Tell me about Occulter.
Occulter began as sort of a—it was always meant to be a collective idea. Essentially, me and a bunch of friends, designers like Odenbach and Marvie from Marvielab, she was related to Carpe Diem. A lot of these people wanted to promote their lines or collections or their work—pretty concept-heavy work — on their own, outside of sort of the mercantile fashion systems we have. As an experiment, we started showing in Paris by just renting an apartment and showing as a group. I called it Occulter. Johannes Kepler was an astronomer hundreds of years ago. He was very intent on the cosmos being this perfect machine, because he was both a scientist and very devout; so, he wanted everything to be reflective of where he thought God was. He wanted everything to be a perfect circle and when he found out it wasn’t, it kind of drove him crazy. It was perfect in a different way than he had expected. It got me to thinking and looking more into extrasolar planet research. Somehow that got me to what an occulter is—which has nothing to do with the occult as everyone assumes that right away. The logo itself is a drawing by Johannes Keppler of concentric platonic solids, which are the basic building blocks of geometry. An occulter is this thing that NASA was building in order to put out in space in front of really large in-orbit telescopes; so, [an occulter] would hide the brightness of a large body and you’d be able to see everything around it. Say, it would hide Jupiter and you could see the moons around it. I thought, that’s perfect, we never want to be giant brands, it is not the mission. The goal isn’t to be Jupiter. The point is to control the design so that it does not get exploited and watered down. We never want to be Jupiter, we always want to be the moons of Jupiter. Occulter became the shield that hides the big brands; so, you can see the little ones. I’ve been working here [in this studio] for about six years. Now, the collective consists of three visual artists, Nadav Benjamin, Jeremy Dyer, and Gabriel Shuldiner. The accessories designers are Jonathan, who does Bevel, Moratorium, my stuff, and Gabriel also does accessories that resemble his paintings.
Your own line, Black Sheep and Prodigal Sons, seems to be heavily influenced by mythology and nature. What specifically about those areas speak to you?
There’s a funny thing going on right now and I want to try to avoid it. When I started doing Black Sheep and Prodigal Sons, it was like seven years ago, it was a while back. It was really different back then. Even the name, people were like, “This is ridiculous. It’s too long and it’s too weird. Why don’t you just call it like ‘The Sheeps’ or whatever?” And I was like, “No, this is what it’s going to be. I don’t care, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.” Before you know it—and I’m not saying it was my doing, but perhaps I was just in the stream of the zeitgeist in a way—it became the thing to do, to be dark, and occult-y. I find it super interesting. In my head, I’m sort of an anthropologist, a sociologist. I’m always trying to figure out why, why is it that this is appealing to folks?
I think, for me, it had to do with personal meaning and the idea that mythology is what creates meaning in life, and conviction, and substance. Growing up in Puerto Rico, there was a lot of really intuitive interpolation of mythology from our background, which is African and Indian, and a little bit of European. It turns into something very emotional for Latin American people. It just seems very natural. I don’t know why; maybe because the cultures are really young so they just allow themselves to be influenced by everything. Whereas, when I moved to the United States to come to school, [mythology-related themes] were being regurgitated and it seemed very shallow. And it’s fine, because I think sometimes, even at that point, maybe it’ll turn into something. My only fear is that it will be treated like another trend, it’ll be a flash in the pan, and then we’ll forget the use of it; or perhaps maybe it will have some gripping power and people will be like, “Oh, well what is our mythology?”
What do you mean when you talk about pop culture as our mythology?
We love to put it in our mouths, chew it, spit it out, and never absorb the nutrients. Next. What’s that one taste like? It’s not about processing any of it; it’s about tasting it. It’s all about the instant gratification of the taste but not what it takes to make it part of you. It’s a habit of following and trying to find substance in acquisition of things; so, I think we do have [a mythology] except for the Gods at be are very far removed from us. We don’t have communion with the Gods like a Native American would in a Shamanic ritual. Our gods are so far from us and everything we are consuming is thrown from the clouds, and we just kind of eat it and don’t question it. That’s the only dangerous part for me. Yes, there is mythology and yes, it is affecting us every single day because we are worshipping these ways of consuming to the point of almost creating a religion out of them. We have very religious attitudes, but the God is missing.
I guess the gods would have to be the ad men and PR professionals.
Exactly. The gods are missing. We don’t know who they are or what they look like, but we worship the stuff they are doing.
That’s interesting. As a media student, we discuss advent of public relations and the ethics of using psychoanalytic theories to facilitate consumerism.
It’s about creating an insatiable desire. “I want it and I have to have it and I’m going to get another one, too. And the moment I get it, it’s old, it’s done, I need another one.” I think that speaks to the way we consume information these days, as well. We have very shallow understandings of lots of things. Everybody knows everything. [laughs]. But not that much about it. I don’t know if I’m any different…
I think we are all part of it, but we have a choice. We just have to figure out whether or not we can handle the repercussions of making the choice, which are potentially being shunned. The moment you express
a very convicted opinion, you don’t get as many "likes". If you’re too convicted, you’re choosing sides and that takes a lot of effort.
People love to be neutral.
Cool is the mass. Anyway, I’ve forgotten what the original question was. These are the kind of discussions everyone here [at Occulter] talks about; always trying to find that balance between commerce and
authenticity. Sometimes, one fails the other. Authenticity and strong convictions might cause you to lose some business. It happens. You hate to make choices [but] I still have to eat, so what’s going to happen?
I feel like Occulter has a lot of integrity behind it. From speaking with you, looking at the pieces, and even the branding, I sense it.
You know what’s funny about the branding—I did all the logos, I designed it all myself. I was trying to get to a place where it felt like it always existed to me. I made the stuff and later I realized why I chose those fonts and why I chose those details. It wasn’t as contrived as branding usually is for me—I used to work in advertising for a while.
That is kind of ironic.
Yeah, I was in advertising. But when it’s personal, I don’t want to be as contrived about branding, doing what I know will get a reaction; so, I tried to work from instinct, kind of work backwards. I realized later that the Black Sheep and Prodigal Sons font—the reason I thought it felt so right and established is because it’s the headline font for the New York Times. We associate that with legitimacy, authenticity, and truth. I was like, “Weird.” It just came together. The other font, Baskerville, which I used for the Occulter logo, was one of the first fonts used in print, ever. No wonder this stuff feels like it’s set in stone. I think branding is very important.
When did you get into making jewelry?
When I started Black Sheep and Prodigal Sons. That was in 2005. That’s when I was getting sick of advertising. Somehow, as soon as I graduated from school, I ended up in an advertising agency. I was an art director, but it was hell the whole time through. It wasn’t for me because I always wanted to make something that wasn’t what they wanted me to make. I always took is as being “the man.” Now that I’m a little older, I’ve realized it’s not a democracy. An ad agency is not America, it’s a private company and they want you to do something and they’re paying you for it; so, you need to do it. That’s one of the best things that one boss told me, that I will always remember: “This is not a democracy, Derrick. This is my company.” I was like, “Ohh yeah! I get it. Sorry, I was trying to change it, but I can’t change it.” I felt I needed to be doing something else, it was too much and it was not my thing. I went home, quit cold turkey. I started sculpting stuff because I didn’t have much room to paint, and then jewelry making started coming about. I wanted to make things that you could carry with you, not art that you always had to have a show for. So, jewelry seemed like the right thing.
How do you distinguish your work from that of these other brands that pop up and latch onto the trend?
I don’t want to knock it. I want to critique, I don’t want to criticize. Or perhaps it’s critique versus passing judgment. I’d rather have a critique, which is a conversation. I think the way the work of the collective differentiates itself is that we have some tenants we ascribe to that we will not waiver from, including quality of materials, flexibility for experimentation, and, like I said before, authenticity. Always maintaining a very personal connection to who they are to the point that you may not like it. I may not be the right time for it. It may be ugly. [Laughs.] We run a lot of risk a lot of times. I think that’s probably a good description of it. What separates it from a lot of other things is the lack of fear for risk. We don’t fear risk. That’s okay. I don’t care if you don’t like, I mean I care if you don’t like it, but you probably won’t. And that’s okay because I’m not sure if I like it either yet. I may make a piece and develop it over a time, but you have to hang on and invest a little bit in it so you can watch it develop. That freedom to be risky and always assuming your audience is smarter than you may think. Which opposes the mentality of advertising and PR men to simplify everything. When I left advertising, I thought I’ve got to change this. I’m going to flip it and say, “No, they’re smarter than me.” I’m going to speak that way and I will make the paragraphs that references Gestalt or psychology, and assume that someone is going to know it. And if they don’t know it, nowadays you look it up and then you’ll
come back and say, “I get it.” Suddenly, you have an investment in it.
That’s a good approach. It gives people the opportunity to discover new ideas and interests and potentially grow from them.
It’s fun to share knowledge. I think a small company—which lately I’m calling nano-companies because a small company, according to the government, is a company with 500 people, at least. This is not a small company, this is a nano-company. There’s like 3 of us and mostly it’s just me here and the designers come in and out. The opportunity that we have, that a big organization doesn’t have, is to teach. Big organizations don’t have the opportunity to teach because they have too many things to protect. They have patents to protect and proprietary information to protect and things that are coming out to protect. And there’s just too much, too much investment and too much risk involved; so, they’re not going to tell you how to do it, they’re not going to tell you every piece about it, they’re not going to start selling it the minute that you made it because they have to PR. It’s a big system. So, for us, we can teach. We can be like, “Let me tell you more about how this is made or more about where the design came from.” I’ve even brought people in here and been like, “If you want to learn how to do this, I’ll show you how to do it.” You don’t feel threatened. It’s the Bobby Flay approach, I call it. Because you’re going to show them how too cook it, but they’re still going to go to your restaurant. It never stops people from going to Mesa, just because he had a TV show where he showed you how to cook.
What does the Occulter collective strive to communicate through their work?
To create a sense of wonder or marvel. Like, “This is crazy!” or “What is that?” It’s that childlikeness that we try so hard to push back. So, here is the childlikeness with a black robe on. It’s a child on stilts with a black robe on. That is what this is. I want to appeal to that repressed desire for wonder and marvel. I think everyone else here does, too, through the materials they use, the way they sculpt things, the detail they put in. I think Bevel’s work and his exploration of the human condition is interesting. Tell me more about him. His name is Jonathan and he’s a very spiritual person. I always say 90% of his day involves trying to reach a different plane, to the point it’s almost comical, because it’s so different and he’s such a different person. He’s a super gentle person. He doesn’t actually come off as anything in particular; he only comes off as Jonathan. He’s a very individual person. My point is that what he did for the Ball Game collection was try to explore his own vision of Mayan myth from where he came from, from his perspective. One particular myth is about these heroes that go to the underworld to try to recover control over the Earth. What he did was, he sort of sculpted the characters for the story, abstractly, and so, he could understand what it was about. How he came out the other end was understanding that his culture was very much one of resilience. Where he came from, their stories were about resilience of people and collective work. I thought, that’s obviously a study on the human condition and very personal to come out with something so abstract. There’s something so beautiful about his designs, but they manage to be terrifying at the same time. There is something terrifying about them. To me, it’s very other. This doesn’t look like anything. I’m like, “Where is this from?” Do you feel that our culture, in turning to shortcuts and simple answers, largely neglects the journey? It’s funny. Every philosophy that you go into deeply, the journey is the valuable thing. It’s not the answer. The journey is the answer. We sort of skip that. We tend to think the answer is the answer, but there is no answer. What you find in New York, you—especially at your age—will evolve really quickly and change really fast. And from every couple years, you’ll change again.
I hear you become a new person every seven years.
Here it happens, quicker sometimes. Your peers that are not here are going to have a little bit of a hard time with that. They’re going to look at you and judge you and they’re going to be like, “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
It seems a lot of people are okay with being complacent and not challenging themselves.
Okay with good enough. The amount of things you can do in a year here is crazy. It makes life seem longer because you’re experiencing a lot more. Everyday your brain is opened up to new things. One of the reasons I called the company Black Sheep and Prodigal Sons is because I was reading a book about the West Village called Kafka Was the Rage. It was set in the 1940s. This guy moved from Brooklyn after coming back from the war, moved to West Village. He met all these weird people. There was this building full of old ladies, drug addicts, and all these people. He was like, “they were black sheep and prodigal sons or a paradoxical kind.” They were either shunned by family or shunned family and came here to redeem themselves or remake themselves. I was like, that’s it. That’s the name, because that’s most of the people I know. They come to this place looking to bloom out. They either were thrown out of the house or they left. It was really about New York.