When I first see Nikki Sutton at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, she' s standing on the landing overlooking the front lobby, red hair and green dress poised against an upswept pale wall, like a character in an Antonioni film.
Antonioni was famous for the attention he paid to the design of every frame of his movies. In this, Sutton seems a kindred spirit. Mark Stewart, president of Southeastern Neighborhood Development, for whom Sutton has volunteered the designs for three houses, calls her "a design superhero" and goes on to say in a testimonial: "She can upholster a couch, swing a hammer and give an impressive presentation with equal skill."
At 32, Sutton exemplifies the kind of young professional that Indianapolis should be encouraging if it is to arrive as a national destination for the creative class. Sutton's is a homegrown story. She grew up here, graduated from Southport High and attended Indiana University in Bloomington. After a stint in Portland, Oregon, she returned to Indy to take a job with AXIS Architecture, where she worked on award-winning projects for Bradley and Montgomery Advertising and ExactTarget, before starting her own interior design firm, LEVEL, in 2007.
Additionally, Sutton is also a collaborative partner with photographer Polina Osherov, creating detail-oriented styling for photo shoots that wind up being used across a range of media. Sutton also writes about fashion on her blog Seams, offering insight into the evolution of her aesthetic."My personal style continues to look backwards while skipping into the future."
On the day we met, Sutton was "saying farewell" to the IMA's Tara Donovan exhibition. By her count, this was the fifth time she'd been through the show, which featured large-scale, topographic installations made from everyday materials like plastic cups and pencils.We sat down to discuss her work, her design philosophy and her ongoing romance with objects and images.
NUVO: What is it about Tara Donovan's work that keeps you coming back?
Sutton: It translates direct inspiration. It's just as much design as it is creation. There's a lot to be said for taking something really ordinary and figuring out a way to present it in a way that's extraordinary. That's all I do with my job. I have this minimal kit and I have to try to figure out how to turn it into something.
NUVO: You make a distinction between creation and inspiration?
Sutton: Inspiration is dangerous. Inspiration is like a voice in the air, and if you listen too much, then all you do is imitation. I think creation is listening to your own voice and trying to produce something from within the fabric of your own experience. I'm really selective in terms of where I look for inspiration. It's very hard to not plagiarize and be too affected by things. So I look at things that are a little more abstract for my inspiration.
NUVO: You've worked in a variety of contexts, from a high-end office environment like ExactTarget to neighborhood work. Do you have certain rules of the road you go by as you approach these challenges?
Sutton: It all starts with three things. The first is your location. Nothing influences design like an existing location. There are a lot of hints and arrows to get a design direction from just looking at a space. The second is, who is the tenant or user? What do they want to say? What do they want to portray? What does their space project? And the last is reward. What does the space provide for the people there? These are the goals you follow with every project.
NUVO: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about design?
Sutton: That the better design is expensive. Or that the better design has amazing materials. In Indiana, specifically, we think that the biggest space is the best space. That drives me crazy. We are so gross about space. And horribly inefficient. We end up filling it with all of this unnecessary stuff, just to create these environments that, in the end, aren't responding to what they need to do. It's just a picture we have of what these spaces are supposed to be. I'll never understand why a four-person house is 12,000 square feet — unless someone were to honestly tell me: We don't want to be together. Then I get it.
NUVO: What do you look for in a designed object – whether clothing or furniture or an appliance?
Sutton: We have an ability to create a romance about something. It's a connection that's beyond price and availability. There are people who love art nouveau and curvature and ornamentation, and I think that people who purchase items that celebrate that appreciation have a connection with what they buy. In a weird way, it's a part of you. I wish that we were as romantic about our teapots as we are about our cars. We're very specific about our automobiles. We want to put out an image – I drive a Hummer for a reason, or I drive a Mini Cooper, or a hybrid SUV. We're connected to our cars in a way we're not to our dining room tables and area rugs. If we considered these things part of ourselves, then we would purchase less because there isn't that much that's totally you.
NUVO: You also do styling for people. What's the difference between a space and a body?
Sutton: It's the exact same thing and it goes back to the Tara Donovan. You have these everyday objects and you need to make them larger than life. Someday, when I'm a famously successful stylist, I will be able to have a series of clothing and accessories and shoes to choose from that make my job as easy as breathing. But right now, it's all smoke and mirrors. We scrape by with what we have access to here and we try to make these amazing images. It's using everyday objects to create something people can have a response to and take notice of. To not be a disposable image, but something that takes pause. I have a lot of fun with the challenge of having nothing and making something. Instead of the space determining the interior design, I have a location and a model and a story. I edit accordingly.
NUVO: There is a kind of storytelling that takes place in the creation of these images?
Sutton: Absolutely. It used to drive my photographer, Polina Osherov, crazy because I'm very story-driven. There has to be some message that people can try to decipher. And she wasn't there yet. She just wanted to make a pretty image; make the girl look hot. Now she'll write a narrative before we even cast the first model. It makes my job all the more fun to try and figure out how to convey a story with one single image. Then the viewer tries to figure it out. It's very interactive.
NUVO: When did the romance of objects and images capture you?
Sutton: My bedroom was always full of images from movies. There were three movies I was obsessed with growing up: Edward Scissorhands, Batman and Dick Tracy. They're just as beautiful as they are good stories. If the movie paused at any point, you wouldn't be bored.
NUVO: What are some design successes you see in Indianapolis?
Sutton: I love the new addition to the library. It's one of my favorite places in the city. It is so dramatic and gives you a completely new way of looking at the plaza. It's almost like it doesn't belong here, it's so great.
NUVO: What does that tell you about design in Indianapolis?
Sutton: That every move is so significant. There have been too many thrown-away opportunities because we want to get a design up and running and start making money off it. And the romance or narrative of that design is ignored or not addressed. It's just how much money do we have, how much square footage do we need to make this profitable, and filling in the blanks.
The library addition is romantic. It doesn't look like it's budget-conscious. It's loving the city, giving as much back as it's taking. I love it even more when I'm inside the space and looking out. It makes Indy look more beautiful. What a cool, bird's eye view of the city that any person can enjoy.
Unfortunately, someone couldn't find value in the Zipper Building, and it's gone, a huge tragedy. Along Washington St. there are so many older storefronts and buildings. In any other city, these would be goldmines. They would love to have that character and that presence. But here it seems like it's maintenance, or it's not new enough. A friend of mine and I are pushing to have a new publication that educates and romanticizes the downtown corridor in Indianapolis. I think if people knew more about these spaces, they wouldn't seem so invisible and they would be seen as the gems they are. Rather than wait for another developer to deface a building or knock it down, we're going to put a story to it so that people care. We Hoosiers love a good story.
NUVO: Explain the tragedy of the Zipper Building.
Sutton: We don't have a lot of design in downtown Indianapolis that marks a period of time when the aesthetic wasn't looking back, when it was a snapshot of the year it was built. The Zipper Building was like that. But it didn't look like 2008 and someone saw that as a problem, so they ripped away the old faÃ§ade. Graphically speaking, that building was fabulous. Even as a kid, I thought it was cool – and when I heard it was called the Zipper Building, I was enamored. Maybe on the inside there were issues – but there are ways around that without disrupting the faÃ§ade. It looked like a lazy renovation. It breaks my heart.
NUVO: We've talked about the local aspects of design. What about the global component?
Sutton: We are very remote here. You can see something on a computer, but it's not real. You can see it on the news, you can read about it, but Indianapolis is its own place. I think that it's asking to suspend a lot of disbelief for people to imagine some of that innovation and some of those visions to land in this zipcode. It's one thing to know what's happening, it's another thing to do it and to live it. I think until someone starts bringing it here, no one is going to understand how different it is. Part of the reason I love to travel is you come back and see how small our inspiration pool is. We do a lot of reflecting and looking back on each other's work, but it never feels global here. We're looking back on the Midwest as a design leader instead of taking advantage of the fact today is the most global it's ever been. Someone needs to say, "What would you do? Don't listen to what I want. Tell me what you would do."
NUVO: What's your dream project?
Sutton: I am a big proponent of finding a way to get young professionals living and breathing downtown. Carmel is doing what it's doing and that's great. When you're in your late 30s to your 60s, go to Carmel and do your thing. But when you're in your 20s to late 30s, I want you to be able to take over downtown and define our arts and culture and a scene. There's an energy that comes with that time in your life and it's all about turning over and experimentation. So nothing would please me more than for someone to come to me and say, "We want to build one bedroom apartments that rent for $850 a month; that have bike racks and limited parking, and encourage people to live and work and play downtown. I would love to create something that would have an impact making downtown accessible. It was great when all the condominium development was happening, but it was all for one person. I will probably never be that person.
There needs to be something centrally located that says: "We know who you are. We know how much money you make. And we need you in the city to support our restaurants and boutiques and to make this a pedestrian friendly city." It would be great if we were one of the few downtowns where the affluent didn't own it. If it was owned by the creative class. I mean, the affluent don't want it – they want to go north. Give us downtown!
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