By: Bonnie Pipkin
Oak Laokwansathitaya is a Northern California native who moved to New York City in 2012. He’s one of those magical sparkly people who brings the most deliciously gorgeous spreads to your dinner party or appears at your beach gathering with five baskets of cheese fries for everyone to share. Not the type to sit still, he is always fiddling around to make the most beautiful environment and experience for everyone around him. Oak is kind, generous, humble, and wildly talented. He styled the most recent photoshoot at Friends NYC, and we caught up with him to find out more about what he does and what inspires him. Read on to learn more about this pure creative spirit and BFF of ours.
So, let’s start with that quintessential question we all love to hate… What do you do?
I am a freelance prop and set stylist! I mainly work on photo and video productions, and it ranges anywhere from commercial shoots to editorials to music videos and experiential events.
How did you get into this type of work?
When I was seventeen, and living in California, I got an internship working at the photo studio for Bebe. I started off in wardrobe styling and stayed there until I was about twenty-five (God, so long!). As I worked on more productions, I developed a wandering eye. I was always curious about the people who built the sets. I thought it was so cool that people involved in these shoots and projects were making stuff with their hands. Plus, there were so many cute boys in the art department. Really knowledgeable, handy, friendly guys making cool creative things. So, I just slowly transitioned from wardrobe styling to prop styling.
What brought you to New York?
A long-distance relationship! I was dating someone who also worked at Friends NYC. After doing long distance for a year and a half, he convinced me that the move would be good and would help me branch out in my career. So, I wanted to explore where the relationship would take me, but I was also curious what New York would do for me work-wise. I sold all my belongings at a sidewalk sale in San Francisco, and took all my clothes to Crossroads to sell, so I had a good financial cushion to get me to New York.
What was your first job in New York?
My first job was at Milk Bar! Though I quit two months in so I could work at Friends 😊.
What were you doing with Friends?
I was working the floor, but gradually I started doing some very light merchandising. I would help Mary curate the website and help stage the store for pop-ups and parties. Basically set styling! Then I started taking on more of a role for Instagram, creating environmental set-ups for the photos.
How did you make the jump from this into freelance prop and set styling?
Well, YOU recommended me for an indie film [Inserting myself as the interviewer here because I actually forgot that I did this, and it was so fun and cute to remember] Two women who you worked with at Roberta’s, Tori Palmatier and Casandra Corales, were making a film, and they hired me as the prop stylist. It was my crash course introduction into doing it all on my own. Having to figure out how to get this and that in New York City. After that, I just hustled. It was about making connections. I actually just did a shoot today with a group called Team Bubbly who I met when they visited the set of that indie film. So, everyone you meet along the way is important.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
It mostly comes from conversations that I have with my creative friends. I’m blessed to have a network of people I can bounce ideas back and forth with. We chat about projects we want to work on and by having these conversations, ideas and visions start to form. I do this thing where I try really hard not to be influenced by other people’s work. That’s hard though because we are bombarded with videos and images and technology all the time. As much as I like to explore that and see other people’s creativity, I try really hard not to be swayed and just see what appears naturally for me.
How is what you do, you? I know that’s kind of a weird question, but how does your work find its way into your everyday life?
I think I always look at things in a cinematic way. I love beautiful plants. Flowers. Food. Architecture. If you’re with me hanging out, you’ll see I like to tinker. Fiddle and tinker until I see something that looks pretty and something I might like to snap a photo of with my phone. I feel thankful that I have a career doing what I love, and that I can make a living being creative. There’s always a way to make something beautiful with food or clothing or objects. [I’m inserting myself again as interviewer to say that it’s true. If you’re friends with Oak, he makes everything beautiful. Once I was having some VIPs over to my apartment, and I wanted my food spread to look pretty, so I texted Oak to show him what I’d done. He told me to put some dollops of jam on my cheese platter, and voila! It was suddenly next level. It’s all in the details.]
What are some misconceptions about the work of a prop stylist?
People are like oh wow you get to shop a lot, you get to just build things and do whatever you want, like freestyle. I think the misconception is the freedom. I do think I’m a creative person or an artist, but what makes me good at my job is meeting client expectations or introducing them to things they may not have considered. There is tons of planning. If you present an idea, you have to know how to execute from start to finish. People think we can make magic, and a lot of times we can, but there’s a lot of planning and math and scheduling that goes into all of it. Strategically, where am I going to get things that will look the best and be the most affordable and get the most options while staying in budget and making clients happy and still be proud of the work I’ve done? It’s all a big balancing act. Having mild OCD is really beneficial.
How has the pandemic changed your work?
It has really challenged me to revisit something that my sister, Roma, who I worked with creatively for years always said to me: You have grand ideas and you want to do the most but really think about what resources and materials you have around you that you can use to construct these visions. I was reminded of this when the pandemic hit because resources and availability changed dramatically. Finding myself spending so much time alone in my house, the pandemic has made me become more resourceful and … (searches for the right word) … I guess taking things and looking at things from a different perspective. I've had to figure out how to do what I do for a living, but on a smaller scale from inside my home.
Mid-March there was a hard stop in our industry and then things started picking up for me mid summer. I was able to work with smaller crews and I wasn’t working with models which means no need for hair and makeup artists and extra people on set. I was able to start working sooner than most (I was lucky) because I was doing still life or product or food related work. Now it all feels full steam again. The industry is trying to catch up. Production is at an all-time high, I think.
Are you doing more online shopping?
So, I very rarely shop online for my job and that didn’t really change. The reason being is I like to see things with my own eyes. You can ask my assistants this: I have a rule that if we are shopping for something, I never pick the thing that is out in front. I have to shuffle behind and find the one that hasn’t been touched. Everything I do is based on visual, so I like to hand pick and see and touch.
Tell me about the shoot you just did with Friends.
I was super excited to do a shoot with Friends because it had been years since we worked creatively together. I was honored and flattered and excited. I love Mary and Emma and admire them as two women who own this successful and cool business in Brooklyn. Mary approached me with concept of a dinner party product style shot which was genius. Such a great way to showcase the products in an environment. I love dinner parties and love things surrounded by the idea of sharing food. It was awesome to work with Janine Lee, founder of Janine World and Floss Gloss, too, and partner with her because she had a lot of really wonderful ideas to build off of.
What was the vibe of the shoot?
It was a group of friends, all very talented and creative, who all really respect each other, coming together to create beautiful moments. I was the only guy on the team and thought that was really cool to be in this world with all these powerhouse bad ass women who have these great ideas and know how to execute them. It was a super fun and creative day with lots of laughs.
What is your favorite thing to do on a day off?
I really like being outside. And I am a very impulsive person. If it’s a nice day, I make little goals like I really want to ride my bike somewhere. Or I want to check out a restaurant or store I’ve been meaning to go to. I really want to be around friends and share experiences. So, I will text people and find the right companion to fit the mood of what I’m up to. I like to get out of the house and run around the city. I don’t really spend days off relaxing. Maybe I should.
What makes you feel hopeful right now?
What I’ve witnessed is how fortunate I am to know and be in contact with pillars of the community that have really stood up and fought for good in these times. I’ve been inspired by so many people in my community who have started fundraising and are doing nonstop charity work. I think it makes me hopeful that these people exist, and they don’t stop fighting, and they don’t stop working at trying to make our world a better place. Seeing that people are choosing to do good with the time that they have, especially after being laid off or losing a family member, or just the current state of the country, I think it’s inspiring and it gives me hope.
We love you, Oak Laokwansathitaya. You truly are one of the GOATS in our community. You inspire us with the way you see the world and the things you do to make it better. And you’re also super cute and nice. Thank you.