To describe the work of Leta Sobierajski is to wrangle with numerous contradictions. They are still lives, it would appear, but they are anything but still. It's graphic design, and yet it oozes fine art out of every pore. It's meticulously controlled, but experimental & very playful at the same time. We chatted to the New York-based designer about getting a formal education in design, being remembered as a real person, and the creative potential of childhood.
As much as I love your work, I often find myself looking at a piece of yours, hugely enjoying it, but realising that I don’t really “get it.” Would you say it’s important to you that your work is “gotten”?
No, I think it's okay not to get something, as long as... well, I just hope that not getting it doesn't compromise the appreciation of it. I mean, I look at other people's work and don't understand things sometimes too, but it can still be pleasurable in other ways — it can still be aesthetically beautiful, even if the concept isn’t quite clear. I think there’s merit to that — to just making something beautiful.
You studied design at Purchase College — how important, would you say, is a formal education in design?
There were things I learned at college that I probably wouldn't have had the motivation to do otherwise. I had a lot of older, traditionally-trained professors, many of whom made you do everything by hand — you’d have to cut everything out yourself, and do your kerning and your leading by hand. I didn’t even touch a computer until my second year. When you're 18, you feel like what you’re doing is so silly, but by the time I graduated, I realized that those exercises had really taught me to train my eye. And I don’t know how — or if — I’d have learned those techniques otherwise. So yes, I think school can be really beneficial in that respect.
Is there a point in your career that you particularly regret?
I used to really regret beginning my career in motion graphics, but to be honest, had I not done so, I might not be doing what I am doing now. Now, I believe my pursuit was actually quite beneficial even if at the time I felt like it had been a mistake. I was at MPC for, like, four days before I said to myself “Oh, sh#@. This is gonna suck.” I ended up working there for eight months, and aside from meeting one of my best friends there, I just… I hated the experience.
I mean, they make really great work, don’t get me wrong — I just don’t think I have the patience or the skill for something like that. Working in a VFX house just wasn’t the right environment for me. I was doing end tags for banks and toothbrushes. This one time, I was asked to make a styleframe of a female centaur eating yogurt. I remember doing it and thinking “Okay, I know I’m getting paid for this, but… what the f#$k?”
To be honest, I don't know if that experience at MPC counts as a failure: it was an opportunity I decided to explore, and I ended up disappointing myself with my decision. I felt misguided and confused about the work I wanted to achieve versus the work I was actually making. I don't know if I'd fully consider it a failure, but whether it was or wasn’t, it’s one that I’m very grateful for.
And so the other side of that question: what’s been your biggest success so far?
For me, it was absolutely making the leap away from motion graphics and VFX and deciding to start anew with my portfolio — investing my time and money in my personal projects. Had I not done that — had I not taken the time and the money to explore what made me happy — none of this would have happened. It’s a big sacrifice — it took a lot for me to say to myself “I'm not going to see my friends all the time. I'm not going to go out.” But it’s important to focus on yourself — to work towards something for you.
In a broader context, how would you define success?
To me, success is about being satisfied with yourself — recognizing something that you take pleasure in doing, and feeling compelled by that.
And would you consider yourself successful?
I think so, yes. I feel successful in that I've found something that really gets me going — and that keeps me going. But, I don’t want to say that I’m successful in terms of being fully satisfied yet, because that would mean I’m done. But I certainly find success in what I’m doing, yes.
On that note: when is it, in your life, that you feel at your absolute happiest?
I think I’m probably happiest when I'm working on a project I'm really excited about, and also when I'm with my partner Wade. If those two could combine, I would probably explode! I would be so happy. But that hasn't happened yet though.
Isn’t that the case with Complements, your collaboration with Wade?
Leta: [Laughs] No, no, no, that's absolutely the case. I guess that's not client work though.
Right — you’re not getting paid for it, essentially!
Leta: [Laughs] Well, yeah! But, I think that's when I'm happiest. Maybe it's sad to some people, but I think I derive my most pleasure from working. And I know that Wade’s the same way too — which is why we get along so well, I guess.
What sort of a legacy do you want to leave behind? Or do you even want to be remembered at all?
I'd like to be remembered for not taking myself too seriously — for not being afraid to show personality and emotion in my work. I guess I just want to be remembered as a person. I’m human! If I can contribute anything to the design world, that's great — but if I can’t, that's okay too. I just want people to know that I'm happy and that I love what I do. That’s crucial for me.
Is there a time in your life that you wish you could relive?
I'd love to go back to that time in my childhood — about 4 or 5 — before you really know what's going on, or what life is all about. There's a time in your life when nothing is taken so seriously — you have no hang-ups, there are no inhibitions, and you’re never embarrassed or ashamed of what you’ve done. I wish I could go back to that time — I’d love to draw things and create things and not feel inhibited about what I'm producing.
When you're an adult, there's so much to worry about. You worry about how people are going to react to your work, and so you dumb down your idea. You’re afraid your concept won’t be understood, and so you don’t pursue it. But as a child, you don’t have those filters — there’s just this openness: the complete freedom of making.
And finally: what scares you most about the next five years?
Um... I think what scares me is that it's so uncertain. I try not to make too much of a plan, or a timeline, just because every year is so different. I feel like, so far, every year has triumphed the past year, and so there isn’t a reason to be scared. I find it really stressful to prescribe to myself what I’ll be doing in the next year, let alone the next five. There are people who are convinced that “Next year, I'm gonna work with this client!” or “Next year, I have to get featured on this blog.” Personally, I try to just take it as it comes. But absolutely, the uncertainty can be scary.