Kelly and Brenden set out in June 2014 for a half year on the American road. En route, they are building a business, West Falls Studio – “a creative company venturing to tell stories, create inspiring visuals, and help small businesses realize their full potential.” In tandem, they are capturing beautiful images and growing together.
At the time of the interview below (May 2014), Kelly was living with Brenden’s parents and prepping the van. They are now two months into the trip.
All photographs above and below © Vancrafted 2014
Meet Kelly, one articulate half of West Falls Studio and @vancrafted
The notion of your trip came to be on a sunny day on a cold winter beach – February 28, 2014. What have the last four months been like? How have you been able to accomplish so much in a short period of time?
Before we came up with the idea to go on this trip, I knew that I needed a shift in my life. I had been saving up for a move, but at the time I thought it would be a different apartment. There was something very stifling about not having a comfortable space to work and create without roommates walking through. There was a need to spur on change and the feeling grew more tangible by the day.
Once the idea came to us – to work as we travel and build a story and business of our own – we kicked into gear and completely enveloped ourselves in preparations. We created spreadsheets for each aspect of the undertaking, outlining everything that would to be done. Everything has been a joint effort. Even our logo and typeface, where I would draw every letter by hand and then Brendan would create digital versions. Our strengths have emerged to be complimentary and we use that to divide and conquer each challenge.
We moved in with Brendan’s parents for a month while we renovated the van and prepared to leave. Having a relaxing place to work on our business and our van, surrounded by supportive people, was truly great.
How long had you and Brendan been together when you decided to hit the road?
Our one-year anniversary had been on January 1st (he picked an easy-to-remember day to ask me to be his girlfriend!). But we had known each other for much longer. A friend of mine introduced us when I visited Brooklyn in college. He waited for a year and a half for me to move to NYC and be single. I coincidentally moved a couple of blocks away from him right before hurricane Sandy. We discovered this at a party my friend threw during the hurricane – there were no cabs, no trains, truly apocalyptic. Brendan heard that I was going to be there and rode his bike 45 minutes to see me. We’ve been hanging out ever since.
Why the VW Westfalia? How did you find it? They’re like unicorns in the Northeast.
Brendan and I had gone on a camping trip to Big Sur last October. Everyone had a Westy – the bronzed sun-bathing 70-year-old man in his Speedo and the young couple of surfers. I fell in love and couldn’t stop taking pictures of them. They have the perfect combination of the classic 80s style that I love and the space that we need. Their analog nature makes them possible to fix by having some basic mechanical knowledge and the big green owner’s manual.
Once we decided that we wanted a Westy, Brendan and I both began scouring Craigslist and The Samba(an amazing VW forum). We found a Westy for sale in Maine that had a recently rebuilt engine. After two weeks of relentless internet scouring, we were test driving the van in the snow. The guy who was selling it was around our age and had just done a road trip himself. On his trip, he had encountered and fixed many of the problems that we would have run into. The inside of the van was GROSS. Brendan felt confident that the “bones” were good and I trusted him on that…before we knew it, we were driving the Westy from Maine to Brooklyn.
Any “oh crap” moments prepping the Westy?
There was not one big “oh crap” moment, but a series of successive little “oh crap” moments that forced us to find solutions and press on. I was using Brendan’s mom’s sewing machine from the 1950s and the bladder in the foot pedal got a hole in it. I called about 20 places in the Philly area to find this old part which set me back a couple of days. We split up the renovations – I handled the aesthetic tasks and Brendan was in charge of the mechanical and technical aspects. We came together on each project and love how it turned out.
You were working in global branding at a famous fashion label and independently branched off into set design and product styling. What was the reaction of coworkers and family when you chose to “give up” a NYC lifestyle in pursuit of travel and a new creative endeavor?
I’m not sure what was crazier – leaving my steady job at a huge fashion company or deciding to move into a van and travel the country with my boyfriend! Everyone has been insanely supportive. Brendan and I are so fortunate to have families who want us to do what makes us happy. My dad left a corporate desk job when I was very young to start his own business. I grew up with parents who sacrificed certain superficial things to design the life they wanted, live in a beautiful place, and spend more time with their family.
The community of friends and colleagues that Brendan and I have in New York is full of people who are innovating and always trying to push the envelope. We are so grateful for the people who have encouraged us on this journey. The excitement was pervasive and gave us such a positive push into the trip. Before we left, we threw a party in Brooklyn to celebrate our departure. We couldn’t believe all the people who came out!
Tell me about West Falls Studio – can you provide a profile of your anticipated “typical” client and project?
There is no true typical client. We are looking to connect with small, made-in-America brands in an effort to promote their business. Working directly with the head business owners and directors of companies in a way that creates inspiring content in the company’s voice. We are using our journey as a way to meet with companies face-to-face, capture unique imagery, and tell real stories of products in use. Whether it be a micro-brewery or a maker of hand-made leather goods, we are telling the stories of the creators and their goods. Our sights lie on those who take pride in their work and are supporting their local communities.
Will your route be influenced by current and potential client location? Your plan is 48 states in 6 months – any “must-go” locations?
Clients and partners in different areas help us to structure our trip and drop pins on the map. The coolest and most rewarding part has been seeking out people who are potential clients, but also friends. Recently, we met a couple who had bought an antique wooden boat, restored it lovingly, and have started a business giving people a unique experience on the water in Rhode Island. We were so inspired by their business ethic, teamwork, and lifestyle that we had to meet them. We reached out and a few days later were cruising through Narragansett Bay in my hometown of Newport with them, getting a new perspective of a familiar place and trading stories of starting a business as a couple (not to mention an amazing sunset!).
We are getting a National Parks pass and will be trying to explore as much of America’s natural wonders as we can! Yellowstone, the Badlands in South Dakota, are high on our list as well as Havasupai Falls in New Mexico. The entire state of Colorado has been hard to narrow down, we want to see everything! Brendan and I have both never been to the Pacific Northwest, and are excited to see our coast’s counterpart. We’ve reached out to friends and family for recommendations and have gotten back some pretty interesting ones – such as a list of ghost towns across the country.
How do you think your relationship may need to adapt living in small quarters and working creatively with each other? What characteristics of your relationship lend you both to this unique situation?
We both have to be much more cognizant of how we respect each other’s space and belongings. If we leave out a shirt, it could take up the entire “living room” floor and if we leave a door open, 10 mosquitos could get in. With all of the sweat that we put into making Bernice road-ready and comfortable, we take a lot of time making sure that we are organized. The lack of air conditioning has already tested our stamina in the heat, but shows how much we want to be strong for the other and not complain.
Becoming more adept with change and accepting the unknown is something that we will definitely work on. Being continuously on the move means that plans shift constantly and sometimes the van will not be working at its best. We’ve both lived and worked in situations where adaptability is key – for instance, I was an au pair in Italy for a bit after college and Brendan has toured with a band in Europe creating their video content. The trip will certainly challenge us in more ways than we can even imagine.
Snap a shot of your 5 must-take items for the road.
- For our one year anniversary, Brendan made this book for me. It’s called “How we came to be.” He illustrated the story of how we met, how he waited for me to move to New York after we met, how he unsuccessfully went on lame dates, and how he the waited for me to be single in New York City. It’s the best gift that I have ever gotten and I still can’t believe that our story is real.
- The buck knife is a gift from my dad. He gave it to me before we departed on this journey. He is the kindest and most strong man that I know and this gift means so much to me. I think of him every time I use it.
- The camera strap was also from my dad. It was attached to his old Nikon film camera from the early seventies and I hope to extend its legacy.
- The bandana was from a photoshoot when I was working my corporate job. It marked a turning point for me where I was given more creative initiative and I also got to work with the incredibly talented photographer, Vanessa Rees. She and I have been working together even since and her friendship has been a catalyst for great things.
- My Moleskine never leaves my side – Brendan gave this one to me just weeks after we starting dating as a Christmas present and wrote a beautiful note in the front. I had been saving it for a pivotal time in my life and this is it.
You’re about to set off – what emotions are you feeling?
There is far too much to do, which doesn’t lend a moment for apprehension. Whatever nervousness I should feel is transferred into energy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten thus far for life on the road?
“Never plan out more than 50% of your time (just enough for motivation, direction, and safety), then stick to only 50% of that plan.”