The art of Laurel Burch is instantly recognizable to Bay Area women of a certain age. In the ’70s and ’80s, her Cloisonné earrings were in every Bay Area gift shop. And her brightly colored, whimsical designs of flowers, birds and cats – she is probably best known for the elongated cats – were everywhere, on T-shirts, scarves and tote bags.
Now between 60 and 80, these women “are the ones who make the brand what it is,” said her daughter Aarin. Though Laurel Burch died in 2007, a shop run by her daughter, Laurel Burch Studios, opened in Berkeley to the public in March 2020, only to be immediately shut down by shelter in place.
While many stores around the world carry Laurel Burch merchandise, this is the only “flagship store” made up of her designs only. Aarin Burch tried to have more of a grand opening this past fall, but given COVID-19 and the Delta variant, it still wasn’t quite the opening she was hoping for.
The shop is hosting a series of Open Studios festivities from Nov. 18-21, and while Aarin Burch wants to get the word out to her mother’s legions of fans, she also hopes to introduce her work to younger generations.
For Aarin Burch, it took a while for her to decide to make her mother’s legacy her primary gig.
For most of Burch’s life, “this was her thing, not my thing,” she told Berkeleyside in an interview at the store. “But some years later, I realized I can do so many things with this. I can be around art all day, and work with people, and do things I’m passionate about.”
Burch said she especially relishes the artistic freedom to keep her mother’s work fresh, by introducing new designs. Her mother was so prolific, she’ll never run out of them, she said. During the interview, she brought out one of her mother’s sketchbooks her stepfather had just found, with many new-to-her line drawings inside of it. Nearly all the images, whether they be on socks, scarves, pillow cases, gardening gloves, or (most recently) face masks, first came to life in a painting by Burch.
“My mother would create a painting, and then put the image on a T-shirt,” said Aarin Burch. “I don’t have new art of hers, but I figure out how to blow up an image and move it around in new ways. I can crop out one flower or one creature and move them so that the creature is peeping around the flower, for example.”
While her mother never specifically asked her children to carry on her legacy before she passed away, she did leave her daughter, at least, with these words: “Whatever you do, do it your way, don’t try to do it my way. If you’re doing it your way, that’s the right way.”
What a gift that was, Burch reflected. While she is very much her mother’s daughter, her mother did not share two big parts of her identity; Aarin is a person of color and queer.
She is trying to strike a balance, doing things her way, and yet remaining true to her mother, by adapting her mother’s messages of inclusivity to the world we live in now. It has often been difficult. When she supported the Black Lives Matter movement on her email list, for example, some of her mother’s more conservative fan base criticized her for politicizing the brand.
“I see it as my work and my journey to use her bold and unapologetic work, to bring it to the people I want to make a difference to today,” she said.
Burch’s mother, Laurel, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. She came to the Bay Area wanting to be a singer, and had an on-and-off relationship with jazz musician Robert Burch; she had two children with him by age 25, before they split for good. It fell upon her to support her children.
She had never taken an art class, and began designing earrings and other jewelry to sell at street fairs to support her children. Aarin Burch said that as a child in San Francisco, it often fell upon her to attach the wires to her mother’s earrings at the kitchen table.
Her mother’s life story was a true rags-to-riches tale. She started her business as a hippie on welfare and became an internationally known artist and brand, worn by the likes of Cher and sold in department stores, where fans would wait in line to get her autograph.
She also suffered from osteopetrosis, a painful bone disease, her entire life. She often said that she felt her mission in life was to inspire joy by her work, even though she herself was often in pain. In her later life, she lived in Novato, where she died.
While Burch says she and her mother loved each other fiercely, it wasn’t always easy being her daughter.
On the one hand, her mother connected with nearly everyone she encountered; Burch constantly hears stories from people who had memorable interactions with her, saying things like “’I met your mom and we had the most amazing connection. I felt she really saw me, she just got me right away.’ Having lost her, I love hearing those stories about her as they keep me so connected to her,” Burch said.
Yet at the height of her fame, she was much less available to her own children.
“I often couldn’t access her,” Burch said. “She started to get so famous I had to send her a fax.”
But over time, mother and daughter healed their relationship and became close once again. Aarin helped take care of her mother in her last years.
A graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts, the younger Burch, now 56, found her passion in film, directing and producing both promotional videos and independent films, including ones about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival and HIV-positive women of color. For the past two decades, she has slowly been working on a documentary about her mother, acknowledging that the pressure she’s put on herself to get their relationship exactly right could be slowing down the process.
She also is known in Berkeley as a hip-hop dance and martial arts teacher; she taught hip-hop at the Downtown Berkeley YMCA for 23 years.
In 2012, she started the e-commerce site Laurel Burch Studios, reimagining what her mother’s legacy could be, running it out of her Oakland apartment.
She admits she’s had to learn everything on the job, as running a business was never her life plan.
Her brother Juaquim runs the international side of the business; Laurel Burch still has many fans around the world, especially in South America and Japan.
While some may think Aarin and her brother inherited a lot of money from their mother’s estate, that isn’t the case, she said. Her mother was an artist who didn’t always have the best business partners; furthermore, there were long stretches where she couldn’t work due to her illness. Her stepfather was running the business when she died, Aarin said.
“What she left us was this incredible opportunity and that was priceless,” Burch said.
Around five years ago, Aarin Burch moved the business from her Oakland apartment into a warehouse in Berkeley, and began holding warehouse sales several times a year. Opening a “flagship” store happened only when she found the right space; it was the studio of an architect. Its sellers hoped the new tenant wouldn’t change the layout, which she hasn’t. The display cases are filled with Burch items past and present, and Aarin uses the conference room to host small gatherings; whether they may be nurses or young artists; she hopes to be a hub for encouraging young women artists in the future, and to host other community gatherings in the space.
Ultimately, Burch wants people who visit the store to get that same feeling they have from the Laurel Burch coffee mug they’ve been using for 30 years.
“I want people to feel the warmth and great energy, and share it,” she said, as much of her mother’s line has always been about gift-giving. She hopes visitors come away with a full Laurel Burch experience after visiting the store.
“She wasn’t making mugs for you to drink out of, it was a physical embodiment of the act of giving and creating it, for someone to have that feeling with someone else,” said Burch. “It sounds so simple, but I’m running this business because it creates beauty in the world. There’s something about this particular art, because of its vibrancy and energy, that makes people feel connected and special and loved and seen.”
Laurel Burch Studios is at 1345 Eighth St., Berkeley, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day but Sunday.
Open Studios is Nov. 18-21. There will be food, wine, giveaways, a raffle and an opportunity to browse through vintage items from the Laurel Burch collection going back to the 1970s. There will also be live music, with a performance by Melanie DeMore at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20, and Carol Garcia at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 21.