Catching Up with
Production Designer
Ruth De Jong

Friends & Family

May 16th, 2017

Interview by Sharon Weissburg
Photography by Jessica Antola

"There’s one thing you can’t deny in LA — it’s the light. It’s the sun.
It’s contagious."

Ruth De Jong

We at Bird find inspiration in the lives and works of smart, stylish, busy women. We decided to share that inspiration with conversations — starting with the multi-talented Ruth De Jong. In the wake of our L.A. opening, it seemed appropriate to interview a veteran production designer like De Jong, but beyond her work on films with the likes of Terrence Malik and David Lynch, she’s also well known for her endeavors in interior design, painting, and, most recently, a furniture line with her family venture, De Jong & Co. After she graciously modeled for our Spring lookbook in the expanse of California’s recent superbloom, we sat down and caught up with the effervescent virtuoso herself.

Bird: So! Ruth. Exciting to chat with you. Your background is so multidisciplinary — painting, film and furniture design… is furniture a new venture for you?

Ruth De Jong: My brother, Peter, was designing and fabricating furniture on the east coast and it was shortly after I had wrapped on the film THE MASTER, we started to talk about creating a company that had an interior design and a furniture component and from there we came together as De Jong & Co., along with our other brother Philip who shoots all of our photography and does our graphic and web design. Peter designs and fabricates the furniture, and I take on the interior projects where our furniture is often incorporated into the spaces. We’re finishing up a pair of restaurants in Santa Monica called Lunetta and Lunetta All Day and we did a store this past fall in Portland called Spartan Shop, we’re currently in the middle of a private residence in LA, and at the Bird store in Los Angeles, all of our brass hardware adorns the cash register drawers. Never a dull moment! 

B: It seems like you’ve really built your life on the ability to create a space.

RDJ: Well, I studied fine arts in college, and I really thought I was going to go in that direction. I had gotten into graduate school, and then Jack Fisk, the wonderful production designer, started to talk to me about doing art direction instead. I ended up working for him for about a decade, and then designing films led to designing friends’ homes and restaurants and so on. I love designing spaces that the public can interact with. In film, you build it, you create it, you tear it down, and it’s gone. It’s captured on screen, of course, but no one gets to…

B: Touch it?

RDJ: Yeah, touch it. And my brother came from sculpture, also fine arts, and our brother Philip did as well, studying photography primarily. He does all of our graphics and photography. It’s a family venture.

B: How do you maintain a balance? Does one feel more like work and another like play?

RDJ: It’s all work, but I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t feel like work. I find joy in all aspects of it and feel blessed to get to do what I do and be paid for it.

B: What brought you to LA? Was it your work in film?

RDJ: Exactly. I was born in San Bernardino, CA. just south east of LA, and when I was twelve we moved to Virginia, and then I went off to college in Fort Worth, Texas at TCU. However, the summer before going to grad school, to pursue my MFA in painting, I had a long conversation with [production designer] Jack Fisk. Jack's daughter, Schuyler, and I were best friends in Charlottesville, and Jack is married to the actor, Sissy Spacek. I knew they were involved in film, but film wasn't a medium I had studied or pursued much less paid attention to; I wasn't a cinefile who watched movie after movie. Jack and Schuyler knew my work and interest in fine arts, and one day Schuyler planted the seed that I should pursue art direction. 

I distinctly remember the evening we all sat around the dining room table until late into the night, Jack and I talked about art direction for hours. He told me, "I'm about to go do this film called There Will Be Blood with Paul Thomas Anderson." I had to Google Paul Thomas Anderson because I didn't know who he was! Jack said I should consider coming to work with him on the movie, but I knew that meant I wouldn’t be able to do both film and grad school. I thought about it and decided to defer that first year from going (and most certainly I’d go the following year). That's the short version of how I got into film. I never went to grad school. Instead, I moved to LA and started art directing and designing, and went on to work for Jack for the next ten years. Words cannot sum up what an incredible adventure and experience that was. 

B: Would you say LA has had a strong influence on you aesthetically? Looking at these pictures of your loft, there is that ineffable California essence.

RDJ: 100%. There’s one thing you can’t deny in LA — it’s the light. It’s the sun. It’s contagious. I feel so affected by light in general, and by weather. Emotionally, there’s this natural high. The sun is always beaming into my house. But I so appreciate when a storm rolls through, but then you know that it’s just going to be for a few hours and then it’s gone and the sun is back.

B: What do you like to do in LA besides work?

RDJ: I live in Downtown LA, and I love getting out and walking to Grand Central Market, to the arts district, all the great galleries and museums. When I’m not working it’s either being in nature — nature is a huge influence for me, both in my work and just for finding quiet and solace — and enjoying great food and wine, I love to eat!

B: You designed the upcoming TWIN PEAKS — that seems aesthetically very opposite your aesthetic, this light-filled world you’ve built, to go into that misty Pacific Northwest of flannel and owls in the dark woods. How was that experience?

RDJ: Well, when I have a script, I assimilate into it, and I take all my experiences and pour them into that. It’s a ton of research, and openness to where that director wants to go. Obviously David has a very strong aesthetic that is his, but it’s also a collaboration, because you’re creating these worlds. There’s a bit of you, a bit of the director, a bit of others’ influences - the whole thing becomes a team effort.

B: I feel like we live in a very nostalgic time, and we have this incredible opportunity to revive things and add something new.

RDJ: Exactly. And I would get into it — but I can’t tell you anything about the show…

B: Oh, I understand. No spoilers!

RDJ: Yes. But that’s the interesting thing about art direction in general, you dive into those worlds. You’re kind of a journalist. So much of it is being malleable. It’s the same thing when you’re working with clients, and as much as they want your vision, they always have something, whether or not they can articulate it for you. It might be something that I love, and I’m thinking “How could they not like that color? This is crazy,” but then you have to recognize “They don’t like that color. Move on.”

B: I’m sure working with strong design perspectives like these directors has been a great learning opportunity.

RDJ: It stretches you! It makes you get outside of your bubble. I try not to have a bubble, and I think most designers struggle with this, but essentially, art emulates art, doesn’t it? And you’re pulling from everywhere. But you don’t have to have seen it before. I think that’s what’s so awesome about Bird and the designers they represent. You look at this incredible clothing, and it’s not the norm and it’s so fun and so playful and so spirited, and you don’t have to wear that same, square outfit every day. I love that it pushes the envelope and makes women feel good.

B: Fashion should be fun! Clearly design influences every part of your life, but how do you apply that to yourself and your person in clothing?

RDJ: I’ve always been a very safe person when it comes to fashion. I grew up playing soccer, I was very much a jock. It’s funny, later in life fashion has been something I’ve really taken an interest in, just loving textures, loving the story. My career has fostered an understanding of where all the intricate pieces come from and who makes them, and it’s really gotten me to appreciate where my clothes come from. In the last few years I’ve been extremely cognizant of that, where in the past it was very much just a uniform for me. Being on set all day, it’s just Blundstones or Birkenstocks or black clogs by No.6, and jeans by RTH or Acne Studios. Plus a very comfortable T-shirt by Raquel Allegra or Black Crane, and a sweatshirt by Rodarte or A.P.C. I think comfort is, for me, the number one thing. It goes down to the touch, the feel.

B: You mentioned that you get excited by the process and the journey of artists. Are there any in the fashion world that come to mind?

RDJ: I’m so new to it all, and I think about this whole underworld of makers and designers that make small batch clothing, and that is fascinating to me. Knowing the story does it for me. I’d rather spend more on a pair of jeans made with love and care and by hand versus where there’s 20 million made and they’re shipped everywhere in the world. Great products last forever, and if you’re ready to move on from it, you give it to a friend.

B: How’d you meet Jen, anyhow?

RDJ: I met Jen through Jenny Lee [Bird’s Director of Buying]. When Jenny Lee moved to LA from New York with Bird, our mutual friend, Julie [Pearson, of Austin and Portland’s Spartan Shop, for whom De Jong recently designed a store] said, “you have to meet my dear friend Ruth,” and Jenny said “you have to meet Jen, she’s doing a store.” We had this wonderful dinner at Night + Market Song in Silver Lake. It was instant friendship.

B: I love it! I love how women work together.

RDJ: Yeah, I mean, it was so honest. I had no agenda, Jen had no agenda, I didn’t really know Bird in that way, not being a New Yorker and not frequently having time in New York to hang out and pop in. And then we met, and we just took to each other. We’re also just so similar — Jen and I are both Cancers, very driven and focused. It’s like we’ve been friends for a hundred years, but we just met. She was like “Hey, let’s go to the desert, and do you mind modeling?” I’ve never done it before in my life, and I was like “Yeah! Sure.”

B: It just works.

RDJ: It just works. I think we find each other, ultimately, without even trying to. It’s so easy and natural. All very organic gravitation.

B: It does seem like in this way, work and business and life really do balance each other out.

RDJ: Yeah, we just both have a passion for beautiful things and beautiful objects and texture and art and design, so naturally you want to go have beautiful dinners and great wine and good company, and that’s how we came together.