Every once in awhile, a design project hits me like a spiritual two-by-four. I’d like to tell you about Pat, our 86-year-old client and now also good friend.
Pat called sounding frustrated because she her house sold too fast. She had to be out of a 10- room house in 3 days and had no time to sort through a lifetime of memories. She also suffered a stroke and couldn’t get around easily. This was not your typical call, and quite honestly I didn’t know how we could help her. But as we’re wrapping up summer and don’t start picking up for a few weeks, I agreed to meet with Pat. And I’m so happy I did, because it taught me what the real value is in what we do for people, and what people do for us.
The stereotype of an interior designer is that we’re snobby, we’re judgmental and really expensive. The type of people who insist you have a $600 pillow draped across your Dupioni silk chaise or you’re not cool. (Ironically, the people who purport these stereotypes are often the same ones trying to sell you their merchandise, but that’s another blog topic). In all fairness, a lot of our work is making rooms look fantastic for people who have a lot of resources. These are the type of projects that get you see in glossy magazines. But there’s decorating and there’s design, and I’ve learned through Pat what the difference is. Back to Pat.
Pat is confined to this new apartment for most of the day and has all the furniture and “stuff” she could ever need. But it’s a struggle for her to get out of a chair. An epic struggle to get in a car. But her mind is sharp as any I’ve ever encountered.
We had a glass of tea and just listened, because anyone who’s 86 really deserves your full attention and respect at all times. She was completely resolute that she wanted her new abode to be comfortable, livable, and beautiful. So after taking pictures and measurements, I told Pat we’d come back after we had let her concerns and issues “marinate” (that’s my favorite term to mean letting things roll around in my head). And then we got to thinking. Oh yeah, back to Einstein.
Solving For “X”
What takes a long time to do as a designer is to empathize, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I do a lot by listening to Bach and walking. I call the process solving for “X”. “X” is the unknown, the unfamiliar territory encountered when your position or role in life shifts. The kids go off to college, you move into an unfamiliar town, you’re suddenly single. These major life events correspond to the time when people mostly consider remodeling, getting some new furniture, any sort of change really. The transitions are often awkward, uncomfortable and unsettling, whether you admit it or not. With Pat, she just came out and told me what “X” was for her: this new place I’m in (literally and figuratively) stinks and please help me make sense of it. This was not a normal request- most people call us asking to redo a room, pick out new paint, change up the furniture. After doing this for 16 years, those answers are done in a day’s work. That’s space planning and decorating and I love doing it. But good design makes someone’s life easier, a little prettier, a bit more comfortable. And it took an 86-year-old woman to show me that.
Designing & Decorating
Our solutions for Pat are a combination of practical design and pretty decorating. They’re not something you’ll see in House Beautiful. Our contractor is going to mount the TV on the wall to free up some space. Backless barstools allowed for a clear walkway to the kitchen. We found some torchiere lighting that matched her lamps and made the apartment a whole lot brighter since macular degeneration is a reality. We brought some new silk flowers to put in a vase Pat got as a gift from her grandmother, blue and pink ones. Painting and some peel and stick wallpaper are in the works. But these and other little things we did for Pat made her eyes light up like nothing I’ve ever seen. And that’s why we’re still planning little ways to make this meager apartment even better. Her awkward and hurried move just became a little easier to tolerate, and life got a little easier to navigate.
Every one of us is hurling through this big blue marble chaotically. Sometimes the trip is fun, sometimes it’s terrifying. But if you can figure out how to make the ride a little less bumpy, a little prettier, or just a bit more manageable for your fellow passengers, you’ll see that your own journey is better too. This is what I’ve learned through Pat.