As I work through the hot mess that is me, I feel like it’s time to explore the ‘design’ component of myself. The word itself is like an elephant in the room inside my head. Design is both a huge part of who I am, and something I fear very profoundly. It’s also where I know I want to go.
My story with design starts from when I was just a wee critter. I was (am) a horrible slob as a child, and my room would be taken over by the tsunami of my laziness on a regular basis. Eventually, my mom would demand I clean it, and in the weird dichotomy that tends to punctuate my life, I would be so happy. As a girl, I would gladly spend a whole weekend putting my space back together. The game was always the same: I was a twenty year old, destitute student who could only afford the crappiest of apartments. My landlord was such a jerk. I’d go to open the door of this apartment, and every time I witnessed the chaos for the first time, I thought, “I’ll show him!” Whether or not the ‘him’ was actually my mother, or not, I would lose myself in the joy of improving a not-great space into something that was so much better. I would move furniture, and posters, and plan drawings I needed to do to complete the transformation. I imagined sanding and refinishing old furniture the landlord had left there into beautiful pieces, and dreamed up endless colour schemes to try. I can honestly say, this was one of my favourite things to do, and I distinctly remember thinking that it was something I wanted to do forever.
Fast forward to those awkward teen years, and early acceptance into University. Being the shy and insecure a person I was, I couldn’t bring myself to tell other people what I was interested in. That made me vulnerable to their opinions, and I wasn’t prepared to go there. I wanted someone to tell me that I was good at and what I was interested in. Not surprisingly, all the hard work I did to be invisible paid off and I had no guidance or advice on how to pursue my design interests. I started University having essentially decided my courses the day I registered. I spent a month or so in English, but was usurped by Chaucer, and then a couple of years in Biology, but was usurped by organic chemistry and dissections. At this point, I had moved away from home, been dumped by the first love, and felt so incredibly lost, and so I spent a year taking dance classes, guitar lessons, riding a broken bike found in a dumpster, wearing a child’s size helmet, (take a moment to let that soak in, and enjoy), and trying to figure out how to be adult-ish and happy and independent. I ended up moving back home that summer, and I worked up the courage to apply to the Interior Design program at the college and put together a portfolio. To my surprise, horror and delight, I was accepted and started classes the next September.
Design school felt uncomfortable from the get-go. I didn’t go into it with a clear idea of my design voice, and so I was very quickly swept up into the great design wave, talking about the essential nature of iconic designed goods, but landed on the beach wondering who on earth could actually afford these things? I was brought up not to spend what I didn’t have and very far removed from the notion that material goods were some sort of status symbol. My parents were hardworking and generous, but we didn’t have a lot of frivolity in our house (exceptions being whatever hobby dad was into, and sewing machines for my mom). I grappled with the teaching between “good” and “bad” design, as to me, it seemed like design was completely subjective. I felt panic realizing I had signed up to train to be an expert in an arena where there was never a right answer. This is a disaster for a person with no self esteem. Instead of being able to feel confident within this loose freedom, I was like a hamster on acid, spinning my wheels and then collapsing, always thinking someone else’s ideas or vision had more merit than mine, until my own style and actual design identity was just a watered down, brackish version of something I didn’t believe in in the first place.
Theoretically, I continued to fight against what I felt was elitist design. I remember the concept for my thesis project was along the subversive and angsty lines of, “who cares about design anyway,” and actually featured ‘anti-design’ (have I mentioned I can lean towards the bratty end of the spectrum?) in the word mapping preliminary ideation phase. It would turn out to be my most confident, complete, and successful projects of my school years. I never collapsed because I had a clear idea of where I was going, and after 3 years of being sort of average trying to assimilate, I did something I could sell, because I believed in it. This is a hugely important reflection because it is so true of me. If I don’t believe in something, I find it hard to climb on board. It’s part of what keeps me authentic, but it’s pretty tricky and idealistic when we’re talking about the realities of the real world and making money, and, say, holding down a job.
I left school on the high of this success, which was built on no limits, budgets or real client’s desires. But I had genuine visions of me being some sort of design rock star, spreading my design gospel to the thirsty masses. If I had had the ability to reflect on my happy memories of childhood, I might’ve been able to concede I’d be happy at a home builder, making spaces beautiful for people within strict budgets, but as the fourth child in a group of very smart, and successful siblings, I always thought I needed to be more. So I aimed for high end commercial jobs where confidence is probably the most important attribute, because that was a great fit for me. (I make awesome life choices! Call me for advice. But don’t really call because I’m afraid of the phone).
I lasted just over a year at my first job, and then went to be on a silly design reality show, which left me further disillusioned. The star of the show told me, “you have the talent, but you lack the confidence.” You know what I’ve come to conclude 11 years later? I have the talent, but I lack the confidence. Bahahaha!
So that brings us to now. I’ve spent the last 7 years home with the kids, thinking I’ve been avoiding design, but dreaming about being successful in it, and actually immersing myself in it more completely than ever before. I’ve returned to my girlish roots in this time off. With one income and 3 kids, I’m in my element. After our pre-baby and two income purchases, I’m pretty sure not one stick of furniture in our house is brand new. I’ve had a blast putting our home together with my best friend Kijiji and an eye on the bottom line. I’m that annoying person who, if you say you like something, pipes up, “it cost $0.03!”, and hope they’ll ask me to find one for them too. (Usually they spot someone they know on the opposite side of the room at that moment..) You know why? Because I love it! It brings me such joy to find beauty where others overlook it. It brings me even more joy to find it at a steal. When I started thinking about what I’m passionate about, this feeling is what I come back to. I’m passionate about accessible, creative design. I’m passionate about not chucking old things into landfills. I’m passionate about creating beautiful spaces on tight budgets. I’m passionate about furniture with past lives! I’m so excited to move forward with this direction of design. It takes some scouring and scouting, patience and time, which, interestingly, is not unlike the aforementioned hot mess that is me.