UnBeige 3.0 to UnBeige 1.0: An Interview With Jen Bekman


She’s a blogger! She’s a gallery owner! She’s a NY icon! She’s Jen Bekman, the woman behind the eponymous gallery, the founder of this here design blog and one of the biggest design enthusiasts to grab ahold of a keyboard. Bekman took a few moments away from compiling a ginormous list of creative women to answer some questions about Jen Bekman the gallery, Jen Bekman the person and, well, us.

First of all, to clear something up even we’ve been wondering about: UnBeige or Unbeige?

Well, to be honest, I’m not sure. When we started it, it was unbeige because I was shift-key averse for most of my internet years. Then I made the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept, which was to start capitalizing properly in all my online endeavors. I’ve always been a sucker for gimmicky camel-cap stuff (and myriad other cheesola naming conventions, somebody stop me) but really when I think about it, I feel like unbeige is the best alternative.

Did mediabistro.com approach you to start Unbeige (now we’re questioning our own camel-caps)? Or were you already doing it on your own?

It went like this. Elizabeth Spiers was just starting at mediabistro and was working on launching a bunch of blogs. (She and I became pals after she wrote a feature about the gallery for the NY Times shortly after I opened.) Anyhow, she and I were talking about this design blog and I offered to help her find someone to write it. I tossed a few suggestions out, and then she said she thought I should do it, which I thought was nuts but Spiers is a hard person to say no to and the idea grew on me rather quickly once I thought about it for a while.

So, you’re not a designer, why a blog about design?

I’m design obsessed. I’m a fan. I always have been. I’m also a geek, and like to dig deep into thiings that I’m interested in. (I have friends who refuse to watch TV with me because of my predilection for deconstruction of the most junkiest of junk-food entertainment.) If you wanna talk about Photoshop Tipz + Trix, I’m not your woman, but really why would you when you can talk about, say, Crimes Against Urbanity?

Our archives say this is one of your first posts. That’s a pretty visionary statement about design.

I’m glad you think so. I thought it was really poorly constructed when I wrote it, but I had to do the brute force thing and force myself to post something to get the ball rolling. Looking at it now, it doesn’t seem so bad.

In a design world with few scandals, you’ve singlehandedly sparked one hell of a debate about the lack of women in the Tokion conference lineup. You’ve written about this phenomenon before, and it’s something we always semi-joke about at design events, but it occurs to us that we actually should probably start doing something about it. What are you going to do?

I just figure I’ll get some of the really smart people I know and plan a conference with them. We’re shooting for late spring of 2007.

I know lots and lots of really brilliant people. And guess what? They’re not all white men. (Don’t worry guys, I’m sure that there will be a few token white guys at the conference.) It’ll be a lot of hard work, but it’s high time for a new standard.

Tokion is not the most culturally relevant publication around, and their conference certainly isn’t a must-attend event, but it IS a perfect example of the kind of thing that happens all too often at conferences in a variety of disciplines. (I do think it’s particularly egregious because it’s all under this huge “Creativity” umbrella. Tech and Finance are historically male-dominated. Creative fields? Not so much.)

Your posts about the elitist design-your-own NikeID store in Little Italy were also pretty notorious. Did you ever make up with them?

They never even contacted me! One thing that was nice was that one of the few remaining old-school storefronts had the New York Post article about the whole thing up in their window for a while. They were diagonally across the street from NikeID and I liked seeing it there each day on my way to work.

Why is it so hard for the mainstream media to grasp design?

Most people aren’t really interested in good design. You should see my parents’ eyes glaze over when I try to talk to them about it.

Do you think that writing Unbeige helped promote your gallery?

Sort of. But it was also a major distraction — it was hard to keep up a posting schedule and run the gallery. I definitely think it helped promote me, and helped me come around to the idea of myself as a bona fide writer. That was definitely one of the best aspects of it for me. That and all the smart design-y people I met.

We think this is your last post dated June 3, 2005. Why did you stop writing for Unbeige?

It was a combination of things. I never really mastered the art of the pithy post, and I think if you’re gonna do more than a post or two a day, you just have to be able to do that. Instead I’d find myself doing much longer posts, which I enjoyed writing more but also found to be incredibly time consuming. So, mediabistro wasn’t getting the number of posts that they wanted and I wasn’t getting important gallery stuff done. Also, gallery stuff often kept me too busy to really post as much as I needed to.

Now you have, actually, two blogs, where you call yourself a “delinquent blogger.” Do you find it difficult being so prolific?

I find that interns make me look really really good. They are the ones who maintain the two gallery blogs for the most part. I do post to those once in a while, but usually it’s up to them to keep things going. I’m the only one who ever posts to Personism, and if you look at the archives you’ll see that I’ve hardly been prolific. Well, lately moreso but that’s just ’cause I’m all wound up over something.

What design blogs do you read every day?

Let’s see…I have about 200 different feeds in my reader. (Yes, I’m a freak. Why do you ask?) Not all design, but a lot of design in there: design*sponge, Apt Therapy, Design Observer + Observed, Unbeige (but of course!), SwissMiss and um, there are some others too. Lately I’ve been enjoying the student blogs from SVA and MSU (the amazing Kate Bingaman‘s enterprise). Also: Typography! And Speak Up!

When I go on a blog diet, and you could see why I have to sometimes, I just read DO, and Observed.

What’s it like having a gallery?

It’s pretty fucking awesome. And also really amazingly inconceivably challenging. It’s the best job I’ve ever had but it’s also pushed me further than I’ve ever been pushed, and I’m not sure that that’s always a good thing. I cannot tell you how many times people have exclaimed to me “You’re living the dream!” Direct quote, I kid you not.

In some ways, I am — I am doing my own thing, it’s incredibly creative and I get to interact with an amazingly diverse array of smart, talented people. On the other hand, it’s incredibly consuming. I always have a huge to-do list and it’s hard to enjoy your accomplishments when there’s always an endless list of things that haven’t gotten done. And you know, the financial instability, etc so on, yadda yadda.

Tell us what’s going on with Hey, Hot Shot!

Hey, Hot Shot! is the hotness. I love, love, love doing the competition. It’s a perfect synthesis of my webby inclinations and the (huge) photography-related component of the gallery’s program. I love working with emerging artists and I love having the opportunity to take things from the virtual to the concrete four times a year.

We’re in our last season for ’06 right now. James Deavin, who was one of last years Ultras, has his debut solo show opening at the gallery on November 1st. After that is the Fall Edition Showcase, and then in January, the ’06 Ne Plus Ultra group show. (The Ultras will be announced in mid-December.)

We’re also looking at organizing a big “retrospective” of previous winners (it’s an impressive group, if you look on the web site) and it seems inevitable that we’ll produce at least one book in the very near future.

We definitely see a gorgeous, tell-all book here. What’s next?

I’m planning the conference in NYC in the spring (because I don’t have enough to do). There’s some great gallery related press coming up. And yea, I’m ready for my 6 figure blogger book deal. Have their people call my people.

Obviously if we don’t like your answer, we’ll edit it from the interview, but, how are we doing?

I like it! Having two editors has really helped the site hit its stride. There’s a nice stream of new content that isn’t overwhelming and I like getting two distinct points of view from one blog. Rock on!