Earl has been a tastemaker and trendsetter in the industry for years. Known as a visionary and a smart and savvy visual designer, he takes the visuals in the Macy’s Home division to new heights and continues to out do himself season after season. Adored by his colleagues and team, his warm personality and creative eye sets his aesthetic above the rest.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Earl to get inside his creative mind, and find out a few fun facts about one of our favorite visual leads.
How would you describe your visual aesthetic?
My personal style is clean, classic with just enough of a flourish. Our home also reflects this spirit of clean minimal design, hardly any color (“a thousand shades of toast”), but we throw in antiques and objets d’art for punch. As the Home Creative Director at Macy’s, I have to crank up the visual volume in the stores, so that I can engage, entertain, and inspire the Macy’s guest. Nature informs my work. One can’t really improve upon nature in its perfection. One just has to look. I have to be a chameleon as I approach each project. I have to adapt my visual aesthetic to the project or product assortment around which I’m designing visual merchandising materials. It can be clean and minimal, dramatic, whimsical, over-the-top. I have to tell a story. I have to make the guest smile. I’m inspired by the quiet and earthy spirit of Kinfolk magazine. I respond to the muted colors they use, and the authentic lifestyle that is at the core of what they do. Everything is distilled to the essential elements, which is one of the most difficult things about design.
When did you discover that you wanted to be in this field?
Right after college. My high school honors and AP classes were in preparation for a Pre-Med major in College. I was going to be a doctor. I went to Occidental College, a liberal arts college in Los Angeles. They wanted to make Renaissance men and women of us, so we were required to take a lot of humanities, arts, and music courses to balance the hard-core science courses. I learned about Babylonian astronomy and sat in a darkened church listening to Gregorian chant music. I took a paper-making and Book Arts class, and that was the beginning of self-discovery. I had so much fun playing with the paper pulp – SO MUCH MORE FUN than in the Chemistry lab. I recognized that perhaps being a doctor wasn’t what I really wanted. I took more art classes, changed my major from Pre-Med to a double major in French Literature and Studio Art, with a minor in Art History. I was going to be an artiste and live a Bohemian lifestyle! After graduation, I thought, great, now what do I do with this degree in French and Art? I remember thinking of the movie “Mannequin” with Kim Catrall, Andrew McCarthy, and Meshach Taylor as Hollywood. I thought, “Hmmm. I could do that. Maybe I’ll just do this display thing at night, look for a real job during the day, and try to figure out my future.” I was hired as a Trimmer at Bullock’s, learned on the job, and I immediately knew that Visual Merchandising was going to be my career.
How do you keep your ideas and concepts fresh?
I am so fortunate to be living in New York City. Inspiration is limitless. It’s everywhere. We have the flagships of all the best stores and most luxurious brands in the world, and we’re all trying to outdo each other with our Visual Merchandising programs and store displays. There’s so much inspiration just from shopping. I go to museums to get inspired. We have world-class and once in a lifetime exhibits that feed the sous of creative and artistic types. If you are fortunate enough to have seen The Met’s tribute to Alexander McQueen, “Savage Beauty,” you will never forget that experience. The fusion of fashion, art, technology, and music to create a fully-immersive experience was amazing. Even restaurant design in New York is amazing and a limitless source of ideas. The materials, textures, lighting, menus, food presentation all work together to deliver a singular and signature experience. TAO Downtown, SANTINA, Upland, ABC Kitchen, and The NOMAD come to mind. Central Park with all its natural beauty is a limitless source of inspiration.
What or who inspires you?
My husband; he inspires me to always do my best work, to balance work and personal life, to enjoy family and friends, and to be the best person that I can be in all facets of our life. My mother; she inspires me to be kind, thoughtful, generous. New York inspires me, with all its fashion, culture, theater, art, architecture, restaurants.
Where is your favorite vacation getaway?
It’s a big, big world with so many places to see, but we always end up on a beach. I love beautiful beaches, meeting people, and understanding the culture through food. I guess it’s a nice change from the pace of New York, but after a week on the beach, I miss the hard pavements of New York. I even miss the Subway. I am so lucky to live in New York. Tourists have to go home, but I live here! (Did I mention that I love being a New Yorker?)
What trends do you think we will be seeing in the industry in the next 5 years?
Technology will continue to be a driving force. There will be renewed focus on natural materials and sustainability, respecting the humble and authentic beauty of these materials. The spirit of DIY is still very much alive. With so many more shoppers going online, brick & mortar stores have the mission to bring customers into the stores, entertain them, and keep them in the store. That’s where I play a part. My role is clear – engage and inspire the customer through the theater of Visual Merchandising, the theater that cannot be experienced online.
What has been your favorite project?
My sister’s wedding. OVER. THE. TOP. 600 guests. Nine bridesmaids and groomsmen. I made the paper for the invitations, broke in to the Book Arts studio on campus to use an antique letterpress to print the invitations, and hand-sewed hundreds of invitations. I antiqued tall plaster cherubs holding up oversized floral arrangements (that I also put together). 60 cherubs, 60 arrangements. I made 600 bottles of bath oil with lavender, sealed with beeswax, as the wedding favor. We had the rehearsal dinner at my parents’ home. I had a rolling rack of the nine bridesmaids’ dresses, each with a shopping bag that contained their shoes and jewelry – I was leaving nothing to chance or questionable personal style. That was an insane amount of work, but it was truly a labor of love.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
“Do what you love. Love what you do.” From my parents. When I decided to abandon the road to becoming Earl Montelibano, M.D., I told my family over Sunday dinner that I was going to be an Art major, that I wanted to sew paper, not sutures. My family was very supportive. I was always an independent child who thought for himself, and my family just thought this was normal behavior for me. At the end of dinner, my father said , “I don’t care if you want to be a hair-dresser, but you must try to be the world’s best hair-dresser.” (I found his comment funny because, at that time, I hadn’t come out to my family, and I thought, “Very interesting choice of professions to support your advice, Dad.”
Who is on the guest list for your ideal dinner party?
Anderson Cooper – he will have a lot to say about a lot of people. It would be like he brought a hundred guests with him. Madonna – I’ve always wondered why I was never a big fan of hers. What was I missing? A pre-dinner cocktail with her would break the ice. Margaret Cho – she will be a riot, and we’ll never be able to keep food in our mouths. Dinner will be on Madonna. Bjork – I don’t really understand her music, but I like it. She is from another world. She can do double-duty and sing for her dinner. She must come in her Swan Dress. RuPaul – She is GORGEOUS and funny. But she must come as RuPaul in full glamour drag, not as RuPaul Charles, the man in ill-fitting suits. Lady Bunny – she can play DJ to Bjork. Tilda Swinton – because she’s Tilda Swinton. She’ll wear black and act bored, but Margaret Cho will make her crack a smile. My mother – she has an amazing ability to make everyone feel comfortable, special, and loved. I will forego the placecards because she’ll probably bring four friends without prior notice, but Mom is allowed to bring strangers who will become new friends. It just makes for a more interesting night. And she plays a mean Scrabble. You know, for after-dinner fun.
If you were to give someone just starting out in the industry some words of advice, what would they be?
Work hard. Trust yourself and your instincts. Take risks. Follow your heart. Find a mentor and friend who can help you to navigate the workplace and the personalities.
What is on your bookshelf?
Our wedding photo, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty; Pierre et Gilles; The NOMAD Cookbook and the French Laundry Cookbook (impossible recipes, but gorgeous books); beach glass and rocks from vacations; At Swim, Two Boys; The City and the Pillar; Giovanni’s Room; my collection of white coral, NY dust.
What is the best gift you have ever received?
My husband threw a party for my 40th birthday. All our families and closest friends were together. I know how much work it was to pull this off, and he did it all for me. It was truly special.