Studio Roslyn: Meet the Best Friend Duo Refreshing Vancouver's Design Scene
In a sea of white-tiled backsplashes behind the counters of ice cream shops and reclaimed wood light fixtures in cocktail bars, Studio Rosyln’s aesthetic offers a breath of fresh air in a city whose design world can sometimes feel a bit been-there-done that. Kate Snyder and Jessica MacDonald are the creative duo behind the self-established firm, and they also happen to be best friends. As fate would have it, mutual interests brought them together while both studying architecture at the University of Manitoba some years ago, and they've never looked back. They've worked alongside each other at various jobs (most recently Oak and Fort and Studio Ste. Marie), acquiring an expansive set of skills before branching out independently.
Since launching Studio Roslyn in January of this year, Kate and Jessica have swiftly gained attention with their unique style and approach to some of the city's freshest restaurants, private homes and more. I recently sat down with them to learn their thoughts on all things design, the rewards of being self-employed and why they've known they would start a business together since their university days.
Photography: Luis Valdizon of When They Find Us
At what point did you decide you were ready to start your own firm?
Jessica: “When we first met each other in university 10 years ago, we talked about doing our own thing one day. And then after working our last two jobs together, it was just finding that right moment of having enough experience for us to feel personally ready. We felt like we got to that point.”
Kate: “For me, it was August of last year, when I was like, OKAY. It took a month of really thinking about it first, just acknowledging to myself that I was ready. Then I started talking to Jess about it.”
Did you financially prepare yourselves to quit your jobs to start Studio Rosyln?
J: “Luckily with a design studio, it’s not like opening a restaurant. Your start-up costs are very minimal, and we kept them minimal by working from home. We both had a little bit of savings, for our computers and to get our website going.”
K: “It was November last year when we felt like we had our heads wrapped around what was involved in starting our own business to a certain degree. We planned for all the legal stuff, administrative stuff, accounting, etc. We had a two-year projected financials plan put together, so we kind of had a number that we knew we needed. Fortunately we knew it was doable with our own personal financial assistance.”
How did you learn all that admin knowledge needed to launch your own company?
K: “Definitely through previous work. My role at the last job – and all my jobs prior to doing this – I’ve been fortunate enough to be really exposed, involved and taught, and just be thrown into stuff. I've worked a lot on the management side of things. I was studio director at Ste. Marie and at its biggest point, there were 10 employees I was in charge of. I was fortunate enough to gain a lot of experience in the operations aspects of those companies.”
J: “You’re always soaking that stuff in, because it’s good to know, even as an employee. Our job previous to Ste. Marie was at Oak and Fort, where we were the only two in the store design department design, and we set all the standards ourselves, figured out how to do everything ourselves, and kind of did the same thing at Ste. Marie. So after two times around we felt really ready to do it for ourselves.”
What aspects of running your own business have been challenging for you? What has surprised you?
J: “There was definitely a learning curve for me in the client management side of things. Kate was studio director at Ste. Marie while I was more focused on design for the most part of my day. For example, Kate had written up a lot of contracts but I never had, so she showed me how to do that when I started.”
K: “A big thing for me personally, I think the most difficult part of this job is working closely with people - yet it’s also the most rewarding. I find that that usually goes hand in hand. What’s been surprising for me is the amount of effort, energy and care that goes into business development. So many people that we work with, their projects are so personal, so there’s a lot of work that goes into getting to know that person, and also the time and energy that goes into them understanding Studio Roslyn. It’s awesome and I love it, it’s just something that really surprised me.”
When working on projects with your clients, where do you look to for inspiration and ideas?
J: “We like to be super collaborative with the way we design. With our clients, we feel like the best result is when you’re all working together towards this common goal. Talk to the client, figure out what they’re about and what excites them about the project. Otherwise, Kate and I look to fashion a lot.”
K: “Fashion is my super love. I spend a lot of time on blogs that we’re into. We love talking about what’s happening, especially in the beverage and hospitality world, understanding as a whole what’s different in the retail world and restaurant world. There’s some really cool stuff happening in terms of interior architecture and interior design in Australia. There’s sort of a different level of work that’s going on there.”
J: “We talk about Flack Studio a lot. Their aesthetic is great, but why we really look up to them is because they made themselves really well known internationally, within only a year of starting their business. We would talk about them a lot and look at what they were doing [when starting Studio Roslyn].”
K: “Jess knows art really well, way better than I do. You talk about your grandmother a lot.”
J: “She went back to university and studied Greek mythology in her fifties, and growing up I would always go to art galleries with her.”
Now that you’re both self-employed, how do you separate yourself from work?
J: “It’s ebbing and flowing right now. The last few weeks have been crazy busy - I feel like I only think about work. But I’m normally really good at shutting off at the end of the day. I just force myself not to think about it, turn off all the email alerts. I also go to a lot of music shows, any art openings and new restaurants that open – that is a hobby (laughs).”
K: “Jess is way, way better at that than me (laughs). I am so much worse, where I just embody it. But I think it’s what drives me. There’s some very pragmatic tips that people have told me in the past, things we’ve talked about for the past six years, like having our email notifications turned off on our phones and never turning them on. I try really hard not to look at my emails in the morning until I’ve sat down and am ready to start my day, rather than doing it in bed.”
J: “You also set up your client relationship from the beginning where there’s an understanding that we work from 9 – 5, I mean some projects depending if the timeline is crazy, people are gonna call you late at night, but mostly not.”
K: “The number one thing for me for shutting my brain off, or keeping me grounded, is my husband. We work well together for so many reasons, but he’s literally the most talented person I’ve ever met. He has a degree in philosophy and his ability to reason through tricky situations is amazing. That’s huge for me.”
J: “I feel like we both have partners – not to say that they’re not interested in design – but that’s not their world, at all (laughs). Anything they’ve learned about it is through us. You’re not talking about that with your partner at the end of the day.”
What’s been your favourite aspect of running your own business since you started?
J: “We’re moving into an office soon, but I actually have enjoyed working from home this past while. We weren’t sure if we were going to get into it but we did find it quite relaxing, you’re almost more relaxed in your home environment. We did set ourselves rules too, where we can’t wear pyjamas (laughs).”
K: “The number one thing for me is working for ourselves. Putting in effort and time and your emotion and love into everything, and just the reward of doing it for yourself – I love it. It’s also an independence thing, that’s something that’s been instilled in me from the beginning. If nothing else, then I have myself, I’m in control of the outcome of things and I take responsibility for things good or bad.”
J: “Yeah. Knowing it’s all for us at the end of the day feels pretty awesome.”
What do you feel are the pros and cons of establishing your design firm in a city like Vancouver?
J: “I like that our aesthetic really stands out in Vancouver. Vancouver is all about that Pacific Northwest, white-wash-everything aesthetic. We also felt like there was room for a studio like us. Vancouver designers are doing cool stuff and we’ve really noticed a change in the last few years, but there’s still a long way that the design industry can go in this city.”
K: “I think the pros and cons are kind of one in the same. It’s a smaller city, but that’s an awesome advantage because we have the ability to push what we’re doing.”
Do you have any mentors you look to for advice or guidance?
J: “Ellen, Kate’s godmother. She ran a design studio for many years, and she’s now moved onto a different field. When we were starting our business, we’d go to her place for wine and she would go over our business plan with us, help us with edits.”
K: “I wish we had more time to talk to her now (laughs). I saw her last weekend at a family wedding and was like, ‘Ellen I wish I could be calling you five times a day!’ To have sometime like her help us with every decision would be so amazing, but it’s good to let us fly on our own.”
J: “We’re both really close with our parents. I ask my parents for advice all the time. They’re both lawyers so they help me with a lot of legal advice. My dad works in commercial real estate law, so there’s actually a weird amount of crossover with the people that we work with. So I pick his brain about stuff.”
K: “I grew up in a horse farm, which my parents still have, though they don’t raise horses anymore. My mom is such a huge inspiration. Everything that’s on the dinner table is straight from the farm. The longer I’m away from home the more I understand myself, and how I’ve ended up where I am. People are like, ‘How are you doing what you’re doing?’ when they see where I’m from, which is basically the middle-of-nowhere rural Manitoba. But to me it’s making more and more sense. My parents have always instilled in me that possibilities are endless, and if you work hard you can do anything. They’re both extremely creative people.”
What's next for you? Any projects coming up that you're particularly excited about?
K: “A week and a half ago we found out that we got this job for a new restaurant that we are so excited about, but we’re not allowed to talk about it yet.”
J: “We actually talked about hoping to work on this kind of project in the past, and thought it would be like a four-year goal for us. So we're pretty thrilled.”