How LA-based design studio Ella leads with humanity and education in its projects
We talk to River Jukes-Hudson of woman and minority-owned design studio Ella on the ways in which design and creativity can be consistently collaborative, inclusive, and respectful.
- Joey Levenson
- 13 September 2021
Ella is a self-professed “woman and minority-owned” design studio based out of Los Angeles that boasts an impressively talented team working to evolve the design industry. Set up by River Jukes-Hudson, Stephen Serrato, and Dante Carlos in 2013, Ella continues to be run by River and Stephen to this day with a small yet selective team (Carina Huynh, Emma Sutton, and Gabby Pulgar) that fuels their creative engine. “We were all friends [teaching] at ArtCenter College of Design, so it was a natural gravitation,” River tells It’s Nice That on the studio’s small beginnings. After discovering a harmonious and symbiotic chemistry during their time working on the publication The Fun: The Social Practice of Nightlife in NYC, the designers set up what was originally known as “Love Triangle”. “After much back and forth, we landed on [the name] Ella, a word that represents both masculine and feminine, English and Spanish, and contains the city of our origin, Los Angeles.” It’s this exact line of thinking that keeps Ella incredibly captivating and alluring. Whilst its online presence is marked by a discreet aloof nature, its work and mission statement speaks for itself. There is a noticeable exciting quality in the work it creates for its clientele, spurring from somewhere personal and socially driven.
“We have a signature way of working,” River says. “It’s based on a foundation of mutual respect, honesty and trust.” Together, the team approaches projects as “opportunities to challenge definitions and exceed expectations,” rather than simply seeing them as problems that need to be solved. Within Ella, there is a constant movement towards working in a way that surprises the team – and its clients. “Typically, designers find comfort in efficiency, logic, order and simplicity but life is not that way,” River explains. “Therefore, we don’t impose those systems or standards on our clients and collaborators and we find this gives the finished work a richness and a human quality.” A rich, deep and “human” quality is the perfect way to summarise Ella’s portfolio. Life breathes onto the digital screen of all its designs which work as well on an iPhone as they do across a piece of Chicago architecture.
Most importantly, River emphasises that “being women-led and minority-led means our clients feel seen, heard, understood, respected and represented.” It’s central to Ella’s ethos, and River finds it often seeps into their work practice. “A project is not a success unless all members of the team feel respected,” she says. “Publications require the choreography of authors, artists, curators, directors, photographers, copy editors, project managers, pre-press experts, print reps, printers and binders, so every role is essential.” In an industry where it’s easy for design studios to often lose sight of the humanity behind the work, Ella is a refreshing wake-up call. Its respect for the labour and creativity that is generated by individuals coalescing to produce a project keeps its work refined and to the point. More interestingly, it turns towards the ethos of activists to inspire its designs. One, in particular – Cristina Rivera Chapman – has a profound quote that permeates Ella’s output: “we get to prioritise relationships and the time it takes to be with each other and ourselves in a meaningful way.” It’s what helps everyone at Ella “understand the importance of flexibility and enjoy getting shit done,” River tells us.
Perhaps this dedication to humanity and respect in the practice of design as much as in the product of design comes from River and Stephen’s work as educators in the field. “There is no future in ‘business as usual’ and teaching reminds us of this on a daily basis,” River says. “To do right by our students requires living outside of our comfort zone, and this carries over to our design.” By leading a generation coming up under them, River and Stephen are able to see the exciting and ever-changing nature of design at the frontline. No doubt, this allows everyone at ELLA to stay genuinely excited and engaged with the projects they work on. Recently as of such, they worked on a monograph and exhibition identity for Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation at the ICA Philadelphia. “It’s given us the opportunity to dive deep into Jenkins’ remarkable life while collaborating with some of our favourite people, the curators Meg Onli and Erin Christovale,” River says.
When asked what’s next for the studio, River pivots back to the present moment. “We are always most interested in what we’re working on currently,” she explains. “We’ve shared some processes from works in progress, and you’ll see these ideas realised in the near future.”
Ella: Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation (Copyright © Ella, 2021)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. He was part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.