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After hours with Neon Saltwater's tropical fantasy interiors

This enigmatic Seattle-based interior designer and artist is actualizing her evocative 3D interiors to their fullest fantasy.

Abby Dougherty, working under the moniker of Neon Saltwater, engages in stylistic references to construct these emotive, lush interior spaces.

Photo: Christian Petersen

With her first solo exhibition, UNVIRTUAL, and recent installations at Seattle Art Museum and Out of Sight, Dougherty's work is exemplary for the craft's aesthetic potential to redefine spatiality.

Dougherty's atemporal aesthetic leaves the screen in *UNVIRTUAL, *an interactive installation featuring three lush interior spaces.

You've actualized your renderings in real spaces. What is that process like?

I approach them differently but I value both the same. Digital spaces have so much potential to be whatever I want. I use 3D to create the spaces that I see in my head and in my dreams that have unrealistic settings and don't have to follow codes and laws of gravity.

The real spaces are made to capture and inspire the same feelings you get from looking at my digital spaces but I have to work with way more limitations.

Do you visualize your renderings in terms of eventually having a "real life" application?

No, for the most part I actually design them differently even though they have the same look. With the digital spaces, I focus on manipulating the lighting and I use a lot more white textures. I try to use pretty basic and predictable materials to evoke a sense of familiarity so that it depicts a realistic environment. Then I throw in little details to make it dreamy and nostalgic.

I can't really use as much white in real life or rely on existing materials of a room because it doesn't have as much impact. I want to evoke the same feelings of euphoria and fantasy, so I have to pump up the exaggeration in real life.

To do that, I use a lot of custom textured wallpaper and textiles and I am more aggressive and daring when mixing textures, patterns, and colors.

What is it like seeing people inhabit your typically un-peopled digital spaces?

That is a great question and a very contradictory thing for me. I don't put people in my digitals because I am very attracted to lonely and empty spaces, and I like imagining rooms "after hours" when they just exist in peace.

It's important for the digital spaces to be empty so that people can create their own narrative and not be influenced by any sort of identity or character. It's also important for the digital spaces to feel somewhat eerie. But another part of me wants to create real immersive environments for people because I think rooms can be very healing and inspiring.

I feel very motivated by the idea of making fantasies a reality. People get so stuck in their routines and it's good to remember how random, mysterious, and precious our existence is.

Topically, you deal almost exclusively with rooms or livable spaces. Why is that? What's up with interiors?

I went to art school and had every intention of becoming a graphic illustrator but I found myself obsessed with perspective drawing. I was always trying to imitate other artists that depicted scenic compositions like Edward Hopper or trying to illustrate photos from magazines that were centered around location and environment.

I started rearranging my furniture in my room by myself around age 8 so all those things came together and led me to a choose Interior Design as my major. I freelance now as an interior designer and Neon Saltwater is art, but also a way to express my personal style that I can't execute in the industry—yet.

Your work feels referentially eighties, stylistically right-now, and hyper-futuristic all at once. How you you define your work?

People have described my work as being from every decade between the 50's and the future. I am influenced by all decades and eras, and I pick and choose decor trends to imitate. Right now I am obsessed with the set of the original Great Gatsby movie with Mia Farrow—but my work will never solely reference one style.

I like to imitate and mimic trends of the past but people say the way I mix things together is odd or unpredictable, so I think that's what makes it feel like it's also from the future.

Where did the name Neon Saltwater come from?

I made up the word one day for a playlist I used to share with a crush. We both loved dreamy electronic dance-esque music and one day, I just got this image in my head of a room with a bunch of tanks that glowed with neon ocean water.

We had the most bizarre intuitive connection and I had a vision of him and I in that room dancing. Our dynamic kind of blew up in flames when we finally interacted romantically in real life and it just never worked. We had a really hard time communicating but despite that we both acknowledged that we had this undeniable past life connection.

Now, Neon Saltwater has evolved to express those feelings you can't explain but are just there. Sometimes they don't make sense or even have a place on this earth, but I believe they visit us from other realms. It's the same concept of how impossible it is to explain the vibe of dreams to people because it can be so specific.

I am a very emotional person and I process everything by the way something or someone makes me feel. My highest highs are out of this world. I can't control what people take from my art but I am always a motivated to share those highs and evoke excitement, mystery, and that euphoria as much as possible.

You just had a crazy summer of exhibitions, events, video screenings, and installations—what's next?

I am focused on real life client based interior design at the moment but I continue to make neon saltwater digitals in my free time. I have some things in the works that I can't say yet, but will hopefully allow me to create real-life Neon Saltwater spaces that are permanent. 


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