Tastemaker. It's a role that sounds as enigmatic and unattainable as a shaman or Willy Wonka to most people, but can inevitably be found in every walk of life and time period. It takes a special sort of vision, or maybe it’s closer to divination, to encapsulate a distinct style, attitude or perspective that eventually represents the particular zeitgeist of a time, place or even generation. But it all starts with one person.
In 1903, German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote an essay, entitled “The Metropolis and Mental Health,” about the difficulties in asserting individual personality and expression within the dimensions of metropolitan life. One solution, according to Simmel, was to adopt certain mannerisms (of dress, speech and general interests), “tendentious peculiarities” and other creative extravagances to bolster self worth and eventually carve a distinct space within the rapidly urban areas of Berlin, rather than be leveled out by the juggernaut of urban life. The drive of these pioneering individuals influenced other burgeoning creative individuals and subsequent subcultures.
It might be a 20th century analysis, but, more than ever, in our rapidly shrinking world, we need to carve out our own inner city sanctums and have faith in our creative tastemakers. And while it’s hard to keep a thumb on Austin’s fluctuating culture and atmosphere, there are a select few who have championed a unique — and ever evolving — perspective of the city.
Liz Lambert, famed hotelier of Hotel Saint Cecilia, El Cosmico and Hotel Havana, has an uncanny knack for setting the scene of Austin’s progressive design and intuitive inner city calm and it all started with the Hotel San Jose, the SoCo district flagship of Lambert’s empire.
It’s a place with a distinct personality and, over the years, it has become an internationally known haven for some of our generation’s most influential artists and creative individuals. But it’s not just the space. Hotel San Jose is staffed with equally ebullient spirits.
Jackie Young, San Jose’s bar manager, whizzes by me with a tray of San Jose’s signature champassion cocktails. Her hair, black as night, but somehow shining in the fading light, is swept up into an impeccable twist. Sparkling and spry, rivaling the effervescence of the champagne she’s serving, she navigates through the buzzing, bamboo-enclosed back patio, with ease, dipping in and out of the intimately lit tables, guiding guests (whether it’s a nascent newcomer or a superstar rock band passing through on tour) through the wine list with aplomb.
“There are these weird things that maybe not everyone understands, but everyone [at San Jose] inherently knows,” Young says when asked about San Jose’s intangible Litmus test of cool. Like, don’t play Joy Division or The Eagles over the patio speakers. And always give a big smile when a self-assured tourist asks for a gin fizz. (“Yes, we serve beer and wine only.”)
Young, who has been working at the San Jose sine 2009, and lived in Austin since she was 18, is a fitting fixture in Lambert’s distinctly Austin space. An accomplished photographer, fashion trendsetter and creative cohort, Young seems to be the blooming spirit that Lambert wanted to cultivate when she first created the South Congress hotel.
Young also lends her creative spirit to San Jose’s special events, including their recent New Year’s Eve bash— “All Tomorrows Party” — a Warhol Factory-themed extravaganza. The modern revival of sixties swagger — where Patti Smith, Debbie Harry or even a white wigged-Warhol would have felt at home, was Young’s brainchild and it was a shimmering success.
And listening to Young talk fervently about all of her past experiences in the city — like a stint as the former Gallery Educator Manager at Austin Children’s Museum and internship at Arthouse-AMOA — and her various passions — mainly her friends, her photos and creative inspiration, in general, is like listening to a modern reinterpretation of Patti Smith, the Factory girl turned artist and poet turned high punk priestess — who spent half a lifetime in used bookstores and discount painting supply stores, unintentionally influencing New York’s underground fashion and art scene, rubbing elbows with everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Janis Joplin and acting as co-collaborator and muse to some of her generation’s finest artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepard, all while creating her own artistic vision at the same time.
Like Smith, Young seems to inspire and channel a large portion of the local creative community. She provides inspiration for and takes the photos for her best friends’ band, (local sensation Love Inks) and collaborates regularly with local art collective, Crummy House.
This year, she was also selected to be a mentor in the Arthouse-AMOA Advanced Young Artists program — which began in January and will span into August, when the mentors and mentees will have their final exhibition. The program gives young talented artists in the Austin area more confidence in themselves and in their work and helps them form their own individual voice at an early age.
“To be 18 and have the gusto to have a portfolio of work that you are very proud of and very confident in — confident enough to move ahead in your medium, to take risks, to challenge yourself to an internship or to start an art collective or to apply to art school is something that is unbelievably important to the development of a young artist,” Young says. “Through confidence, I believe the achievable becomes limitless.”
And it turns out a modern day muse and tastemaker can pull from a limitless range of inspirations and art forms to create their distinct expression. Young has been all over the world — from the streets of Beijing to the fjords of Norway — and wears several different hats at any given time. (The more to pull magical rabbits out of.) When she’s not at San Jose, Young can be found stocking up her artistic arsenal here and there and funneling it through her discerning, tasteful gaze to create something unique — whatever the art form.
Lately she has been perusing the rare magazine section of Half Priced Books and other thrift stores in town (She won’t say where. She doesn't want to give away all her secrets.) and repurposes the old magazine prints into various works, mainly in mixed media collages. She loves mid to late 80’s, pre-Conde Nast era, imagery. “The design layout/photography speaks volumes of the time and effort it takes to perfect a craft,” Young says.
I met up with Young again to browse through some vintage gems at Room Service and talk about what inspired her at any given moment and what she looked for to showcase her unique style and perspective.
She singled out William Eggleston as a major role model. “His work, to me, nails it,” she says. “He shoots the mundane and makes it beautiful. A dog walking, a cluster of shrubs, a perfectly pinned up-do, a cocktail on an airplane.”
“Studying his work over and over has taught me that unless you're paying attention constantly to your surroundings, your opportunity to shoot might fly by,” Young says. “You never want to miss it, right?
Watching her thumb through these antiquated magazine prints, I realize that Young is doing just what Eggleston did for his generation: cataloguing their daily environments with artistic discernment and visionary detail. It’s a creative commitment that tastemakers like Young, Lambert, Hotel San Jose, and Austin as a whole, offers to the lifelong residents of the city, as well as starry-eyed newcomers.
It’s the same idealism of being a pioneer, but it’s even more encouraging for a modern day city dweller. You don’t have to see an endless horizon in the distance to know you’re on to something. You just have to keep going, keep creating, keep progressing. It’s worth it to be, like Warhol would have said, a “pioneer without a frontier.”