Why cry over spilt paint? Just paint the floor with it! I have my mom to thank for the compulsion to make the most of my resources, and for an über-DIY approach to life and to business. Very early on, she taught my sisters and me that no one was going to swoop in and do the tough stuff for us, regardless of us being women.
Once when my sisters and I were quite young, when we were beginning to feel “girly,” we saw a spider on the kitchen table. We began squealing, pointing, and screaming, “SOMEBODY, get rid of it!”
My Mom came in and drew a hard line: “If you want to get along in this world, you better figure out how to get rid of that spider yourselves. No one is going to swoop in and do it for you.” And that was that.
Growing up the way I grew up in Detroit instilled in me a particular resourcefulness. My family didn’t have the means to hire people to fix things around the house, so I learned how to do all that alongside my parents. With my Dad, I did electrical work and patched leaks. With my Mom, I put up drywall and became skilled at “puttying” the seams. As a kid I was looking at floor plans and elevations, and poring over “how-to” instructions from the Time Series (I highly recommend getting a set of these books; they’re the modern day Encyclopedia for any “maker”).
When I later moved to New York City, I was surprised by how little handiwork people did themselves. This “tool belt” of knowledge seemed absent from the intellect of so many of the incredibly brilliant, talented people around me. I realized that, different from most of my peers, I tended to look at things and think about how I could fix, make or mend them, versus whom I should hire to do so.
This was invaluable when I first moved in with Brad, my now-husband. His loft, the same one we now share, was a bachelor pad for the musician ilk. It definitely needed some finessing to become a “home.” I got to work in my tool belt and painter’s pants*. First, I opened up the walls connecting the front half of the loft to the back by adding salvaged windows along the top of the partition; light could now move through the full space more fluidly. I then added large 4’x8’ mirrors in a couple different spots to reflect light toward the center of the apartment. I framed them against the wall, and left the lag bolts exposed to the effect of “intentional industrialism,” a sensibility that I continue to weave into my designs.
I put in a huge bookshelf for Brad, and added a banquette in the window of the kitchen area. I’ve always loved a window seat, and putting one in the kitchen made it a more social, approachable space.
I partitioned off a corner of the open living room with floor-to-ceiling, hand-cut tree patterned muslin scrims, creating an office space that was both intimate and, à la the kitchen strategy, approachable. This idea for the home (like so many of mine do!) trickled into the store. I put up different styles of these translucent room dividers to create new spaces within the larger one, allowing light and air to filter through uncompromised. Other SoHo business friendlies began picking up the idea, too, and incorporating my gauzy scrims into their own layout designs; solving my own spatial problems had led directly to a new design product.
The most attractive aspect of this metaphoric toolkit of knowledge – that is, the DIY approach to life – isn’t just the “getting it done;” it’s the “how” of getting it done. Exercising this precise type of creative problem solving makes me a better, more thoughtful, and more resourceful businesswoman.
How am I going to get people into the store? How am I going to get the aesthetics of the in-store experience to cooperate with one another, and resonant properly with my customers? How am I going to craft a memorable online UX? How will I rise above the noise and vocalize my differentiation in an increasingly competition-saturated market? It’s these sorts of questions that the DIY life prepares me to answer creatively and uniquely.
One thing to emphasize is that I can’t always finagle my way through those questions alone. There’s no shortage of teamwork, composited creativities, shared responsibility, and combined personpower behind the evolving responses to these questions. But they’re always tethered to a mindset – dare I say an intrinsic compulsion – to DIY that sh**.
I’ve never been afraid to get my hands dirty with my handiwork, nor with my business strategy. I don’t cry over spilt paint. In fact, I paint the floor with it. And I don’t cry over risks or creative retail solutions that don’t pan out. I learn from them, add that new knowledge to my mental toolkit, and use that on the next go-around to get rid of that spider myself.
As told to Emily R. Pellerin
* Friends have asked me numerous times where I get my artfully paint-splattered jeans. Each time I surprise them: the look is not contrived, I’m just wearing them while I make stuff!
For next week...
I was walking through a design show with a friend once when she commented on there being no shortage of “characters” at these trade events. She’s right, and I attribute that quality to the utter commitment that creatives have to their personal brand and style. Sure, some of us are funky, but that's what makes the “me” special in relation to the “we.” In next week’s Design Talk, I’ll explore this trait and track my own emergence from the “we,” citing examples of other prominent design world “characters” along the way.