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27 February 2018
Jade and Chris Towery
From Korea and Ventura to RISD, and back to Venice Beach. A crafted life filled with design.
I first met Jade and Chris Towery over a decade ago when we were new students at the Rhode Island School of Design. Jade was a masters student in Interior Architecture, Chris was studying Graphic Design, and I was a masters student in Architecture.

8 years ago, I was passing through Venice Beach on an adventure and needed a place to crash—I slept on their couch, under a canopy of tarps and sawdust. They were in the middle of a complete redesign and rebuild on a foreclosed house they’d just bought. It was an awesome display of design and life literally colliding, mixed up with some roll-up-your-sleeves sweat equity.

Fast forward to 2018: they just finished a second house at the back of their property that they were going to use as a rental on Airbnb. They wanted me to come down with some of our products to outfit their space and stay there in exchange. I had to see what they built.

Thanks for the hospitality Chris and Jade!

- Ken Tomita, CEO & Co-founder
All Roads Lead to RISD
Jade: After undergrad I was working for an architecture firm in Korea.... And I was working long days, 9 a.m. to midnight almost every day. It was miserable. I was getting sick and I didn't want to live like that. I remember one day, I think it was evening, like 6 p.m., and my work was not done. I was coming home to pick something up to go back to work. And I see this sea of people going home and I'm like, "Oh, my God. They are going home."

I just wanted to get out of it. I could have picked any country, because I didn't speak English back then and I didn't speak any other language ... But the infrastructure for applying for school in America was the easiest, so that is why I applied here.
Ken: To kind of get a better life. I think it's a profound reason, to take control of your life and make sure that you're happy. Chris, so how did you get started on a path to become a graphic designer.

Chris: I didn't know what I wanted to do and I didn't want to spend a lot of money. So I went to community college in Ventura, where I grew up... community college here in California is good. I was taking business classes. I was taking all kinds of different classes. Accounting, general ed, all that stuff. And my mom had taken some classes before and she said, "I know this really good teacher in advertising. Even if you don't like advertising, he's just a great teacher, a teacher of life as well. Why don't you just try it and see if you like it." So I took it and it was one of the best teachers I've had.
“Ventura College, we're not talking about Harvard. Ventura College, a community college, having one of the best teachers. Not just in the design sense, but in a spiritual sense.”
Jade: We invited him to our wedding reception. I remember Chris talking about him in a way, like how he was a teacher of life, not just of design or graphic design. Remember you told me, he told the students before coming into the classroom like, "Get rid of your monkey minds. Turn off your monkey minds," or something like that?

Chris: Yeah. We always had meditation and different mental exercises. The start of every class, we always had to write a journal for 15, 20 minutes. We always had to clear our minds, just before even beginning the class.

Jade: Ventura College - we're not talking about Harvard - a community college, having one of the best teachers. Not just in the design sense, but in a spiritual sense.
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Ken: So then how did you end up in Rhode Island? Pretty far away from the California sun.

Chris: I was like "I like this stuff [advertising, art, design]. What should I do next?" My teacher went to Art Center, so I was like, "Maybe I should just go to Art Center." And then I overheard someone talking about RISD when I was making a sculpture in sculpture class. They were talking about how great the school is and I'm like,"There is an art school in Rhode Island?!?" So I just sent away for a catalog, got a catalog back … "Yeah. It says it's the number one school and they have got this great graphic design program. Why don't I just apply and see what happens?"

Ken: Haha that sounds really similar to my story! So what do you think you guys learned in art school that you can only learn in school?

Chris: I would say it's more just applied design thinking in everyday life. I feel like I just live that way. I mean, it's not really graphic design; I do it all the time. I want to take a closer eye into everything.
Quiksilver
Chris: Before I went to school, I dreamed of working at Quiksilver. It was like a dream job for me, working at this cool office. Starting on any project was fun at that point. I worked there for five years and worked on a variety of projects, got to travel around a lot, doing cool stuff.

Ken: How did it feel to get your dream job pretty quickly?

Chris: It felt amazing. I was the art director for the Quiksilver Waterman Collection. We would have a spring, fall, and winter photo shoot for those collections.
Jade: He was going for photo shoots to the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Canada, with those people that you only see in those contests.

Chris: It was pretty unbelievable.

Jade: If you were a surfer, you would know all those people and you would [get to] hang out with them.

Chris: It was just amazing, going on locations [with people I’d read about as a kid]. Like, “Whoa. Where am I now?" Like I picked up Tom Carrol, 2-time world champion, at the airport and went on a 10-day trip to Canada, out to Nootka Island, out in the middle of nowhere, chasing waves.
Jade: How about the big wave surfer, Pete Mel? He came to pick you up at our house, to go to the airport together?

Chris: Yeah totally, Pete Mel. I mean, I used to have a shirt with his photo on the back, as a kid. He is the nicest guy.
The House
Ken: I remember you moved into the house and it was a total teardown. Why did you even choose to buy this property and live in this neighborhood to begin with?

Jade: We had a really low budget, so people were directing us to places that fit in that budget. I'm not from here and wherever they'd tell me to go, I would go and look at it. And, apparently, [some of] those areas weren’t safe, but in our budget.
Chris: But, if I could choose one place, it would be....by the beach, in Venice. I mean, I grew up watching Dogtown skateboarders.

Jade: Venice, his dream place, dream city.

Chris: In 2008, 2009, the economy was sinking—I was working at Quiksilver and making a little bit of money, not very much. The real estate people kept showing us different [more affordable] areas and I was like, "Just give me your access code and I'll access the searches myself," because I was looking for Venice. And then I ended up finding this one as a foreclosure.
Jade: As is condition, we had to come that weekend.

Chris: Because there was three days of bidding and they were going to close, because it was bank-owned. And so, we came and saw it. And then we brought my parents down to take a look too, just to show them basically.

Jade: And Grandma too. And they told us later; they were driving back to Ventura and Grandma was worried about this house. It looked like a haunted house. It looked really ghoulish. Oh, gosh, remember the toilet? No one wanted to sit!

Chris: Yeah, and the walls were bowed. You didn't want to walk in.
Jade: It was disastrous. And Grandma was worried.

Chris: "What are they getting into."

Jade: And Chris' mom said, "Jade is a designer. They know what they are doing. Just leave them alone." She had a vision. It was amazing, that huge confidence she had in us.

When the economy started going down, [my second cousin, who’s in real estate] kept telling us, "You've got to buy a house. You've got to buy a house now. Even if it's a shack, buy it now. Now is the time." But we were making like low income.
Chris: I had to ask my boss for a raise. I was like, "Dude, I need a $5000 raise or I can't get this loan." And then he forgot about it for a couple of weeks. I'm like, "Dude, I need this to close this week!" And he helped me out last minute.

Jade: We wouldn't have thought about buying a house for the next ten years, if it was not my cousin telling us, "Buy it now."

Chris: And she was right.
Jade: And Chris' mom said, “Jade is a designer. They know what they are doing. Just leave them alone.” She had a vision. It was amazing, that huge confidence she had in us.
Ken: That's awesome. So originally, you were thinking like, "Oh, something we can afford," but it wasn't really where you wanted it.

Chris: Yeah. It ended up being almost the same price..

Jade: Chris is like that. I tried to fit in the circumstance and just settle down there, whereas he shoots for the moon and gets to the moon.

Chris: Actually, yeah, there were other houses too, but I wanted something with a flat roof with the long lines. That's what I saw in the front.

Jade: Like it's a vision, yeah. That's what he saw.
The Project
Ken: So, you guys have lived here for a while. Why did you start thinking about building the ADU?

Jade: I did a project on Beach Avenue [in Venice] years ago. That house has a main house in the front and an accessory building in the back, two story. This is a 5800 square foot lot with 1000 square foot house -- so we have a lot of land in the back. Chris and I had talked, "Let's build something in the back." And we set out ten years.
Ken: But somehow that got accelerated and you started the project when you guys had just had Elle [their first child]?

Jade: I had designed something which was rejected by the city, with all those things that I thought I could get around, but I couldn't. We got the toughest plan-checker ever. So I had to redesign it, so the design period got really, much longer than I expected. And then we had a baby.

Ken: Two projects at once.

Jade: I was double pregnant!

Ken: So, Elle was like two? Two and a half? Or just turned two? Right?

Jade: Yeah. I thought we could have Elle's birthday party here but we kept getting delayed. Nope. Her third birthday party, we had nothing here, but we had her fourth birthday party here.
Jade: So, you know how with the kid's birthday party, they usually have a theme, like whatever, the movie theme, or... Disney character theme ...princess theme. Well our theme was construction, because we wanted to celebrate this building, the completion of the building. She was part of the construction all along. When we dug the ground for the foundation, she was running around like a...

Chris: In like a maze.

Jade: ...maze, yeah. And when we poured concrete, when it was a slab, it was her playground. She was riding her bicycle and playing ball. And we had this plumbing, the sewer line sticking up in the slab and she was cooking there! And then we had a frame that went up and she played in each room. And when we did a hot mop, she kept going, "It's stinky and smelly!" She made a lot of decisions on upholsteries.
Chris: We had a tree house, a taco cart over here. I had a cement-mixer piñata.

Ken: The fact that you have this growing family, how much did it influence the design space? The center courtyard thing, it looks like a park, like a playground, and feels like a really cool spot for a little kid.

Jade: Well for me, keeping … the backyard space for us was very important, because that is where Elle played. So I wanted to make this space where we want to stay, so I didn't have to take Elle to a playground.

Chris: But aside from that, we live in Southern California. We don't want to have a house front to back. We want to have open space where you just hang out.
Creative Collaboration
Ken: It’s challenging to work together on creative projects. Especially at this scale and what is at stake. How did you guys work together on this?

Jade: I think we have very divided roles... I ask his opinion a lot, but I do the big ones. He does the detail ones.

Chris: Yeah, that’s the way.

Jade: So I got the permit. I did the design of the house, the big building, and constructing it, and all those details about the framing, or the windows, all those big ones come to me. And I get really confused too, because I'm the homeowner, designer, and general contractor all together. I really wished I had an architect, so I could ask questions! Then I would ask Chris. He was like, "You know what you're doing." But then, once it's all done, and dry walled, and painted, then he had very strong idea about lighting.

Chris: Yeah, all the lighting, furniture, and pictures. But even designing the building, it's like, "What if we pull it here? Can you push it? Can you make it bigger?" We would go back and forth on that.

Ken: You guys just know how to work together.

Jade: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, somewhat! [laughs]
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Ken: Jade, you're a professional interior designer for other clients. How did it feel to do your own space? How was that different?

Jade: It's much easier when it is someone else's money ... I knew what I wanted, if I didn't see the price tag. That was really hard.

Ken: Well, the project has turned out pretty incredible, sitting here in your space.

Jade: Thank you.
It is so much easier to do it the conventional way. There is no question. There must be millions of people doing it without thinking. There must be a reason why they do it that way.
Ken: Let's talk about some of the details. Upstairs the doorways are a little unconventional. That's obviously a much harder way to build a space. Can you talk about what you did up there and why, with details?

Jade: Yeah. We did barn doors. I wanted to have natural light coming in all the time. It is a small area. It is only a 450 square foot, if you take the stairways out, but I wanted to make it feel big. And we have a strong ocean breeze coming from west to east, so that's prevailing wind. And in order to have it really working, this window has to be open and the other window has to be open. And if we had just a regular swing door, it is going to bang every time you open the window.

Chris: It does it in our house all the time.

Jade: So, that comes down to a barn door, so we could always leave it open. It is so much easier to do it the conventional way. There is no question. There must be millions of people doing it without thinking. There must be a reason why they do it that way. And when I do something unconventional, I knew this is what I wanted to do but, "What am I missing? Millions of other people do it that way, the conventional way, without thinking. Why am I doing this?" Questioning, and questioning, again, and again, and again.

The electrician comes in when he is setting the junction boxes and we couldn't put it because of the barn door situation that was going to happen. Like, "Should I just do a swing door?" With the bed wall, "Should I just do a swing door?"

Chris: And then with the drywall guy.

Ken: You will be happy to know that I opened them all, so it was perfectly open, and took photographs, because you get this perfect silhouette, these three doorways, and it is really quite beautiful.
Jade: There are a lot of details he wanted to do. He asked me, "Let's do it for the front house" when we did the original remodel in 2009. I said "No," because I didn't know how to make it happen.

I was scared on the front house. But here, now I know better or we are more motivated to find a way.

Chris: Do it this time. I think, having gone through the construction the first time and missed out on some of that stuff..., and some of it was like see it every day; it was like slapping me in the face.

Jade: Yeah, the regrets!

Ken: Oh, man.

Chris: So it's like, "You've got to do it this time. It's got to be right."

Ken: And you can't see it any other way. The framing, for example, it would have to be either flush, like it is now, or a foot off, or two feet off.

Jade: Right. Right. And the thing I learned was that I thought others knew better than I did, or I thought the builders, and the framers, the drywall people, or electricians, or plumbers, I thought they knew more than I did as a designer. So when I told them, "This is what I want," and I thought automatically they knew, naturally they knew ... But no. They did not. They just knew what they had been doing. That's all. And I had to...I don't want to say "fight," but I had to...

Chris: You had to tell them exactly how it should be done.

Jade: Oh, yeah. Otherwise, [it] wouldn't have happened. So now, when I work with subs, their skill set, their knowledge, those are important, but attitude is the most important aspect to me.
Doing It On a Budget
Ken: How much stuff did you buy on eBay and Craigslist?

Chris: Like everything! [Laughter] I bought the couch on Craigslist, the fabric on eBay, all the lighting on Craigslist. This was actually a sample sale; they didn't know if that worked. I was like, "Well, if it doesn't work, can always put a new ballast and rewire it, no big deal." So I was always finding deals like that.

It's like, you don't have enough money, but I want that look. I want a specific look. I can't afford it, so I'm going to have to find it, because I want that look! So it's like, "How hard do you want to find it?"
It's there if you're looking and you’re resourceful enough. Some of the stuff needed to be repaired.

Ken: Oh, yeah, what are those huge outdoor lamps?

Chris: I found two of them on eBay. Those are... What is that guy's name?

Jade: Poulsen, Louis Poulsen. How much is it retail?

Chris: Those are like really famous; those are like $2000 lights. I got them really cheap. And then I had to go and buy a pole for it. Like where are you going to buy a huge pole? So I had to go buy a pole way out in Sun Valley and then I had to find a powder coater to powder coat those, to match the color.
Cool Objects
Ken: Yeah. There's a lot of really cool objects in the house … what’s the story behind them?

Chris: A lot of stuff came from our house in the front ... both of those photos are from a friend who was a photographer at Quiksilver, Jeff Hornbaker. We got artwork from friends, posters that I designed.

Ken: Oh, so these Quiksilver ones?

Chris: Yeah. Those are all mine.
Jade: I want to say my favorite, or one of top, few favorite objects in this house is actually the IKEA couch.

Ken: The one upstairs?

Jade: Yeah, it sat in my office a while and it got [a lot of] water damage and my daughter started painting on it and all. I wanted to use it. I did not want to see it going to a landfill … I wanted to see it living a second life or third life thrivingly, not just making it barely. With the fabric and the upholstery, we spent about $350, $400. You could have bought a brand new IKEA couch there, but then, where does this go? Landfill.

Ken: It looks like it is custom made for the spot.
[Editor’s Note: This IKEA couch was actually already on its second life when the Towerys got it. A college friend of Ken’s had left it to them when he moved from Venice Beach to Boulder, CO, a decade ago. He’s now in Shanghai. His couch lives on in Venice Beach. Take that, landfill.]

Chris: That is part of the reason too of all this like Craigslist, eBay. It's always like a second life; you're not buying a new one. It's fun to find something. Like we bought those stools in Palm Springs and go see someone else's houses. That's kind of the fun in it. It’s an experience.

Jade: Mm-hmm. And they give us their stories.

Chris: Yeah. They talk about it. Like, "I picked this up in Hollywood." They talk about it, all these different things, and I can recall all these stories. I know exactly where I bought it, who I bought it from.

Ken: That was interesting to me. You have all these objects that are sentimental to you in a house that is not really yours for a while, because other people will experience it as guests.

Jade: Right, but I really enjoy -- I think you too -- enjoy that just random strangers from all over the world come and see what we really value. Like what is important to us.
Jade: For the first time we are making money out of our design. We have been working as designers all along, but I feel like we worked for someone else. But now, our own ideas, our own designs start making money and to see the appreciation right away, every day, feels really good.

Chris: It's funny. The visitors come and point different things out. Like, "Where did you get those knobs? I really like those knobs everywhere." They always bring up these details.

Chris: And we're trying to make this a family place, like people similar to us with kids. So we share the open space, the tree house. Because we want people to enjoy the space and have a great time.

Jade: Right. And somehow it is healing for them. While they are staying here, they make their healing process as a family and by the time they leave this house, they are more bonded as a family, as a group.

Ken: And they are connected to you too.

Chris: Yeah.

Ken: So you are literally sharing the spirit of the property.

Chris: That is our goal, yeah.
Check out the Towery's Airbnb listing here.

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