture? Check. High quality coffee? Check. An ever evolving creative scene? Check. No sales taxes? Check. The great American wilderness? Check. Need I go on? It’s as good as it gets. As part of our ongoing Portland series, we interviewed Tsilli Pines, designer and founder of Portland Design Week about all things in Portland, her professional background, and on Portland Design Week, whose 2016 edition is opening today.

What made you interested in starting Design Week?

In 2011, I started organizing CreativeMornings (a breakfast series for the creative community) in Portland. One of my friends was organizing the event in Los Angeles. I thought, “This would do so well in Portland”, because Portland has such a collaborative community, and having a place where everyone can gather would be amazing. The event instantly became a huge draw. We had around 150 people in the first event. For most of my career, I focused on doing the best work possible, but not really networking. When I pitched CreativeMornings, I didn’t really have a huge network here, but I knew a couple people that know a lot of people. Portland isn’t like New York. It’s not as big, so I thought it would be nice if all the people that were holding design events can come together and not step on each other’s toes. From there, I met a lot of interesting people. And one of the people that I met at the time was organizing an event called Designspeaks, a quarterly event. He had been living in Portland for over 20 years, so he knew a lot about the creative community here. We started talking about “why there isn’t a design week in Portland” and then we were like, “I run an event already and you run an event already”, we know about 10 other people that run events. We could all just do what we’re doing, put it together in one week and call it design week.

Can you tell us a little about your professional background?

I studied Graphic Design at Parsons School of Design [in NY] and got a summer job, which turned out to become my real job at an interactive studio that was run by a Canadian record label. They have a digital studio called netmedia, and I did a lot of music industry projects. We did David Bowie’s website and many other interesting music records. I worked there for a couple of years, and decided to move back to the west coast. 

I moved to San Francisco, but by the time the dot bomb had hit. The first market crash around the internet happened, and at the time San Francisco was pretty much a wasteland in 2001. I left New York and drove cross country for 9 days, and 2 days after I arrived in California, it was 9.11. The country in general was experiencing this huge trauma and the economy was terrible as well in the bay area. Luckily, I had a strong portfolio to do projects for high profile clients and was able to get a job as a designer at a company called Fine. I was lucky that I had gotten out of school and had time to build up that experience. At the time, they were pivoting from brand and print work more into digital work. I started working in 2002 and I’ve been working with them ever since. I’m 14 years in, we worked together in San Francisco for about 4 years, and then I wanted to move to Portland. Despite the fact I had grown up in Northern California, I had never been to Oregon. Oregon was not on my radar at all. My husband and I decided to take a road trip when a friend of ours moved there. We had no plans, but by the end of that trip, my husband and I looked at each other and said “this place is awesome”, we both had been in the Bay area for such a long time and were looking for a change. By that time, the Bay area had already become expensive and had standard living issues. 

We just decided that Portland was amazing. The creative scene was strong, the cuisine was amazing. When we moved I already thought, “Oh man, we missed the boat on this. We’re so late coming into this.” Portland at the time was already the kind of the place that you wished you had known in the late 90’s. The last 5 year’s living here has been an exponential experience. At that time, New York Times was already writing about Portland all the time. There was already the pipeline of interest that was happening. So it felt to me we had hopped on the bandwagon, but had no idea there was so much left to go. I asked the partner’s at the studio, if I could work remotely and they suggested on opening up a satellite office. So we opened a satellite office and slowly, slowly, it had become the dominant office in the studio. The fact that there was an option that people could work in Portland, a lot of the people chose to come up and work in Portland. The center of gravity had shifted and a lot of the people I had worked in San Francisco have moved to Portland. At the time, I thought if I could keep my job and move to Portland, I would do it in a heartbeat and a lot of people felt the same way. Now, the office is like 40 people in Portland and only 2 people in San Francisco. So, that’s a pretty classic Portland economic growth story. I have been working in the same job for a long time and was kind of getting itchy for new challenges and new inspirations, so when creative mornings came along, I thought this is great, because it gives me an excuse to contact interesting people. I’m not somebody that’s going to reach out to people unless I have a reason. Getting to know all these interesting people has reinvigorated my own practice as well.

Portland’s creative scene has been growing very strong in the last decade. How do you think this happened? What is the background to this?

For a long time there was a couple of large employer’s that formed the basis of the ecosystem in Portland. The presence of Wieden & Kennedy, sports apparel brands such as Nike, Adidas, Columbia and technology companies such Intel was very strong. We had these large employer’s that were importing talent and those people were living in a city where the overhead was pretty low. We also have an area that’s rich in natural resources and so the combination of all these things made for a fertile ecosystem for a creative person to start out an idea, or a product, without having to undergo a huge amount of risk. So, they could have a day job at for example. Nike have a product line they’re developing on the side. Slowly, slowly, all kinds of other pieces started falling into places. There was a lot of movement over the last few years of startups because of the favorable economic situations here. The confluence of a whole bunch of pieces from both an economic standpoint and a talent pool’s standpoint contributed to Portland’s current creative scene. And also there were a lot of creative people that wanted to live in the North West because of the lifestyle here that allowed them to do what they wanted to do. There were a lot of people that was gravitating to this area, meeting other interesting people doing interesting things. It’s all about what Design Week is about as well. Architects have a lot to learn from graphic designers and vice versa. A lot of these paths crossing is what I believe has made Portland’s creative scene strong.

Who are the designers from Portland we should keep our eye on?

Kate Bingaman-Burt

Jeff Kovel

Adam Arnold

Andee Hess

Andy Pressman

Taryn Cowart

Where are some of your favorite places in Portland?

Ned Ludd – American Craft Kitchen

Ampersand –Gallery & Fine Books

Cup & Bar–Coffee & Chocolate tasting room

Tasty n Sons –American Cuisine

Land –Art Gallery / Retail shop

Crafty Wonderland –Handmade Goods

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2016 edition: From April 15 to 23