Seth and Alexis Sullivan don’t look like they belong in Mexico. A gringo by blood — his parents relocated to Tijuana from North Carolina and Kansas nearly four decades ago — Seth is known among locals as Rollie Fingers, after the magnificently mustachioed San Diego Padres pitcher of the late ’70s. Alexis comes from a Korean family with roots in the Yucatan Peninsula (in addition to Filipino and Japanese backgrounds) and grew up between Tijuana and Bonita. They both speak fluent, slang-laden Spanish followed by perfect California English.
Sure, they may not fit the typecast, but, as a local musician once told me, “Tijuana is a junkyard,” and nobody knows Tijuana’s junkyards better than the Sullivans.
“Here, you run into a lot of shit from the United States that’s been recycled goods from years ago,” Seth says in his craggy voice, which always sounds on the verge of cracking a joke. “Shit that, unless you’re gonna use it for artwork or material to create something, it’s really not a product in itself. So what’s really cool about thrifting in Mexico is that, if you’re creative, you can figure out how to make some cool shit out of a lot of random things you find in really random places.”
A flea-market picker since a young age, Seth now scours thrift stores, scrap yards, alleyways, dumpsters, and roadside collectors from Rosarito to Los Angeles. He and Alexis then transform the detritus and forgotten treasures into works of art that they sell under their brand name “Built Around Me” on Etsy, at craft fairs, and to private clients.
Up at their hillside home overlooking Colonia Cacho, Seth shows me a giant, vintage “Farmacia” sign that he recently picked up, as well as a retro sign that had been threatening to fall off a Zona Norte motel for years.
“I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with that,” he says, “but I had to have it.”
Seth met Alexis just as he began figuring out his potential as a self-taught designer (thanks, YouTube), marketing his wares under the alias Art Pusher. She was working what she calls a boring job and says, “He flipped my whole world upside down. Like, whoa! It’s real to be an artist and designer.”
Alexis, who excels at photography, maintains Built Around Me’s social media and accounting in addition to working on design. The couple employs four specialists — a woodworker, a metalworker, a finisher, and an architect (“I can’t sketch to save my life,” says Seth) — and are looking into commercial spaces around Tijuana to set up a new wood/metal shop and a garden to grow succulents.
Most recently, Built Around Me has been teaming up with investors in the States to fund big interior-design projects on both sides of the border.
“I want them to have that Tijuana street feel but be high-end products,” Seth says. “Solid walnut dressers, credenzas… all the stuff we make has that more serape feel. More raw, but with an elegant feel.”
Take, for example, their work at Revolución gastropub La Justina, where they crafted an ambiance that includes a bar top of 10,000 pennies coated in resin and an Edison-bulb chandelier of salvaged, individually woven marine ropes. Until now, everything has been one-of-a-kind, but the couple just produced a line of 120 tractor-seat bar stools for Común, a pending East Village endeavor of transborder chef Chad White’s. They’re also redesigning the Egyptian-themed suite at a Tijuana love motel.
“There wasn’t anything here before that was cheap and nice to look at,” says Seth. “Everything was cheap and ugly or cheap and smelly. But now people are into aesthetics.”
“TJ’s really establishing itself as something in the design world, not just all the Mexican stereotypes,” Alexis says. “It’s the city investing in itself, instead of tourism like it did before. Now, everything is for the locals and more people are coming to visit because of it.”