Claire Cottrell - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Claire Cottrell


Claire Cottrell was born in Southern California, but spent her childhood moving to a variety of places across the globe: From Kentucky to the Swiss Alps. Places that have definitely contributed on her perspective on life and the richness of opportunities it has to offer. When Claire invited us to her home in Mount Washington, we discovered that she had moved in less than a month ago. She kindly gave us a tour of her new home, and eventually we browsed some of her cherished books from her collection, while her friend was beautifully arranging flowers all over the home.

Claire recently opened up an online art book store called Book Stand, which specializes in artists’ books, zines, high concept publications and limited-run films, and caters to those looking for inspiration and unique visual pleasures. Her career began in landscape architecture, and then moving into art direction for films and commercials, eventually beginning directing videos and films. After conversing for a bit in her backyard about her fascination with plants and fantastical children stories, we decided to take a hike to a neighboring hill in Mount Washington just as the sky started to radiate with late afternoon colors.

This story is featured in our second book, Freunde von Freunden: Friends, order within Germany here, or find the book internationally at selected retailers.

This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on their site.

When did you move in?
I have been here for 10 days. I’m still unpacking (laughing), you should see the garage, it is still full of boxes and furniture! I was living in Mar Vista, just east of Venice. It was hard to leave, but this is what I was looking for. The last place I lived in had a huge garden, but it was a shared community space. I’m a big gardener and a plant person, so having a yard was a big thing for me, and then I also wanted to move to the east side of Los Angeles. I was looking in Silver Lake and Echo Park, but had a hard time finding a yard, so I started looking in Mount Washington. When I came to see this place, and I saw the planted tomatoes and herbs, and the backyard, I just felt it was completely amazing.

You have a background in landscapes?
Yes, I have a Masters in Landscape Architecture from University of Southern California.

Do you still work with landscapes?
No I don’t, only for myself. I love plants and everything related to nature, but it’s a bit of a hobby, nothing that I do professionally.

So now you mostly do creative directing and film work?
Yes, creative direction and film. I’ve worked in advertising for 10 years, and I started on the production side of film, and that is a long story, but I met a director when I was in graduate school for landscape architecture, and I was doing research for him, mood boards and visual reference. It was my summer job, and I ended up getting along really well with him, and then he offered me a full-time job at his production company. This was ten years ago, and the climate for getting a job in architecture was a little challenging at that time. I had been on set, and I had gotten a taste of the film world. I felt it was so great, so I started to work with him.

So you enjoyed that more than landscape?
I loved landscape architecture, but I think I loved the theory of it. However, it wasn’t exactly the reality of the profession. I also loved thinking about a residential landscape, or doing a yard, or something interesting in working with public space or a school. But I did know the day to day was not going to be what we had in school. It would be the film world, that actually is what that is. There are no rules, and it is all make believe. This particular part of it really appealed to me.

Are there themes in your current work that you are focusing on?
That’s a good question. I really love working with living materials, so a lot of the art direction and production design use plant materials and flowers. I started doing them even in a bigger, more imaginative way, in exploring fantasy worlds, like using branches to make a head.  Before I got into film directing, I was working as an art director, and I worked a lot with plant materials. This was not only because I loved them, but because they were very affordable. I could find things in my garden, or in my yard, and create something out of them, or make a big bushel of flowers that brought in a lot of color for free.

You mentioned fantasy, are there other things that inspire you?
Well, my dad is British, and as a child growing up I read all the British children’s books, which is what I got from my grandparents for Christmas. There was one writer, Enid Blyton, and she wrote a series called, “The Faraway Tree” which is a British story about kids who were orphaned that went to live with their aunt and uncle. They live in a cottage on the edge of the woods and go exploring. Essentially they discover a fantastical tree in the woods. People live in the tree, and they end up climbing to the top of it, and at the very top there is a big room, with a ladder along with rotating worlds. So you climb up this ladder and you never really know what sort of world you will walk into.

I have to say that those stories have been incredibly inspiring to me, from the idea of people that live in trees, magical people in the woods, and all these different lands. Anyways… (laughing). I’m also a very big fan of Bruno Munari. There is a book he did about rocks, but it was basically preceding the rocks as islands that have these magical stories behind them. Those stories are a big inspiration to me too, but more as an adult inspiration.

So you are very influenced by fantasy?
Yes, without a doubt. But also the natural world.

Do you think there is a reason why you connected to those stories as a kid?
That is an interesting question. (Pause) My family moved around a lot, we moved almost every year. This is an interesting thing as a child, to move to a new house, to have to set up a new home, or whatever. One thing I always did, maybe because it seemed like a constant, was to be within the outdoor space that essentially would become my very one. It felt kind of the same wherever we were. I always had multiple tree houses.

Would you build the tree houses?
Yes! Well not just me, but, you know this is going to sound so weird, and I don’t think I have never talked about this. But as I was a little kid, I would set up a kitchen outside. The rocks were cakes and the plants were food things, too. I just made this make believe world!  When I think back on all the times we moved, that was what always felt familiar to me. I’m not really remembering the interiors of the houses as much as I remember the outdoor spaces, and I think a lot of that did come from reading those books and being immersed in those worlds.

Perhaps the home was more your parent’s space, and the outdoors was more your space?
Yes, definitely. Because I would go out on my own, even though I was young, but I could be out there all day, just doing my thing.

What are your plans for your new home?
Well the people who had lived here before had terraced the front steps, so I’ve started working on the herb garden on the top tier. I do have plans to plant the whole top with fruits and vegetables. I plan to plant a morning glory in the backyard to cover this fence here, and some friends of mine have agreed to help me build a redwood hot tub. I think that might go back there, too.

With plumbing?
You know, I’ve read a few things about doing it with solar power, but we will see, it’s going to be an experiment.

Any new projects you are working on?
Well one of the big things, I am opening an online art book shop called, “Book Stand”.  It is something I have been working on for a little while. After I met that director in graduate school doing research, I ended up doing research for feature films, advertising, and HBO. He referred me to other people and began to possess a reputation as someone who is good at visual research, as well as someone who is able to take a concept for a film and help visualize that for the production. In doing that I have gotten to know so many artist that way, because I would reach out to them in that way, and start a dialogue.

I’ve been thinking lately, what can I do with this incredible data base that I have, what can I turn that into? I also love books, and the idea for the art book shop is based on that specific subset of knowledge. The idea will be specifically for filmmakers and others in the creative world who are in the need for inspiration and are looking for something new. This will be a resource for that. I’ve organized the shop into four collections, which I will change around.  Right now, they are called Dreamlands, Food Design, Shade of Pink, and Sweet Earth.

Thank you Claire for your honesty and excitement, and wonderful tour of your home and Mount Washington.
If you are interested in exceptional printed matter, make sure to check out her online store “Book Stand” and have a look at her personal website here.

This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on their site here.

Interview & Text: David John
Photography: Jessica Comingore