Here I am, 37 years after arriving as a new student at UW-Madison, writing about my personal path as a professional interior designer. Professionally, it was a relatively straightforward line between eighth grade and now, but my contemplation on these memories and experiences created a bit of a bumpy ride.
I was introduced to the idea of interior design through some type of middle school career assessment. Looking back, this seems amazing to me for the place and time. It was a small school district in rural Wisconsin in the 1970s, presenting a previously unknown opportunity for this 13-year-old boy. It clicked almost immediately. My personal creativity abounded early on—grid paper, pencils, crayons, appliance boxes, tree forts, snow forts, Lincoln Logs—all fed the need to create and construct. Then scrap wood and woodworking tools became the means to stretch my mind and work with my hands. Eventually these activities, paired with education, morphed into a developed understanding of spatial thinking, intuitively understanding interior materials, interpersonal insight of others, and a solid foundation for practicing interior design. On the other hand, grappling with being a gay man later in life was not so straightforward.
Interior design defined
Interior design is not only residential decorating and design, it’s helping people navigate the corridors of a hospital, an acute care facility (nursing home), an apartment building, or a school; it’s creating an experience for the joy of choosing an ice cream flavor in a crisp, clean shop or an intimate dinner in a hushed dining room; or finding a moment of calm and relaxation in the hotel room after a long day of traveling. It’s broad and impactful. It affects all your human senses plus your psychological and emotional self.
Interior design considers sustainability and the wellbeing of individuals in interiors; it guides the actual development of gender-neutral restrooms; it can reflect the rich range of citizens and students in health care and education facilities, respectively; and the field is starting to explore neurodiversity and how to accommodate individuals who are in greater need of support during the course of a day.
People are at the core of why we do and what we do. Creative ideas, solving technical problems, and understanding human behavior all figure into the “solutions” to construct, finish, and furnish an interior.
Knowing deep down during my teenage years in the 1980s that I was different, but not having the knowledge to articulate how, a declaration of being “unique” filled that gap. At that time my uniqueness was defined by my creativity, curiosity, and a genuine interest in people. I particularly remember using that word as my self-identification during 4-H Congress one summer. It was carried with pride and no shame. Years later, after coming out, my uniqueness as I understood it then provided the strength to open up and celebrate who I am.
In my personal world, some of that opening up meant freely expressing those enthusiastic oohs, aahs and variations on a squeal from discoveries, creations, and people I met. To this day, that enthusiasm is present but tempered a bit. Contrasted to my professional world, those expressions were at first seen as annoying and immature. A gentle explanation by a very understanding client helped me understand how to channel that enthusiasm into a positive force for advancing the project forward.
Each one of us has a weakness or a tendency that eventually catches up with us. All those out there who procrastinate, I am right there with you, or at least I used to be. I’ll never forget one particular episode of madness due to procrastination. I was in a college class that had a short, three-week project consisting of conceiving an idea, doing some research, drafting up plans, selecting materials, and putting together a presentation board. It should have rolled along with ease. Nope. Distractions, no desire to start, maybe lacking an idea. Who knows? Three days before it was due, I had to start. Four hours of sleep over the remaining days generated an adequate enough project to turn in “on time.” Never again. The modern day team of client, contractor, sub-contractors, design professionals, specialists and others who have a hand in the completion of a building and interior simply doesn’t allow for procrastination. Plus, the stress is not worth it. Time and a steady approach reign as basic tenets of project work and help produce a better result and not mediocrity.
There are close relationships and less close relationships in life and as with many fields of work. Trust is an element at the core of these relationships. Residential interiors work requires a high level of trust. It requires listening, being honest with a direct but gentle truth, sometimes saying, “I don’t know, but I can find out,” and exhibiting integrity especially when you have to deliver bad news. Summoning up the courage to say “no” to a CEO, explaining that a particular installation won’t happen on time, letting a client know that the team felt the client wasn’t “a good fit” for the project are all conversations I’ve had. The honesty in these circumstances was appreciated and earned a greater level of respect after the fact. This degree of trust is one of the greatest benefits I have personally earned that started in a professional realm.
Giving back, coming out
Giving back to your community brings benefits and unexpected impact. In this case, my interior design community, in the form of a professional organization, has given me the tools to personally grow and professionally advance. However, over 30 years of belonging to the organization, wherein the majority of the males are gay men, rarely was sexual orientation acknowledged much less discussed. Fortunately, about five years ago, a new leader at the top of the organization recognized that diversity in the organization needed to be shared. That small step, initiated through a membership survey, empowered me to openly talk about all forms of diversity as a chapter leader but to also personally open up about my own sexual orientation to other members of the organization.
Navigating the personal and the professional
For all the effort put into an advancing career, there is always more on the horizon. Like so many others in the community, navigating that line between personal and professional is to understand the line and then step over it. Being a solopreneur doesn’t provide for co-workers. Instead, my peers, reps, and others in the industry are a form of a distant co-worker. My “team” regularly shifts from project to project. I am armed with adaptability and the ease of floating between many different people over the course of a day and weeks and months. Deeper relationships that allow for opening up and sharing are simply unusual.
Being hard-wired to conceal and maintain my privacy has made crossing the line particularly difficult, especially with clients. I was taught to listen carefully to them, to serve your client with a strong customer focus and bend over backward. These are not my “friends,” but instead this is a carefully orchestrated professional relationship with a very personal touch that reveals nothing about oneself. Please understand the work of residential interior design can be intimate and moves into some people’s very personal parts of life. Sometimes you see and hear things…well…suffice it to say, a personal barrier is healthy. I respected that greatly.
However, after a 14-year period of working on and off with a residential client, it was revealed that they knew nothing about me. The message was quite surprising and a gentle wake-up call. So, with some trepidation at first, I answered those clients who asked about me personally. Now after 25+ years, the ease of sharing has emerged, and for the first time ever, my partner Victor and I enjoyed a dinner together with my clients. Pre-pandemic of course. I crossed the line, and it wasn’t so bad.
Grappling with the stereotype
At some point early at the University, I sensed something that couldn’t be articulated about the people in my departmental classes. My fellow students were almost all women. Particularly though, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the few guys. Who were they? Could I be friends with them? Why only a few of us? Eventually, I learned of the stereotype of being an interior designer. Through my lens, that meant you appear almost perfect by controlling your image mixed with some degree of expressiveness; or your personal design aesthetic is always beautiful and the clothes are great; and you help people decorate their homes. (The adage about the stereotype ‘gay until proven straight’ is generally true.) Who wants that association?! I didn’t really want to be that stereotype.
I needed and wanted to be seen for my true self, a complex mix of an approachable, creative, steady, expressive person with talent and skills. For years, while working in the field, my image was controlled and personal expressions were carefully managed. Eventually, through the purchase of my business from the prior owner, the best narrative emerged to combat the stereotype. “I own a business practicing commercial and residential interior design.” It’s a good cover, or so I thought. It focused those listening to hear “business” first, “commercial interior design” second, and “residential interior design” or what some hear as “interior decorator,” last. However, over time, slowly and surely, but not completely, the narrative has shifted, and the utterances are less about masking and more honest. After all, I do make up the components of the stereotype, albeit with a professional voice and presence.
A fork in the road
But the stereotype story or more accurately, my self-perception continues…this is a fork in the road and one that hasn’t been fully resolved. The prior description exemplified the client experience during the design and decision-making process, no matter the type of project. Talking to and working with contractors and subcontractors during the build-out of a project brings to the forefront a different group of people. In south-central Wisconsin, this very white, male-dominated culture, and the building of a relationship, means going into “construction mode.” I adjust my body language. Getting tougher in my language and lowering the pitch in my voice is what I would (and still sometimes need to) do. These devices help me to cope and communicate. I believe these actions were, and are, driven out of a personal fear of not being masculine enough to fit in and not being respected. Women face even greater challenges and barriers. I recognize that I have inherent masculine characteristics, and over time, by speaking the language of building when on-site, listening and respecting, brainstorming to solve with these talented individuals, and a slow inherent change in the culture of construction crews, the degree of adjustment with these men on-site has lessened. Am I there yet? No. More courage and time is needed to be my full self.
Professional passion, personal vulnerability
My passion for interior design hasn’t wavered, and I doubt that it ever will. An ability exists to help people dream and imagine what’s possible plus a commitment to making the possible come to fruition. That’s powerful and it’s very rewarding. Each time a new client is brought on board or a new project is showcased in a publication, my heart jumps a little.
The same jump of my heart happens when I am vulnerable as part of my personal growth. I used to believe my personal identity was all about being an interior designer. I lived to work and practice my craft. It gave me joy. It was ingrained. But the personal stumbling blocks kicked up. Hiding behind professionalism wasn’t working. At last, the complexity of my self has been allowed to surface and is still expressed with enthusiasm, curiosity, and joy.