Stories from middle America

Typically when one visits a friend’s house, they don’t enter into an obstacle course of unfinished renovation projects. That is, unless you visit my house. I welcome you with a myriad of hot messes: unfinished paint jobs, plenty of loose door knobs — you might get stuck in my bathroom, lucky you!


Speaking of my bathroom, it has looked like this for about… oh, maybe six months. Honestly, maybe even longer. Who can keep track anymore? The point is that I have subjected my friends and family to this state of affairs for way too long.

In my defense, I’m not a scatterbrain. I do have the ability to finish tasks. I continually help clients get to lovely and finished spaces. But when it comes to my own house, I have a harder time with commitment. That might be one of the hazards of the job since I’m constantly trying to stay current while also timeless with designs. Or it could be that after designing for others all day, all my creative juices are spent.

But times, they are a changin’. I’m finally getting the ball rolling on my main bath renovation.


The first stage to any design Birdhouse does is to create a vibe board. We scour online resources for inspiration images to help visually communicate the proposed design direction. We do it to speak the same language since not everybody’s “contemporary” or “Bohemian” is the same. We give those descriptions context in a setting with images.

My house was built in 1940, so I want my bathroom to be classic but still a little edgy. I plan to go with black, white, gray, mixed metallics, a little wood and a pop of green.


After we get on the same page with our clients, we create a game plan mood board. This is a collage of all the room ingredients that we’ve settled on.

My main bath is pretty small, which means I don’t have room for a large vanity. To help with storage, I selected a brass medicine cabinet combined with a small shelf to hold toothbrushes and other items. The mirror needed clearance to open, so I found a really cool tube wall sconce for overhead lighting. And finally, I want to use this indoor/outdoor striped fabric for a custom, extra long shower curtain.

I’ve ordered the light and mirror and plan on installing those within the next couple weeks. I plan on keeping the momentum going and hopefully complete the renovation by midsummer.

Next, it’s time to complete some room renderings to showcase what the space will look like in a few months.

Stay tuned!

Matt Carlson

Photo via Mike DeKay for Grain & Mortar.

I certainly think one should have confidence in the work they produce, but if ego drives you more than authenticity, it’s usually pretty noticeable. So it’s always such a treat when really talented people also happen to be genuinely kind and gracious individuals as well. That couldn’t be more true when you’re talking about Omaha artist and graphic designer Matt Carlson.

I’ve worked with Matt on a couple of projects over the last few years. Most recently we collaborated on a set of limited edition prints for sale at the newly opened hutch store in Midtown Crossing. Fabulous to work with as well as an inspiring graphic designer at local studio Grain & Mortar, he agreed to do a little Q & A with me so I could introduce him to you guys!

midwest-made “Midwest Made” holiday letterpress coasters from Grain & Mortar.

COOP: Where are you from originally? Are you Midwest Made like your company boasts?

Matt: I am from Omaha. I’ve lived here all of my life. So yes, I am Midwest Made! My family has a lot of roots in the Midwest as well. So I guess it’s in my bones, baby! At Grain & Mortar, there’s this great sense of honoring these Midwestern values that we’ve grown up around or experienced from living in this area of the country. They (G & M) have been cultivating and crafting this really rich, industrial Midwestern aesthetic for many years, so it’s been fun for me to acclimate to that sort of vibe and experience how it permeates the studio and the work coming out of it. It’s pretty cool.

matt carlson | COOP

COOP: What do you feel is the biggest difference between fine art and graphic design? It’s all art, but how does it feel working with a computer more than getting your hands dirty?

Matt: I think working on the computer is the biggest difference for me personally. I really have grown to love it, but for a while I thought that I would never get much out of it. Once I got to know the design programs that I now use everyday, it was a real lifesaver in terms of process.

I feel like I carry a strong background in drawing and painting into the design and illustration work I do, but yeah, the tactile experience of getting down and dirty with the materials is definitely gone. (For now at least!)


COOP: How do you think you arrived at your personal style? Your illustrations and graphics have a fluid and somewhat quirky sense to them. Would you consider that accurate?

Matt: Probably just many years spent toiling away at different drawing and painting styles and experimenting with different materials. And being influenced from a young age by weird graphics and illustrations. Whether that be from skateboarding, cartoons, comics, pogs, streetwear, graffiti magazines, etc. In general, just a mix of ephemera from a lot of the subcultures I grew up on that had an influence on me. And I’ve always loved print… I just love paper and things printed on paper. So I get a lot of inspiration from found printed matter, and I think that has influenced my work in a lot of ways too. So yeah, I guess I would consider that accurate, that my work is “quirky,” but to me it’s just normal. I don’t see it as that weird, but I hear that a lot from other people, and I see where they’re coming from.

eyeball illustration

COOP: What does your creative process look like?

Matt: Working in a design studio now, my creative process is a lot more collaborative and diverse in a lot of ways depending on the project at hand. Well, it’s a lot different now that I mostly work on a computer, but normally I try to force myself to do as much preliminary sketching as I can. Then I take a picture or scan it into the computer and start building out shapes and layers in Illustrator. Sometimes it feels more natural to just start designing on the computer and bypass any sketching, so that happens a lot too. I really enjoy texture and the surface quality of imagery, so adding that is usually an important part that comes toward the end.

still_life_1 hutch-matt carlson

Limited edition prints styled by Birdhouse at hutch store. Photo via Dana Damewood Photography.

COOP: How did you arrive at the concepts for your limited edition prints featured at hutch?

Matt: Jessica reached out to me, and said she was looking for some local artists and craftspeople to create work for the new hutch store that was reopening in Midtown. I was really stoked about being asked to be a part but didn’t really want to show any old drawings or paintings at the time. So I thought it might be a great opportunity to do some screen prints.

We (me, Jessica, and Brandon) kicked around the idea together for a bit, figured out some of the logistics, and then I just started to think about the space and the type furniture and accessories coming out of the shop. That helped get the ball rolling in terms of style; sort of going for a more retro vibe that had some influence from midcentury modern graphics and design. I bounced some of my initial ideas off Jessica and just started working on the series. The idea for Still Life came first, and from there we crafted the idea that each poster would have the theme of “life” in it. We wanted there to be some overlap within the pieces, but collectively didn’t want it to feel so much like a “series.”


COOP: Choose between these:

Beer or whiskey?
Matt: IPA. All. Day.

Leather or suede?
Matt: Leather

Punk rock or classical?
Matt: Classical

Pizza or hamburger?
Matt: Pizza. It’s just the best.

Money or power?
Matt: Definitely not power. So money!

Getting up early or staying up late?
Matt: Sleeping in.

That’s Matt Carlson from Grain & Mortar, everybody! Go check out his website at Plaid Mtn to see more of his fabulous work.

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Last weekend I made my way slightly south and hit up Kansas City’s First Friday events in their really rad Crossroads Arts District. I already thought Omaha needed a similar district (maybe develop Benson even more?), and now I’m one hundred percent convinced.

town topic kc

Not my photo. Photo via Silly America.

The Crossroads Arts District has an interesting mix of galleries, pop-up shops, live music, complimentary booze and plenty of food trucks (including one with some funnel cake action) serving up the goods. And though I’m a lazy vegetarian (totally stole that phrase from Amanda), I was drooling, smelling whatever delicious meat scent was wafting my way from Town-Topic Hamburgers.

It was fun making my way through the lively streets crowded with an eclectic mix of people out supporting their community’s creative scene. I found the art a bit hit-or-miss (there was a lot to choose from), but there were a few artists and shows I found interesting.

I felt a little odd busting out my iPhone constantly taking photos, especially as a newbie to another city’s art game. But there were a few pieces I liked enough to brave the security guard staring at me while I clumsily attempted a decent shot.

Please enjoy my subpar photography skills.


Brendan Cass. ‘Capri’, 2009. Acrylic on canvas. From Make Your Mark. 

Make Your Mark at the Kemper Museum featured artists from the Kemper Museum Of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection, and focused on the specific gestures and techniques employed to create their “signature mark.” I loved the color and movements in this exhibit. And I appreciated the concept that art, like other creative endeavors, is a lot about personal style.


Also at the Kemper was a children’s exhibit from its Artreach collaborative program with the Center for Child Health and Development at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The program’s objective is “to provide opportunities for self-expression and communication through the visual arts.”

Children making art to feel good about themselves. Enough said.

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Sculpture by Ben Davis. Undergraduate thesis. 

Down in the basement of the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, I found an undergraduate thesis show of students graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute. Honestly, I thought it was some of the strongest work of the night. The room was a little gritty, and so was the art.

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Work by Peyton Pitts. Undergraduate thesis.

Overall, I really liked Peyton Pitts’ work. Her drawings and collages had a really cool tactile look and a crazy layered composition. They were a little like abstract puzzles where each piece alone had a little chapter, but all of them together told the entire story.

I’m looking forward to heading back to another Kansas City First Friday sometime in the summer. And hitting up a few Omaha and Lincoln Fridays as well.

Here are just a few things I’ve been interested and inspired by this week:

  • The Curious Case of Men and Women’s Buttons.

    Have you ever wondered why men’s and women’s shirts button on different sides? Several theories exist, but let’s all blame Napoleon. Dammit, Napoleon.

  • Fictitious Dishes.

    I stumbled on this wonderful book at Rare Device in San Francisco last fall. They were featuring some of the original photography and the evocative tables capes caught my eye. After reading that the artist, Dinah Fried, started this series of “photographic interpretations of culinary moments from contemporary and classic literature” while a student at Rhode Island School of Design, I was hooked.

    It’s all my favorite things: art, design, food, and books. I’ve been perusing my copy this week, and it’s made me happy.

  • Hotel Covell.

    This boutique hotel in Los Feliz is on point. It’s the right mix of hipster-cool, airy California vibes and refined luxury. I have a huge design crush on Sally Breer now.