Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My Life as an Old-School Decorator

I am a decorator.  I didn't pick this job.  It picked me. It has been a twenty year journey, one that has been circuitous, not the upward, linear trajectory that we all like to think happens.
I, like most people, am on all the social media platforms.  I'm there mainly to amuse myself it seems, because I still run my business like I always have. Old school. But I can't help but be struck by the way the internet has affected design.

My background was in the fine and applied arts.  I had a graphic arts gig after college that I enjoyed. It involved silkscreen and athletic clothing. I just moved from one creative thing to the other. I always looked at art as art, no matter the medium; pencil, T-shirt ink, furniture and fabric.  It was all just art to me. No lofty dreams of being a legend in my own or anyone elses mind.

But when the universe wants you, it finds you.  I worked on my own house with no goal other than to please myself and because I had limited funds.  I never set out to impress anyone else. (If you know me, that sentence would come off as the understatement of all time.)  Friends started to hound me to help them.  I was all like, you have to be kidding.  Then one of my friends started to BEG me.  So I acquiesced and rounded up my little fabric selections.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

In those days, it took really big guts to just hang out your shingle.  You were told the title Designer was never to be used by anyone other than someone with a degree in interior design.  No other art or design experience counted.  You just better not!  You would get struck by lightning or come down with leprosy or something.  So I just kept my head down, didn't make a big deal of it.  And worked.  Hard.  I took any work that came along.  If you asked me if I could do it, I would say yes and figure it out later.  Once, early in my career, I got into my car after landing an $80,000 project and said out loud, "What the hell did I just do?"

That one worked out fine and brought in more referrals.  No PR person.  No blog.  No business coach.  Just me in my little power suit schlepping my samples around and practically living in my car. I started collaborating with all the tradespeople and craftsmen I could.  I found that the thing I loved most was standing in my jeans with sawdust all around me in a room or house ripped to the studs.  Just a beautiful blank canvas standing before me.  I believe in giving each artist and craftsman their own light and credit.  If you are a credit-hog and overly self important type, you won't get far in this business.  I don't care what your blog says otherwise.  Karma really does work that way.

In my early career, I frequented an old fabric place in town that catered to decorators.  It was the kind I wish was still around.  Piles and stacks of fabrics in an old building with creaky floors that had not seen a coat of finish in a century. It had an old counter in it that literally looked like something out of the general store on Little House on the Prairie.  There was a crusty old lady who worked there named Betty.  You could often see her outside on her smoke break on your way in.  She weighed about 90 pounds and looked like Lauren Bacall in her old years.  She didn't give a damn about decorators, especially new ones. She took more fabric knowledge to her grave than the rest of us put together will ever know.  I knew not to get on Betty's bad side.  She might just let my order sit there until she got damn well ready to order it. One day she was writing up my fabric order on her waitress order pad.  I swear to God. The little green and white kind.  I was keeping the chit chat to a minimum as always. All of a sudden, out of the blue, Betty looked at me with those piercing blues eyes of hers and said, "You're going to make it."  I said Excuse me?  She said, "You're going to make it in this business.  I see a lot of 'em come and go.  I can tell who's going to make it, and you will."

I floated out to my car.  To this day, that was one of the biggest validations I have ever gotten.  Miss you, Betty.  If you were here, we'd get a kick out of the way things are now in the decorating business.
Us old broads would.


Amy@DesigningaLifeILove said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! Keep it real, girl. KEEP. IT. REAL.

Southern Chateau said...

Thanks, Amy!

Wanda S. Horton - Interior Designer said...

Carol - This is a fabulous post! I tried to comment on Facebook from my phone, today, but it went away. You expressed what many of us feel, regarding the direction that the supposed "reality" portrayal of interior designers and our process has been shared.

It's a whole lot of smoke and mirrors or drama gets thrown in to keep the general public interested. Apparently the idea of working with vendors and supporting one another has given way to condescension and as we say in the south, "hissy fits".

Sadly, I'm guessing some of today's younger designers may be looking back at this and thinking these were the good old days. I do appreciate so many of the tech tools which can be time savers but it still doesn't hold a candle to being able to sketch out a design or the creative process which brings such joy and fulfillment to those of us who don't look at design as a 24 hour, immediate gratification deal. Because of this perception, I spend way more time than ever educating about realistic expectations and the value we bring to the table. I hope some of it sticks, along the way. Since my personal time has become more valuable . . . I'd rather spend it in the pure practice of design and not having to reverse the HGTV syndrome.

Congratulations to you on your years practicing your art and hanging in there through all of the ups and downs. May there be more ups and more onwards in your future!

Scribbler said...

What a well-written fabulous post! Keep writing this way.

Maya Webster - Education Online PhD said...

Wow! This is truly an inspiring story! I’m very happy for you. I think you should really believe in yourself, in your talent and in what you can do. I think that person is right! You can make it and you did! Thanks a lot for sharing your inspiring journey.


marisa said...

Love it Carol! There are a few of us out there a little 'old-school'. But we can show the young ones!