Ryan & Stephanie
Photography by Meredith Jenks
Interviewed at their home in Brooklyn, Ryan Dunn is one half of Labour and his wife Stephanie Dunn is Director of Ecommerce at Steven Alan. Both are creative thinkers with big hearts.
RYAN: Stephanie is super funny. One of things that hit me right off the bat was that she was a really good bullshitter. When we first met she told me she was a marine psychologist.
RYAN: Labour started first semester first year of college at RISD, Wyeth and I were 18 years old. The biggest thing that we grew from, is that we have a shared philosophy and diverge at our different skills and proficiencies. Our first major collaborative project was for an architectural space in the shape of a heart. I didn’t intend to move to NY originally, I went to LA, I thought I wanted to be on the west coast but I wasn’t feeling it once I got there. I moved to a loft in Williamsburg with some friends, Wyeth and I freelanced around for years. I went more traditional graphic design and he went into video and motion. We would bring each other in and team up on projects early on. We finally opened our own studio thinking, ‘we can do this.’ Actually making the work is only a small part of running a studio, we found out.
TWP: Would you grow your team?
RYAN: Thinking about something and doing something are two different things. It was always the expectation that we would grow and become a bigger studio but I think that after trying to put on other people’s clothes so to speak never worked quite right. We’re coming to terms with the two of us working together and the way that we work together produces the best work and it’s taken many years to figure that out. We teach at SVA and tell our students, just do something, get started, a career is a long time.
STEPHANIE: I studied fashion design. I am from Wisconsin originally and Ryan is from Texas, do we have accents (laughs)? When I was at UW-Madison, I became the third employee of Shopbop, when I left there must have been 100 people working there. Then I went to FIT. It was intense, you’re there 24 hours a day—a lot of studio time. After school I worked for a small designer, then took a job at Anthropologie in visuals at the SoHo store. I got to build out the entire store.
RYAN: Most of our power tools are Steph’s.
STEPHANIE: Everyone kept asking me about websites. I knew it would be fun to put to use my digital knowledge with my fashion design background. The hardest part for fashion companies is translating all of the facets of their brand into an online experience. I went to Oak and managed their web business for a year. I am continuously looking for the next challenge. After that I went to Loeffler Randall, I started their ecommerce business, and I was there for five years handling everything from imagery and marketing, to order fulfillment and functionality.
RYAN: People always forget the logistics part. Client talk: “how do we website?”
STEPHANIE: I think you’re best setup for success when you think about the operations side while designing a website. You’re going to have to think about it later and if you put in the effort ahead of time thinking about what you want the site to do and the data and information you need to get, then you can design a better experience and grow a business at the same time.
Worth the wait
RYAN: That’s how we met. Years earlier, my first freelance gig in NY was with the same firm that Steph ended up working with on the Loeffler site. I stayed friends with everyone after I stopped working there. I was having a holiday party at this bar in Greenpoint and Steph was there with my friend.
STEPHANIE: I was coming from another holiday party and admit that I don’t remember much, but I do remember spotting Ryan across that bar thinking, I want that guy.
RYAN: I thought she was super cute and funny. I kept thinking about how cool it was that I had met her. It took me a little while to ask her out.
STEPHANIE: 6 months! I had to wave my arms in the air. We had friends in common so I knew he would be at certain events, I would go to them and make jokes and laugh and share music with him. I needed some design help one day so I emailed him and with the way he wrote back I was like, this is it, he’s not interested.
RYAN: I wasn’t playing hard to get, things were complicated.
STEPHANIE: A week after I had basically given up, he emailed to say, ‘hey let’s grab a beer.’
STEPHANIE: I thought at that point he must mean work drinks. I had a date planned for afterwards. When I got there I realized it was a date, he was flirty and I could tell he was sweet on me. We went to a bar two blocks from where we live now. It had been a couple of hours and I had to go on this date, I didn’t know what to do so I made up a story about needing to go back into the city because I was dog sitting in Tribeca.
RYAN: She actually does have a friend in Tribeca that she occasionally dog sat for.
STEPHANIE: Ryan offered to give me a ride and I was like no, no I’ll take a car. He was like, I have an extra helmet for my motorcycle. I knew I couldn’t turn this down. I let him drive me into city to my friend’s house. He was hanging out so I ran upstairs and told my friend I needed to borrow her dog. I borrowed the dog, we took a walk, the rest is history.
RYAN: We have been together for almost six years now. I thought the date went awesome, romantic motorcycle ride over the bridge.
STEPHANIE: I canceled on the other date. I didn’t tell Ryan the story until two years later when I was in safe territory.
I thought at that point he must mean work drinks. I had a date planned for afterwards.
RYAN: We moved in together pretty quick, I was living here by myself, Steph’s lease in Chinatown was up and I had been thinking about it. This was nine months in from our first date, I knew she was amazing and I thought to myself, what more could you ask for. So I said to her, would it be a crazy idea if you moved in? She responded, ‘yeah! Let’s do it!’ We hang out all the time, we’re best friends.
STEPHANIE: Ryan has all of these non-jokes that make me laugh hysterically. He’s had some of the same jokes throughout our entire relationship. To me, they just get funnier and funnier.
RYAN: That’s how I knew she was the one.
We hang out all the time, we’re best friends.
Both being in the creative industry
STEPHANIE: A few months before we were getting married, I wanted to take some time off and try something new. I started consulting, then Figure, to try and build brands in a more comprehensive way.
RYAN: For our parents’ generation, it’s all about leaving work at work and being home at home, but for us I feel that work and life are so intertwined that you can’t help but involve your partner in your business. In that way, we’re constantly talking with each other and consulting and hashing it out. That’s one thing I love, that I am with someone that understands both the client and service side of things.
STEPHANIE: We’re always helping each other on projects, it was one of the first things I realized, ‘this is going to work’ because we talk through it all and now it’s pretty seamless. Sometimes you may need confidence rather than an actual solution to a problem. We support each other.
RYAN: I’ll also tweak some designs on the DL (laughs). I really wanted Steph to avoid some of the shit piles I’ve stepped in over the years building Labour, so I’ll say, ‘try this’ or ‘charge more.’ Anything that I can offer to her I will.
I feel like work and life are so intertwined that you can’t help but involve your partner in your business.
STEPHANIE: After two years of Figure, I’m now working on some other projects on my own and in thinking about what to do next. I think it’s exciting to be a woman with my experience in fashion and technology and digital and ecommerce. The majority our friends, male or female, are doing their own thing, which is really inspiring.
RYAN: Karlssonwilker and our studio have been friends for years. We saw how they worked together, the energy and investment they made into doing cool work the way they wanted to do it. They showed us it’s not all about money and raising revenue however you can, the work really comes first.
RYAN: We didn’t talk about it.
STEPHANIE: Guys never know when you’re dropping hints.
RYAN: We never talked about marriage and I almost intentionally tried not go there. Not because I wasn’t sure but because I wanted it to be a thing when we got engaged, rather than ‘oh now it’s the time where we need to be engaged.’ I had worked with our friend, Hanna, who is an amazing jewelry designer on designing our rings, Steph’s engagement ring and our wedding bands. We were going to Puerto Rico so I planned to do it then. I had talked to her parents beforehand when we were home over Christmas. I was talking to her dad while he was setting up the camera for a family photo, Steph was in the shower, and when I asked him he just goes, ‘oh, that’d be awesome.’ We’re close with both of our families.
STEPHANIE: I had no idea it was coming, but I had been hoping. Ryan kept it a secret, never asked anyone for input or advice. But I did know something was up when we got to the beach on our first day of vacation.
RYAN: I hadn’t thought about where I was going to put the ring while we were at the beach, I had swim trunks on.
STEPHANIE: I’m walking around taking pictures of palm trees and I come back to the beach chair where he’s sitting and he’s sweating profusely, looking at his phone which is shaking. I was like, ‘What happened? What is wrong?’
RYAN: I responded with three words that I have never said in my entire life: low blood sugar.
STEPHANIE: I said, ‘well do you want to go and get something to eat??’ He’s like, ‘no, no’ and I’m saying, ‘but that’s what… low blood sugar is.. you need to eat something.’ (laughs)
RYAN: What Steph didn’t see while she was walking to take a picture, I was trying to find the ring box in the beach tote bag that we had and I heard the ring rattling around out of its box. I opened the box, the ring falls out into the sand. I’m like ‘shit’ trying to find it with sunscreen sticking to my hands and sand all over while Steph is walking back 30 feet away from me, I’m shoving the ring back in the box. I threw the ring in the bag and took my phone out.
STEPHANIE: We didn’t tell anyone for hours after we got engaged. We just wanted to enjoy it for ourselves. When we got back home and we started telling people and planning our wedding I realized, ‘oh this is what it’s all about’ ‘this is why people do this.’ There are so many aspects that are not fun and way more difficult than you would expect and it’s all of those things that turn out to be really heart warming. That’s when we really started collaborating - when we started working on these creative and logistical things for the wedding, it was a good preparation for what marriage was going to be like.
RYAN: With our backgrounds both in putting teams together and producing, I didn’t anticipate it being such a difficult yet fun experience at the same time. We know what our vibe is and we’re comfortable with that so we needed to just make it happen. The things we have surrounded ourselves with are things that our friends make or have made for us. Our wedding was this epic New York venue, our friends made all of the stuff, Steph made her own wedding dress. Being married does change things, in a good way. It’s really easy and fun.
STEPHANIE: I get surprised by and excited about the new challenges. We have had conversations about this, when you get out of college and you get your first couple of jobs, you set these goals for yourself, you get excited about finding the right partner and this right group of friends. Then starting your own company and for us, around age 32 / 33 we were like we need to start new goals and challenges. Being married, some of the new challenges are in the relationship, but in an exciting way. Life presents you with new things to get to know about each other.
RYAN: It’s a bit of a restart or reset button.
The things we have surrounded ourselves with are things that our friends make or have made for us.
Take a step back
STEPHANIE: Ryan really listens. He’s such a good listener. Even if it’s an argument, I might not see it register immediately, but he’ll come home later and be like, ‘hey I tried that thing you suggested’ or one day I was like ‘we should learn how to make pasta’ and he’s gone and got the equipment.
RYAN: One of the things I love about Steph is, and I talk about this with Wyeth as well, she’s the type of person that she’ll always make you steak. Even if you’re asking for a burger or a sandwich, she’s making you the perfect filet mignon. She can’t dumb it down. I appreciate her fastidiousness to every detail. There are no shortcuts.
RYAN: With solving any problem, I try to think about, what is one level up, what is two levels up, trying to get a broader view of what is going on. We have been married for three years. My grandparents have been married for 50 years. Whatever little argument that we’re having, in the scheme of things, in that context, the second I think about that, it dissipates. It’s generally that we’re hungry or have had a weird day.
STEPHANIE: It’s never the thing you think you’re arguing about.
RYAN: We don’t like to be stressed out. I go through periods where I am grumpy or frustrated creatively. I can’t not be thinking about it and sometimes it’s hard to do it.
STEPHANIE: In those moments, we generally need a vacation (laughs).
RYAN: A super important trip we took was to Sea Ranch in CA on these cliffs and we stayed in the architect Charles Moore’s place. Sometimes you need to remove yourself from your current situation to get that macro perspective. You need the space to think about where you’re at. You can be driven and passionate while not having the crazy ego, it's something I think about with architecture, Moore was such a humanist. You've got to consider how what you make fits in with the rest of humanity.
I appreciate her fastidiousness to every detail. There are no shortcuts.
RYAN: One of our personal jokes is “the purple dot.” If you can imagine a venn diagram or a map view, I would be the blue dot walking around the house and she would be the red dot walking around the house, 9 times out of 10 you would only see a purple dot. That is the vibe, we hangout. Not constantly talking, but existing together.