[Read] Interview with Karina Seljak from Seljak Brand

With the wet Melbourne weather setting in over the past week, I was lucky to score a warm, recycled, wool Original Whipstitch blanket from Karina at Seljak Brand. Also had a quick chat to her about the project, Brooklyn’s creative scene post GFC, and the rapidly evolving urban landscape of Sydney.

DAN McCABE: First of all, tell me a bit about yourself and the Seljak Brand project.

KARINA SELJAK: My name is Karina Seljak and I’m one half of Seljak Brand, the other half being my sister. Seljak Brand is a culmination of our experience in production, design, brand and community. 

We were both creative kids. Growing up without a TV we’d play in the ditches that lined our parents property, and draw. I made a lot of art through high school, and studied design and business at university in order to make art ‘useful’. After spending a few years in Brooklyn in the creative food scene, I returned home. Sam and I wanted to see what we could do celebrating Australian resources. 

Now, Seljak Brand makes wool blankets with the offcuts from the factory floor of Australia’s oldest wool mill. At the end of the useable life of the blankets, we encourage our customers to return them for remanufacture into new blankets. The purpose is to utilise byproducts to make valuable consumer items, and facilitate the life extension of ’things’. Most importantly, Seljak Brand allows us to deepen the conversation about how we can continue to consume beautiful things responsibly. 

Our vision is a world where waste is used as a resource and all actions provide mutual benefit. As the Seljak Brand we want to test the scale-ability of the model. Can we engage young people, whom are powerful consumers, in the closed-loop model? Income levels are increasing worldwide and consumers create rapid word of mouth. Will they use their purchasing power to demand alternative production methods? 

Changing consumer attitudes is key in reducing our impact on the environment. In a world with limited resources and increasing consumption, we must move away from the ‘take, make and waste’ model, which has been operating since the industrial revolution, to one that sustains itself over time. 

Seljak Original Whipstitch
Seljak Original Whipstitch

D: How did you go about organising the project? What challenges did you face?

K: In brainstorming about alternative systems for production and consumption, we became inspired by Circular Economy theories and practices. It informed our model, where resources are kept in loops that keep the value of goods at their optimum level by repairing, then remanufacturing, then recycling. 

On a recent trip to a festival, we came across a mill that retained its offcuts and wove blankets with these. We visited the mill and talked to the workers, learning about each piece of machinery. There was a machine that could shred the material and re-spin the fibres to weave them into new blankets. We saw an opportunity to tell the story we think is important for consumers now. 

The mill is small. The wool industry in Australia is mostly about raw product now. We ship at least 95% unwashed wool overseas for processing and little of it comes back. So the mill is operating under capacity. And offcuts are their own limited resource – to create offcuts you need to make more original products! There are complexities and a paradoxical nature to this model. So we need to find other waste products, in Australia and overseas that we can utilise. 

One issue with the finished product is that we cannot guarantee the outcome (what it looks like). The blankets will vary with each production run because we are recycling a variety of different materials. People love the story, but once in a blue moon there will be a customer that resists the unknown – an unexpected colour or texture.

The main thing is that people are into the concept. Remember the push back to recycled water in Toowoomba in 2006? People adjust. Look at the business that is Central Park Water, the building in Sydney that recycles it’s waste water and sells it onto businesses and residents in the local area. There is a lot of opportunity in waste. 

D: You mentioned the other week that you lived in Brooklyn for a few years, and this was soon after the GFC. Unemployment was up, regular office jobs didn’t exist anymore. What were you doing for work, what was your community doing for work and how did it differ to before 2008? 

K: I moved to Brooklyn in 2011, a few years after the financial collapse, so I don’t know from experience what New York was like before. My experience was this: I went over after I graduated from a Fine Arts (Fashion) / Business degree to access the greater creative world. There is not much of a fashion industry in Australia. I found myself in an intern position for 6 months at a fashion house. I worked at a cafe that paid $5 per hour plus tips for most of this time, and helped my chef friend on catering jobs waitressing. 

At this fashion house, it felt like half the workforce were unpaid interns. It competitive – the interns are most often well trained and experienced in their field (footwear, knits, production, showroom, etc). Either the company couldn’t afford staff or they didn’t need to afford staff, people were so desperate for jobs. 

I decided that what I had been seeing in Brooklyn, food particularly, was far more interesting. I think food became big because it is relatively cheap to access and it can be shared with people. As people become experience oriented (from ’stuff’ fatigue), food provided the indulgence and entertainment that clothing, things and shopping used to. 

Self-made producers were making it happen in their own kitchens, mostly with no idea what they were doing. They were making food their parents and grandparents used to make, using ingredients they could cheaply get their hands on – so it was often from nearby – and selling it at local markets. They had been laid off or quit jobs in law, finance, commercial art, to work with their hands. They wanted to feel self sufficient and connected with society as the system they had trained to take part in, rejected them. People were jaded, but really excited too. 

I joined up with Morris Kitchen. At the time it was a tiny team of one or two depending on demand, to make syrups. These were mostly based on produce from New York, like apples and rhubarb; the lemons were from Florida, and we got our ginger from China. We used Domino sugar, that was originally from a mill on the East River, under the Williamsburg bridge. Now this mill is a gallery space and expensive apartments. 

My role slowly became full time as our syrups became more popular. We went from selling at the market (Smorgasburg was the name of the market on the river) to selling at Wholefoods Market (this is a natural food supermarket in the States with around 400 stores nationally). All of the producers grew together and supported each other by sharing their industrial kitchens, cross promoting their goods, repurposing each others byproducts as infusions or special editions. 

And the press! We got coverage from New York Magazine about this whole movement and it kind of went viral. Tourists come from all over the world to visit Smorgasburg now. 

Morris Kitchen - Spiced Apple Syrup
Morris Kitchen – Spiced Apple Syrup

D: As a Sydney resident, I’m sure you are no stranger to exorbitant rent and housing prices, with the mean housing price tipping over $1 million in 2015. Not only is the physical and financial landscape changing, but the communities within it are being forced to evolve or leave. Redfern is one example of an area being redeveloped and the established community is being told to move on. Keep Sydney Open was another protest movement against gentrification, sparking an active response from Sydney’s youth. How does this shift translate to the day to day lifestyle as a Sydney resident? What are the changes you have seen, and is it for the better? Is something being lost?

K: This issue is closely linked with lock out laws and night culture. People feel locked out from property, and now the streets. I have only been here a year and a half and even I’ve felt a change in this time. Kings Cross was already on the out after the first round of lock outs. I can’t see it being better for anyone except for property owners and developers, and big business, the casinos, of course. Artists suffer – how can you perform if stages are only available for a few hours a night? How can you work night shifts to support making your art? My favourite sign at the Keep Sydney Open march in February was ‘we don’t want to gamble, we just want to dance’. The experimental nature of night culture affects the cultural out put of the city. Policy makers don’t seem to understand the link between culture and economy. Tourism is a huge industry in Sydney, and tourists have been heard to call nightlife destinations graveyards. 

Another tangible aspect is that there are less people around and areas are left unlit. I don’t feel as safe at night as I did in New York, really, and am glad to zoom around on my bike. It is an opportunity though to think more creatively about how we use spaces and how to enjoy nighttime without drinking. 

Chilling at Footscray Community Arts Centre.
Chilling at Footscray Community Arts Centre.

D: How have you supported your projects financially? I have a scattered schedule at different workplaces, luckily this allows me to be pretty flexible with working on my own practice when I need to.

K: I have been similar. Particularly my transition from fashion to food in Brooklyn, financially supported by working in hospitality. In Sydney, I work as a contractor (a brand manager) for a company that imports some of the American brands I used to work alongside. We have a brilliant portfolio of products that I hope inspire a new approach to food and production in Australia. I balance this work with Seljak Brand, which comes with challenges in such an expensive city. 

Seljak Original Fringe Blanket
Seljak Original Fringe Blanket

D: Purchasing property in the current housing market is not only financially unachievable, but it’s straight up insane. Where does that leave the Gen Y population? The car tent I’ve made for the Next Wave Festival isn’t necessarily a feasible alternative to this suburban model, instead what I wanted to present is an option close to the minimal, flexible life I want to work towards (similar to the TINY house movement or container homes). What alternatives have caught your eye, and what would be your ideal living shelter?

K: Such a great question and such a great project. Studying design, I would look at collapsible, low impact homes set in nature. Some were holiday boxes – Scandinavian designs of course, where the sides expand out, accordion style, to create a living room and bedrooms. Transportable. 

My boyfriend and I recently bought a second tent. The first was a car camping tent, roomy, heavy duty, for festivals, by the beach. The second is a lightweight thing we can break up between a couple of backpacks and walk anywhere. The joke/truth is that it will be a long time before we have a holiday home and this is the closest thing. Better, closer with nature! 

As for an ideal, it’s a work in progress. I experiment to find out. In Bondi I had access the gorgeous ocean that I miss so much, but not that half of my wage is going to rent. Now I am in Chippendale where cars whip past my window but we have community compost and can walk to most venues of the Biennale, like Carriageworks. I am interested in high density living because large numbers of people in urban areas is a real future scenario, so I like to think about how it might work, how it could be enjoyable.

Karina Seljak is an active part of the paradigm shift from an era of materialism to one of experience and knowledge. She is able to facilitate the attitude shifts of individuals and communities through her dedication to creating meaningful products and sharing their stories.

Karina Seljak is a product and brand developer able to leverage a full spectrum of experience in creating and managing brands and product ranges through vital growth periods. With tactile experience in production and communication, she is able to implement all operations to support a company’s ethos.

Karina and her sister, Samantha, established Seljak Brand in 2015. Seljak Brand makes recycled wool blankets in Tasmania, Australia with the mission to find new ways to make and use beautiful things. Currently, Karina’s vision and voice transforms Product Distribution’s portfolio of handcrafted food brands from the USA to fit within the Australian market.