As one of Lotuff's artisans with a skill for cutting leather and understanding its nuances, Fiona is an integral and valuable member of our team. Here, Liz interviews her on moving from San Francisco to Providence and working at the Dean Hotel.
You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the The Art Institute of Boston with a focus on painting and printmaking. What influences did you have throughout your life that eventually led to you seeking out an art degree?
Part of the reason I was always into drawing and painting is probably because my grandparents were both artists. I went to an art high school called SOTA (Ruth Asawa School of The Arts), and my aunt was an artist, too, so it runs in the family. My grandfather was a photographer and cabinet maker. He photographed a lot of demolition and architectural sites, but he also did printmaking and made drums and other musical instruments at his studio in San Francisco. My grandma was just generally a very artistic and funny woman. More than anyone else, she really encouraged me to make art, not listen to teachers, and do whatever I really wanted to. She also drew and painted, so we would do that together sometimes. We made a ton of those plastic plates—the kind where you send in a drawing on a round piece of paper, and it comes back as a dish.
My mom, brother, and I lived in the in-law apartment below my grandma. She was very important in my life, and, of course, my mom has always been super supportive too. I just can’t think of any other way my life could have gone. The thought never really occurred to me that I could have ever done anything besides something creative.
In college, my art history professor was a big motivator for me. He was really inspirational. I took all his classes. We would go out and do plein air landscape paintings. He was a big art collector, and his house was bursting at the seams with his own paintings. After I graduated, he hired me as his studio assistant. Technically, that was my first art job.
Since you’re originally from San Francisco, what’s made Providence the right place for you to live and Lotuff the right place to build your career?
I’ve always considered living near the ocean to be something that is very important to me, and that pretty much puts me on either the west or east coast. I lived in Boston for seven years because I worked there for a few years after college. Then I moved to Providence, and, honestly, I didn’t know very much about this city when I moved here.
Providence is a major city, but a lot of people don’t really know much about it outside of New England. Living here is always going to stick in my mind as a very unique experience. It’s a small city. I like that it’s very walkable. There is a concentration of artists here, and there always seems to be something going on. It’s pretty convenient to be a three-hour drive from New York, too.
When I moved here, Lotuff was in its fledgling stage, and I had a friend who recommended me to Lindy for a position. We were mostly making pouches and other smaller items, and that job just came at the perfect time. I’m good with my hands and at making things, but I had never worked with leather before so it seemed like a good opportunity to learn something new.
Career-wise, I think it’s interesting that we’re reviving the concept of creating quality handmade goods that you associate more with practices from a couple of generations ago. I like that we are making things that are going to last for a long time and have their own story, and I am interested in becoming more involved in the design process.
You’re skilled at pretty much everything on the Lotuff studio floor, but particularly so at cutting. Why do you think you have an eye for working with the hides and determining how best to cut them?
I like when there’s a process to follow with a logical progression. When I was a kid, I used to do a ton of puzzles, and this is pretty much exactly like a puzzle. It is almost like a reverse game of Tetris. You have one hide, which you try to use whole and get as many pieces out of it as you can. The additional challenge is that there are these almost barely-detectable scars or blemishes that you have to work around and not include in the final cuts.
You start with the biggest, nicest pieces and work your way down. If I look at one Tripp in a run of fifteen, I can remember which one is which, and from which hide I cut it. I know where on the skin I cut it from based on the texture.
When you’re not working at Lotuff, you’re behind the concierge desk at the Dean Hotel in downtown Providence. Given that Lotuff and The Dean collaborate with each other on occasion, what similarities do you see between the two companies?
I feel like there’s more Lotuff than meets the eye in the Dean Hotel. We made all the compendiums in the rooms. Aesthetically, I feel like the two brands are very similar--kind of old-school classic merged with modern updated touches and attitude. The Dean is a boutique hotel, so a lot of the style and the design elements are handmade or handpicked--not mass-produced. It’s an antique chair from a Paris market or artwork from a thrift store. Just like no two rooms are alike at the Dean, all Lotuff bags are one-of-a-kind.
They both also seem to attract the same demographic of people. Literally, people who travel to The Dean walk through the doors carrying Lotuff bags. They are interesting people and from all walks of life. It’s so intriguing to hear about their lives and where they’re coming from and why they’re here traveling to Providence. With both brands, it’s just about the experience.