Interview: Colin Sullivan-Stevens

  • Sullivan-Stevens designed his first bag without having any knowledge of how to work a sewing machine. Now, he hand-sews many of his products in his studio.

  • Designer and artist Colin Sullivan- Stevens lives in a part of Portland he jokingly calls the “Textile Innovations District” or “Seagullville.” “I don’t get cabin fever working from home,” he says of his downtown studio and workspace. “But as you’ll see inside, everything is chaotic.”

From sketchbook to studio: behind the scenes with Colin Sullivan-Stevens, artist, designer, and founder of Anchorpak


Artists use their sketchbooks like writers use their journals -a place to deposit the inner churnings of their brains, where they can unload their ideas recklessly onto the page. As a journalist, I translate every thought into words, but as I flip through the intricate and wild sketchbook of Colin Sullivan-Stevens, I begin to wonder whether images can tell a more complete story. The pages are covered in tesseracts, patterns, pine trees, and scribbles—webs of pen work sprawling across the page with a logic that isn’t immediately apparent. I feel as though I’m gazing directly into his brain, where patterns proliferate and odd angles dominate.

“As a kid, I was a little obsessed with M.C. Escher,” admits Sullivan-Stevens. The artist- slash-designer is sitting in his artfully chaotic downtown Portland apartment, which also serves as the headquarters for Anchorpak, his start-up company that produces uniquely ergonomic over-the-shoulder bags. “I have always been drawn to geodesic shapes and geometric things. In home economics, I chose to sew a soccer ball, of all things. And if you think about it, the Anchorpak is another one of these geometric forms.” With this business venture, the artist has come (forgive the pun) full circle.

Sullivan-Stevens created his first Anchorpak bag to fill a personal need: “I couldn’t find a bag that I wanted to buy, and usually, if there is something I want to do, I don’t consult a heck of a lot beforehand. I just find a way to make it work.” This creative process, which he describes as “relatively spontaneous with a little planning thrown in,” resulted in a prototype bag that he created from one parallelogram of fabric. He stitched it together at the top and bottom, and folded it into a box-like shape at the base. With a single piece of fabric, an entire company was born.

It may sound as though Sullivan-Stevens hit gold on his first foray into satchel-sewing, but a visit to his studio tells a more complicated truth. Around his sewing room are dozens of prototypes, many of which Sullivan-Stevens rejected for various reasons (straps are too short, fabric is too crinkly and loud, pockets are hard to reach, and so on). The finished products, which are available online at Anchorpak’s website and in various stores, are standardized versions of these early models. “The beauty of the Anchorpak is that it has a form that stays put on your body—the fit is not mechanical. It is not about clasps and ties, it’s about the way the bag engages comfortably with your body,” he explains. “I had to get that just right, but once I did, I realized I could wear this bag for hours and not even notice. In fact, some customers have told me that it feels reassuring to wear.” His mother, Kathleen Sullivan, who is a huge fan of the Anchorpak and works with Sullivan-Stevens on marketing and outreach, has suggested as a tagline “the bag that feels like a hug.” (“I don’t like it,” he admits. “But my mom’s been such a huge help through the entire process.”)

Sullivan-Stevens credits his diverse art and design background for turning him into the creative polymath he is today. Before founding Anchorpak, he worked in a variety of artistic fields, from custom wall painting to art restoration. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he always knew he would do something artistic with his career—he just wasn’t sure exactly what form it would take. When he moved back to Maine after college, he took a series of odd jobs, working for companies including Dowling Walsh Gallery and Transformit. “I’ve never really held a long-term job,” he says. “My career is always changing. I’ve worked in painting, sculpture, installations.” In 2010, Sullivan-Stevens was the recipient of a Maine Arts Commission grant for his mural work.

His apartment reflects an evolving mishmash of mediums. On the wall of his kitchen hang several of his paintings, which have an interesting, flattened style that recalls the mechanical angles of American modernists. Plants fill the free spaces between pieces of unmatched furniture, and books, art, and scraps of cloth fill every square inch of his shelves. Color abounds and often appears in surprising combinations—lilac with olive green, coral pinks with murky yellows. There is so much color in his space that I wonder aloud how he finds such unexpectedly appealing pairings.

Instead of answering, he launches into a 30-second monologue about teal. “As far as I can tell, teal is the most versatile color on earth. It mixes with purples and yellows and browns. It goes with gray and black—you see teal in the landscape, too. It’s everywhere,” he says. “Maybe it was a cop-out for me to have chosen teal (and black and gray) for my bags, but I’m so drawn toward it. I love colors that appear in the natural landscape, and we have such a full spectrum of natural colors in Maine.” Although many of his bags feature neutral colors or a primary color palette, he continually returns to his painterly roots, mixing colors and patterns and prints.

It is the mix of artful deliberation and spontaneous creation that makes Sullivan- Stevens such a compelling artist and designer. This combination of traits also results in a fastidious testing period for each Anchorpak prototype. “It’s very hard for me to put anything together and present it cohesively,” he admits. “All my instincts to keep developing the design concept are complicated by the reality of building a business. But I am going to get this product out there.”

“Now, I believe in the Anchorpak. But I still know I can make it better. I’m going to continue to build on it. None of this,” he says, gesturing around his studio, “has been planned.” And yet somehow, somewhere in between the sketchbook and the sewing machine, he’s found a way to make it work.

 

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