Q&A: Britton Neubacher of Tend Living
It was hard to miss the floating orbs at the San Diego Thread Show. Suspended along a glass window, they made me wish I had a huge home (and wads of cash) so I could decorate my home in her whimsical garden creations. Britton Neubacher, founder of Tend Living, ended a career in crisis work to tame unruly plants into decorative design pieces. The urban gardener took a load off with LadyLUX and divulged her love for nature and her seriously cool collaborations.
LadyLUX: What made you start Tend?
Britton Neubacher: I started Tend in 2006 to keep myself from losing my mind. Working with plants eventually became my therapy for a stressful career in social services. Plants are much easier to help than people are!
LL: What were you doing in social services?
BN: My background is in crisis work with severely high-risk youth, and community organizing around feminism and art activism. I have a graduate degree in Women's Studies, which amazingly I was able to use for several years in the way of a career before I burned out.
LL: What made you leave your work? How’s the change to tending plants?
BN: I'm really sensitive and didn't practice enough self-care so I eventually had to accept that I was not a “lifer” in the helping industry. I think I made a little difference, at least I hope I did, but I feel so much more nourished and connected to life once I went with the simple approach: tending to the planet one plant friend at a time. Sometimes I miss the sense of urgency in front lines work but thank goodness there are other brave souls still fighting the good fight out there. My battle has turned to combating aphids and putting food on my table as a working artist.
LL: When did Tend start, and how has it grown as a company?
BN: Tend started as a tiny self-proprietorship and is now…a just nicely recognized tiny self-proprietorship!
LL: Who’s on the team? I see some big names on your Web site.
BN: Actually, I have grown to bring some serious rock stars onto Team Tend, including Noriko Mochida who is an amazing floral designer trained in Japanese ikebana, Gabe Serbian of local punk rock fame, and Scott Caligure my super talented photographer husband (who has been my wing man since day one).
LL: Has the business changed from the beginning?
BN: Tend started with orbs and is now doing a full range of commercial and private plantscaping projects including living walls, green weddings, and collaborations with other local artists.
LL: We hear you have an exciting new gig with a big beauty company…
BN: Yes! I have been commissioned by Aveda for all of their new and remodeled experience centers around the country. An installation of my art glass orbs is now part of their official Aveda store “feel,” which is a perfect partnership in our shared commitment to ecological sustainability.
LL: I also noticed that Jason Lane of Bells & Whistles worked with you on your Golly Pods. Can you tell us about that?
BN: Surely! Jason and I have known each other since the late 80's, as I was a 14-year-old devotee of his freaky post punk performance art band called Crash Worship. The sets he constructed were unbelievable so it seemed all to perfect when he teamed up with Bells & Whistles years later…in my opinion, the coolest Design/Build firm in San Diego. I have known Jason St. John for many years and became instant best friends with Barbara Rourke. Ever since, they have been great supporters of my work, bringing me into their projects when possible (see UCSD's The Loft). They really embody what it means to foster a self-supporting creative community.
LL: So how did the Tend collaboration come in?
BN: Jason Lane and I have a shared obsession with the California modern design movement, so collaboration between us sort of grew organically, if you will. His craftsmanship is exquisite and he is one of the kindest, most imaginative people I’ve ever met. Working with him is almost an effortless process, which is great because there will be a lot more to come from us!
LL: Tend seems to be growing quickly.
BN: I am still small in the sense that I am not building an empire yet but I am paying my bills in this tough economy and loving every minute of my job (okay, not the bookkeeping so much). You could say I feel successful and terribly blessed, in that sense.
LL: You started out on your own, how did you teach yourself?
BN: Trial and error. Lots of self-forgiveness. Reminding myself that accidentally killing plants does not mean you are a bad person! Luckily succulents are very resilient.
LL: For unfamiliar readers, what's unique about Tend products?
BN: Well, I offer a lot of services and products these days but my calling card is still the Eco-orb. It's mini, otherworldly, and full of life. What person isn't still that child with a love of the tiny & imaginative?
LL: Can you explain why it's an eco-friendly approach to gardening?
BN: I am really committed to water-wise and low-maintenance plants. I’m a big fan of modernist design with a hint of the Japanese/Zen and I believe plants are a necessary part of our every day. Therefore, I'm always looking for exciting but simple ways to connect people with nature starting right at home. A little bit goes a long way so an orb (or twelve!) in your space can create a sense of transcendence, or connection with the larger planet, if you will.
LL: Your plants are now decking out tables at chic events. What do you use for your centerpieces?
BN: For my weddings, I use all locally grown flowers and succulents, and other sustainable flora such as tillandsia air plants and mosses, so as to minimize that carbon footprint. Some may not know, but roses and other typical wedding flowers are flown in all the way from kenya and south america. All of my centerpieces can be sustained and many elements can be returned to the earth, such as succulents from the bouquet and boutonnieres. Thus, creating the couple's lifelong love garden that they will tend to along with their relationship.
LL: Aw, that’s sweet.
BN: People are ready to venture beyond the traditional and move into the edgy and green, and I couldn't be happier to oblige.
LL: Are you surprised about the response you're getting?
BN: I am never surprised when people respond positively to the beauty and mystery of nature. I myself am in awe everyday. It truly does have a life of its own and honestly, I don't feel like I can take all the credit. Nature is art on its own. I simply provide a format to see it in a different way and retrain the eye to shift the perspective. I am just the engine underneath all of the beauty—the motor that keeps chugging along, feeding it, and wishing it well.
LL: What's the best thing you've heard from a patron?
BN: One of my favorite compliments was from a child at the Children's Museum who said the orbs made her want to crawl inside, where she would bake cakes and take a nap. Mission accomplished!
LL: Where do you see Tend going?
BN: I know this sounds flighty but I see where it decides to take me. Because of the way this work found me exactly when I needed it most, I feel that I am merely in service to it. That said, I'd like to expand the green events and art shows because I love creating immersed environments. I will also be launching an online store this summer with some very special stuff, mainly because I want to share the pleasure more widely. If I am going anywhere good, I'm taking along all the inspiring people who got me started in the first place. The whole “tribe” thing is big for me.
LL: Are you doing anything for Earth day?
BN: Everyday is Earth day at Tend HQ!
LL: Very true.