Editor’s Note: The Northside Business Partnership is an association comprised of Northside businesses, property owners, and organizations. It serves as an advocate group for the Northside, strengthening the vitality of the business community by connecting, engaging, and promoting its members. NBP is administrated by NEHDA.
Brendan is a member of Echo, a multi-disciplinary design studio located on the Northside. Echo has been a Northside Business Partnership member since 2013 and has been involved with a variety of community projects, such as their iconic mural located behind the Echo storefront in Lock Alley. Read on to find out how Echo has evolved over time, what the future may hold, and the hidden truth about the origins of the mural!
Q: For those who don’t know much about Echo, could you explain a little bit about the history of your business?
Brendan: Sure. Echo came about around 2010. Briana Kohlbrenner opened a store here called Craft Chemistry. That store was a community arts and crafts shop that was a hybrid gallery and craft shop, so she would have gallery openings and a featured artist every couple of months. I was friends with Briana and looking for a space to do studio work. There were a couple of other designers called Lock 49, Damian Vallelonga and Jeff Walter, who were starting their own internet and software design, graphics, branding design business and they were also looking for a place to house themselves. So we collaborated with Briana to be able to work out of Craft Chemistry as a co-working space while she was operating that as a store. That evolved into us collaborating, both on arts projects and wanting to figure out how to encourage that collaborative co-working space as a place to be a community of artists and designers.
Q: Are you at all involved with the co-working space downtown or is that totally separate?
Brendan: Totally separate. It started up after we had been taking a crack at this for a little bit. They’re explicitly a co-working space and we were looking to be a space of collaboration. They kind of hope that happens there (downtown), but co-working is their only mission and that was not ours. That was just part of what we were interested in, as well as making art activity happen. So we collaborated on a lot of projects with different people leading in different directions. Myself, I was more involved with the public arts scene, explicitly the sculpture and public space work. Briana was involved in art market stuff, so she started the Salt Market with some friends. So she was doing big art market events, and then there would just be overlap in terms of our interests and we would have some of our events together. At some point we decided to formalize it and actually become a business and have an identity and not just be this loose conglomeration of people and work.
Q: How did you choose the name Echo?
Brendan: Um, it was a long and arduous process and the answer is just like, it kind of came out of nowhere. We spent a lot of time trying to come up with names that resonated with us and maybe were open ended and not so specific to “Oh, we’re a company that does this,” but could be a bit more poetically interesting. In terms of symbolism, it resonated because of us being the work of a collective, so the idea of multiple voices being expressed. So that was something that worked as a name and in some ways, it was just kind of arbitrary and that’s also part of the creative act, I guess. Finding the arbitrary things that work in the specific moment.
So that’s the early history of how we got started. Then we were officially developing projects and events and things underneath that company and brand. Briana closed Craft Chemistry and became more full time engaged with trying to do events and art activities. We looked for other homes to expand our footprint, someplace where we could really host events…and had a lot of trouble finding the right spot. Then people got busy with other things, so now we’re into a new form and evolution of what we are as a business.
Q: So how would you define that now?
Brendan: I think now we’re much more of a professional services design firm. I recently got licensed as an architect.
Brendan: Thank you. So I’m more pushing for explicitly architecture work as a designer, and Briana has since left the business. She was driving a lot of the event-based activity stuff, and that is not really part of what we do anymore. We still have a lot of interest in art and public space and that’s still a part of our work. We still do collaborative design projects. We’ve been working on new signs for the Westcott neighborhood. It’s all under our umbrella of stuff that we’re developing as part of our public space/creative work. That’s still very much alive. Damian and Jeff have also shifted a lot of their energy to one particular project that they’ve been developing called Entrada Piano Technique. That’s a big project. It takes up a lot of their time and energy. It’s an online piano lessons… thing. They became partners in terms of the development of this in terms of a product and a package. It’s not something that they were contracted to do but they’re really full invested partners in trying to make that an international successful business, so they’re putting a lot of time in that and that means there’s not a lot of activity in terms of their creative work.
Recently, Zack Bloomer, who also is a licensed architect, has joined us. Initially he was just a coworker here, and now we’re partnering on projects and he’s officially becoming part of the Echo team. So we’re moving more towards the professional architectural and design services and a little less toward the art event activities. Co-working, we still run this kind of flexible space, so if someone approached us and wanted to work here like Northside UP has, we love to have good partners, but we also have the improv collective meeting here at night. They run classes out of here. So there’s still some co-working and communal shared space activities, but we’re not marketing it anymore.
Q: Where would you like to see the organization go?
Brendan: I think part of the strength is in the diversity of projects and directions, so I would like us to be doing some significant architectural work, and right now we do have a couple of projects that we are working on, with Northside UP on developing a conceptual plan for a project. I also just started working on the near West Side on the old 19th century brick building that’s getting rehabbed and renovated into apartments and then a restaurant.
So we’ve got some projects, and that’s good and we want to keep developing that work, and activating public spaces and [figuring out] how to make the city work better on a street level. I don’t want to stop doing that. Sometimes that looks like a mural and sometimes it’s things like the bus stop, which are design or kind of architecture–but we also like those things to be playful, sculptural spaces. We’re always looking for good partners too. If there were more creative people who wanted to work on the fringes of the design world, then it would be nice to have a larger pool of collaborators.
Also, one of our strengths that I don’t want to let go of is doing the hands-on work. It is definitely one thing that separates us from a lot of the architectural and design world- we end up building a lot of stuff ourselves, whether it’s furniture or the bus stop or those kinds of small scale projects that we can really see through from front to end. I think of it as architecture, but it’s not in the profession of architecture necessarily to be welding the steal.
Q: What was your inspiration for the Lock Alley Mural?
Brendan: You know, I think that came out of Briana Kohlbrenner. In some ways she was the driving creative vision. She really loved the sunsets out of those back windows and said there was something really special about that, and maybe if we could do something that has some kind of relationship to that. So we were kind of doing that, and searching for, wanting to do something fun and graphic and bold and not necessarily representational. So we didn’t want to paint a sunset but to do some fun, funky, loud, bright—also, the sunset was kind of one piece, and then there was, it’s just dark and grey and often times snowy here and let’s see something that gives some color and life to the alley. Those things came together. Then there was an artist who, I should know their name, but we kind of a little bit cribbed their style. He does these superhero paintings or graphics that look like that. So that might be a representation of the sunset, but he’ll do like, superman with all these crazy blocks of geometric shapes that represent that. You can see the figure through, but they’re kind of fun and abstract. We just kind of, “Well, let’s search around for cool things on the internet and see what we’re inspired by” and then we try to make it our own. So, full disclosure on that.
Q: What first drew you into this line of work?
Brendan: Oh, I should also mention, around the Lock Alley Mural, the first inspiration was that Jean, who owns the building and has Turning Pointe upstairs, asked us to do something about the **** and ***** painting that was on the walls because that was there previously. She said, “I’ll give you guys some money if you come up with something to cover up that.” That was the original inspiration.
Q: Now that is a good story.
Brendan: Alright sorry, what was your next question?
Q: What first drew you into this line of work?
Brendan: I grew up in Syracuse, and Damian and Jeff also grew up in Syracuse and so did Zack. I don’t know how much that effects our story, but I wanted to be here because I care about my family and because I care about the city because I grew up here. So a lot of my professional journey here has been how do I figure out a way to be here and to do interesting things in the face of a, to be perfectly honest, both an economy and a creative culture that’s not super robust compared to other places you could be in this country. So that has taken some creativity and in and of itself is a creative project. That’s kind of what being an entrepreneur is.
I’ve had the good fortune and support of lots of different people in the community and different organizations, such as Northside UP, to be able to collaborate and be supported on a whole range of interesting projects, to be able to make a little bit of a living doing things that, I think, help make the city a little bit better and are also just a heck of a lot of fun to do. So, I think that’s kind of where the work comes out of and that’s maybe why it takes so many forms because on any given month or year, what opportunities are there, and what your own personal things that you’re driven to create in terms of opportunities, shift and change. I don’t know if that really answers the question, but—the line of work, I’ve always been a designer, interested in both art and problem solving, so I guess that’s where that comes from. I think that’s kind of true of everyone who’s been part of the Echo project. People who are both interested in creativity, but not just wanting to do it alone in their studio as a singular form of self-expression, but as a way of collaborating with other people to engage with the world in some particular way that hopefully enriches the community.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for people interested in arts and design and want to get more involved?
Brendan: Yes. It helps to make your own opportunities. You have to not be shy about making your own opportunities, going out there, putting yourself out there, both searching for what opportunities show themselves, and making the best of those small opportunities, and also be okay with finding a vision for yourself about something that you think should happen and then gathering the support to make it happen. Then just being willing to do the slow, hard work of being a bureaucrat on your own behalf, and not wait for someone else to get the funding or get the approval, but do all of that—be willing to—it’s not like you have to do the work yourself because you need partners to do it, but to do the work to make the partnerships and communicate with those partners and work with those partners to make things possible. I think that’s a big piece of what makes most things of value happen. Hard effort – someone pursuing something they feel strongly about. So that’s part of it. I think for me, and for Echo in general, a lot of it has been about community partners. Get involved with groups like Northside UP, or whatever community groups you see doing interesting things. Hawley Green, the neighborhood association, whatever, and see how your work can support what they’re doing, and that will feed back to you.