The lure of a job offer in the Bay Area whisked German Interactive Art Director Stefan Schuster off to California in January 2015.
After chancing on an Eichler Mid-Century Modern house, Stefan, his wife Jana and their two boys Josha and Silas made the move into Sunnyvale, right in the middle of Silicon Valley. In the international neighborhood, surrounded by the biggest businesses in tech, Stefan has made a little idyll— “California Modern” filled with design classics from his childhood.
Though an interest in design runs in the family, it was during his studies in the mid-90s that Stefan decided to specialize in the growing digital field of interaction design. As an interactive art director his focus lies in digital branding and designing the interfaces between people and technology. In Germany, he worked for a host of digital agencies, among these, as creative director for MoreSleep, the agency behind Freunde von Freunden.
Since the move to California, a life that was shaped in Berlin and Frankfurt by free-time visits to galleries and museums has been radically transplanted outdoors. The beautiful weather and the nearby beaches lend themselves easily to watersports and to lingering out in nature—or even in the atrium of their own house. We visited Stefan and his family, wondering at their stunning house and finding ourselves quickly enveloped in the Californian lifestyle: stopping for a coffee at Santa Cruz, biking at the Santa Clara P.A.L. BMX Track, skating at Lake Cunningham skate park in San Jose, and finishing off surfing at Capitola Beach.
FvF have always been drawn to the Californian lifestyle, shaped by the energetic coastline and endless summer days. Together with Visit California we’re proud to follow the creative community who have settled in the golden state with natural wonders right at their doorstep.
Can you tell us a little about growing up in Frankfurt?
I grew up in a small place in Taunus [a mountain range in Hesse, Germany], with lots of forest, meadows and building sites right at my doorstep. The perfect place for a kid to go out on adventures. Later, I went to school in Frankfurt and went on to study there, too. I first became aware of graffiti out and about in the city there. It fascinated me from the beginning. After I started spraying and doing graffiti, I learned more about typography, color, and teamwork, than I did during my actual studies.
Where and when did your interest in interactive design come about?
I probably inherited an interest in design from my father, who was a graphic designer and who still does a lot of oil paintings today. When I started my design studies, the internet was still in an infantile stage and the websites looked terrible. I was fascinated from the beginning with how quickly and easily you could publish something.
Which positions got you to where you are today?
I worked for several digital agencies, like for example, Razorfish, AKQA, and Sid Lee, first as a permanent role and later as a freelancer. Lastly, I was creative director of MoreSleep, the awesome agency behind Freunde von Freunden.
Can you tell us a little about any stand-out projects?
The whole time at MoreSleep was really special for me, because we brought not only digital projects to life, but also great print projects like Companion magazine or the last Freunde von Freunden book. It’s always a special moment when the end result can also be a tactile experience.
Santa Clara P.A.L. BMX Track
“We really like going to Santa Clara P.A.L. BMX Track. It’s a great sport for the kids and our youngest can already race there. There’s music playing and the atmosphere is relaxed but also energetic. It’s still really authentically American there. I’d always dreamed of a place like that as a kid, but back then in Germany there wasn’t anything like it.”
How has your background and your training in Germany influenced you in terms of your aesthetic and design standards?
I’ve always been a fan of Functionalism and Purism, be it in architecture, product design or also in graphic design. It was less my training that shaped me in that way but more so my daily life and the things around me, like the furniture in my parent’s house or products by Braun. Here in the USA I’m considered a typical German designer because of my structured approach.
What was your impression of California and the Californian lifestyle before coming to live here? What’s the reality?
I had all the cliches in my head that you have as a German—and they’ve partly proven true. Always beautiful weather, lots of beaches, surfing as an attitude towards life, and the ever-friendly people. These are the scenes that I associated with life here. The closest beach is 30 minutes away, surfing has also become a hobby of mine, and the weather is dreamy. That said, there’s of course the huge level of pressure that everyone is under here. The cost of living is astronomical and you feel that of course in the people who live here. That shouldn’t be taken for granted. Also the big climate problems, most of all the drought, are noticeable all around you. It’s probably always like that: when a dream becomes reality then the images in your mind gain a certain depth of vision. I can’t really say though, whether it’s lessened my excitement at living here. It’s more that it’s rounded out the picture I had.
“As a German, I had all the cliches about California in my head—and they’ve partly proven true.”
In your opinion, what makes California different to the rest of the USA?
California has been a bubble for a long time now. There’s the healthy eating, people play a lot of sports, get out and enjoy life and there’s everything that you can do in this amazing landscape, so it becomes quite tricky not to just fade out the rest of the country and its huge problems.
What are the biggest differences between you life in Germany and your life in the USA?
So much more happens outdoors! In summer the atrium of our house becomes our living and dining room. For the most part our free time is spent at the beach, in the woods, or someplace else out in the open. Sometimes the sense of urbanity is lacking, but San Francisco is really close by and we’re often there.
Lake Cunningham Regional Skate Park
“The Lake Cunningham Regional Skate Park is the biggest park in California, measuring 6300m2. The park has the biggest skate bowl worldwide, the highest vert ramp and the biggest full pipe. My sons and I go there occasionally and always have a lot of fun. I also really like watching the other skaters. I’ve always found the skate scene really inspiring. What’s really exciting is that skating here isn’t just associated with kids or tweens. There’s a much more open social interaction and you also see much older skaters.”
What do you find particularly exciting about the area where you live?
Clearly, aspects like the weather, landscape, ocean and also the innovative spirit of the tech scene play a huge role here. Galleries and museums, that in Frankfurt and Berlin were part of our daily life, have taken a backseat, which also just has something to do with the phase of life that I’m in now. With two young boys I feel better being out in the skate park or the BMX track than at an art exhibition. There’ll be time for that again.
Are there particular objects or pieces of furniture in your house that are especially close to your heart or tell a certain story?
Basically all our furniture that we brought with us from Germany for our big move is really dear to us. The moment that the furniture arrived, after about two months, it made us so happy and more emotional than we expected. Certain pieces I’ve known since childhood, like the Eames chairs and the Interlübke sideboard. My father gave them to me when I moved into my first place.
“I ride by bike to work everyday, which makes me an exotic breed here.”
How do you balance family and work?
First of all, it’s been a long time since we’ve lived in a major city. We came to the decision for Silicon Valley over San Francisco surprisingly easily, and that’s exactly what helps me to fairly satisfy family and work life. I ride by bike to work everyday, which makes me an exotic breed here, and this gives me the chance in the morning and in the evenings to still spend a lot of time with my family. The weekends are consistently free. That’s more balanced than the everyday agency life in Germany. That’s why I feel like I can manage both here really well.
What does success mean for you?
I believe everyone can have success, you just have to stay moving, follow your heart and believe in yourself. Or, in the words of Martin Luther King, ‘If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you have to keep moving forward.’
“Capitola Beach in Santa Cruz is the perfect place for the whole family. On the weekend a band plays right on the beach, the boys hula hoop with their grandma and we go off surfing.”
Thank you, Stefan,for sharing your new life in California with us. Stefan’s digital home can be found here.
This portrait is part of a collaboration between FvF and our friends at Visit California. View our other Visit California Portraits here for some sunny inspiration.
The sun-drenched state is rich with vibrant personalities. Flick through FvF’s many visits to California , see more design wonders like Stefan’s Eichler house and follow our community’s surfing adventures.
Interview: Lilli Heinemann
Photography: Kenny Hurtado