Gretchen Röehrs brings new meaning to playing with your food. The San Francisco-based illustrator, whose whimsical fashion-meets-food drawings have roped in more than 80 thousand Insta fans, knows this all too well, reinterpreting produce through a fashion school graduate’s trained eye. “My education in fashion design instilled in me a love for finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places,” she explained.
There are fewer things more inspiring than produce at its seasonal peak, especially this time of year when farmers’ markets hit their stride with the bounties of late summer and glimpses at what the early fall will bring. In California, Röehrs enjoys pitch-perfect produce year-round, prompting her to taunt East Coast friends (likely suffering through an endless stream of root vegetables) one winter with cheeky, verdant drawings.
Green beans and banana peels evoke billowy, high fashion harem pants; the tufted ends of kale leaves lend themselves to a romantic ruffled dress; and a sliced beet with its greens still intact become a lesson in color and texture.
Just how exactly does she reimagine these ingredients? I recently chatted with Röehrs, a UX designer by day, to learn more about her creative process, as well as the zaniest commission she’s worked on to date.
HANA ASBRINK: Hi Gretchen! Please tell us about yourself and how you landed in the Bay Area.
GRETCHEN RÖEHRS: I’m a twentysomething designer living in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, with a very bad beagle. In school I studied fashion design with an emphasis on emerging technology in the industry. After graduation, I moved to California to try to convince Silicon Valley that fashion is cool and worthy of disruption (still working on that part).
HA: You’re a coder by day and illustrator by night. How do manage these two worlds?
GR: Believe it or not, my background in fashion design prepared me more for working in tech than anything else. While I was in school, I did a brief stint as an intern at Vogue.com and that led me to discover the knack I have for crafting virtual experiences. Whenever I thought about designing a garment, it was all about how the woman would use it—is she going to work, a cocktail party, cycling class? The same thought and research goes into user experience design, which is what my day job is.
HA: What kind of parallels can you draw between the technology and art worlds?
GR: This is always on my mind, as I often have a hard time figuring out which side of my life defines me the most. The part of the tech world I’m in is really embracing design as a core piece of what makes tech great for everyday people. I think the biggest impact design can have in tandem with technology is in creating a more open and accessible government. On the art side of things, technology is having an enormous impact on the discovery of new (and old!) artists. It’s allowing normal people outside of the art world to have their talent noticed and even helping them create a living off of their work. Both industries have a lot of catch-up to do in order to represent and recognize people of color and women, but I think we are finally seeing that shift.
HA: How did you first incorporate produce into your work? Are you an avid cook?
GR: The cool thing about California is you don’t have to be a good cook to eat really well. The produce is just that remarkable—and that’s why I was taunting an East Coast friend in the winter with my farmers’ market bounty. I will say, Food52 has helped me up my salad game and taught me the beauty of a soft boiled egg.
HA: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
GR: My education in fashion design instilled in me a love for finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places. Irving Penn’s still life works are some of the most moving images I’ve ever come across, as well as the quiet scenes of everyday life from Elizabeth Peyton. When it comes to inspiration for what I’m going to eat tonight, I go straight to Instagram and seek out the likes of Liz Prueitt of Tartine, Julia Sherman (her new cookbook, Salad for President, is so great) to see what sort of quick things are on their plates. Old issues of Gourmet never disappoint, either.
HA: What are your favorite restaurants and ingredients these days?
GR: Any given weeknight, you can find me at CALA in San Francisco—it's the sister restaurant of famed Mexico City spot Contramar and they just do everything right. Gabriela Cámara is one of the most inspired chefs I’ve ever met, and she’s got great style, too.
You know, I’m obsessed with kohlrabi these days—but I can’t for the life of me find it in grocery stores. Even Bi-Rite doesn’t carry it! Where do all these hip chefs get their kohlrabi? If anyone knows their dealer, please hook me up.
HA: Who are your favorite fashion designers?
GR: In my eyes, Jason Wu can do no wrong. The man knows how to make a woman feel like the center of the universe without ever showing too much. He’s quite the foodie, too, from what his social media tells me.
HA: What is the most unusual commission you’ve worked on? Your favorite so far?
GR: Lane Crawford commissioned me to do a few figures that demonstrated bad beauty habits, which led me to create sketches of ladies wearing a McDonald’s wrapper, sugar cubes, and cigarette butts (I won’t lie—I felt really dirty buying cigarettes at the corner store!).
My favorite project has been working on a coffee table book of my illustrations with Rizzoli (due in February 2018)—it’s a dream come true.
HA: What comes first, the completed image in your head or the individual food item, reimagined?
GR: Seeing the shape first, whether the natural piece of produce or a finely crafted pastry, sparks my imagination to draw something around it. I don’t actually do a whole lot of work, just a few brush strokes get the idea across.
HA: Do you have any tips for those trying to pursue their dreams on the side? How do you stay focused, dedicated, and inspired?
GR: Well, anyone that knows me would never describe me as focused—and that’s how this all got started! I am a huge advocate of allowing weird ideas to flourish; live every day like it’s 2nd grade art class (which I got kicked out of for not following directions)!
HA: How has the role of technology and social media impacted your career?
GR: Social media, despite all the negative impacts I read about, allows nearly anyone with access to the internet to have a voice and an outlet. The reason I began sharing these illustrations was simply to make people laugh, and I never would have made a whole series if it weren’t from the validation that I received from strangers all over the world. I think that’s kind of amazing, but I won’t pretend like I don’t need to put my phone down and get outside more.
HA: New York Fashion Week kicks off today, so we’re curious to know: What is your favorite Fashion Week experience?
GR: A few seasons ago, I illustrated a few of the spring shows and the standout for me was the Rachel Comey show held at Pioneer Works. She had Ignacio Mattos from Estela create an entire meal inspired by the collection. I was definitely the only one there that ate every morsel served—it was a feast, as well as a feast for the eyes!
Check out more of Gretchen Röehrs' illustrations on her site and Instagram. For the next few weeks, 100 percent of the sales from her print shop will go to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas.