Catch a rising star

Young fashion designer Estrella Sevilla is a woman of surprises, from her fashion to her personal life. During Tucson Fashion Week you can expect yet another twist to her work. By Gillian Drummond. Cover sketches courtesy of Estrella Sevilla.

Photo by JJonesPhotography

Estrella's creations will be featured during the Project Runway event at Tucson Fashion Week. Photo by JJonesPhotography

Marilyn  Manson and The Backstreet Boys. Alexander McQueen and Valentino. Dead flowers and home-made cranberry cookies. These are a few of fashion designer Estrella Sevilla's favorite things.

Estrella Sevilla Photo by Danni Valdez_0216

Estrella Sevilla. Photo by Danni Valdez.

She's a young woman of opposites, and of surprises. The purple-haired, purple-lipsticked, mostly black-clad woman stands 6 feet and 2 inches tall and drives a vintage red convertible Mustang. She's also soft-spoken, polite, and eager for us to try her grandmother's home-made (and most excellent) cookies.

One minute she's talking about her piano-playing days, and her love of classical music. Then she visibly melts as she describes meeting her all-time music and style hero, Marilyn Manson. She gave him a dead flower. She is really into dead roses (there's a vase of them on a table in her hallway). But wait... now she's all about The Backstreet Boys, and boy bands in general, and Katy Perry. She says she loves "plastic pop". And then she veers off in another musical direction, talking about the classic rock her parents played when she was growing up, and that she still loves - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin.

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

At college, this former engineering student excelled at draping and construction. Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

And then there are her fashion designs. When this writer first came across Estrella, during last year's Tucson Fashion Week, she was at the Tucson Museum of Art putting on a playful, fairytale-like vignette, the models in sheer and white and tulle, sucking on giant lollipops. This year she's changing it up completely, with a collection that will be black and white and simple and gothic.

But, more importantly, her clothes will be taking to Tucson Fashion Week's runway. That Estrella  would be asked to be a runway designer, just out of college, speaks volumes about the faith TFW's organizers have in her ability, not to mention her potential.

Photo by JJonesPhotography

Photo by JJonesPhotography

"Estrella’s unique approach to design and her technical skills make her the perfect fit for Tucson Fashion Week," explains Tucson Fashion Week co-organizer Paula Taylor. Paula describes her as "one of those distinct designers whose growth we look forward to watching."

Estrella (her friends call her Ella) grew up in Sinaloa, Mexico, moving to Monterrey for high school. When she was 15, her parents moved to Mexico City for work. They gave their daughters a choice of moving with them or living together and continuing high school. They chose the latter, and Estrella continued her high school courses in engineering.

Again, the dichotomy. She was an over-achieving and by all accounts conservative kid - someone who looked set to follow in the steps of her civil engineer father. At the same time, she had always indulged an artistic side with summer painting classes and piano instruction. Estrella says she has always been fashion-interested and fashion conscious, and that her teenage years saw her going through punk and Emo stages and periods of dying her hair purple and blue. But rebellion? Never. "After my parents moved to Mexico City, I wanted to keep my parents' trust and that's how it's been since then," she says.

Image courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Estrella's fashion influences range from McQueen to Valentino. Image courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Her college education began as planned. She studied aerospace engineering at the University of Arizona but lasted just one year. She was attending fashion shows and running her own fashion blog, posting her outfits of the day. Fashion, she realized, was her true calling.

With her parents' blessing, she inquired about transferring to art college. But first, on their insistance, she took a summer course in fashion design at Central St. Martins College in London. She was hooked. Soon after, she transferred to the Art Institute of Tucson, where she stood out. "She excelled in draping and construction and understanding the importance of having a strong theme and concept to her collections, " says Paula Taylor, who was one of her instructors at the Art Institute.

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Estrella's first art college creation, with a bodice made out of duct tape. Photo by Gillian Drummond.

Although fashion design seems like a huge departure for the kid who shone at physics and calculus in high school, Estrella sees parallels. "You have the final product in your mind . You have to figure out how it's going to be constructed. I think [engineering] did help me a lot," she says. It's probably no coincidence that this engineer-in-the-making chose duct tape as the primary material for the first real outfit she created at art college - part of a show they did for Halloween.

For someone with a definite dark side to her personal style and her fashion, it's not a surprise to learn that Halloween is one of her favorite holidays. Last year, she and her sister Maria posed as the twins from The Shining for an Art Institute of Tucson Halloween TV show. They stood holding hands, staring, unspeaking - freaking out other participants.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Estrella's work station. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Her design aesthetic has been described as "minimalism with a twist". Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

In the eastside Tucson home she shares with Maria - a house that belongs to their parents - Estrella has created a corner studio in the dining room. Here, on a commercial Brother sewing machine and with a mood board hanging on the wall, she is producing pieces that challenge the status quo.

For example, she loves focusing on the back of a garment - perhaps because not many other people do. "Most garments focus on the front, and for a woman it's because of the chest," she says. With a number of Estrella's pieces, you'll find extra back detail, such as a cut-out of material or a back corset.

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

With a  number of Estrella's pieces you'll find extra back detail (here and on corset below). Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Says Elizabeth Denneau, owner of the Tucson-based line Candystrike, where Estrella interned: "She's a very humble individual - understated and quiet. She's got a sweet nature to her and she's very inquisitive. There's no ego there. Then she'll do something and you'll be amazed. She's just a really exciting young girl to know."

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Elizabeth adds: "I feel like her design aesthetic is minimalism but also with kind of a twist to it. It reminds me of New Goth. She has really clean lines, she has her own unique style. She's ridiculously talented. You will see her in department stores."

Estrella's fashion inspirations are as varied as her other tastes. Top of her list is Alexander McQueen, known for using shock tactics in his creations and his shows. Others include California goth-inspired designer Rick Owens, Brits Gareth Pugh and Stella McCartney, and Valentino, for his "simplicity and elegance".

In the summer Estrella, who graduated two weeks ago, returned to Central St. Martins and to what was once Alexander McQueen's domain, for a 10-week course in innovative pattern cutting. It was intense, but very instructive.

"I realize I know more than I think I know," says Estrella modestly. Her followers and supporters would agree.

* See Estrella and Candy-Strike at the Project Runway Showcase, Saturday October 18th at Fox Tucson Theatre.

* Visit Estrella's website at

Estrella Sevilla Photo by Danni Valdez

Estrella in her vintage Ford Mustang. Photo by Danni Valdez




A Story of a Coat

When this coat makes its appearance at Tucson Fashion Week, it will bring an unusual fashion story full circle. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Project Runway/myLifetime.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

It started with an unusual challenge on Season Five of Project Runway. The fashion designer contestants had to make an outfit out of the spare parts of a Saturn hybrid car. They were let loose in some Saturns, given four minutes to collect parts, and a day to complete their outfits.

Contestant Korto Momolu realized pretty quickly that the champagne-colored seatbelts would give her something stand-out, if a little demanding, to work with. She set about not only pulling all the seatbelts she could, but bartering with the other designers for theirs.

Photo courtesy of Korto Momolu

Then came the construction of the piece. She would weave the belts together and sew the edges for the body of a coat, breaking a commercial sewing machine in the process and busting up her hands badly. The sleeves were seatbelt lengths set horizontally, the ends sewn together.

The seatbelts were not just thick, they were each about 3/4 of a yard long. Added to that, they are made up of strong nylon, so they can be durable and waterproof. Cut the material and you get a very prickly edge, like lots of ends of a fishing line. Korto (pronounced "cut-toe") had to make sure the edges were sewn up so the garment didn't actually hurt. Nevertheless, the model got poked, says Korto. "I had to put tissue under her armpits."

The weight of the coat was 35 pounds. The impact the design had was even bigger. The champagne color of the belts made them shimmer under the Project Runway lights. Guest judge Rachel Zoe said she wanted to buy it. Sitting watching the show in her Tucson home, model and radio personality Camerone Parker said the same thing: "I gotta have that coat." Meantime Korto, not wanting her hard work to end up in anyone else's hands, had lined up some friends to bid for it as well when the coat was auctioned on Project Runway's website.. "That piece really showed who I was, how I could take [and work with] something that's so simple like a seatbelt," explains Korto, who has deep affection for the piece.

The coat fetched $1000 at the auction. The winner? Camerone Parker.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

And that should have been that. Except Camerone, a fan of the series since the beginning, couldn't forget that episode, and Korto couldn't forget the coat. "I was looking for it for some years. I figured whomever had it would find me," says Korto. Camerone did, during El Paseo Fashion Week 2013 in Palm Desert. Korto was a participating designer and Camerone made up her mind to go, and to wear the coat.

Photo by???

Camerone knew it would spark interest. The now infamous seatbelt coat has been deemed one of Project Runway's top five iconic pieces, she says: "People know this coat even if they're not regular watchers of the show." Still, even Camerone was surprised at El Paseo Fashion Week. "I had no idea the response I was going to get. It started the minute I got out the car," she says.

And it ended with Camerone meeting Korto, and the fashion show paparazzi going wild. "She really wore it. She was a show stopper," says Korto, who signed the inside of the coat with a Sharpie. "Thanks so much for letting me see my love again," she wrote, and she and Camerone remained in touch.

Korto didn't win that round of Project Runway, although she went on to be Season Five's first runner-up. And since the show, her brand has taken off. A native of Liberia, she moved to Canada in 1990 following the previous year's Liberia coup. She studied in Ottowa and at New York City's Parsons School of Design. She now lives in Arkansas with her husband, who left the military to open a barber shop.

Photo by???

After some high-profile exposure for her brand, including a line in Dillard's, Korto has repositioned herself and her designs. She admits a lot of it has to do with the fact that she is a new mother, also that she is almost 40. Right now she is concentrating on her online retail store and a new 2015 collection that, she says, "starts from scratch."

"I felt like I was selling myself out," Korto says of doing the department store chains. Her new collection is called Rebirth and uses golds, bronzes, beiges and pops of orange. "It's soft and soothing,  a fresh start, like a new baby," she says.

Photo by???

Visitors to Tucson Fashion Week will see the new collection as Korto and Camerone reunite at the Project Runway Showcase at the Fox Theatre.  Korto's work and  the work of fellow Runway designers Bert Keeter, Daniel Esquivel, Mila Hermanovski and Peach Carr will be showcased. Hosting the show will be Camerone Parker wearing - you guessed it - that coat.

Wearing it isn't easy. The coat weighs 35 pounds. Camerone wears just a silk shift under the coat and never takes the coat off. It's also unlined, still raw just as Korto created it. Camerone attached a large strip of bandage to the inside of the neck so it wouldn't rub.

But the garment has a following all of its own. Every time Camerone tweets a photo of her in the coat there is mass retweeting.

"It's like I'm following this coat," laughs Korto of meeting up with her creation again in Tucson. Camerone may have to watch out. Says Korto: "I might steal it from her when she's not looking."

But actually she needn't worry. Camerone says the coat and Korto are already conjoined. "I made a promise to Korto that if something happened to me, the coat will go back to her."

* See Camerone, Korto and other Project Runway designers at the Project Runway Showcase, October 18th at Fox Tucson Theatre. Tickets and more info here.  

* Find more of Korto's work at



There's something about Katy

Katy Gierlach is not your average model, and the fashion and photography worlds love her for it. By Mari Herreras. Cover photo by Danni Valdez of Shutter2Think Photography.

Liora K Photography

Katy Gierlach... or is it katy awful? Photo by Liora K Photography

Looking at the dozens of photographs on katy awful’s Facebook page, it’s hard to figure out what’s so awful about those eyes looking back - even when the Tucson model is playing the role of desert cowgirl pin-up queen, a tough chick from a John Waters movie, or an ethereal pink-haired star child.


Katy strikes a fun pose in the desert. Photo by Eric Kroll. ©erickroll/

This is 31-year-old Katy Gierlach’s professional page, featuring projects she’s been involved in over the years and photos of the latest shoots she’s done. katy awful (lower case, if you please) is her model name, she explains, something that’s stuck from her past - a boyfriend used Awful as his last name and she decided to borrow the moniker.

Maybe the joke is on us, because once you know Katy, even after an hour’s interview, it’s hard to understand what could ever be awful about her. But it's as simple as this: having the separate identity of katy awful helps keep her worlds separate.

“Right now it works for my dad, so he doesn’t have to see things he doesn’t want to,” she says, smiling wide over coffee at Tucson's Café Passe on Fourth Avenue, quickly adding that her father (known to Tucson radio listeners as KXCI’s Growing Native host Petey Mesquitey), is fully supportive.

That model name is also great for Katy, who seems to create dynamic characters in almost every project she takes on. And probably the only reason it makes anyone think twice is that Katy is completely opposite to what anyone expects from someone who gets into the modeling business.

That's why CandyStrike’s Elizabeth Denneau says she continues to work with Katy and considers her a dear friend and a creative co-conspirator. The Tucson-based fashion designer has used Katy in shows and photo shoots for almost a decade. “In this industry a lot of models think it is cool to be bitchy and will act superficial and mean. It’s what a lot of them see on TV and think it’s what models are supposed to be. Katy has zero of this trait. She’s a joy to work with and she’s willing to do anything. I mean she even put an octopus on her head, c’mon,” Elizabeth says, referring to a video Katy did with Tucson photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli for Glitter Ball 2014.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

Katy was covered in gold from head to toe with boyfriend Jared McKinley, a popular Tucson events producer and associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona magazine. In the video, Katy as Andromeda Katz and Jared as Kitty Quasar are flying through space to visit Tucson in search of tasty hair. While Katy is sticking her head out the window to feel the intergalactic breeze, an octopus lands on her face and eventually the window of their space vehicle.

Obviously Katy is game for anything, which may explain why she’s in demand, not just with Elizabeth but with other designers, photographers and creatives in Tucson. Says Dominic, a guy with photography gigs across the world featuring a fair amount of celebrities: “Katy is one of my favorite models of all time, in any solar system, ever. She’s of course this striking supermodel that cuts a swath of stares strolling down the street, but that’s not why. It’s that she can do über glam or über ludicrous in the same heartbeat. She can do anything. I’ve shot her as a gorgeous Alice in Wonderland, as a nine foot golden alien, as a 75-year-old man and as a Russian male bodyguard from the 1800s,” he says.

Katy filming for the Glitter Ball promo. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

It’s the range she takes on that impresses him most  -  something that makes her not just a model but a brilliant actress, taking on haute couture or slapstick comedy in the same breath. “Every project we’ve tag-teamed, every one, has been pure joy cause she just makes every occasion silly and brilliant,” Dominic says. “For the Glitter Ball movie, we picked up a frozen pulpo at a Mexican seafood store and then flung the octopus, who we named Stinky, at Katy’s face five to eight times until the shot was just right. No one else would endure such torture for something so ludicrous yet so important  - and stinky.”

Elizabeth of CandyStrike says this work ethic is something she rarely sees with other models. “If you have this crazy idea for a shoot, or if it’s rainy and 6 a.m., she will be there,” she says. The designer adds: “Not only is she gorgeous, but she’s gorgeous strange, too. She’s like a beautiful alien.” Those looks have attracted modeling scouts “but she’s not charmed by all of that and is just more interested in the creative process,” says Elizabeth.

The fashion designer and model reunite during Tucson Fashion Week on Saturday, October 18, at the Project Runway Showcase and Project Arizona at the Fox Tucson Theatre. Inspired by the Project Runway TV series, the event will also feature an installation by Elizabeth in the lobby of the theater, with Katy among the models.

Katy says the love between model and designer is mutual, and she became part of CandyStrike at a time when she wondered if she could continue modeling or even wanted to continue living in Tucson.

Courtesy of CandyStrike

Katy modeling CandyStrike's Ghost Girl collection. CandyStrike will have an installation at Tucson Fashion Week. Photo by Ken Penner and Deirdre Flannery.

Her interest in modeling began in her teens. She was tall (she stands at 6 feet 2) but not athletic, and modeling seemed like a good fit. She left for New York City where her photographer brother lived. When she wasn’t modeling, she worked for her brother as his assistant, and helped her sister-in-law, who worked as stylist. “It is harsh and I’m glad I didn’t get into it at that point because I wouldn’t have been mentally prepared to handle it,” she says of her time there.

Katy grew up in northwest Tucson, but the family moved out to rural Cochise County when she was 12 years old. While she appreciates the desert and rural upbringing now, at the time it felt like they were in the middle of nowhere. At 17 she was in a major car accident and at one point doctors thought she’d have to lose her left arm. She had to deal with dozens of painful surgeries.

Today that arm is covered in a half-sleeve tattoo - not to cover any scars, but to celebrate luck. The tattoos are by legendary rapper and tattoo artist Isiah Toothtaker. In the center is Lady Luck surrounded by a bunch of other symbols of luck. “It’s a reminder of things that I’ve lived through and that I am lucky,” she says.

After the accident and all those surgeries, Katy found it difficult to hold down a job. She ended up staying with her parents, and wanted to stay in Tucson "because it was where my surgeon was and I was a little afraid to leave.”

She did continue to travel back and forth to New York. Then, at age 20, started working in Tucson doing modeling jobs for the store Hydra. It was the confidence booster she needed at the time. Soon after, Lauren Baker from Razorz Edge asked her to model for her, and that’s when she met Elizabeth Denneau.

At Café Passe, Katy is dressed in her usual casual attire - rolled up jeans, and a tank top showing the tattoos she has on both arms. A stripped headband pulls her short hair back, and her trademark nose ring is in place. She looks at ease. There’s no way anyone would dare call her pretentious, or  hipster or, for that matter, awful.

Fashion was never really part of her personal identity, she says. “I always sort of did my own thing, because I kind of had to. My clothes didn’t really fit because I was so tall. I had to make do with things. At [a young] age it was really awkward. I grew really fast and all of a sudden I had a lot of limbs to take care of,” she says, laughing. “I wasn’t as much into fashion as I was into modeling. Kate Moss was someone I admired. Looking at the clothes, sure it was fun to think about how great it would be wear some giant dress, but it was about something else.”

Katy discovered that modeling, and the clothes, were about being able to become someone else entirely. As a teenager she was shy and always quiet, but it was a special conversation with her father that made her realize she could  be an introvert, but still engage the world as a model. “I remember when my dad told me while I was in high school that he’s a naturally shy person.” She didn’t believe him; after all, he often spoke in front of large crowds. “But then it clicked. I realized you don’t have to be an extrovert to do stuff like that and it made pretending to be somebody else OK and easy,” she says.


Photo by Eric Kroll. ©erickroll/

She is also thankful for staying in Tucson, and for the friendships and connections she has made through modeling. Through CandyStrike, Katy met blogger and body positive activist Jes Baker, aka The Militant Baker. Their friendship has grown and allowed Katy to explore her own body issues as well as be part of Jes's first annual Body Love conference earlier this year.

Another important friendship is with Tucson photographer Liora Dudar, who has also struck a worldwide nerve with her feminist projects.  Katy has worked with Liora on some of them. “I feel lucky and blessed that I’ve ended up with these friends,” Katy says. “Jes is an inspiring person. Liora and I share a lot of the same feminist ideals and she expresses those in ways that I don’t know how to through her photography. Luckily I get to be part of that.”


Photo by Eric Kroll. ©erickroll/

Katy says her friendship with Jes allowed her to better understand the difficulty she had with her own body and how people looked at her. People have assumed that being tall and skinny means she should be on top of the world, but it's not always so, says Katy. "I’ve basically had a lot of trouble dressing for my body shape. When people say, ‘You’re beautiful,’ it doesn’t translate. That’s why what Jes is doing is important. She’s brave. I’ve struggled as a skinny person wanting to do that same sort of empowerment but feeling like I can’t because it is so idealized. So I really support what she’s doing and look forward to it become bigger than it is.”

Part of the fun of working with designers like Elizabeth is that they appreciate Katy for who she is. she says. And it has made Katy appreciate the fact that she didn’t go into high fashion modeling.  “I was told ‘You’re going to have to stop dying your hair,’ and no piercing. I didn’t have tattoos at that point, but I knew that I had to express myself. I knew that that wasn’t me,” says Katy.

When asked to describe the Saturday installation at the Tucson Fashion Week event, Katy loyally declines to provide details. But Elizabeth dishes. There will be one-off gowns, jewels and, um, gas masks. It’s a post-apocalyptic cocktail party, says Elizabeth. “It’s an artist’s vision of the future and I think it will be a lot of fun - depending on your sense of humor,” says the designer. Elizabeth, who happens to be the original founder of Tucson Fashion Week, has  been pulling all-nighters keeping up with her online sales, as well as working on a private label for Zappos and possibly expanding to a wholesale market.

As for Katy, her own creative energies recently took her in another direction too. She now works at Edible Baja Arizona as account manager. Part of the food magazine experience means she and boyfriend Jared travel to many parts of the region promoting the publication. For Katy it's like closing a circle that began with the life she had with her parents in Cochise County. "I’m seeing those parts again,” she says. “It’s reconnecting me with Arizona.”

* See Katy Gierlach and CandyStrike at Tucson Fashion Week's Project Runway Showcase at Fox Tucson Theatre, 6pm on October 18th. For more on Tucson Fashion Week, click here.


Building by numbers

It was born out of frustration when the owners were remodeling their home. Now Modern House Numbers  has orders coming in from all over the world.

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

When Brandy and Rick McLain began remodeling their 1950 house in Tucson, it wasn't their intention to spin a business off from it. But when it came time to attach house numbers to the outside, they couldn't find anything to satisfy their modern and mid-century tastes. So they created their own.

Numbers in Palm Springs. Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers.

Numbers in Palm Springs. Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

After a few experiments on thin sheets of aluminum, they settled on a thicker sheet and took their design to a firm with a waterjet cutter that could slice through it. Some time later, after numerous comments from friends and visitors, and a few orders from their friends, the couple realized they might be onto something.

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Modern House Numbers is a business that grew out of design frustration. Home-based for years and originally Brandy and Rick's labor of love on evenings and weekends, it has grown so popular that Brandy quit her job for a Tucson planning company. They are about to hire a second full-time employee. The company now operates out of a midtown Tucson office and ships up to a hundred items a week, with orders coming in from all over the world. Apart from the USA, Canada is a significant market for them, and orders also come from Japan, Australia and Europe.

The house numbers come in a package that includes waterjet cut recycled aluminum numbers, peel-and-stick vinyl mailbox numbers and curb stencils, all in the same font. Prices start at $21 for packages and $1.50 for vinyl numbers. They also sell customized plaques (these cost around $150) and hotel room numbers to boutique hotel clients.

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Designs, based on  Helvetica and Ultra fonts, carry names like Palm Springs, SoCal and SoHo. Colors include brushed aluminum and powder-coated white and black. Red and antique bronze finishes are coming soon. The website has been set up so that clients can preview their order before they buy.

Brandy McClain. Courtesy of Brandy McClain

Brandy McLain. Courtesy of the McLains.

Brandy has a bachelor's degree in architecture and a masters in urban planning, while Rick, an architect, is a partner in the Tucson firm Repp + McLain Design and Construction. Although he leaves much of the running of Modern House Numbers to Brandy, he is still hands-on after hours and on the weekends. Both of them try to talk on the phone with every customer. Brandy checks and hand-wraps every order that goes out. "Quality control is still our top priority," she says.

The daughter of ranchers, Brandy grew up in northern Arizona learning sewing from her mother and welding from her father. "My brother and I spent our childhoods outside," she says. When she decided to pursue architecture and not agriculture at college, her parents were more than a little surprised, she says.

Rick Mc Clain. Courtesy of the McClains.

Rick McLain. Courtesy of the McClains.

Rick, originally from Boston, moved to Tucson in 1995. He met Brandy at the University of Arizona, and their design tastes seemed as compatible as their personalities. Both share a bent for modern and mid-century lines.  The couple now rents out their first home, and have since renovated a 1960s ranch house in midtown Tucson. They have kept the original adobe exterior the same, and left exposed adobe walls in some rooms inside. Also inside are the original wooden beams on the ceilings.

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

But much has been ripped out and renovated. The kitchen cabinets are a mix of IKEA bases and custom. A deep kitchen island features raw steel. Throughout the house there is a concrete floor overlay. The simple lines, the hints of Atomic Age style and the pops of color show a love for the new and an appreciation of the mid-mod.

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

Brandy believes that, like her and Rick, Modern House Numbers' customers are looking for something out of the ordinary when it comes to their home decor. "I would say the majority of our clients have either built their homes from the ground up or have remodeled. They're looking for something a little bit more than the standard [things] you get at Home Depot."

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Next for Modern House Numbers is its own home. Brandy currently works out of Repp + McLain's office. Soon she hopes to buy and renovate a separate office building. "This is not where I expected myself to be," she says of her move from architecture and planning into home decor and e-commerce. "But I always wanted my own business. I'm excited to get up every day."

* Find Modern House Numbers online at

Mid-century modern for kids

Here's how to spread your MCM habit to the little ones, one stylish piece at a time. By Gillian Drummond

Photo courtesy of Knoll

The Risom child's side chair from Knoll features brightly colored webbing. Photo courtesy of Knoll.

The principle behind mid-century modernism - that less is more - would seem to go against everything that kids stand for. Try the less is more line on the parent of a teenager, or a toddler, or a LEGO lover, and you're liable to be laughed at.

But then again, maybe not. When you really think about it, the looks we associate with the MCM style -  sleek, simple, functional, bright - could be the perfect antidote to the stresses and messes of life with children.

Photo by Rachel

Heather Wuelpern chose this acrylic coffee table for her daughters' playroom. Photo by Rachel Miller

Heather Wuelpern describes her Tucson home as "rustic, hacienda-style, old Mexico." So when it came to furnishing her two daughters' bedrooms and playroom, Heather deliberately went the mid-mod route. "It was to have some balance. I felt it should be more bright and colorful and crisp and clean," she says.

Photo by Rachel Miller

Heather's customized tulip-based chair. Photo by Rachel Miller

Heather, an artist and freelance interior designer, says her daughters' favored style is shabby chic. But they have, by and large, stuck with the mid-mod look created by their mother. Heather admits she didn't give them much choice. "I went in that direction before [my eldest daughter] had an opinion or a say," she laughs.
Heather has had fun sprucing up old vintage pieces for her daughters. A 1960s desk she bought from a neighbor for $20 many years ago was painted turquoise. The desk's chair was a Brush and Bulky roadside collection find. Heather sanded it down and painted it from grey to white.
On the wall of the same bedroom is a mural painted by Heather that continues the mid-century theme. It features an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair - an iconic mid-century furniture piece - and a table similar to those by Japanese mid-century architect and designer Isamu Noguchi.
Photo by Rachel Miller

A 1960s desk in one of Heather's daughter's bedrooms. Photo by Rachel Miller

Photo by Francine?

Vintage accessories can add a mid-mod look to a kid's room too. This clock and monkey are available on Hot Cool Vintage's Etsy site. Photo courtesy of Hot Cool Vintage.

In the girls' playroom, the mid-century modern theme continues with an acrylic table bought from Overstock for $150. Heather also added one of her own customized furniture pieces: a chair with a tulip base that echoes the shape of Eero Saarinen's chairs. She painted the base of the chair metallic silver and covered the seat in melted records. And yes, she says, you can actually sit on it.
One little girl who may not have much choice but to follow the MCM path is Nova Mae Fletcher, daughter of Casia and Eric Fletcher. The couple, owners of Purple Nickel Studio photography, have scored some beautiful mid-century modern furniture for their home and office space, much of it from thrift stores and Craigslist.
But when it comes to buying MCM for kids, Casia is disappointed by what's on offer. "It's slim pickings out there. A lot of it is inspired by mcm and are reproductions. I haven't ever really found a vintage piece here in Tucson," she says.
Photo by Casia Fletcher

Baby Nova Fletcher's mid-mod-style space. Photo by Casia Fletcher

Nova still sleeps in their bedroom, in a crib by Nursery Works, a Los Angeles-based company that has given a modern twist to the traditional baby crib. Nova's, in WHAT WOOD and white, is used (they bought it at  Little Bird Nesting Company in Tucson) but in great condition. A changing table is integrated into the crib. Nova's other furniture includes a black Harry Bertoia chair (bought on Craigslist) and a leather pillow from MAST in Tucson. A Mexican blanket, bought from a street vendor in California, a rug bought at a flea market, a desert mobile by Mimo Projecta woven IKEA basket, and a few bright plants finish off Nova's corner of the bedroom.

Photos by Francine???

MCM for kids needn't stop at furniture. These vintage accessories are available on Hot Cool Vintage's Etsy site. Photo courtesy of Hot Cool Vintage.

Eric Lin, designer with Nursery Works in Los Angeles, says MCM for kids is growing.  "In the past few years, as parents have started to recognize that the design of the nursery can complement the design aesthetic of the rest of the home, we've started to see an increase in the availability of more modern and mid-century modern cribs on the market." Parents like Casia and Eric are recognizing that "the nursery doesn't have to be defined by the traditional 'baby' aesthetic", says Eric Lin.

Electron Pendant Lamp, $69. Photo courtesy of  Land of Nod

Electron Pendant Lamp, $69. Photo courtesy of Land of Nod

One of Nursery Works' designs, the Vetro Crib, takes the 'less is more' theory to its limit. The Vetro is a clear acrylic crib, 100% recyclable and non-toxic, that gives unimpeded views in and out.
It's not only a style departure from the traditional wood, it has positive effects on a baby, says Daniel Fong, Chief Executive Officer at Nursery Works. "It's an attempt to eliminate the visible barrier of the usual spindles separating the inside and outside of the crib, reminiscent of a cage or a fence. The real effect to the baby is that he or she cannot see the barrier. It's as if there's direct contact with all those outside the rib, creating a calming effect," says Daniel.
Photo by Noah Webb

Nursery Works' Vetro crib. Photo by Noah Webb

Buyers of the Vetro include Robert Downey Jr, father to two-year-old Exton, and Beyonce and Jay-Z, parents of Blue. Its celebrity appeal comes with a suitably high price: $4500.

Photo courtesy of Knoll

The kid version of the iconic Diamond Chair, designed by Harry Bertoia, priced at $723; and kid's Saarinen side table, 16" round, $597. Photo courtesy of Knoll

Over at Knoll, purveyors of modern furniture since the 1930's and a company that boasts Harry Bertoia (see our interview with his daughter in this issue), Eero Saarinen and Jens Risom among its designers, mini versions of some of its iconic pieces are available for kids. The Risom child's side chair, priced at $262 and pictured top, is a scaled-down version of one of the first ever pieces designed for and manufactured by Knoll.

Kids' MCM pieces need not be pricey, though. In fact, finding bargains may be a much more practical way to go. That's as long as you're not precious about your find, of course.
Photo courtesy of????

Jo Herbst's remodeled desk. Photo courtesy of  Jo Herbst.

When Jo Herbst bought a vintage cabinet for just one Euro on eBay for her young son, she chose to re-paint it bright blue. "It was made out of dark brown wood, a little dull looking to me," says Jo, who lives in Berlin.  She believes it dates back to the 1960s or possibly '70s, and comes from the former GDR. Luckily for Jo, "they stuck on that mid-century style much longer than in western countries".
As well as repainting it, Jo also covered the inner back of it with fabric. Sadly, her son broke the table one day by sitting on it. "And I told him so many times not to do this," she laughs. Which is one reason buying used - and scoring bargains - is not a bad idea for mid mod parents of little ones.

"Anything super nice we had is not nice anymore," says mother of two Amanda Domergue, a.k.a. blogger MODG. When she came to decorate a nursery for her baby, she mixed up finds from IKEA, Overstock, Craigslist, Etsy, Walmart, CB2 and West Elm. The changing table is a $30 find on Craiglist (plus a case of beer to persuade her husband to sand and re-stain it), with a changing pad holder on top.

Photo by

Amanda Domergue has mixed vintage, new, Etsy and Craigslist finds. Photo by Amanda Domergue

Photo by Amanda Domergue

Amanda Domergue's customized changing table. Photo by Amanda Domergue

"I wasn't necessarily going for MCM," says Amanda. "I really prefer to mix styles. I like a little MCM, a little rustic, a little glam, and mix it all up."

Parents like Casia Fletcher believe there is a market for something in between the high-end mod kids gear and the thrift bargains, though. "There is a market and a need for it. Many of us would prefer clean simple well built wood pieces over the plastic, fake wood stuff."

Lastly, there's a question - one that's screaming (high, pitched, toddler-like) to be asked: How do you deal with clutter when you're a streamlined MCM-loving parent? "You have to just deal with it. Mess happens. Embrace it," says Amanda Domergue.
Heather Wuelpern admits that mess in a child's room is par for the course. But she says having a mid-mod style can offset that clutter more than another design aesthetic might. "If you at least have furniture that isn't heavy and dark, if you have the likes of white and birch, it's going to give the room a light feel," she says.
In other words, mid-mod parents can close the door on the mess at least knowing it's a mess that's got style.


* For mid-century modern furniture and accessory finds in Tucson, visit Tucson Modernism Week's Mid-Century Furniture Marketplace, 2903 E. Broadway Blvd, October 3-5. More details at

* 3 Story Magazine is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Within this post are some affiliate links. 

Eat, drink & be retro

In Tucson, there are plenty of food and drink establishments that remain relatively unchanged since the 50's and 60's. Let 3 Story and Tucson Foodie be your guides. By Adam Lehrman and Gillian Drummond.

Photo by Kevin Breutzmann

Photo by Kevin Breutzmann

As Tucsonans and many out-of-towners gather for the third annual Tucson Modernism Week, we thought it was high time we directed all of you to mid-century places to eat and imbibe. And we don't mean '50s and '60s style eateries and bars, with their try-too-hard checkerboard patterns and uber accessorizing. We're talking the real deal: places that have remained relatively unchanged since the middle of last century. The neon signs. The retro fixtures. The kitsch and ephemera. The atmosphere. And, most of all, the reputation for good food and cocktails. All of these things keep people coming back.

The Shelter. Photo courtesy of The Shelter.

The Shelter. Photo courtesy of The Shelter.

Asked what makes a restaurant still popular close to six decades on, Michael Elefante, co-owner of Mama Louisa's on South Craycroft, says simply: "Consistency." Mama Louisa's still gets visits from its original customers, some of whom are turning 90. Having one foot in the past and another in the future is a conundrum, though. Michael's family has owned the restaurant since 1973, and Michael recently became joint owner along with his brother Joey and friend Michael Press. (Until recently the two Michaels worked together as chefs at the Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain.) They have plans for a new menu (fresh mozzarella and Margarita pizza are on their way) and they're gently tweaking the interior. But Michael Elefante knows he can't change things up too much. "I call her a fisherman," he says of the restaurant he grew up in, washing dishes at the age of eight. "She reels us in. You start going too far out and she reels us in and reminds us of where we are." Here, in no particular order, are the ones that reel us customers in:

1. Mama Louisa's, 2041 S. Craycroft Rd

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

The style: Your baritone-voiced, chain-smoking Italian grandmother's restaurant (although she quit smoking years ago.) It's checked tablecloths, hand painted mural walls of Italy's shore, formica, and vinyl.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Michael Press, left, and Michael Elefante, the new chef-owners of Mama Louisa's. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The story: Opened in 1956 on south Craycroft when it was still a young dirt road, Mama Louisa's has been in the Elefante family since 1973. In August it came under the joint ownership of brothers Joey and Michael Elefante and friend Michael Press. All of the murals on the walls are the original paintings from artist Jose de la Flora, save for one added in the 1970s by artist Paul Sheldon. All pasta is made fresh daily. Expect new dishes and decor tweaks soon. Don't miss: Joe's Special. Hands down. Whatever you end up with at Mama Louisa's, make sure it includes Joe's Special - linguine with hot pepper seeds, garlic and sauce - in some way, shape, or form.

2. The Shelter, 4155 E. Grant Rd

Photo by Kevin Breutzmann

Photo by Kevin Breutzmann

Photo courtesy of The Shelter

Photo courtesy of The Shelter

The style: Cold-war era 1960s retro lounge. Think Austin Powers meets Hanna Barbera. Kitsch-filled from floor to ceiling with expertly curated Elvis and JFK memorabilia, lava lamps, velvet, and lavish lighting. If you're lucky, the original Flash Gordon will be playing on the tele. The story: Though the rumors abound regarding The Shelter's history as a 60's era fallout shelter, the joint was originally built in 1961 by one of Arizona's first female architects, Ruby Wren. Interesting enough, Wren's grandson will open a brewery in downtown Tucson named Pueblo Vida. Don't miss: Martini, White Russian, or Bloody Mary. Ideally, not in a row.

3. Mi Nidito, 1813 S 4th Ave

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

The style: Vivid. Very. There's no subtlety here. It's shameless south-of-the-border kitsch with no prizes for sleek MCM-ness. But talk to any of the patrons and they'll tell you they come not for decor, but great Mexican food. The lines are out the door at peak times, when you can expect a wait of an hour or even two. The story: Ernesto and Alicia Lopez opened the restaurant in 1952 and named it Mi Nidito ("my little nest") because of its small size. Additions and remodels have increased the number of tables since (it's hard to think that what serves as a waiting area now was once the kitchen), but the atmosphere remains the same. Ownership has passed on to the Lopezes' son Ernesto, his wife Yolanda and their son Jimmy Lopez.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Don't miss: The most popular dishes are the President's Plate (the spread Bill Clinton had when he came here in '99), Birria (shredded beef) and Carne Seca. The latter is made with beef that's hung to dry for four-and-a-half days, then deep fried, boiled and finally mixed with green peppers, crushed tomatoes, cilantro and green onions. We say anything that's labored over that much is worth it.

4. Lucky Wishbone, 4701 E. Broadway Blvd 85711

Photo by fotovitamina

Photo by fotovitamina

The style: (Was) 1950s drive-in restaurant-meets-diner, sans the drive-in. Sadly, the historic, iconic neon starburst sign is the only remnant of the original location. The sign was almost lost during the recent rebuild.

Photo courtesy of Mark Morris

Lucky Wishbone's Campbell location in 1956. Photo courtesy of Mark Morris.

The story: Opened in 1953 by Derald Fulton as an "easier-to-run" eatery, the original Lucky Wishbone opened at 4872 South Sixth at Irvington. Immediate success lent itself to opening more locations - including the one on Broadway  in 1954. Clyde Buzzard was made its managing partner. To this day, he still manages the restaurant and is the only surviving partner. Don't miss: It's hard to go wrong with anything at this fried-everything utopia. Standouts include Gizzards or Livers, Steak Fingers, Fried Chicken, and the Double Cheeseburger on Garlic Toast.

5. Kon Tiki, 4625 E. Broadway

Photo courtesy of Kon Tiki

Photo courtesy of Kon Tiki

The style: '60s tiki/exotica. The bamboo, the masks, the flaming torches at the door: it's all unchanged since this place opened in 1963 and is a tikiphile's dream.

Photo courtesy of Kon Tiki

Photo courtesy of Kon Tiki

The story: Dean Short opened it in 1963 after being inspired by tiki bars on a visit to California. It changed hands twice more, and current owner Paul Christopher practically cut his teeth on tiki. He started working there as a dishwasher and busboy at 15 and worked his way up. The place has served the likes of Lee Marvin, Robert Wagner and Robert Mitchum.

Don't miss: There's an extensive food menu, and the Polynesian BBQ Ribs are a favorite. But let's be honest: people come for the pack-a-punch cocktails. The Scorpion Bowl for two ($14), is a big, boozy, secret blend of rums, gin, brandy and liqueurs, ingested through long straws.

6. Pat's Drive-In, 1202 W. Niagara Street


Photo by fotovitamina

The style: Vintage roadside Americana. From the neon sign to the simple functionality to the barber-shop-style  red and white stripes of tile out front, it's humbly authentic - unlike so many modern places these days that are decked out to look like a '50s diner. The story: Henry 'Pat' Patterson launched his chili-dogs-and-fries concept in the 1950s, expanded, then downsized. This last remaining Pat's, just south of Speedway Blvd, has been around since 1962. In 1969, long-time employee Charlie Hernandez took over the business but kept Pat's name. Charlie carried on Pat's tradition of simple, inexpensive food: burgers, chili dogs, chicken, shrimp and fish. Don't miss: It's known for its chili dogs (choose the spicy version for an extra kick). Just before Pat passed away in 1999, he's said to have turned to his wife and asked for a chili dog from Pat's.  But even the staff prefer the Big Pat burger. Also try the shoe-string fries, hand-cut. Just remember to bring cash, because they charge extra for debit cards, and don't accept credit.  

And lastly...

Chaffin's Diner, 902 E. Broadway Blvd.

Photo by Vargas???

Photo by Gerardine Vargas

There was debate among 3 Story staff and contributors about whether or not to include Chaffin's in this article. Some refuse to patronize the place because of stories surrounding its owner. Others just don't think the food in this greasy spoon is even worth a mention. But, politics and iffy dishes aside, the place scores high for its looks. This is a real deal American diner, born in 1964.

* Tucson Modernism Week takes place October 3-11 in venues around Tucson. For tickets and a schedule, visit or pick up this free Tucson Modernism Week Collector's Guide, at locations in and around Tucson.

Messages in a bottle

Lesli Wood was so tired of floral scents she stopped wearing perfume. And then she set about making her own.  By Mari Herreras


Photo courtesy of Lesli Wood.

Tired of the heavy and floral scented perfumes offered at department stores, Lesli Wood simply stopped wearing perfume. She never gave up looking for a fragrance or scent to call her own, but the only alternatives seemed to be oils sold at the health food stores.

Then about four years ago, Lesli sat down at her coffee table in her Los Angeles apartment with a few high-quality oils and natural fragrances she purchased, determined to make her own.

"So this has really only come into its own as a business the past year, but [there have been] at least four of tinkering, learning and taking the steps I needed," Lesli says, sitting in her workshop in the home she shares in Tucson's Barrio Viejo with her husband, musician Boyd Peterson.


Perfume making at Lesli's Tucson studio. Photo by Rachel Miller.

Thanks to an assortment of glass vials and tubes, Lesli’s workshop space has a mad scientist quality to it - but the kind of scientist who appreciates style, vintage and desert living. There's Chico, Lesli's Chihuahua mix, who might be the most friendly of this small wily breed, and a cow-hide rug across the floor. In one corner, a small antique secretary desk is filled with vials and looks like a mixing station ready for Lesli to bring her formulas to life. A '50s-era cabinet against a wall stores larger bottles of fragrances and oils, and all the supplies needed to be, well, a perfumery: Lesli's perfumery, called La Curie.


Lesli Wood. Photo by Rachel Miller.

Vintage and style is something that Lesli has always had a love for and a hand in; she ran a vintage and handmade store in the Glendale area with Boyd before moving back to Tucson two years ago. In Tucson, they started Thee Collection Agency, a similar shop on Sixth Street near Sixth Avenue. But they closed the brick and mortar store early this year, allowing her and Boyd to focus on other projects, like La Curie.

This perfume business is a new world for Lesli, but one that allows her to use two interests she's always had: science and art. "Perfume is those two worlds. There's some art and design involved. I do all the graphics and packaging," she says. "You have to be able to keep notes and have an interest in formulas or how chemistry really works. You kind of have to have a bit of a nerd brain."


The work of mixing - discovering those formulas and what Lesli describes as "sniffing, sniffing sniffing" - is harder that most may think. But turns out Lesli has a knack for this business, and quickly figured out what she liked and what others liked. She learned that synthetic fragrances might be easier to blend, but she didn't want to go in that direction. "I wanted to combine natural and essential oils and even a different, higher quality." One example is what's called an absolute, a name for a fragrance often described as a bit dirty and waxy, and considered a challenge to work with. Lesli, however, overcame that challenge and embraced what absolutes had to offer.

“A lot of handmade perfumers don’t like to work with these. The essential oils that you can buy at health food stores are extracted by a certain method and absolutes extract fragrance from plants using a different method. Not all plants respond well to an essential oil process,” she says. “They are also more expensive, rare and really concentrated and often have a different smell then essential oil form. They have more depth and complexity and are more highly regarded in perfumery.”


'Synthetic' fragrances are easier to blend, but Lesli didn't want to go in that direction. Photo by Rachel Miller.

Figuring this out basically meant living a “How To” primer on making perfume. Lesli said it’s a model of living and working she’s always embraced. She didn’t finish college, and always figured how to do things on her own or seek the guidance of a specialist. “Maybe it’s because I’m an only child … but I also love puzzles and love a challenge. I read a ton and most of it was trial and error.

"I'm not doing this to make money," she adds. "Much to my mother's dismay, I've never gone into anything with the idea of making lots of money. I do this to express myself and maybe I can make money doing this."

lacurieminiatures The fragrance Lesli first created on her L.A. coffee table is called La Curie One. She says she's never changed this first formula. It's her first top-selling of the oils she's created and the positive reviews she's heard from friends and customers inspired her to keep creating.

“It’s a lively fragrance, not heavy. It’s kind of active. A little freshness. There’s some bergamot, which gives it a lemony fresh sent and an undertone of leather, and a little bit of jasmine. When I first made that one I described it as wearing your favorite aged leather jacket and walking by a citrus tree in bloom.”

Right now the only stores that carry La Curie are MAST in Tucson and her former shop in California. MAST sells the full range: four oil-based perfumes, two face sprays and a natural mosquito repellent, as well as three eau de perfume sprays. Her remaining sales are online through her website and, thanks to an October 2013 review in a popular perfume and beauty products blog, those sales are increasing, even for samples.

"Before, online, nobody knew who I was. Really, how do you convey a smell online? So sales have been through MAST, and I've been watching closely what people say and buy," she says. The feedback this past year has been phenomenal, with sales at about 40 bottles a month. "At first I thought it was people I know, and how nice it was that my friends are supporting me. I didn't trust myself, but I was finally told that I probably only know 10 percent of the people who've bought at MAST," she says.

Sending samples to the EauMG fragrance and beauty blog took some courage, but Lesli says she realized the publicity would help her reach an audience beyond the loyal following she's cultivated in Tucson. "It was a positive review, and it gave me the validation I needed. It was the first time I had anyone who knows what they are talking about smell [my products].  She did a second review, so now I have two nice reviews. It helped. I've had people ordering samples from all over the place and discovering my stand-alone website."


Perfume making combines two of Lesli's loves: science and art. Photo by Rachel Miller.

Her spray perfume Faunus - unisex, like all her fragrances - is woodsy and earthy, inspired by the Roman forest god of the same name. These earth-inspired creations, like Larrea with its touch of creosote scent, and even the name La Curie, happen to be inspired by a special super moon Tucson night - those big moon evenings we are treated to from time to time.

"I went to the El Tiradito shrine during a super moon,” says Lesli, recalling an evening at the Barrio Viejo shrine dedicated to unrequited love and loss, in which people for generations have left prayers and wishes in crevices of the shrine’s wall. “I don't read my horoscope. I'm not really into that stuff, but there was a super moon and my husband's mother wanted to go. She said we have to put prayer there.”

At that time Lesli was feeling stuck and not sure where she was moving in this perfume business, with no ideas for scent names. "Right after that everything came to me. It all happened in one week."

There's more running through Lesli's head, along with the tubes and the notebooks open on her desk, revealing new formulas inspired by secret society symbols, roses, Northern Morocco, moss and ferns, and Italian caves. There are notes of crushed leaves and wet earth floating around there too. But right now her seven fragrances are enough for people to discover.


So Lesli finally made some fragrances she could wear, and ones she hopes appeal to people like her. "I think of them as a sophisticated bohemian group, but also artsy and rebellious. Except now you've grown up and you're doing the responsible thing."

* Find La Curie perfume at MAST100 S. Avenida del Convento, Tucson or online at

Imagine all the people

Dive in to the Pondering Pool and you'll find not just beautiful art and clever poetry but a brilliantly twisted world.  We meet its creator, Susan Mrosek. By Gillian Drummond. Artwork courtesy of Susan Mrosek.



Susan Mrosek remembers her dreams in detail. She writes them down, tries to analyze them.  But it's not always easy.

The other night she dreamed she was dismantling an artichoke bomb. Even in the realm of dreams, it's a strange one. But then when you learn about the world Susan has created through her art - one that's twisted, funny and comforting all at the same time -  the dream seems to fit right in.

Her world is called Pondering Pool. It's a place where characters - almost all of them women - come together to contemplate and escape. They're found trying to free themselves from crises of confidence or self-esteem, or celebrating friendship, personal growth and (usually new-found) self-belief. They're trapped, or have just escaped. They're troubled. They're also hilarious.


The figures are languid, bony, with over-sized hands and large noses, and they take on surrealist forms: extra heads, arms, legs, elongated necks, bulbous bellies. It's not surprising that Susan counts Tim Burton, Dali, Picasso and Joe Sorren among the artists she loves.

The messages that go with them - on her greeting cards, posters, luggage tags and pendants - are wordplay and poetry, pieces of writing that Susan has created in her own daily journals. Many of the messages take common turns of phrases, pick them apart and reformulate them - brilliantly.


"It is what it is, isn't it? Never sure," says one. Another: "It was time for Stella to 'pay it backward' – to take care of her inner little one."  And another: "She took time, plucked it and twisted it, tried to fold it in two, ended up chopping it in half. It never quite fit after that."

Since Pondering Pool began in 2000, its women and their droll musings have been quietly causing ripples; sales, online and in gift stores, are nationwide and in Canada, and enough to financially sustain Susan and her best friend and business partner Bill. They've also attracted some prominent followers, among them actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Sharon Gless, author and self-help guru Louise Hay, and "self-care" expert Cheryl Richardson.

Tucson artist Liz Vaughn, another of Pondering Pool's devotees and an acquaintance of Susan's, relates to her work on a couple of levels: as a customer, a female one; and as a fellow artist who, like Susan, uses words and phrases alongside her characters. "Susan captures things that we are thinking but won't say out loud because we don't want people to think we're crazy. The women she portrays are very real. They might be at times wispy but there are a lot of sags, a lot of expanded noses. It's humanity," says Liz.

The woman who opens the door of a one-bedroom Tucson studio looks not dissimilar to her characters: the angular features, the nose, the lithe figure. She's had her troubles. And she's hilarious.


Susan Mrosek. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The studio where she lives and works is straight out of one of her creations: shabby chic, very feminine, with lots of lace, antiques and Victoriana. In the words of Susan: "It's like a grandma's house."

Her dark, sharp humor "came early and just blossomed". It saw her through a sexually and emotionally abusive childhood, and it glued Susan and her sister Diane together during rough times both as children and as adults. Various disorders plagued  Diane, who was also an artist. She had severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and was at various times diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and Tourette's.  "In the end the doctors called it Diane Disorder," says Susan.  "She was really messed up. I was messed up, but I could function. She couldn't. She was extremely creative but she was unable to get her work out there."

Diane encouraged Susan to write, something this long-time sculptor and painter hadn't tried before. "I had no idea I could write. My English teacher once said I had as much brains as his briefcase. Diane was the writer [among us]."

Susan tried daily journalling and amazed herself. "By God I could write, and then I had a voice so I could express myself. And goddamn it was fun." And as Susan began to write, Diane began to draw. "It was like we morphed into each other," says Susan.


The two shared their writings and drawings, connecting three times a day - mostly by phone, sometimes in person - and making each other laugh. They were taking their troubles and Diane's mental health issues and turning them into something joyful. Diane became Susan's muse, and the world Susan created became Pondering Pool. "It was tragic and a treat at the same time. It was very therapeutic. It was so cathartic for her and for me. It was the most wonderful time in my life. I couldn't get enough of it," says Susan.

And then therapists suggested to Susan and the rest of the family to practice some tough love, and stop communicating with Diane. The two sisters didn't talk for two years.  They reconnected eventually, although Susan says their relationship wasn't the same. Seven months later, in 2008, Diane died from complications related to Hepatitis C.


Susan's Pondering Pool creations are dotted around her Tucson home. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Although Diane's death left a hole that can't be filled, it was freeing too, says Susan.  "I felt like I was just out there flailing, and asking other people to take her place. It's been hard to hold onto the feeling we had, but at the same time I'm healing. Now that she's gone I'm allowed to heal." She adds: "I became all about her instead of about me."


An iPhone case, recently added to the Pondering Pool collection.

Diane and Bill, who has been instrumental in creating and running the business, encouraged Susan to sell the work, and sell it did. John McNulty, retail manager at the Tucson Museum of Art, believes the TMA's store was one of the first in the country to carry her cards. "The cards have been a huge success for me. I just think it's her thoughts and images. They evoke lots of giggles and thoughtfulness. People buy them ten at a time, although I don't know if they ever send them. They wouldn't dare send some of them, they are very to the point," he says.

Susan's writings and musings come first, and are usually taken from her journals. Then she sketches and scans the drawings into her computer, and finally paints them using Photoshop. Transferring her painting skills to Photoshop was "seamless", say Susan. "I was enthralled and overwhelmed, exhausted, by the endless creative possibilities it provided." Fellow artists, among them John McNulty, a Tucson ceramicist, and Liz Vaughn, say they are amazed that such finely detailed work is produced on Photoshop, especially given Susan's oil painting background.


Susan has been experimenting with sculpture as a way to take Pondering Pool in another direction. Photo courtesy of Susan Mrosek

Dotted around her studio, among the giclee prints of her work, and books and family photographs,  are her latest creations: sculptures, her beloved characters in 3-D. It's one of the areas Susan has been exploring lately - a way to take Pondering Pool in a new direction.

She's been considering YouTube videos, film, book illustration and children's books.  There have been offers and discussions - one to turn her work into animation, another, with Jamie Lee Curtis, to produce children's books.  She didn't feel she was ready for either.

Her cards are used as catalysts and aids by many therapists, she says.  Her work has also been used by an elementary school in Tucson to help students understand poetry, and to develop their writing skills. "Though my art was at first cathartic, I'm beyond thrilled that it helps others," she says.

She was a keynote speaker at a domestic abuse fundraiser, and wants to do more public speaking. She would love to give a TED talk on mental health, in her sister's honor. "The people who ignored her or shunned her or were afraid of her missed out," she says.

Pondering Pool's themes are not as dark these days - a sign, says Susan, that she has moved on from her sister's ill health and subsequent death. "Now [my work] is more explorative.  I would say it's more thought-provoking, more healing. These characters have served me well but they exhibit what I've gone through and what my sister has gone through."


Susan works out of a one-bedroom studio in downtown Tucson. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Those characters, though, they won't go away. They literally jump off the page as she creates her art.

"Then I feel like I'm meeting them.  That's something I love about being an artist. You get to meet all these people that weren't even created before."

* Find Pondering Pool at the Tucson Museum of Art's gift store, Chocolate Iguana and Antigone Books in Tucson. They are also sold in stores nationwide and in Canada, as well as online at www.pondering

* Liz Vaughn's work can be found at and in shows and artist fairs around Tucson. Look out for a solo exhibition from her this November.

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Reality bites

When a new reality TV home show hits screens this month, two designer sisters will be doing what they love: giving back. By Gillian Drummond.  doing what we love.We believe in giving back to the community that gives to you.


Carla Turco, left, and Florencia Turco DeRoussel, right, are in demand by TV producers. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

When sisters Carla Turco and Florencia Turco De Roussel hit TV show screens this month, they like to think the show will be more than just another piece of reality television.

The pair will appear as part of the crew of designers in Fix It and Finish It, a show that follows the fixing up of various homes and yards. Florencia, an interior designer and owner of the firm Within Interior Design Studio, is not a big fan of reality TV remodels. But this one, she says, is different.


Carla, far left, and Florencia, second from left, on the set of Fix It and Finish It. Photo courtesy of Florencia Turco DeRoussel

"The other shows don't show the process. This is a one-day remodel and [viewers] are watching us sweat and curse and throw things around. Plus, this is doing small bits of the house, things that are manageable." The crew of 10 to 30 people is largely made up of local designers and contractors, and the designers all mucked in, says Florencia.

When producers approached them to take part in the show, Florencia was drawn to it for another reason. "It gives back. That's what I've always wanted to do with my company. I've wanted to have a non-profit piece to my company. What we're doing is making people's dreams come true," she says.

Giving back is one of the mantras at 88 Cushing, the shared work space Carla and Florencia have created in Tucson's Old Barrio district. The others are accessible design, and doing what they love. And it seems the world - and TV producers, in particular - are taking notice.

The sisters got their first taste of TV remodeling shows earlier this year when they took part in an episode of the Food Network's Food Court Wars, a face-off between budding restaurant entrepreneurs. Carla and Florencia were asked to design the winning food court space in a Sierra Vista mall.


Carla on the set of Food Court Wars in Sierra Visa, Arizona. Photo by Nontextual Matters

They appear in six episodes of Fix It and Finish It, three of which will air next week (starting September 8 on  KOLD News 13). The producers filmed four episodes in Tucson and from here Carla and Florencia followed the crew to Montgomery, Alabama for two more.

Carla runs web and graphic design firm Nontextual Matters in Tucson. But with a degree in architecture and a hand in many of her sister's design decisions, she felt more than comfortable stepping into interior designer shoes for the shows. An added bonus? The presenter of Fix It and Finish It is Antonia Sabato Jr, an actor in General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful and one of Carla's childhood crushes. The three bonded on the shows and remain friends.


A selfie with Carla's teen crush, Antonio Sabato Jr. Photo courtesy of Carla Turco

Although a decade divides the sisters (Carla is 44, Florencia 35), these last twelve years have seen them grow closer than ever. They work together, work out together, help each other with their respective businesses, and socialize together.

They arrived in Tucson in 2002, both graduates of Louisiana State University. Carla, newly divorced, was looking for a change. Florencia's then-boyfriend and now husband, James DeRoussel, had moved here. So Florencia and Carla decided to give it a go. Their first thought? The city was quiet compared to New Orleans. "My first year I hated it. I was still in my 20s and used to partying and having something to do all the time," says Florencia.

Despite their reservations, they found their lives flourishing here. It helped that there is a strong Hispanic community in Tucson. As Argentinians in New Orleans (they moved to the USA when Carla was 15 and Florencia was 5), they never fit in, they say. "I still miss the culture and the people but that lessened a little when I moved to Tucson because I was better accepted as an Argentinian," says Carla.

In 2005 came Hurricane Katrina and the mass exodus from New Orleans. After two hellish weeks of not being able to contact their family there, Florencia and Carla persuaded their parents, their brother and his family to move to Tucson. At the same time, the sisters witnessed Tucsonans coming together and making charitable contributions to their old home.

"That's when it clicked for us. We saw how people were helping our personal friends and family," says Carla. It was time for them to give back to their newly adopted home town. They taught classes in self-defense and empowerment to women and girls in Tucson. And they got involved in the likes of Safos Dance Theatre, Arizona Public Media, productions of The Vagina Monologues in Tucson, and fundraisers for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.


88 Cushing, the shared work space the sisters have created in Tucson. Photo by Gillian Drummond

At the same time, they were creating their own shared work space, 88 Cushing, in an historic building on Cushing Street in Tucson's downtown. Carla's and Florencia's design firms are the anchors of the space, and over the years they have also leased to other designers. Currently they share with Tucson Expediting & Development and Transact Commercial Furnishings. The open-plan office with outside courtyard space -  originally a Chinese market at the turn of the 20th century - is regularly used for parties and business get-togethers. 

Carla Turco. Photo by Addie Mannan

Carla Turco. Photo by Addie Mannan

Charity featured heavily in the sisters' upbringing; growing up, they and their brother were taught to help others, and they witnessed their family sending money back to relatives in Argentina. Today, they may not always have money to donate to charity, but they have time. Says Carla: "Our time is precious, so giving our time is worth far more than giving $5 here or here."

Television is not new for Carla. She spends what spare time she has acting, and has appeared in several television commercials. Credits include the Fox reality TV show When Women Ruled the World, regional and television ad campaigns, small films, and voiceover work in Spanish. This Fall she will appear alongside friend and photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli in the new series of Ex-Wives of Rock. Among the cast is Athena Kottak, ex-wife of Scorpions drummer James Kottak and sister of Tommy Lee. Athena and James are both clients of Carla's.


From left to right: Carla Turco, Athena Kottak and photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli on the set of Ex Wives of Rock, returning to TV this Fall. Photo courtesy of Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Carla is the go-getter of the two, according to Florencia. "Carla's [attitude] is so brave and 'let's do this'. I'm more 'Let me see now...'."  Carla doesn't rule out a move to a bigger city - particularly Los Angeles - to develop her acting career.  But she is all about keeping things real - particularly in the sometimes unreal genre of 'reality TV'. "With reality TV, once you fake it it comes through. It's not going to come out right. When you're real and you're showing your emotions,  people like it," she says.


Florencia Turco DeRoussel. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Likewise, Florencia is building a reputation as an interior designer who keeps her feet on the ground. She's a fan of Target, and known for helping clients on small budgets. Her clients range from residential to commercial, and have included Hush salon and spa and Habitat for Humanity Tucson.


Habitat for Humanity's Tucson headquarters, designed by Within Studio. Photo by Dan Francis.

Florencia discovered interior design while studying pre-med in college, in preparation for medical school. "I had to take an elective. I'd never even heard the words 'interior designer' before. But it just clicked." She switched majors and now, she says, satisfies her inner science nerd with the problem-solving and math that come from designing spaces. As well as the Tucson studio, Florencia's company has an office in Montgomery, Alabama headed up by colleague Natalie Toy.


Hush Salon and Day Spa, designed by Within Studio. Photo by Christopher Bowden Photography

The sisters' brother never did settle in Tucson, instead returning to New Orleans. But both their father and mother pursued careers similar to what they had in New Orleans. Father Carlos runs Belle Epoque Upholstery, and mother Elena is a retired neuroscientist who worked in research at the University of Arizona.  Each Sunday evening they have a family dinner with their parents.

They talk with gratitude about Tucson and its inhabitants, not only for giving their parents a new start, but for allowing them to feel settled. "I feel accepted here," says Florencia. "I feel understood."

* Fix It and Finish It will air on KOLD News 13 in Tucson on September 8, 9 and 10. More info here. Find Non-Textual Matters and Within Interior Design Studio at 88 Cushing Street, Tucson.

We all scream

The owners of Cashew Cow, Tucson's first cashew ice cream parlor, hope everyone -  not just vegans - go nuts for their dairy-free product. By Gillian Drummond and Joan Calcagno. Cover photo by Danni Valdez/Shutter2ThinkPhotography.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

When the temperatures are reaching 100ºC and more during Tucson's summers, those brave enough to stick around here have their choice of cooling desserts.

There's ice cream - a food category enlivened lately with the opening of Hub and its offbeat home-made flavors. There's gelato (thank you Frost, Allegro and more). There's the Mexican delicacy of raspado - shaved ice with flavored syrups. And there's the home-grown chain of Eegee's restaurants, whose frozen fruit drinks are a local summer staple.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

This summer, another frozen dessert is entering the fray. Cashew Cow, a dessert parlor opening in historic Broadway Village, will sell ice cream made of cashews. And while cashew-based ice cream has been a sweet treat for vegans for some time, the two partners behind this new venture want to draw in more than the non-dairy crowd.

One of their slogans will be 'We all scream'. Make that vegans, non-vegans, those concerned with their cholesterol, and those who just like eating ice cream, however it's made.

Jennifer Newman is one of the latter. But this gourmand has high standards. She holds up brand leader Häagen-Dazs as her favorite ice cream. So when Jennifer and her picky palate were drawn in to the cashew ice cream her friend Jeremy Shockley was experimenting with, she knew he was onto something.

Jeremy had tried almond and coconut versions of ice cream. "They were OK but they never matched the traditional indulgence," he says. A visit to Pure Food and Wine, a raw food restaurant in Manhattan, changed everything. "They make a fresh young Thai coconut meat cashew coconut oil ice cream. It's very indulgent. I thought 'Even my nephew would eat that. I could get into this'." A look at their recipe - published online - proved it was a laborious dish. "You're hand cracking coconuts on a daily basis," he says.

He thought non-dairy ice creams that were being marketed as health food products or to niche consumer markets were "missing the point" - the point being that ice cream is an indulgence. Then, on a dog walk one day and daydreaming of his own future cash cow, he came up with the name Cashew Cow.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Jeremy, a recording engineer and technical supervisor whose work had taken him to Los Angeles and Connecticut, threw himself into two and a half years of intense study of dairy science and chemistry. Jennifer, meanwhile, with a background in restaurants and a Masters in nutrition, was the ideal business partner.

An obscure cultural reference brought them together at a Tucson dog park. She was wearing a T-shirt from the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade - something Jeremy recognized from his time back east - and the two got talking. Both had lived in Tucson (Jeremy during high school, Jennifer until she was 11), both had spent time in New York City, and both had returned to what they consider their home town. Added to that, they had mutual Tucson friends.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

With Jeremy's love of branding and advertising (he formerly did branding and marketing for Maya Tea Company), and Jennifer's in nutrition (from cheese department manager in New York, to nutrition counseling and non-profit work), they say they balance each other out. And each of them was at a similar point in their lives and careers, a now-or-never moment. Says Jennifer: 'The random jobs I had in New York, some of them never made sense to me. It was always like 'I need to find the career'. This is something I'd been looking for for a long time."

The Cashew Cow product uses whole cashews, a low glycemic mineral-rich sweetener (he won't say which), and a touch of coconut. There are no flavor syrups; flavoring comes naturally, from whole food ingredients. Meanwhile, the cashews bring vitamins, minerals, fiber and heart-friendly monounsaturated fat.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo courtesy of Cashew Cow

Photo by Jeremy Shockley

Photo courtesy of Cashew Cow

The pair have been testing their product at farmers' markets and events around Tucson, quietly wowing exactly the demographic they want - that is, everyone. "I want vegetarians standing shoulder to shoulder with the guy with barbecue sauce on his shirt," says Jeremy. Adds Jennifer: "Everyone wants ice cream." And if that ice cream happens to serve beneficial fats by way of whole cashew nuts, all the better.

"We wanted to make a nutritionally dense food rather than a reduced indulgence product," says Jeremy. "It’s ice cream. Ice cream is frozen emotion.  You come to it because you want to celebrate something or to feel good. So you have to formulate based on indulgence.

"Our dream customer is someone who knows nothing about nutrition but they can come in and grab our product and whether they know it or not they are eating healthy. They’re getting whole-food nutrition and they have no idea.” His aim for his product is that it's delicious, and fun, while at the same time doing customers some good.

The space they have taken up in the burgeoning Broadway Village was designed by Repp + McClain. This will be the architecture and construction company's fifth project here; they have outfitted Session Yoga yoga studio, Italian restaurant Falora, the new bar, Sidecar, and Sugar Sweet Bakery, which is next door to Cashew Cow.

At less than 1000 sq ft, the space  brought challenges. Repp + McClain partners Rick McLain and Page Repp say it was important to accommodate everyone, from the grab-and-go customers, to those who want to sit, to kids hanging out at the cashew-shaped kiddie table.

Photo by Danni Valdez

The parlor's cone-shaped stools and tables. Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

Jennifer and Jeremy have had fun with the decor and the branding. There are cone-shaped bar stools and side tables, the nut-shaped kids' table and hanging pendant lights above the counter that change color via remote control. The wooden-topped benches along one wall are modular; they can be taken off the wall and arranged into different seating configurations. The walls have strips of steel so they can attach art with magnets and change it up frequently. Jeremy credits friend and furniture maker/contractor Matthew Williams of Sticks & Stones with the design and build of the furniture.

They're calling their mascot - which appears on their logo as a cow with a cashew-shaped body - Johnny Cashew Cow. The flavors - and there will only be six to start with - include names like Sacred Cacao Chocolate, Bean Me Up Coffee and Cream of the Cropsicle (orange and vanilla). At around $4 a scoop, they are choosing a price point similar to the likes of Hub.

Their years of getting the business off the ground have included a lot of hurdles and some steep learning curves. Jennifer says she had to Google 'business plan' at the beginning, only to find that heading up the business side of of the project "came naturally". Jeremy has been his own personal chemist, creating the product and its flavored varieties from scratch. Vanilla was his toughest. The synthetic version, vanillin, is a single molecule, whereas vanilla beans have several hundred flavor compounds.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

There have been problems with the concrete floor, with plumbing and with the cooler. There have also been two dog deaths, with each of them having to put down their dog months apart from one another. Jeremy has slept in guest rooms and on sofas, and in seven different houses in three years. But they believe in their product, and the spin-off products they say are in the pipeline. Friends and family members - who make up the private investors backing the business - believe in it too.

And now, says Jeremy, who's hoping to open the doors within the next few weeks, it's time to have fun.

* Cashew Cow, located just south of Broadway Boulevard on S. Eastbourne Avenue, is due to open at the end of July. You can keep tabs on progress on their Facebook page and their website.