Photography by Susan Yee
Vanessa Labi is a woman of many talents. She's worked in social media strategy for years and has now returned to her true love: writing and creating. Currently, she's a freelance arts writer based in Sacramento, CA, where she covers the creative community, film, and intersectionality for pubs like The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento News & Review, and Comstock’s Magazine. She also writes a newsletter of personal essays, reflections, and links called The Vessel. And last, but certainly not least, she's a lifestyle influencer of sorts on good ole IG.
We loved the peek into her bright and airy space she calls her own, and her words of wisdom about navigating the hardships of 2020. Especially this truth bomb: "I find the familial and societal pressures that keep us from our truths both fascinating and frustrating. But I’m also grateful for the forces that drive us to our truths at all." More below from this creative force.
Tell us about your home: Where do you live, how did you find it, and how long has this space been yours?
I live in a studio apartment in downtown Sacramento, where I’ve lived for the last year and a half. It’s above my landlord’s garage, which might not sound very glamorous, but I just love this space. I recognized its unique character right away as I was in the midst of some lackluster apartment hunting. I was pretty underwhelmed by everything I was seeing, so I was excited when I learned that an acquaintance of mine was moving out. It’s bright and airy and right across from a huge park, such a peaceful place to hunker down during the quarantine of the last year.
And how is California living?
Never say never, but I don’t think I’ll ever move out of California. It’s so vast and holds multitudes when it comes to both natural terrain and city life. It’s so cliche to say, but on any given road trip, you can see desert, mountains, the ocean. Taking in all that abundance on a road trip never gets old.
I tend to think of LA—my birthplace and where I spent college and some of my twenties—in a very idealized light, but I like being extra that way. Dramatizing and narrativizing your life is part of the fun of living. A recent segment in The New Yorker Presents explores the magical light of Los Angeles, and it really resonated with me. It’s true that the smog, the landscape, and the weather all converge in a beautiful way when that magical light settles over it. I love movies set in California. LA movies, movies set in Sacramento (rarer, but it’s happening more and more; thanks Ladybird!), I love it all.
What was the vibe you were going for when creating your personal space? How would you describe your aesthetic?
Hm, the vibe? The vibe is all over the place! It’s an eclectic, work-in-progress vibe. I think a few factors contribute to the mixed bag of it all. Some of my stuff is a holdover from my style in my twenties. Some of my wall art is representative of my style from back then. I still like it okay, but art is important to me and I’m looking forward to investing in pieces that speak to me more.
And the other thing is that I just love so many styles and eras when it comes to decor. Midcentury, postmodern, 80s maximalism, desert minimalism, I love it all. Appreciating and digesting all those styles can be overwhelming, but it’s part of what makes it fun to find your own style. I love mixing soft tones with occasional bursts of color. Though I’m often harping on things I’d like to change, I do love a lot of my decor and have had a lot of fun building it slowly over the past year.
I think my style errs on the side of California bohemian. I love mixing soft tones with occasional bursts of color. I sort of fell for the allure of the minimal, neutral style that’s swept our Instagram feeds over the last few years. But at my core, I think my style is much more eclectic. I feel way more lit up when I see spaces that are more quirky, with playful details and infused with color in unexpected ways, and with a mix of influences. It’s just more fun to see more of the person and the story of someone’s life than it is to see a calming, blank slate. Not that I don’t still love the neutral vibes; like I said, I love it all.
Has your personal and interior style evolved over time?
Definitely. I think in my twenties, it was more about trendy pieces or the best deal. Now I like investing a little more in pieces with more longevity. (Says the person who recently found her rattan shelf in a San Francisco dumpster!).
One thing I noticed, and maybe this is just a millennial thing, is that I hardly have any photos printed of family and friends. I’d like to incorporate more of those personal touches. I’m also wanting to incorporate more influences from my two cultures. My mom is from Mexico, and my dad is from Israel. Someday I’d like to have that represented in my decor.
What do you love most about having a space to call your own?
Aran Goyoaga on Cultivating Love in the Kitchen + Meringue Cake with Roasted Apples From Cannelle et Vanille Bakes Simple
"Set a humble table and eat beautiful simple food. Nothing has to be fancy. When you make yourself comfortable, your guests will feel comfortable."
There’s such joy and peace to having your own space. It’s really helpful when fostering creative pursuits, and I think that’s why I’ve hung onto it. My boyfriend moved to Sacramento from San Francisco last year and instead of moving in together, we found a cute place for him a few blocks away. I like the idea of living together, but for now it’s been important for me to have my own space – to decorate, sure, but also to write and just dance around on my own. (#Robyn)
We’ve all been inhabiting our homes so much over the past year, more than ever. How has that translated for you?
I love being home and consider myself a hardcore introvert, although lockdown has soured those homey pleasures a bit. Early pandemic, when I was working a 9-5 at my ad agency job, the experience was nuanced—it was nice to have the virtual camaraderie with colleagues, but also tough having the stressful vibes invade the home. At the time we were under a lot of pressure to prove our value to clients who were cutting marketing budgets due to the pandemic.
After I was laid off in August, I felt a tremendous amount of relief and dread. Once I worked through the latter, I realized it presented an opportunity I’d never afforded myself, to pursue writing in a more intentional way. Working from home on writing projects has been amazing. I get to move from space to space as much as I want, work odd hours, and take the occasional break on my balcony and read or do some people watching.
Tell us about your creative endeavors and professional pursuits.
For the last decade I’ve been in the niche of social media strategy within the ad agency world. It was one of those things you fall into by virtue of the times. I graduated into the recession when journalism and writing jobs were few and far between and the industry was in flux. (Not sure it will never not be in flux). But I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had in creative marketing fields—it’s afforded me new skills and I enjoy working in teams.
Now that I’m back to pursuing writing—through arts journalism, creative nonfiction, and my newsletter—I feel more authentically myself. The culture pieces I report on give me life in that I get to learn about what lights people up, how they’ve pulled something off, the things they’ve overcome. I love being reminded that there are so many unique ways to live your passion. I’ve started to submit some of my essay writing to some of my favorite literary publications, so I’m hopeful that I’ll gain some traction and move into that field.
I’m also a content creator in the lifestyle space, which has been a fun creative outlet over the years. I share personal style, snippets of culture and recommendations, and the occasional poem and dance video!
Pivoting to pursue your creative dreams is brave. How are you feeling after taking the leap?
It’s a lot of reimagining. I spent so many years in marketing just sort of seeing where it would take me and ignoring the dreamer in me. Now I spend a lot of time reading work I admire, researching, taking workshops, writing. I should probably just go to grad school already! But for now, I’m enjoying the pursuit on my own. I get anxious sometimes not knowing what’s next, but I think this year has taught us to live in that liminal space.
What do you love most about your path and where you are right now?
I love that on this path, I have more time. I’m currently working on rebuilding and relaunching my website where all my writing will live and where I can blog again. (My style blog of seven years was accidentally deleted about a year ago). While I was still working in advertising full-time and doing writing and content creation on the side, it was hard to take on the web design journey. I just love having the time to invest in myself and where I want to go next.
What advice do you have for women who need a nudge to go for it?
I would encourage women to listen to get in touch with the part of you that feels compelled to do something. When I started pursuing arts writing in college, or when I created my style blog a few years after that, I just had a fire to pursue them. Even now, when I’m writing my newsletter and making my podcast, I am listening to a fire in myself. No one asked for it! (Lol).
After listening to that part of yourself, the next steps are a little more involved. Find your people—Instagram and Twitter have been helpful to me in that way. Meet with people in your field. Go to workshops or conferences to learn more. I attended a zine-making workshop a couple years ago and—although I didn’t end up making one—I was happy to learn more about the medium and learn from bold folks who created something niche.
Setting out to build a new path is something to celebrate. The fact that you’re being forced to change, or maybe you’re hearing something inside you, listening, and trying that thing...that’s huge!