San Francisco-based Shujan Bertrand draws design inspiration from many quarters and cultures—from her Korean-American extended family, from her husband’s French heritage and her time in Provence, and from the sustainability-focused culture of the Bay area. But her innovative àplat collection of totes was born in an “a-ha” moment related to a gift of flowers, a universal gesture of kindness and expression of the simple, shared beauty of life. Recently, we asked Shujan to discuss her love of designing for the “art of living,” and found that she’s in good company—from the Nabis to Ani DiFranco.
You’ve said that your àplat line is inspired by the French art de vivre. What do you think defines that movement or lifestyle?
The French notion of the “art of living” is truly a way of life in my family. My French husband and I lived and designed in Italy and France for several years before returning to San Francisco. I created àplat in memory and translation of my family lifestyle in France and the daily rituals of sharing good food, drink, and good company. I’m Korean-American, born and raised in Manhattan Beach, CA, and although my husband and I shared similar family values and daily rituals, they were of course completely different culturally. My life changed after meeting my husband and then living in Europe, where I started to experience l’art de vivre. Everyday routines took on new meaning, and the mundane things around me felt like art and poetry.
My in-laws home in Nice—which they built with their own hands—is perched on a small hill overlooking the Mediterranean. They have a small fruit and vegetable garden that they pick from seasonally. In the summers, the lavender is harvested to make sachet pouches and the home is always filled with friends and neighbors, coming over to eat and drink homemade wine. Every member of the Bertrand family started their personal wine collection at an early age, and it’s stored in the basement cellar. Each bottle has a personal story of where it came from, and when you decide to share the bottle that story gets shared. You might call this an old way of living, but it was new for me. It was beautiful.
Lavender Growing in Provence
How does l’art de vivre inform your designs for the àplat collection?
There are many types of tart or pie carriers out there, but the ones I admired in France were my mother-in-law’s made of old linens by her mother. I also admired the bread bags and pouches that hang in every French kitchen, and the crates and baskets used to carry wine. These are products that have been around for a very long time in Europe—I simply brought them together into one community, into the àplat collection of culinary totes. This is why I say that àplat originated in France, and is deeply rooted in a culture of friendship, where socializing is not a verb but a life philosophy, and where generosity is a daily ritual. Àplat reminds us to find joy and pleasure in making the everyday beautiful.
Nabie Bertrand carrying the Sac a Fleur
The first tote in the collection was the à fleur bouquet tote. I was on the way to Renee Zellweger’s gallery opening at Summer School, and I wanted to give her a beautiful bouquet for her new launch. When I picked up the bouquet, I couldn’t see the flowers anymore because they were covered in paper and cellophane with a ribbon. It didn’t feel like a gift anymore. This was my moment of insight: that a bouquet should be quiet (not crinkly plastic), and you should be able to see the flowers and let them be seen. That evening I began to sew prototypes of what I thought a bouquet tote could be, and shared the design idea with my husband and his parents who were in town from France. The next day, we brainstormed the possibilities of something good, something new. I was so excited about the flower design that I extended the line to carry wine, food, and bread. In less than a few days, the design of the entire collection was complete. I let the samples incubate for about a month, then decided to share it with someone I trusted to give me honest feedback. I showed it to Cathy Bailey, owner and creative director of HEATH Ceramics, who loved the collection and wanted to help me test it.
How did the design challenge of the àplat line differ from some of the other product design work that you’ve done?
The design challenge was very different because I was responsible for everything—from the raw material I sourced to the lifespan of the product. I committed to achieving a “cradle to cradle” design, and the àplat design challenge was to leverage local manufacturing to create a global brand. I committed to sustainability and designing products that produce zero waste in production, and most importantly are designed to last for generations. Part of this design challenge was designing a collection that consists of squares and rectangles so that I use 100% of the yard and end with zero waste. Another part of the key to sustainability is to not over-produce and exhaust resources. Currently, àplat is made to order by seasonal projections. To make the designs last, the straps are double locked in two locations, and four bar tacks help to keep seams steady to hold 15-20 lbs. These products are designed for my 9-year-old daughter’s and 5-year-old son’s generation, but made to be passed down to their children.
Are there certain artists, designers, or movements that have inspired your work?
I love and respect the Nabis so much that we named our daughter Nabie after them. Like other progressive artists at the turn of the century, they pursued the goal of integrating art with daily life. Also, Nabi means Butterfly in Korean, so the art movement and the beauty of nature brings a lot of meaning to me.
I like designer Eileen Fisher for her approach to design and manufacturing. Her background and efforts to put herself through college and build a beautiful business inspires me to do the same with àplat. I also put myself through college, and thankfully was given a full scholarship to the ArtCenter College of Design (I would have never made it otherwise). I hope one day to give back to the community and maintain local, sustainable manufacturing like Eileen Fisher. On the food front, I strongly support the farm-to-table movement, buying local and eating from small local producers.
Do you have any favorite quotations that provide a philosophy to live and work by, or inspiration for your work?
Many…but perhaps a few that come to mind:
“To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” – William Blake
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa
“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” – Ani DiFranco
Reinforced strap detail and tools
Can you describe your studio space? What are some of your favorite features and the inspiring qualities of where you work?
For a year, I worked out of my home/office while I still had my corporate job, and inventory was in my garage and a local factory in San Francisco’s Mission Bay. For three months now, I’ve been working out of a shared space, thankfully across the street from my factory. The studio’s most inspiring aspects are the people I share it with! From Stanford tech engineers to MBA folks and amazing accessory and apparel designers. Visually, the studio is a melting pot—a representation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, from hardware to software. We share a fully equipped prototyping lab and machine shop with 3D printers and several industrial sewing machines—perfect for making anything. It’s a great reflection of my past in tech and my future in soft goods.
Sac a Plat at the farmer’s market
Can you give us a peek at your working on now or what’s next for you?
Yes—very happy to share! I’m collaborating with Top Chef Melissa King to create a limited edition àplat tote. We will feature it this holiday and extend the line in Spring 2016. Also, I’m eager to collaborate with the Museum of Food and Drink. I don’t know anyone there yet, but I’m hoping they’ll be interested!