Interior Design Magazine 2020 HiP Awards Winner: Elizabeth Vereker


When we finally put 2020 behind us, one of the few things we’ll be able to recall with pleasure is how resourceful we all turned out to be; how the virtual celebrations and Zoom-powered events, for all their glitches and briefly frozen faces, proved community stronger than quarantine. 

At Interior Design Magazine’s HiP Awards, for example, Cindy Allen summoned the full universe of design and landed it in our laptops like some digital Prospero. Announcing O+A’s Design Director Elizabeth Vereker as this year’s winner for Graphics and Branding, she noted Elizabeth’s definition of good design: placemaking, problem-solving, storytelling. Three skills the pandemic has sharpened for us all.

Since we couldn’t raise a glass to Elizabeth in Chicago this year, Primo and Verda thought it a good time to look back in another way. Zooming in from three separate locations, they recalled how this partnership that has been so important in shaping O+A’s identity began:

Verda
Elizabeth, when I first met you I couldn’t believe how…
Verda’s face freezes. Her voice winds down like a toy on weak batteries.

Primo
We lost you, Verda. You need to start over.

Verda
Oh my God. Okay. Whe…e…e…n y…o…o…u…u…

Primo (Laughing)
It’s worse!

Verda
Why don’t I call in? I’m gonna call in. I just gotta figure out how to hang up.

Primo
I’ll start. Elizabeth, you started out many years ago and I don’t know if you’d read or heard anything about us, but what were your first impressions of O+A?

Elizabeth
I was surprised by how casual everyone was. Everyone seemed so relaxed and young. And it was very organic. That wasn’t what I was expecting based on the reputation that you had built in the work. Everyone was so excited to be there. They were having fun together.


Primo
What were your impressions of Verda and me? And were they accurate?

Elizabeth 
You and Verda are nothing if not authentic.

Primo laughs.

Elizabeth 
Verda came up to me, and I thought, “Who is this spark plug?”

Verda (Rejoining the call)
Oh my God!

Elizabeth
Verda, the first day I met you at the office was the first day that the wallpaper went up. And you raced back to the Brand area and exclaimed, “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!”

Verda
I was about to say I don’t WANT to know what your first impression was.

Elizabeth 
The next night we had a party, we had an open house and it just happened to be the day after I started and you came up and started introducing me to all these people and “This is Elizabeth and she worked here and here and here…” And I was wondering, how does she know everything about me? I only met her for five seconds yesterday. Those are the things that I value so much. Your strength and that you’re unafraid to say what you feel and also that you take such an interest in everyone in the studio and really get to know them.

Verda
Ah…thank you.

Elizabeth 
And Primo, similarly, I saw two things that were a little contradictory. Which was being this kind of design star out in the industry as well as being so casual and approachable in the office—wanting to barbecue. The duality of those two was really nice.

Primo 
I still like to barbecue.


Verda
Okay, can you guys hear me now? Elizabeth when I first met you I couldn’t believe how talented you were—not just from a graphic design perspective, knowing everything about branding and environmental graphics but even specialties like typography and book design, but I also remember leaning on you heavily with regard to corporate retreats and employee handbooks and all kinds of recruitment type stuff. How did you learn so much?

Elizabeth
Ah…thank you. Before I came to you guys my career was split in two with grad school overlapping in between. I’d spent six years in interior design and then five years at design strategy startup. All of that was essentially my leadership bootcamp—how to articulate ideas, how to run workshops for visioning and get information out of people. How to listen. Me coming to O+A was very serendipitous. When I got the job I asked for a job description, and you guys were like, “We don’t have one. We’ve never had your position. Just make it up.”

Primo (Laughing)
Welcome to O+A.

Elizabeth
After that I wasn’t afraid to carve out a mission and try to build on it. I wasn’t afraid of failure because there wasn’t any road map for me to follow.

Primo
I have a question. Tell me what you think Brand Studio is—or the area of expertise that you oversee. Because it’s more than Brand and I wouldn’t want to pigeon-hole it. It’s an important part of our process.

Elizabeth 
I want to say it’s the heart. (Laughing) I don’t want to take away from what anyone else does in the Studio. But I’d say the Brand Studio is the heart. I think we look at things differently. As communication designers and visual artists we are always thinking about synthesizing, communicating, tailoring and also bringing in my favorite word: emotion. And humor. That’s what I think we do. So much of what we do isn’t about environmental graphics or brand. It’s about storytelling.

 


“…the Brand Studio is the heart. I think we look at things differently. As communication designers and visual artists we are always thinking about synthesizing, connecting, tailoring and also bringing in my favorite word: emotion. And humor.”



Primo
Tell me the importance of storytelling—because you’re one of the best that I’ve seen. I can always count on you to articulate a concept. What does it mean to you?

Elizabeth
Well if Brand is the heart, storytelling is the soul. Storytelling is connecting, listening and personalizing. I think storytelling is one of the things that makes design design, not just engineering. By nature of crafting a story, whether it’s about the client or a concept we’re practicing all these skills that we need for a good design. We’re synthesizing, we’re listening, we’re editing. We’re creating something that is intriguing and personalized. It’s what helps us get excited and make decisions about a project, because it has to fit in to that storyline. It’s also a way to bring clients along on a journey that they might otherwise not understand because they haven’t had the technical training.

Verda
If you could improve or change one aspect of our profession what would it be?

Elizabeth (Long pause) 
I think it would be amazing if we could shift—and you could speak for hours about this, Verda—if there was a way to shift from focus on budgets and schedules and speed and instead slow down and focus on collaboration and craftsmanship and creativity and making the best thing possible.

Verda
Good answer! Can I ask another one that’s more fun?

Primo
Go for it.

Verda
What’s your favorite wardrobe item?

Elizabeth
Scarves. I love scarves. They’re something that I almost always buy when I travel. Because they’re by an artist and they’re not as expensive as a bigger piece and they’re easy to pack. Most of my wardrobe is entirely black and white so they go with everything. And it’s San Francisco so you always need one.

Verda 
What’s your favorite San Francisco restaurant that you wish was open?

Elizabeth
I have the best answer for this because I’m going tonight. It’s Bar Crudo. I walked by last night and I noticed that they were open for pop-ups. And I haven’t had oysters or any raw fish in months, so I’m going tonight with one of my best friends to celebrate my 14th anniversary of moving to San Francisco, which was yesterday.

Verda
Wow!

Primo
Wow!

Elizabeth
I can’t wait. It will be outside on the sidewalk—six feet apart of course.

Verda
Sounds incredible. Well, enjoy your meal and happy anniversary.

Primo
And congratulations on winning the HiP Award.

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