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I grew up in a household that was colorless. It was just black and white. The only color I can remember was navy in the curtains.
I was born in Germany. My parents are both doctors who escaped Communism in Poland in the ‘80s to provide a better life for me and my brother. So in our house, there was a real focus on science education, and not much on art.
The only color I can remember was navy in the curtains.
When I was about 16, I did my junior year in Ohio. It was an exchange program to learn English and basically be inside another culture, stuff like that. I actually got placed in a family with a mom who was a fashion designer at DKNY back in the ‘80s. The house itself was a work of art and we would go to museums on weekends—it was a kind of life that I never experienced at home.
I took a lot more art classes there than I did in Germany. I realized it was something that created real happiness inside me, and people around me started supporting what I was doing. But then I came back home to a very traditional, science-oriented family who felt that you need to pick a safe career to survive in life. So I ended up going to dentistry school.
In Germany, you don’t do the whole undergrad thing. You choose what you’re going to be and that’s kind of it. But while doing that, I was like, I don’t want to be a dentist. I don’t want to be doing this. So I secretly applied to a design school in Hamburg for graphic design and interior architecture. It felt safer to have that word, “architecture,” in there somehow because I thought it was still a normal path I could go on.
Architecture is too slow for me. I have no patience and I need instant gratification.
I had to make a portfolio, but I couldn’t do it at home or near my parents. So I told them that I wanted to visit my host family in Ohio just for fun, and I did the portfolio there, in secret. My host mom helped me make the portfolio, driving me to JOANNs and art stores and stuff like that.
But I didn’t end up applying to the design school. I was like, Fuck it, I’m just going to be a dentist and do art as a hobby. My boyfriend at the time actually submitted my portfolio to the school without me knowing. And then I got a letter inviting me to interview.
When I got in, I told my parents. My mom was like, “Oh god, thank you. That’s awesome.” Like, “you’re not the dentist kind,” basically. But my dad was like, nope, not going to talk to you for a long time. So the fuel for my whole career was my dad. To prove him wrong. I was not going to be an artist who was unable to provide for herself.
After school, I ended up working in architecture. I worked at a firm in Berlin, and then in New York, before realizing that architecture is too slow for me. I have no patience and I need instant gratification. I decided to go to grad school for furniture and product design at Design Academy Eindhoven. So I went back to Europe, and then came back to my old architecture office after school because they had a project and it brought me back to New York, which is where I wanted to be.
For eight or nine years my career was mostly on the brand side. I worked for agencies like Mother New York and RoAndCo, as well as smaller startups at that time—now maybe big—like Kickstarter and General Assembly. Before I went completely on my own, I was at Nike.
Studio Proba will be 10 years old next year, which is crazy. The whole time I was working full time jobs, I worked on my studio on weekends and at night. I hustled my way through. Being German, I needed a visa. You have to have a sponsor. But eventually I was able to sponsor myself for a green card through Studio Proba, I guess because I had enough press and stuff happening with it.
When I got my green card, I still didn’t go out on my own because it was kind of scary.
When I got my green card, I still didn’t go out on my own because it was kind of scary. I needed to feel safe in that I could pay my rent with a full-time job. Also with a lot of my projects, you have to put up money up front. If you want to make furniture or a rug or something, you have to fund it yourself before anyone even buys it or considers it. So that was another factor for me. I didn’t have a safety net. I never wanted to ask my parents for help because I wanted to prove them—or mostly my dad—wrong. But then three years ago now, I decided to go on my own. I was juggling too many things. I had Nike, a long-distance relationship, and my studio. I was traveling way too much and on planes all the time.
Even though Nike was my favorite job I ever had, I knew what I had to do. It was bittersweet, but I chose my relationship and my studio over a job. Since then I’ve been doing it full time and it’s been great, even through the whole pandemic. I was lucky that I was doing home goods.
When all my murals started getting canceled in 2020, I was like, Shit, this is going to be my downfall. But Proba Home pieces spiked like crazy. I saw way more orders for rugs and pillows than I ever had. I had more custom orders than before, as well as for art on canvas. People who might have commissioned me for a mural commissioned a painting instead.
All my paintings and a lot of my colors are inspired by my grandma. She helped raise us because my parents were always working nights and weekends and on call for emergencies. She used to be a florist but gave that up for us. I spent all day in the kitchen and garden with her. She gave me my own little patch to tend to. That’s the only time I experienced color and creativity. Being a florist is an artistry, as is being a chef.
She’s still alive and texts me every day. She’s awesome. She’s my biggest critic though. I will send her stuff and she’s like, “Mm, I don’t like that one.” And I’m like, “Thanks. It’s already painted on the wall.” But it’s funny because I kept sending her progress shots for my most recent show and she always fixated on this one painting. I said, “Okay, I get it. That’s your favorite one. Do you still like the others?” And she was like, “Yes, but that’s the best one.” And then that’s the first one that sold. She knows what’s up.
She’s also an old-school Polish woman so she grew up in different times. She wasn’t like, “You should be an artist.” But in an abstract way, she showed me what art was.
The first year I posted every day after work, no matter in what state—drunk, after a party, sick, whatever.
In 2012 or 2013, I started my “A Poster A Day” project. This was during my time in architecture and startups, where you just work on one thing or one brand every day. Not that that can’t be fun, but I’m someone who needs something different every day. I would make a poster a day in 30 minutes and just post it. At that time, I didn’t know who I was as an artist or a designer. That was me just trying to let go—of judgements of myself or from other people—and trying to just produce something in 30 minutes. Because I could sit there and design a poster for 20 years and still not be happy.
Then out of nowhere, all these blogs started writing about it. Sight Unseen was one of the first ones where I was like, Holy shit. That was my dream. I didn’t come up with the concept of a daily thing. That’s been around for a long time. I’m not sure why it became interesting to people or why they started writing about it, but once that happened, I couldn’t stop. I thought, Now everyone’s watching me. Not everyone, but it was growing and I had to continue.
The first year I posted every day after work, no matter in what state—drunk, after a party, sick, whatever. I realized that each poster became a kind of summary of my day. What I ate that day, what I did that day, what I saw that day. That made it a little bit more fun and gave it more purpose. Then once I was done with the first year, I was like, I can’t stop now, because it’s still growing. People are watching, I have to continue. So I did it for four years.
I have no idea how I did it. It was a pain for friends, like my boyfriend at that time, because I was looking for wifi in the worst spots. I’d be traveling and have to plan where I stopped for layovers into my posting schedule. I would be somewhere hiking on a mountain in Spain and be like, “I need wifi.”
I opened the project up to the audience the second year because I couldn’t stop, but I was kind of bored with my own life, so I asked people for submissions about theirs. I called it Yours, and people sent me so many things.
I was surprised by how many—80% or 90%—of the stories were really sad. They were about rape, addiction, abuse, and all that stuff. I wondered, am I supposed to call the police? But then I realized that’s probably not why they wrote to me. In the end, I decided to make art because that’s what they want me to do. I always tried to turn something really negative into a positive and hopeful kind of graphic. I did that for a year, and then the third year I did Hours where people asked me questions that I answered visually.
The fourth and last year was Hers. That was during the 2016 election when Hillary ran for president. I wanted to hear about all the women who people were inspired by. So I made it about women and then, obviously, Trump won at the end of that fourth year. I just didn’t see a theme for a fifth year. I didn’t want to make a His, or something. I was also really burned out. It felt like a good time to stop.
I want to create joyful moments, so that when people see my work, they’re actually happy.
The cool thing was that those four years allowed me to do other things in between. I launched rugs, and I launched a furniture collection with Bower. It opened so many doors for me, just to have an audience, to be able to do different projects. I think in the third and fourth years, you kind of see my language slowly forming into what it is now. Obviously it evolved every day, but that’s where I found myself.
I want to create joyful moments, so that when people see my work, they’re actually happy. That’s the only reaction I want to have. With my Miami sculpture project, seeing people interact with my sculptures—jump on them, hug them, climb them—brings me a lot of joy. In a way, I think my work is very naive. But the nice thing about abstract art is you can make it whatever you want it to be. It’s not prescriptive, like, “this is a tree,” “this is a face,” and “there’s a dog.” You can actually create whatever you want to see in it—and people see the craziest things.
I think of art and rugs and textiles as a kind of self-care—having a cozy home, creating a place where you can be safe and rest.
When I paint outdoors in public spaces, like murals, a lot of kids stop and ask what it’s going to be in the end. I always tell them, “Whatever you want it to be,” or ask, “What do you see?” And they all see different things.
I think of art and rugs and textiles as a kind of self-care—having a cozy home, creating a place where you can be safe and rest. A lot of people don’t even put furniture on the rugs, they just use them as their yoga mat, or a hangout space.
The nice thing about art, especially abstract art, is that your mind can do some crazy tricks. And that’s really cool when you’re high. What do you see then, and what do you see when you’re not? As a non-smoker, a non-drug user, I can’t imagine what the visuals are like for other people. But maybe it creates a world where you feel safer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Alex Proba photographed by Jules Davies in Portland. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. See our rug collab with Alex here, and subscribe to our newsletter here.