years ago, on my original blog, i had a feature entitled ‘unexpected guests’ wherein we’d drop in for a very personal home or studio visit with artists, makers, and small business owners and get to know them a bit better through a brief interview. well, today i’m happy to announce that i’m bringing this series back. i’ve really missed these and always find it fun and fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at creators at home and this time we’re visiting creative couple michael and mariel upton, founders of upton, an online design studio that creates beautiful original artwork, as well as lovely and uniquely practical goods for the home.
today we’ll be visiting both their own beautiful southern california home, as well as some of the homes of collectors displaying their work. for the uptons, home is a sacred space where they create memories with those they love the most. and in this space, anything can be a work of art — from cooking a meal, arranging flowers in a vase, making a cup of tea, or listening to music. the role of the art and objects that they make and collect should not be simply to be acquired and viewed from a distance, but rather to inspire this joyful, creative and thoughtful approach to life. exactly the kind of life i admire, aspire to, and get excited to share you. visit the upton online shop for art prints on canvas, prints on paper, woven art, sculptures, and objects for the home, as well as some of their collaborations with other artists, like kelle ramsey, nicholas pourfard, and david ryan. let’s get to know them a bit better, shall we? and for more inspiration, follow upton on instagram and pinterest.
can you tell us briefly about your background and how you came to make a living in a creative field?
for over ten years, michael had a wonderful job as a clothing designer, and would spend his weekends making art. he came to realize there was a gap in the art market, seeing the need for something in between shiny mass-produced poster art and intimidating gallery art. so he decided to take the leap and quit his job (while mariel was pregnant for the first time) to see if he could help fill it, setting out to make accessible quality art. mariel also had a wonderful job as a writer for the wellness leader deepak chopra for over ten years, and when she was pregnant for the second time decided it was time for something new. she quit, and when it was time for her to go back to work part-time, upton was growing and michael needed help. she stepped in, fully expecting to eventually get another writing job when the kids were older, only to fall in love with working on upton permanently. we’ve always envisioned upton as encompassing art, design, and life at home, allowing ourselves to experiment without limitation, see what does well, and only make what we love.
you work together as a couple, do you both make the art at upton?
while both of us are artistically inclined, michael makes all the art at upton. michael started the company so that was how it began, and also it just feels right that way. he is much better at designing art that feels original but can still be duplicated, be it in the form of prints, ceramics, household items, etc. mariel’s art is more personal —handmade illustrated travel journals, cooking, writing, etc.
where do you live? we live in a little town called vista in north county san diego. it’s lovely – we’re fifteen minutes from the beach and 45 minutes from the city of san diego. our neighborhood is called avocado heights as it used to be all avocado groves, and the houses are interesting and unique on large plots of land.
what’s your favorite part of your home? we live in a house michael designed and built with his dad, who is a contractor, so honestly, we love it all. if we had to pick a favorite it would probably be the kitchen, since we both love to cook. michael intentionally designed the house to feel very open, and if you’re cooking you’re also in the space that serves as the living and dining room and has a beautiful view out into both the front and back yards.
from when you wake up to when you lay down at night, what’s a perfect day off for you look like?
it would start out with both kids sleeping in (haha) then we’d make breakfast at the house together — both our two-year-old and four-year-old sons love to sit on the kitchen counter and help cook. then we’d head down to balboa park, which feels like you’ve been transported to europe, and visit the mingei, which is the beautiful folk art museum there that is beloved by both the kids and adults in our family. next, we’d have a picnic in the grass by the botanical building, then head to the restaurant there called panama 66 to have a drink in their lovely sculpture garden, while the boys ran wild with the pack of children (whose parents are also having drinks) that always forms there. after heading home, the kids would magically entertain themselves before dinner while mariel read a book in the yard and michael made some art in the studio. we’d cook dinner together, the adults enjoying gin and tonics, and eat outside in the balmy southern california night. the kids would then go to bed with zero requests for just one more glass of water, snacks, or rearranging of the shadows in their room, and the adults would stay up watching a movie before heading to bed.
be at home, or what you wear — your lifestyle, how would you describe your personal style? overall, it’s simple and intentional — our home is a small, uncluttered space with mostly handmade or found objects that mean something to us, and our meals are homemade from beautiful ingredients. we like a slow pace and believe that how you do anything is how you do everything.
do you have some other artists or makers you’d like to share with us? michael recently did a collaboration of experimental earth-cast pieces for san diego design week, put on by the mingei museum, with an amazing designer and good friend nicholas pourfard. nicholas is an incredible furniture designer and all-around fascinating human. his website is nicholas pourfard.
do you have a favorite museum or gallery? definitely the mingei international museum. It showcases folk art, craft, and design from all over the world, both traditional and contemporary, and celebrates art as an integral part of daily life. it’s small so you can easily see it all without feeling like you’ve missed something, and the kids love it as much as we do — one of the exhibits they have right now is all toys. the building itself is just beautiful and they have a stunning art library, a balcony that overlooks balboa park, and a restaurant called artifact we have never had a bad meal at. it feels like not just a museum but a wonderful curated experience you can spend a whole afternoon and evening enjoying.
do you have any reading recommendations for us? favorite novels, or books that helped you in some way?
for mariel, there are so many – the virgin suicides (a rare book beautifully written in the collective ‘we’), the poisonwood bible (with each character representing a different view one could take on the western involvement in africa), west with the night (which, after reading, hemingway declared he was “ashamed with myself as a writer”), and special topics in calamity psychics (which mariel has reread lovingly every year since her early twenties). for michael, it’s the biography of alexander calder, the conquest of time, which chronicles the fascinating early years of his life and career based on his personal letters and papers, as well as intimate interviews.
what’s one of your favorite cities and what makes it a favorite for you? it’s got to be oaxaca. we’ve been there twice now, once before kids and once after, and although it sounds cliché it is truly magical. the art scene is amazing and diverse, the food is unfailingly delicious and unlike anywhere else, and the people are warm — a passing abuelita once stopped to kiss our baby lovingly on the mouth. we’ve been twice to the city, which is small (maybe 20 city blocks) and flat, so it’s very walkable and accessible. we’ve also been to the beautiful coastal town of puerto escondido, which feels like paradise, and a mountain town called san pablo etla which had some of the most beautiful hiking we’ve ever experienced. we liked it so much that on our second trip, we stayed for a month, and still weren’t quite ready to come home.
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