Interview: Jala Smith-Huys

Jala Smith-Huys“Basically, I have an interest in telling stories. And one can tell a story in so many different ways… like in a newspaper, on a website, on a flier, or, as in my current case, with blanket designs inspired by places that have touched my heart.” — Jala Smith-Huys 2/14/22


Who is Jala Smith-Huys?

Jala Smith-Huys is a graphic designer and textile entrepreneur who was born in Southern California, raised in Eugene, Oregon, and now lives in Southeast Portland. I first met Jala when she was working with my wife, Lisa, on the Sustainability Team of Portland’s chapter of AIGA The Professional Association for Design. At that time she was the Creative Director for what was probably the most sustainability-focused grocery chains in the city, which I thought was pretty cool since I shopped there. Now, she’s the Owner and Chief Blanket Boss (her words) of a business called Seek & Swoon, a firm that designs and produces very high quality blankets and throws inspired by Jala’s international travels. And as a disclaimer, I should confess that I am the proud owner of one of her blankets.


The Interview… 

John: Where are you from originally… like, where did you grow up and what was that like?

Jala: I was born in Southern California but grew up in Eugene, Oregon since I was five-years-old. I was actually adopted at three-years-old while still in California — that’s a story for another time. I’d venture to say I had a normal childhood, but we all know there’s no normal. That being said, my family was close and were pretty lucky kids (I have a younger sister and brother. My father worked in advertising and my mother was an in-home piano teacher, so we always had an adult around us. My parents were very frugal and DIY, which to a degree they had to be as they made a modest living, but certainly an adequate one. The way I grew up informed my notions that you create your own happiness by making thoughtful decisions, and my mother demonstrated that women actually can have it all, at least in terms of having both a business and a family. Also, I think Eugene was just the right sized town to grow up in. You saw people you recognized at the grocery store, but you could travel across town and be a bit of a tourist. Following high school, I attended community college in Eugene and then transferred to Southern Oregon for my BS. A couple of years after graduating I moved to Portland temporarily. And I’ve now been here twenty-four years.

John: It sounds like your mother had a significant influence on your outlook… both empowering and visionary. That’s really cool. Have you always had such a clear grasp of what she was showing you, or did that come to you more gradually? The way you just described that vision, I have to believe your sense of being in control of your own happiness, especially as a woman operating in a patriarchal society, had to develop over time. I was so clueless about such things as a young person… I mean, I still am, even as an old person, but I think less so now. Can you describe how this way of thinking began to come together for you? 

Jala: As a kid I definitely had no idea how my mom’s influence would affect me as an adult. On the other hand, I always showed signs of entrepreneurship. I tried to sell all sorts of things in my front yard; from animals carved out of bars of soap, to homemade popsicles, to spaghetti squash from our garden, because I wanted to make money. But more than that I think I was driven by the idea of creating my own business. I remember taking a Red Cross babysitting class when I was a preteen, and shortly afterwards I noticed two small kids playing in a yard attached to a body shop on the corner of my street. I immediately went home, printed out some words and clip art on my Commodore 64, and glued it onto an index card, which made a “flier” advertising my babysitting skills. I then walked down to the body shop and gave it to the lady behind the counter. I ended up babysitting her kids that summer and for several years thereafter. I guess I never questioned that the best way to get what you want would be to create your own destiny. And it never occurred to me that being a woman would get in my way. I’ve never felt that things would just land in my lap, and I’ve always had a strong sense of not settling. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get married until I was 35. 🙂

John: That’s a funny but very savvy bit of marketing you accomplished with your Commodore 64. And even more impressive is how brave you were to put it in the hands of your target audience. I feel certain the woman at the body shop believed her kids were in good hands. 🙂 So did you come up with other entrepreneurial enterprises as you were growing up? And then did you study business in college? What were your goals at that point?

Jala: I was hoping you’d ask this! I’ve had dozen and dozens of business ideas over the years. And my obsession with creating businesses has gone far beyond just ideating. I’ve literally jumped into the process of research to the point where I have partially finished business plans on old jump drives. I mean, as an example, about 15 years ago I spent well over a year writing a business plan for a pregnancy spa. The plan was over 50 pages and when it was finished I started looking at commercial spaces. But then I woke up one morning and realized… I don’t want to run a spa! That was kind of an enlightening moment, because I realized that it was the ideation and planning that I was most attracted to. But I also realized that whenever I did come up with the right idea— the one that I truly believed in and was passionate about— that I would be able to move past the planning stage to the actual execution stage.

I didn’t study business in college. I have a degree in Journalism and PR. But, as I’ve explained, I knew writing really wasn’t my passion. But that’s what I was more or less trained for at that point, so after a short stint in PR, I fell into graphic design and began making signs for a local natural foods grocery store chain. That turned into a long run with a well-known grocery store in the Portland area where I worked my way up to Creative Director, which enabled me to approach work in more of a planning and execution capacity. I spent almost ten years there until I felt my time was done and I was ready to do the thing I’d wanted to do since I was a child: work for myself. I transitioned to freelance graphic design, then to social media strategy, before finally starting my current business, Seek & Swoon. 

John: I think that’s the most excitement one of my questions has ever created, and I love it. It’s obvious you’re a planner, and when the time was right, you also proved you could implement those plans. Which mirrors exactly your early babysitting successes. But one thing I think is interesting is that your adult successes also began with the communications side of things. You went from index card fliers to retail marketing communications and creative direction. And you majored in journalism… which is communicating. So do you think it’s accurate to say that your passion for communication is just as strong as your passion for running a business? I mean, what led you to journalism?

Jala: Basically, I have an interest in telling stories. And one can tell a story in so many different ways… like in a newspaper, on a website, on a flier, or, as in my current case, with blanket designs inspired by places that have touched my heart. As for what led me to journalism… that is a loaded question. So let’s just say it began with a boy. Then once I was into it, I started writing for my college paper and soon became the sports editor, primarily because they didn’t have anyone else. I learned what “grapplers” were that year. After realizing that I didn’t just want to write straight news stories, I shifted my focus to PR because I thought it would be more interesting. After graduating I spent my PR time working for non-profits. Then I moved home to Eugene, where I couldn’t find work, so I moved back to Ashland and started selling advertising at the local newspaper because I needed a job. When the graphic design team was short staffed at the paper, I would sneak into their office and design my own ads. I taught myself Quark Express and a little bit of Photoshop. My next move was to Portland where I, as I mentioned, I ended up designing grocery store signage for a grocery store. And that was sort of the beginning of my graphic design career.

John: Telling a story with a blanket inspired by travel is an interesting concept. I know that’s your business now, because we are the proud owners of one of your blankets, and since we’re talking about storytelling and business planning and entrepreneurship, I’d love to hear how that all came about. How did you go from being a graphic designer to being a textile entrepreneur? There has to be a good story woven in to that process.

Jala: I was at the point in my career where I knew I wanted to do something new sooner rather than later. I also felt that I would be aging out of my industry before too long and, if I wanted to stay relevant, I might need to go down a different path. And the probaby the biggest thing for me was that if I was going to make a big leap I wanted to create my own destiny. Which to me meant creating a business that encompassed things that really mattered to me. As I worked through the process of answering the that question, it became clear that what meant the most to me was travel, sustainability, and the sense of personal comfort and reassurance that comes from meaningful personal belongings… things that “spark joy,” as Marie Kondo might say. For me, a soft and cozy blanket is a perfect representation of that feeling. I mean, when I was considering this question, we had just spent two months in Europe with our (then) toddlers. Returning from that trip, I knew I wanted to incorporate travel into my next career. And as I was storing a blanket away that my son had grown out of, I realized that a blanket provides a wonderfully blank canvas for beautiful artwork. That’s when I began researching how I could design blankets. Then I discovered that there were knitting mills in the US making blankets out of recycled cotton, so I dug and dug until I found a mill that I could work with. There is a much longer story behind that journey, but that’s essentially how it came together. I’ll also add that I wanted to create a business that I could, in the future, operate from anywhere, as one ofour pipe dreams has always been to move abroad, either temporarily or permanently. I assumed that if I got this blanket business up and running, I could manage it no matter where I was living.

John: That’s a concise explanation of how your business came about, but I’d love to hear a little more about what that process felt like. And also, I’m not sure I understand how traveling and designing blankets goes together. Where did you go in Europe? What did you see that pulled you in the textile direction… was it really only your son’s blanket? How did you put all that together, and how does the traveling part fit in? Do you get design ideas from the places you visit or what exactly? 

Jala: When I think about the combination of traveling and designing blankets, I have to say that the idea of designing blankets came about first. I was intrigued with the idea of creating a physical product. And since I have a graphic design background, a blanket seemed like a good fit. But, because I’d spent so many years in marketing, I realized that in order to create a product that could sustain a business, I’d need an idea that would resonate with people. Basically, I needed a story. I needed something that would be memorable and that people could relate to in a personal way. I also needed a North Star to ladder my design and inspiration back to. Because travel has long been a love of mine, as it has been for so many people, it seemed the perfect fit. Something both is inspirational and aspirational. And so easy for like-minded folks to relate to it. In a word, it seemed perfect.

In terms of how I relate travel to my designs, I would say that the majority of my throws and blankets are inspired by places I’ve been. For example, the cream Reika Throw is inspired by a church in Reykjavik, and the black one ties in the trap rocks on the famous black sand beaches. The Sol Throw is inspired by the sunset we saw from the room of our Airbnb in Madrid. And the Envie Throw is inspired by the shapes and angles of the architecture in Paris. Many of my designs aren’t literal, but that’s ok. It’s the feeling and the focus that helps kickstart my design process. And it doesn’t hurt that the process always gives me a valid reason to continue traveling.

John: It’s clear that travel is a huge piece of your particular puzzle… particularly travel to Europe. I have some close friends in San Francisco who absolutely love the time they spend in France and Italy, and they speak of travel the same way you do… with such a passionate longing to be there as much as possible. And yet they love their home in San Francisco. Do you also enjoy having a home base in Portland, or would you be happiest simply going from one place to another and never settling anywhere? And, apart from your business, what it is about the traveling itself that brings you such joy?

Jala: That is a very good question! What I love most about traveling is seeing something new every day. I love walking and getting lost and being okay with it. And what I love most about Europe is how old everything is. It’s like nothing we see in the U.S. I also love their rituals around food and eating; lots of small bites with wine. Of course, I’ve always liked having a home base, but that being said, at times it seems like our feelings about the need for a home base are probably evolving. So is it possible to give up Portland as a permanent home? Maybe. It has been a dream of ours for quite awhile now to spend a year in Europe, which is something we’d like to do it before our kids reach high school, and they’re only a couple years away from that. So if all the pieces fall into place and we end up living in a place we love, then who knows? So we’re trying to keep an open mind. Mostly, we want to make the best decisions we can for our family and still see as much of the world as possible. And we’re open to living a bit of an unconventional life to do that. 

John: So if you’re able to put a longer term trip together, where would you choose to go? You’ve been so many places, it seems like it would be hard to pick a favorite.

Jala: That would definitely be a difficult choice to make because we’ve visited so many spots that we truly enjoyed. But one of our primary considerations would be choosing a location that enables us to get as much out of the adventure as possible, which means we’d need to be able to acquire at least a working knowledge of a second language, which is hard to do if you’re beginning from scratch. But both my husband and I already speak some Spanish, and we’d love for our kids to learn Spanish as well. That would definitely be the most beneficial second language for them in the states, so we’d probably lean that direction. We’ve spent time in Spain, and we already know we love it there, so Spain would definitely be somewhere at the top of our list of possibilities. On the other hand, we’ve also visited and thoroughly enjoyed Portugal and Croatia, so they’d have to be possibilities, as well. But regardless of what country we choose, it just seems like this type of adventure is bound to be a wonderful experience.