A version of this story first appeared in Good Times Santa Cruz.
Suna Lock reaches over and picks up a decaying, decades-old can of “Emergency Drinking Water” from the shelf of her downtown store, Stripe. The military-issue can still contains liquid, but probably not the kind you would want to drink. No matter—she’s already sold a bunch of them, which is either a testimonial to the peculiar tastes of Santa Cruz customers, or peculiarity on the part of Lock herself, or maybe both. In any case, it works.
Stripe and Stripe Men—several doors apart on Walnut Avenue—have comprised a Valhalla of eclecticism for eight years now, thanks to Lock and her partner, Dana Rader. Lock is also the founder and principal of Stripe Design Services, which has created interior spaces for a burgeoning number of downtown properties including Humble Sea Brewing Company, Venus Spirits, device-maker Pearl, Santa Cruz Bicycles, and the Pacific Collegiate School.
Both of Lock’s businesses—Stripe stores and Stripe Design Services—are occasionally eccentric enterprises in a town known for its eccentricity. Your brain might not be able to explain some of what you see, but your eyes will understand where your cerebral cortex comes up dry. And this is the way of all good art, after all. If you could explain it, it wouldn’t be art at all.
Lock’s tastes are as eclectic as the town she’s lived in for 14 years now. Originally from London, she developed an affinity for Santa Cruz while interning at UC Santa Cruz in ’88 and ’90. “I said, if I ever came to the States, it would be Santa Cruz,” says Lock, who’s 43 and has two children, 11 and 13. She’s getting married, for the second time, this month.
Lock earned a degree in textile design in the U.K., and ended up working for millionaire developer Tom Bloxham, turning industrial spaces into stylish residences. “People started asking me: ‘Do you work weekends?’ “ says Lock. “So I thought I would start working freelance.” This led to the creation of Suna Design—the British precursor to Stripe Design Services. After a few years she sold the eponymous business, which still exists in the U.K.
Lock started Stripe Design Services in Santa Cruz in 2003, working on a mix of commercial and residential projects, including 25 Ducati motorcycle dealerships across the country. But when business started to languish during the recession, she suddenly found herself writing a display manual for Barbeques Galore. The ignominious task was a wake-up call. “Creatively,” she says, “it was like watching paint dry.”
At the same time, she happened to host a big yard sale. “I sold $1,200 worth of stuff, and I had an epiphany: If I make things look nice, and compelling, and have a personal interaction with people about those objects, it could be a business. There was a certain alchemy on that day, and I said, ‘I’m going to open a store.’ “
About that time she met Rader, who had a painting degree from UC Santa Cruz and worked at a fitness studio that Lock frequented. “I noticed her personal interactions with people,” says Lock, “and I knew I’d found my business partner. If I hadn’t met Dana, it would have remained a fledgling idea.”
The first Stripe store, which opened in 2009, quickly developed a reputation for stylish and quirky goods. After four years, the two women opened Stripe Men, just a few doors down on Walnut Avenue.
The stores serve as an entrée to the design business, though that’s not their stated purpose. It just happens to work that way. “People come in, like the aesthetic of the eclectic Stripe and Stripe Men stores, and naturally begin to wonder: what if my whole house looked like that?” says Lock, who calls the stores a “physical portfolio” for her design work, with their diverse collection of found, new, and locally made items. “It’s the perfect vehicle. The stores are an extraordinary playground, where we can do anything we like. I can go bananas and express myself creatively.”
Just as Stripe stores can’t be pinned to any one theme or genre, Stripe Design would never claim to be retro, mid-century modern, wine country, or any one of a hundred other styles currently in vogue. In fact, Lock prides herself on being anti-style. You get the feeling that if she ever became identified with a particular genre, she’d probably quit. “My aesthetic is the quantifying factor,” she says. “It doesn’t need any other restriction.”
Her clients are as varied as her tastes. She designed Venus Spirits on Swift Street, built to resemble a 1940s speakeasy; Humble Sea Brewery, with its maritime theme; device maker Pearl Automation; and Santa Cruz Bicycles, which is housed in the old Wrigley building. For the latter, she designed a freight elevator with couches, leopard skin carpets and a “Mad Men” style bar, replete with a stack of ‘60s Playboy magazines. The company loved it—the fire marshall, not so much. (It’s no longer in use, though you can find a photo of it on the Stripe website.)
“What I fine most endearing about Suna is that she’s a bridge to the community,” says client Sean Venus, founder of Venus Spirits. “She’s a great designer, but she also connects clients with local artists and people that can help with the project logistically. She also helped us navigate the politics. She’s a great networker.”
This penchant for politics and networking also led Lock to become president of the Santa Cruz Downtown Association in 2009, where she left her mark on such things as a major rebranding and the sidewalk kiosks. When her term with the DTA ended, she promptly joined the Santa Cruz Arts Commission, where she serves today.
We take the short staircase from Stripe Design Services on Pacific Avenue, down to the sidewalk, for a tour of the Stripe stores. As we walk around, Lock giggles with girlish joy at some of her more unusual acquisitions. For the practical minded, you can find jewelry, clothing, mugs, and perfume. For those desperately seeking strangeness, you can find a collection of aspen sticks, a fine assortment of desiccated animal jaws, and vintage glass insulators with original dirt inside. Two huge model planes hang from the ceiling, which Lock and Rader found at an estate sale. (Months later, the original owner came in and practically became weepy at the site of them.) There are found objects from the city dump, and a collection of skeleton keys with a fine patina of age. One of the changing rooms is wallpapered with someone’s lifetime correspondence, which Lock found in a box at the flea market. If you take the time—standing in your underwear, perhaps—you can trace the woman’s entire existence, from when she first left home, to when her husband goes off to war, then comes back, right up to when her own children leave home. “She kept everything,” says Lock. “It’s her life on the walls of the dressing room.” It’s a wonderful and arresting piece of voyeurism, though Lock admits “some people are arguably in there longer than they should be.”
Stripe Men is equally unconventional, with a woodsy, New England camping theme that includes a deer head, flashlights, swords, an axe, a globe, black-and-white portrait photographs of mustachioed men from some bygone era, and the pièce de résistance, a homemade rat trap.
Both stores are a little like taking a journey through your father’s dresser, or your mother’s old jewelry box. It’s a journey of discovery—the most carefully curated state of uncurated-ness you will ever see.
Will Stripe stores ever become another Anthropologie, or will Stripe Design become a mainstream interior design house? Lock finds the very idea terrifying. “I have a fear of our stores propagating, and losing control over curation. I look at Anthropologie, in terms of a competitive business analogy. They’ve lost something. It’s very disappointing. If those words were ever said about Stripe, part of me would die.
“At Stripe Design, we don’t have a house style. I think it’s really important that no one can walk in and say, ‘Stripe designed this.’ If you have a signature color, then everyone knows it’s you. It’s not about us—it’s about good design.”
I ask her if she’s ever surprised that people buy some of the more arcane items. “Of course not,” she responds. “After all, I bought them myself!”
And that, more than anything else, is the rationale for the happy, chaotic, and beautiful amalgamation of stuff that comprises the two businesses. There is no logic to Stripe, other than the most logical thing of all: it’s full of stuff Lock likes.