How Ellen Van Dusen Designed Her Kitchen

“I knew I wanted to do something fun for the cabinets.”

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. In collaboration with Domino magazine, we’re focusing on the intersection of design and home cooking, and speaking to leaders who inspire us. Ellen Van Dusen is the designer and founder behind Dusen Dusen, a home and clothing line known for its graphic prints. At her colorful home in Brooklyn, Ellen showed us how to make stuffed shells and shared her approach to cabinet design.

I always knew I wanted to make clothes, but I didn't want to study fashion because I never felt like fashion was my place. Since I was 12 I've made clothes for myself, and before that I was painting on my clothes. I studied color in college from different disciplines — mostly neuroscience and art history. I studied the visual process and why we evolved to see the way we do — why we see color and what about color just immediately draws the eye. Like, what's the point of color from an evolutionary perspective? 

I've always been super into color since I was little. It was always the thing that I was like, Why do I like this so much? What about this is compelling me in this specific way? That was the neuroscience angle, but I also studied the color-field painters and visual anthropology and all that fun stuff. I've never taken official design classes, so I think that gives me a unique way of thinking about design.

I've never taken official design classes, so I think that gives me a unique way of thinking about design.

When I graduated from college, I worked for another designer, and then, about a year after that, I started my own line. I just dug right in. I learned through the process of having a clothing line that what I liked doing the most was designing the prints. Now I have my own line where I’m making textiles, and I've been able to do a lot of different stuff with the prints. I just put my spin on a lot of different kinds of products that need a pattern — like, I just did a suitcase collaboration. That was fun. I've done everything from puzzles to a tissue box to glasses.
My design process is always a little bit different. It's a fun way for me to channel my interest in something new. I get really into something really specific and then channel it into a pattern. Right now, I'm in a furniture phase. I'm really into learning about furniture — those kinds of shapes. I don't necessarily look at stuff and say, "This is my inspiration," for whatever I'm doing. It just kind of gels in my brain and then comes out however it comes out.
Both of my parents are architects, so, obviously, they helped me a lot with the layout of my apartment. I knew I wanted to do something fun for the cabinets, but I didn't want to go overboard because the rest of my apartment already looks insane. I wanted to do something subtle-ish. I was tossing around ideas of every cabinet is a different color or maybe all the cabinets are bright yellow, which also would have been cool. My parents have plywood cabinetry, and I love it. I was like, "How do I make the plywood just a little special?" So I got them to CNC route this pattern — which is one of my patterns — onto the wood. But it's cool because they had to get these big pieces of wood and cut it and then cut it into cabinets, so there was no margin for error at all because figuring out how to get all of the pattern pieces to connect is very complicated. 

I knew I wanted to do something fun for the cabinets, but I didn't want to go overboard because the rest of my apartment already looks insane.

This pattern is from a phase I went through where I was into coding. I can't actually build anything on the internet, but I just liked the idea of coming up with a rule and then following it in order to make something. So this is a pattern with one rule, which is that it's a quarter circle rotated and connected at either end and it never crosses itself or connects. It's actually a super-simple pattern. It's just an arc, and you connect another arc, then you connect another arc, and it just goes infinitely.
This year is my tenth Dusen Dusen anniversary, which is really crazy. I launched my first collection in spring of 2010. I was a young 23-year-old. And so, for my tenth anniversary, I made a collection of prints from the archives all in black and white. No color. Very graphic. It looks really crazy, I think, because it's all of these really intense patterns in black and white, just on top of each other. It's fun.
I feel like I really started cooking five years ago. It was out of necessity and because it's a fun creative process. And it's relaxing to come home and have a task you need to complete with this incredible reward at the end. Well, sometimes incredible, sometimes not. There's very little in my job that I get immediate gratification from, that I can just have a product all of a sudden. The process of making clothes or textiles takes a long time, and often I'm not completing the process all by myself. Cooking scratches a different itch. 
My recipe for stuffed shells actually comes from a vegetarian cooking class on Groupon when Groupon was huge. This woman came to my very old, shitty apartment, with all of my old pots and pans, when I was 24. She taught me all kinds of cooking hacks, including this recipe, which is her recipe, and I still make it all the time. 
It has quinoa, three kinds of cheese, spinach, and an egg in the filling. You sauté the spinach first while also cooking the quinoa and boiling the pasta. Then you basically just mix the rest of the filling together in the quinoa pot. You pour a can of tomato sauce into a baking dish, and then you fill out all of the little shells with the quinoa mixture. Then you bake it with a lot of cheese. There’s mozzarella and ricotta and Parmesan. If I have some other fancy cheeses in the fridge, sometimes I'll throw those in, too. I make it a lot when I'm having friends over because it feeds a lot of people, and it's pretty easy. And people love cheese.Photos by Vincent Tullo

Read the rest of the stories from our design series hereherehere, and here.