Thought Provokers: Leigh Beisch’s Interview with Friend and Mentor Riley Johndonnel

Finding purpose, collaboration, collective spirit, optimism and creating tools to allow people and brands to find these things.

Thank you to Leigh Beisch for this interview. Read more about it here.

Leigh Beisch’s Connection to Riley Johndonnel-

When I first laid my eyes on an issue of Surface Magazine, I was blown away by the innovation, the graphic design, the photography, the styling and the content in general. I only wished I could be a part of such a project. I sent the magazine a promo card (this was when I had just opened my studio) and didn’t let myself even hope. I was thrilled when I heard back from them, not only from them, but from one of the publishers, Riley Johndonnell. Turns out Riley was not just a co- publisher, but founder, creative director, designer, editor, stylist, writer, publicist. There was nothing that he didn’t do. During my first meeting with him, he explained why he responded to the images that I sent him, images which later got into the coveted CA photo annual. Coming from years of studying art at RISD and Chicago Art Institute and growing up with my Creative Director father, I was used to hearing creative commentary, but Riley was different. The things that came out of his mouth seemed new, exciting and ahead of his time. I was hooked. I needed to work with such a creative no matter what. I snapped up every assignment that Riley threw at me, I jumped at the chance to be on staff at the magazine, to get a view of how they created content and how they promoted the magazine. From the beginning, the magazine was aligning itself with high end brands and causes. They threw the most dazzling events that promoted not only the magazine and the brands that supported it, but the causes they cared about. All the while having a blast and working insanely hard 24/7.

One of the causes that Riley felt strongly about was supporting up and coming talent. He launched a yearly issue entitled “The Avant-Gaurdian” showcasing edgy new talent and had launch parties in major cities where big brands could align themselves with the visual “elite”. It drew attention from major fashion brands and launched the careers for a number of those photographers. As much as he gave to the magazine, he gave to the people that contributed. He inspired through his passion but also his support of the talent he recruited.

After he moved on from the magazine, he was pivotal in creating what was to be known as the Surface Hotel, a hotel that partnered with brands to create inspiring, cutting edge hospitality in the up an coming LES neighborhood of New York. It later came to be known at The Rivington.

From his expert branding work with Surface, Riley moved into work that was more civic minded. He rolled his tremendous following into social media success for events that promoted such causes as gay rights and sexuality to his current project/ movement INTO YELLOW- promoting/ teaching optimism in public events throughout the country. His efforts are in part meant to bring awareness to the epidemic of depression our country faces and seeks to show people how to see themselves as part of a larger whole and thus work and think collaboratively rather than so much about I and me. He consulted with Wework early on on this idea. He has partnered with Pantone to create a certain color of yellow that promotes positivism.  The NY Times recently covered a story about Yale’s most popular class being one teaching optimism. Riley has his finger on the pulse. That is why I look to him to hear what he is up to to be inspired, to tell him what I am up to and hear his thoughts. Riley is a good friend and a mentor, one who continues to bubble up ideas a mile a minute that are well ahead of their time. I asked Riley some questions about his story, his path, what inspires him, how he creates and what he looks for in a photographer, writer, and stylist.  His comments formed more of a story of sorts:

Did you make art before you became a creative director?

Yes, I’ve been making art since I can remember. Art theory inspires most everything I do. Even my old legal documents and paperwork become art via confetti bombings. It sounds a bit hokey to some, but I refer to my way of thinking as (art)repenurialism.

What led you to the fashion world?  What unique skills do you think you needed to make it in that world?

I’ve always been interested in the power of Style. Anyone can buy “Fashion”, but Style is something else. It’s democratic, it crosses boundaries, its a way of seeing and living and experiencing. It can be highly personal or communally adapted. It’s one of or culture’s great influencers. As a youth, I explored personal style in may ways, which led me to freelance wardrobe styling for commercials and celebrities. Which also helped me fund the early days of Surface.

What did you use to get creative inspiration when doing fashion editorials and how does that differ from what you do now?

Listening and connecting the dots. I was fortunate to regularly meet with architects, apparel and furniture manufactures, designers across various fields, creative across various industries. I saw and heard patterns in culture and design. Then listening to my head/heart as to where these dots and paths may lead. It’s always felt part sponge, part crystal ball, part Utopian theorist. I guess some call it trend forecasting, but that sounds so focused on commerce. I think it’s culture forecasting with the intent to move the needle in a positive direction.

What creative path are you on now?  How does it tie in with what you did with Surface?

As a conceptual artist I believe the message is in the medium. I see marketing and advertising as a fine art medium the way Paint, Canvas and clay are mediums. I’m deeply engaged in collaborative work and see it as a common thread in my life. It’s one of the principles of Optimism as an Ism. Yes, I believe Optimism is an emerging movement just as Cubism, Minimalism etc. were movements/isms.

How much did your identity weave itself into what you did for the magazine, and how does that differ from how it works itself into what you are doing now?

My mission with Surface was to “inspire innovation in innovative ways”. At the end, I found myself battling with my business and life partners because they seemed focused on selling Aspiration instead of Inspiration.

Perhaps that’s the difference between Fashion and Style? Aspiration and Inspiration.


Do you think that commercial work should reflect the artist/ creative or should it just be an execution of the branding assignment?   What do you see as the pros and cons of that idea?

I try to avoid “should”-ing on people.

Interpretation is one of our great creative miracles of our existence. You and I could attempt to communicate the word “Love” the same way, but our personal identity/expression will uniquely effect that message and how it is perceived some how. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that everything exists in context. My spirituality reiterates there are few universal answers other than Love. So I try to practice appreciate of what is and also help leave it “better” than I found it.

How did you contribute to the creative collective or community?  Why did you “give back” when you are so busy yourself?

In its highest form collaboration is regenerative. I haven’t mastered it but I try hard almost daily. I moved from “altruism” to “all-truism”. I’m working on trying to create healthy, positive, mutually beneficial, sustainable ways to collaborate. I don’t claim to have answers, but I do have some collaboratively generated tools that others may find answers in.

My goal is to help move the needle from thinking as Me to thinking as We. Hence think tank.

What drives you to create?

It’s a Spiritual calling. Whether you believe in creation, evolution or some kismet fusion of the two, we are all born from and into a world of ongoing creation. Hence, we are all expressions and bi-products of creation. We are all art. The greatest affirmation I receive is when someone really witnesses that I’m trying to live my life as Art.

What did you look for in a creative collaborator (photographer, writer, stylist?)

Shared intentions.

What qualities make up a good image in your opinion?

When it doesn’t want to be something more or something less.

How much impact did “style” have on your career not only in the fashion world but in connecting with other creatives?

Answered above. But primarily Style is like a socio-economic equalizer, a creative common ground. Regardless of age, race, region, religion, ‘professional’ expertise, I can connect with someone, collaborate with someone based on style. I don’t just mean how they’ve adorned themselves but how they ARE in the world, moreover how WE ARE in the world. Style is also a manner in which we carry and communicate ourselves.

How do you get involved in your various projects and how do you decide to get involved?

Hunch. Heart. Then Head. Which doesn’t always carve an easy or financially prosperous path but always an incredibly inspired one. In these times I find myself asking my head and heart- “what’s the real impact that can be made here?” Proceed and repeat.

Examples of His Work-

Below is some of Riley’s award winning work for Surface Magazine, as well as some of his branding projects with clients such as Lexus, Mini Cooper, European Trade Commission, Levis, Vueve Clicquot and Lafitte Restaurant (a collaboration that I was part of) as well as some of his automative work, product design (sinks) and trend forecasting work.

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