From Contemporary Dancer to Award-Winning Furniture and Lighting Designer — In Conversation with John Sorensen of Coil + Drift
Based in New York City, John Sorensen-Jolink is the founder of the design studio Coil + Drift. Emerging from contemporary dance, John founded his self-taught design practice in 2015. His unique spatial awareness — earned through his extensive career as a contemporary dancer and choreographer — has transmuted into a thoughtful furniture and lighting collection.
LV : Let's start from the beginnings of John Sorensen. Could you bring us a back in time when you were in your childhood, in Oregon? How was your relationship with your family? What did your life look like?
JS : I grew up with one sister, and our parents were very artistically inclined and very supportive of our artistic endeavours. They encouraged both of us to explore our creativity. I think they might have been this way because their own parents were coming out of the Great Depression and encouraged my parents’ generation to focus on finding a career path that was going to bring steady income and provide for their family. I think, similarly to many people of their generation, my parent’s reaction was to encourage us to find something that we were passionate about at a young age.
So instead of trying to drive us towards certain career paths, they really encouraged us to try everything that we wanted to try and find our own interests. At the same time they also instilled in us a kind of drive and work ethic that I feel really grateful for.
JS : The way this manifested was that until we could drive, our parents were driving us from singing practice to soccer practice to a whole list of sports and music studies on a daily basis. I was very serious about playing the violin for many years. And I also sang and played many sports and was interested in gymnastics for a long time. I was interested in a lot of things and it wasn't until I discovered dance when I was 14 years old that everything else felt less important and began to drop away. My middle school offered dance classes as an alternative to physical education class so I signed up in 8th grade and that was how it all began. Within the first year of studying dance it was very clear to me that this was what I really wanted to put all of my energy toward. From that age until I transitioned to a career in design, which was around the time that Coil + Drift started five years ago, I lived and breathed dance full time from high school to studying in a conservatory university program, and then to working as a professional dancer for ten years.
LV : Would you say that you were more of a creative oriented person, or more of a performance driven individual when you were a kid?
JS : For most of my life I’ve been more drawn to performance than process. That was certainly the case for dance. When I was performing and working as a professional dancer, I was working mostly inside contemporary dance and the contemporary dance world is obsessed with process, and not as focused on performance. This is the case mainly because of lack of funding, but very often you will rehearse for months creating a new dance piece, and then you will perform it once and never again. That always bothered me. Perhaps one outcome of this lack of funding is that many modern dancers enjoy (or say they enjoy) process over performance. I was always the opposite. I’m drawn to the ritual of performance and loved exploring that. Now, as a designer, I'm much more interested in the design process than I was in the choreographic or rehearsal processes as a dancer, so that's interesting. For me there's something about the process of designing an object, that feels safer and thus more exciting, like I carved out space for myself to do it in a way that I didn't as a dancer.
LV : Interesting… So were you, and perhaps you could extend your answer to that, were you more goal oriented, or more a head-in-the-clouds type of person?
JS : As a kid, I was very much into exploration and not as concerned about finished perfection. I have strong memories of creating. For a number of years, I was obsessed with building tree houses with a friend of mine. I must have been like ten or 11 and we built three or four in a year. For me it was about the process of making them, getting better at making them, and trying new designs, and trying new shapes. I grew up in the forest so we're talking like 20 feet up in coastal pine trees. We didn’t ever give them roofs, so they were just simple platforms when they were finished. My memories of them are all about the process of designing and building them.
LV : Absolutely. You mentioned that you tried different things as a kid. And you really enjoyed trying and getting engaged in different types of performances in a way, but what made you decide to go deeper into dancing against all other activities you had at that time?
JS : I think that it was kind of a perfect gathering of different elements that I was searching for without knowing it. It was clear for quickly that there was a strong sense of community in dancing. It was going to be a small group of people and you were going to be doing it together. As a violinisht most all of your time is spent practicing by yourself, and that was really hard for me; to not have a sense of community built into my daily practice.
If I’m really honest with myself, what drew me to dance more than anything else was the extreme physical and mental challenge it required. The self-discipline and practice. I could feel myself learning and growing on a daily basis and I loved that.
LV : Which of your personality traits would you say helped you the most in the launch of Coil + Drift?
JS : When I started Coil + Drift I was not afraid to fail or to take big risks. I think I got this from being a dancer and practicing failure and risk-taking for years. I was not afraid to dive into something that I didn't know anything about. For me that felt very normal because dancers have to learn quickly to survive. I had an ability to just jump in and figure it out along the way. Dancer’s bodies are critiqued on a daily basis in rehearsal so I was used to taking criticism and learning from it without letting it get me down. Also, I think that I always wanted to operate my own creative practice, my own company. I was ready for that and I hadn't done it until Coil + Drift. So that felt right to me, even though I had no experience doing it.
And loved the process of owning my own company, operating my own studio. Being responsible for making decisions. It's terrifying and very exciting, and never boring. And stressful and everything else. And these were all things I knew that I needed in my life.
LV : Did you consider kind of a portfolio of opportunities before launching Coil + Drift? Or this was the only option possible for you?
JS : I had the idea that I wanted to make something with my hands and so I followed that idea for a while to see how it felt and allowed myself to change directions based on my intuition. I kept honing my skills and deciding what I liked and didn’t like along the way.
I started exploring design through a woodworking class that evolved into an apprenticeship with a woodworker. Which then kind of turned into me exploring making my own designs and creating new pieces of furniture. That all happened because I was open saying yes to the things that I wanted in each moment and to seeing where they took me. I think the fact that I didn’t go to school for design freed me to experiment and follow different paths and make changes in a way that I wouldn't be able to if I was in a program.
LV : Apart from this woodworking class that you took, did you join any other workshops or did you try to deepen your knowledge of a certain practice or craftsmanship of any kind? Or were you looking up to other companies or designers that really inspired you to launch your own brand in the beginning?
JS : I didn't take any other formal classes, but I was always absorbing and learning new things as I worked. My process was essentially trial and error. I made sure to learn from my mistakes and then constantly ask questions and engage with the community around me. And I was fortunate that at the same time that this was happening, New York City was kind of having this independent design renaissance. People like Tyler Hays and Lindsey Adelman had woken up the independent design world in New York ten years prior and when I was starting there was a healthy and growing group of designers making their way in New York for me to engage with and learn from. I found them online and via social media and started reaching out to them and meeting them in person to talk about the business of design. It was a lot of me picking up the phone or writing an email and saying, "I'm interested in what you do. Can I come and talk to you?" And so I gradually developed this community of people who taught me everything I know.
During the six months leading up to the launch of my first collection at ICFF I reached out to probably six or eight different studios or designers who I admired - and who I didn't know at all - and just asked if I could come and talk to them. Almost all of them said “Yes.”
LV : Would you mind mentioning their names?
JS : Oh, I'm not gonna remember all of them. But I will definitely tell you some. I met with people like Gabriel Hendifar of Apparatus, Stephanie Beamer, Crystal Ellis, and Hillary Petrie of Egg Collective, and Nick Cope of Calico Wallpaper, among others. During these conversations, I’d try to be as much of a sponge as possible but I’d also be very conscious that my intention was not to try to emulate exactly what they did. I was certain that would be impossible with Apparatus, for example, given their wild growth. One thing I took away from speaking with Gabriel was that his genius is understanding timing and knowing what people are looking for, and then making the beautiful and high quality item everyone immediately covets.
LV : When you started Coil + Drift, what was your own motivation when you started, and how has it evolved over time? Or has it evolved in any way?
JS : It's definitely evolved. When I started the impetus was to allow myself a different creative process than I had been exposed to for my entire career as a dancer and to give myself the time to explore this new process. I wanted to feel what it felt like to make something that was tangible and less ethereal. Then I quickly realized I loved the owning and operating my own company with all the responsibility it entails. It is terrifying and very exciting, and never boring. And stressful and everything else. And these were all things I knew that I needed in my life.
I realized very quickly that Coil + Drift could be a viable business, based on the initial reactions to the work, and I knew immediately that I wanted it to be.
Now I'm more interested in asking questions about how we create items that define our homes. And how do we want our homes to be defined? What are we really looking for in our homes?
LV : Was that the moment where you participated in your first fair? Where you rented that kind of lowest cost booth that you could rent?
JS : Yeah, I walked away from that first trade show, called Brooklyn Designs, thinking "Oh, this could really be a business,". It's a really small trade show that has a reputation as being a place for young designers to get their footing and introduce themselves to the trade. That was my experience there but it was all very new, I threw everything together very quickly. I chose the name Coil + Drift just before the show and I remember I bribed a group of friends and my (now) husband to help build out my booth. There are two designs that I showed at the show that are still in the collection today: The Hover Shelving Unit (which is about to get redesigned this Summer) and the Dusk Coffee Table. Today, the motivation for the studio has evolved to being much more about the design process. I've proven to myself that I can make things with my own hands and now I am very much aware that it takes a village to create these pieces. That transition to allowing myself to work with fabricators has given me the space to be able to think about why I want to make this work. What is Coil + Drift’s perspective? I’ve been thinking about how we create items that will come to define our homes. And how do we want our homes to be defined? What are we really looking for in our homes?
So these days it’s about making an effort to develop the collection that make sense together and is as concise and clear as possible. And making sure that there's an identity that makes sense and relates to these questions about home.
LV : It feels like there's definitely a shift since 2010 or the early 2000s where the creative process of the design industry has become more and more important. It
seems like before, it was more about the technical integration of design, and not about focusing on creating a world in which we could make products come to life. In a way, you have created a world of your own, in which you seem to take inspiration in dancing and your past experiences. In a way, it's very similar to a storytelling approach.
JS : I completely agree. I think that there are definitely designers that are working today that are more interested in the technical aspect of their designs. While engineering is very important, I'm definitely a storyteller designer. I need to think about the space around the object I’m creating, to feel that space. I always launch my collections in spaces that I've designed so that I can tell a visual story. I want to create an environment.
That's evolving even further this year in that we are presenting a new collection, called Assemblage, in a storefront space that we rented temporarily, instead of doing traditional trade shows. We're calling it a temporary showroom. It's at 2 Rivington Street, in the Bowery just next to the New Museum. It's a really beautiful glass-front storefront space that looks very much like a gallery. We'll be there for a week starting May 14 with an opening party in the evening of May 14 that will also include a performance installation with two dancers. I see it as a next chapter to the performance installation that we did last year as part of our show Home Unimpov that was curated by Hotel Particulier. The collection is the most lighting-heavy collection we’ve ever made but also includes a new mirror and some other furniture pieces. We’ve collaborated with French fashion brand 13 Bonaparte this year to create an object that will hold either iconic scented candle. Their shop is directly across the street from our space so we’ll hold tandem opening parties and guests (and the performers) will flow back and forth during the evening.
LV : I heard also that this collection was designed as you were renovating your apartment, right?
JS : Yes, we purchased this apartment exactly as we were launching the new collection last year and moved in the week after ICFF. It was a very hectic time.
LV : Was it a way to put two activities in one where you had to kind of design your apartment, and it just happened that you realized you needed lighting fixtures, so you thought it could be a good idea to develop a lighting only line for your 2019 collection?
JS : I think I’ve had the desire to create a collection that was mostly lighting for a while now, both because our lighting sells and also because I knew that it would force me to do a deeper exploration into the process than I had before. It's very different to design a piece of lighting than it is to design a chair, for example. With a chair you're really thinking about what it feels like sitting in it, using it. Lighting is much more acting like a sculpture. You're thinking about walking around it. It never moves, but you will move around it. So thinking about that. And also the functionality of how the light actually comes out of the piece, and what quality of light the piece offers.
Also, I chose the apartment knowing that it needed a lot of work, and that would provide an opportunity for me to create some lighting for the space. There is something that feels really permanent about creating lighting for an interior space and that was exciting to me.
It wasn’t until after I had finished sketches for the lighting that I realized that they could develop into a collection for Coil + Drift. I think if I had gone into it saying, "I'm gonna design this lighting for my home and then it's gonna be the collection this spring," it would have felt like too much pressure. And I wouldn't have allowed myself to really design for the space itself. But then once I had the designs they just felt like they wanted to be flushed out and developed further.
One light of each of the families that we're launching was designed for the apartment.
LV : Okay, let me narrow this down to a few more things. So I know you mentioned also that you still do manage both design and business management. Is your role still 50/50 across those two roles and responsibilities? Or are you tending to shift towards one of those slowly, perhaps because of a new partner that you have?
JS : I would say that I still have a hand in every aspect of the studio. I would love to eventually focus more solely on design, but it's a delicate transition process. One option is I find someone with a lot of past business experience, who can come on board as a co-founder or partner and really focus on sales growth and development. The other option is to hire a studio manager who I could really rely on over time and who could grow organically with the studio. I’ve started reaching out to people about both options and am going to continue being open to this search and see what happens.
Part of being a business owner, for me, is that I kinda signed up to take on that responsibility for every little aspect of the studio until I'm comfortable handing it off to someone. I know I can’t do it all and knowing how to find people who will make the studio even stronger is one of the most important things I can do.
LV : Makes sense. Except if you could have a business partner and investor that could join in.
JS : Totally.
LV : That might be hard to find.
JS : If you're out there, I'd love to meet.
LV : I'm sure. I know, myself, how hard it can be to manage different types of activities at once. At the same time it can be fulfilling in a way, if that's what you're looking for. What do you use to help manage your schedule and priorities? How do you navigate your weekly schedule to make sure that both your designs and collections are well articulated and produced on time?
JS : It's a combination of different digital software and good old fashioned organizational skills, I would say. Forcing myself to use systems that I've set up regularly is what makes it work. Running a studio demands that you are extremely organized or something will get lost. And something will get lost even if you are that organized. It's just going to happen. But I try to minimize that by doing the things that I don't wanna do, and one of them is being deeply organized.
LV : Makes sense. Are you still able to prioritize uninterrupted time every week for creative thinking and design?
JS : Not every week, but I've gotten a lot better this year. Last summer Coil + Drift moved into a new studio and it was the first time we weren’t sharing a space with other fabricators. We always rented space in workshops and shared offices in the spaces. Now we have a studio that feels much more like a design studio and it's our own space. That has made it a lot easier for me to surround myself with the process. There are images, both inspiration images and renderings and finished materials and drawings, all over the space. And we can surround ourselves with our actual furniture and lighting as well, which is wonderful. It's lovely to work next to a piece that you designed and stare at it for an entire year.
LV : You mentioned earlier that you had many kind of routines or repetitive elements through your everyday life. Could you mention what kind of routine you have?
JS : My routine has changed a lot this year because we've moved and we got a dog! We now have a puppy who's seven months old so that's two very specific things that have changed in my life. I wake up and I shower immediately, which I don’t like but I force myself to do it and I feel better afterword and it seems to save time. Then, I eat breakfast and I'm out the door with the dog, who comes to work with me two or three days a week. He's a puppy, he's crazy. But he's really, really sweet. There's definitely a large amount of ritual that comes into owning or having an animal. That's been a big driver of energy in my life this year.
When I'm at the studio, the rituals that I have are around coffee. I drink the same coffee every day from a shop that I stop at on the way to work. I have a coffee machine at my studio, but I love their coffee. Right now at the studio there aren't a lot of rituals because every day is so different. I wish I could say that I get to the studio and check emails and respond to all of our clients first thing. I definitely try to do that, but it doesn't always happen.
I spend a lot of time looking at renderings of the collectio and the showroom these days. My team and I talk about new designs or concepts and work out problems that we have. If we can’t find a solution to a problem we just put a visual representative of it on the wall a stare at it for a week and we usually find a solution that way. I work a lot with the idea of ‘first thought, best thought’. The first thing you think of, the first idea you have, is usually the best one. When I put something on the wall for a week, I’ll change it 1000 times and then allow myself to go back, usually, to the original idea. Having the ritual of putting the designs on the wall has been really useful this year. I try to leave the studio at 7PM every day. Just to have a consistency of non-work time at home. That's important. I'm not someone who stays at work until midnight. I try not to work on the weekends. I think because I run my own business I'm always working to a certain degree and it would be too easy to just dive in and never leave the studio. It’s important for me to try and quiet my mind when I'm not at work, so that I'm not always thinking about things that have to get done or finished.
The weekend ritual that I've had for the last six months is that we’ve been going to the beach every weekend. Our new apartment is 12 minutes away from the beach by car, which is very unusual for New Yorkers. We discovered this after we moved in and I had never been to the beach in any season but summer in New York. That's when New Yorkers go to the beach so in the winter it’s completely empty and so peaceful and beautiful. That's been a major ritual for calming myself in my creative practice. Literally every week-end, and sometimes two days on weekends we go to the beach.
LV : Where is that beach that you like to go to?
JS : Usually we go to Riis Beach, which is on the Rockaways.
LV : Interesting. It's funny for me to see that, on a personal level, I kind of navigate those challenges the same way in terms of routine. That's refreshing.
JS : Absolutely.
LV : As you said, I think our minds are always working anyway, it's more of allowing us some space to come back to work with a clear mind and the energy needed to go through the day.
JS : I think this obsession with working, especially in New York City, means that a lot of people end up being at their office ‘working’ for long hours every day and on weekends but then don’t get much accomplished. I imagine a lot of time gets spent on Instagram and Twitter. Nobody really notices that people aren't actually doing a lot of work but everyone is always complaining about how much time they’ve spent working. And I'd much rather work while I'm at work and then leave and stop work. Like before email existed!
Also, as a designer, I try to find time to stop thinking, and allow myself to be bored and dream. Cause that's when I usually think of new designs and new ideas. When I just allow myself to space out.
LV : Absolutely. Do you meditate?
JS : I have a lot in the past. I haven't been recently. I've been thinking about starting again. There have been times when I meditated every morning for like three or four years. But I haven't been lately. I was definitely much more in touch with my body as a dancer and have allowed myself to kind of get swallowed up by running my own company in the past two years. I used to journal every morning. I’d write three pages of stream of consciousness before I did anything else, to clear my head. Then I would meditate. So there was a lot of mind and body care that I haven't been doing in the last couple of years. I would love to get back to that.
LV : It's hard to keep that nonstop for ten years.
JS : If you've never read the book The Artist's Way, it's a program to unleash the creativity that you already have inside of you. It's an incredible book from the 80’s and it got me into writing years ago.
LV : I'll look that up!
JS : It’s part of the reason I decided to start exploring a new career outside of dance. It's a really beautiful kind of process of self-reflection and figuring out what you're capable of that's already inside of you. One of the things that you do is write three pages every morning before you do anything else. You write literally anything you want. Then you just let it be and you don't have to do anything with it. It’s so useful and at the end of the program, the author is like, "And then you should probably do this for the rest of your life." I was like, "Oh God, that’s daunting." So I've come back to it and continued doing it, but not every day.
LV : I mean, this is good. Why not keep on doing it, right?
JS : I know. And it is really good. It's just tough to find the time, for sure.
LV : Yeah. I understand. Well that's actually a good introduction to my last question. I was about to ask: if you were talking to your younger self in 2014 or 2013 just before you launched Coil + Drift, or maybe even when you launched it, like in the very beginnings of it, what would you tell that person? What type of advice or principles would you advise your younger self to follow?
JS : I would tell myself to take my time. I would probably be very frustrated if someone told me that back then because there's a sense of urgency when something is new, I think that time is the most precious commodity as a designer. Especially as an independent designer. Because you always are on a deadline. And no one else is going to pay your rent but I’d still encourage myself to take time and slow down.
LV : Great! Well thank you so much for your time and for all those great stories you were able to elaborate on.
JS : Yes, thank you! It's also great to reflect for a while. It's not often that I get to do that...
All images by Gabriel DeRossi