My Interior Design Challenges (A Memoir and Online Portfolio)

Edouard Vuillard, Lucie Belin in the Studio, 1910.

Last summer (2023), I decided to take an online “Fundamentals of Interior Design” class at the community college, just to see where things might lead.

Admittedly, it wasn’t entirely out of the blue. Forty years ago, I started out my academic career as an undeclared “Interior Design” major at The University of Texas, but due to some kind of accreditation issue, the program morphed into “Interior Architecture.”

When I shared the change and my future plans with my parents in order to secure the necessary approvals to declare my major, my older-than-average father protested. “Architecture is a man’s world!” he said. “Trust me, you will never get ahead in that field.” What about Interior Design? I was kinda going for that, well, at least initially . . . ” I hedged. “Oh forget it!” he said, exasperated. “That’s worse! Interior design is a gay man’s world, and you will never get ahead there, either!” “So what if there are gay men? I have lots of gay friends.” “I know honey, but interior design is for them and not for you. That’s the point.”

“It’s not for you” was among my parents’ favorite expressions when the answer was “no,” but they couldn’t explain to me why not in a way that I would accept or agree with. (“Can I have an electric guitar?” was another “It’s not for you,” even after months of lessons on my sister’s acoustic guitar, whose neck was too wide for my small hands. Camp Longhorn and the YMCA were also “not for me.”) However the reader may feel about Interior Design or Interior Architecture as viable major for an ambitious young woman with a high GPA in all subjects, it wasn’t completely impractical for me in my situation. I could draw extremely well then and, having been reared on Dover books, dollhouses and lush Sotheby catalogs, which I often mined for pictures to hand in my dollhouses (a rough coating of rubber cement, dabbed, can make make it look like a real oil painting!), I had an exceptional (for a 17-year-old) knowledge of art, architecture, historic interiors, pattern and antiques upon entering college. I was one year into the program, in fact. At the time I was pursuing ID at UT, my father owned three high-end custom drapery stores which he had initially hoped to franchise, but found himself in over his head.

Why not pursue interior design? That year, or shortly thereafter, he gave the failing businesses to my sister and her husband because he couldn’t make them work. The business “wasn’t for him,” he later revealed. “It’s for gay men. I’m not into fashion.” For him, it was just a business he thought he thought he could simply pay others to run for him. For my fashionable sister and her husband (and his very creative and personable father, already retired), it all worked out, and was a launching point for other, more lucrative ventures. 

My mother’s once thriving advertising agency also closed due to Houston’s oil crash, when most of Houston’s landmark establishments closed. Her original Alphonse Mucha (I loved that piece!) and her other art was sold at auction, just as they had been acquired; but I was away at school and fairly insulated from what was happening at home. A few months after graduation, I had an interview for a position with the library at Bryn Mawr College, who was attracted to my Latin and Greek. They were a last bastion for Classical studies (and still are). They flew me in to Philadelphia and put me up at a Doubletree hotel. I remember the big chocolate chip cookie in the room, which became my dinner, because the restaurant was closed by the time I arrived and I feared walking around downtown Philly after 10:30pm. That morning, around 7am, before leaving the hotel to catch the commuter train to the interview, I got a call that my mother had died. I didn’t feel sad, but I felt off kilter, disembodied and fairly numb as I rode the commuter train out there to the interview. My wool suit, which I purchased for the interview, was ill-fitting because I was short and very thin, like a child, unable to fill out adult-sized clothes. I didn’t get the job, but I felt strange being there at a time like this, like I was doing something wrong or evil. Why do people always feel the need to notify others of a death right away? No one back home had the sense or decency to say, “This morning, she’s interviewing for a job at Bryn Mawr. Tell her after the interview!”

By the time I graduated from college, or maybe it was graduate school, it all runs together in my mind, there was nothing left of home. No art, no rugs, no antiques, no photos. My drawing pads, my paintings, my journals from living with a family in England at 16 and traveling through India at 17, my dollhouses and room boxes–everything was sold, liquidated or thrown out, except for a very thick file of photos of smooth fox terriers (other people’s dogs) belonging to my father which he kept in a desk file drawer in order to study bloodlines and plan potential matches. I had flown home and made a small pile of things I wanted from the house, nothing of monetary value, but all was discarded anyway, by accident, despite my efforts to secure them. Last year, when I was 58, because I had no family photos, I was surprised when my older sister sent me a photo of my mother standing in the kitchen with blurry me in the foreground. I didn’t remember that we had Morris’ “The Strawberry Thief” for window treatments over the sink. How could I have forgotten that? I love William Morris. 

At the end of “Fundamentals of Interior Design,” students are given two design challenges (one client per week) where they must design from scratch two master bedroom suites for two clients.

It is kind of fun, you know, to the extent that you are given a prospectus (one paragraph description) of each client and their needs, and then you knock yourself out for one week to search for each and every item to go into the room(s), from flooring to faux beams to window treatments and wallcoverings, faucets and fixtures, vanities and sinks, and put it all together into a PowerPoint.

Every surface in the room must be accounted for, just like when I was making room boxes out of wine crates.

In class, everything you come up with MUST be a real product capable of actually being sourced. If you have a vision, but you cannot translate that vision into saleable products and services to make your vision reality, too bad! It’s a lot of searching for products online, which is, I suppose, an important part of what an ID actually does, or often ends up doing, after they take 30 hours of Technical Drawing, Architectural Drafting, Rendering, AutoCAD, Revit, Sketchup, Lighting, Costing, Kitchen and Bath, Textiles, and Professional Ethics for Designers. It isn’t all sitting around and making mood boards.

Are there jobs? I don’t know. But I already know there are almost no jobs for librarians, especially academic ones, so I can only go up from here. I’ve already had my architectural survey courses and furniture appreciation (historic interiors) from The University of Texas, before I changed my major to English / Classical Languages.

My first client, Ryan Humphrey, wanted a bedroom suite (“suite” means it includes a master bath). He “collects vintage cadillacs and leans toward modern.” He races cars for a hobby. Mid-century modern was the obvious choice for Mr. H, a “confirmed bachelor,” but I mixed it up with modern Italian, a sturdy Nella Vetrina leather storage bed, so it didn’t look like a period room or too matchy.

I hypothetically acquired a few original but impeccably restored pieces off of 1st Dibs, including a low boy and Adrian Pearsall chairs, whose authenticity a collector like Mr. Humphrey would surely appreciate, as they were made around the same year as his vintage cadillacs. I also found some retro mid-century modern wallpaper, which was not easy because even today, the major wallpaper design houses are British, and MCM was strictly an American design phenomenon. (The Euro equivalent of MCM is “Scandinavian design.”) Chevron tile in the bathroom echoed the cadillac logo and its vintage upholstery. I hit all the points. 

My second clients in week 2 of the design challenge were Cindy & Rita Davidson, “two women expecting a baby,” same last name, so I inferred they were a lesbian couple in need of bedroom suite. It had to be “functional and relaxing.” There were other parameters involved with that one. . . they each have their own sleep and work schedules (clue: the space had to be designed for each to wake and dress without disturbing the other, so task lighting and a walk-in closet). The bedroom was outfitted with pocket doors and a bump out (I put them there, it wasn’t part of the specs) which could be used for a nursery and a home office. The couple like to travel. Not sure to where and I couldn’t ask them.

I chose an eclectic Southwest theme for them, finding a wonderful “Los Rios” fabric from RM COCO to use as the basis for the color palette and I spun everything off of that; plus a pinky “mink” color that is feminine, but not too feminine. They also got a corner fireplace and zellige tiles in the bathroom. . . a walk in closet, for two women would have a lot of clothes. . . a chandelier over the bathtub . . . glider rocking chair. . . art on the walls. I really got into it, probably crossing the line from interior design into decoration.

Putting it all together using PowerPoint was fun. As one moves up in the ID program, one learns software techniques for rendering which will be better than Power Point for project boards and making virtual rooms.

Now, the very first assignment in ID (we had less than one week to do this, but I had 2.5 days because I signed up late for the class) is to make a collage to explain “who you are as a designer.” I created this composite based on images I already had on my computer, things I had downloaded because I liked them or some aspect of them. I dragged them over to PowerPoint and voila! Assignment done.

and this:

But she didn’t like mine, particularly. She said (ouch!) it wasn’t enough of “me,” of who I am. Oh, but it is totally me! Ask anyone who knows me!

She deducted 10 points for its “not being me.” 

The truth is, as time went and I got to see what she liked, I also think she saw my passion for tradition and historic decoration as irresponsible, and dialectically opposed to her spare aesthetic of “sustainability,” which I associate with globalization, Western cultural decline and a post-capitalist state. People living in stacked, recycled shipping containers, pods and concrete gray boxes? An old friend of mine in Dallas would be quick to call it “Cultural Marxism.” Interestingly, though, Cultural Marxists I am sure would would blame “post-capitalism” for the sorry state of things today, which I call “black, white, beige and gray.” It isn’t nostalgia to recognize that the past has a lot to offer to the present, culturally and aesthetically.

I like American and British Arts and Crafts, Glasgow School, Art Nouveau, and Vienna Secession. . . Roycrofters . . . . Greene and Greene. Whistler’s Peacock Room. Stuff like that. I like antiques, dark walls, natural wood grains, jewel tones, moody spaces, tonalist painting, rich interior fabrics and wallpaper. Chocolate, teal and mink. Purples and golds (my husband calls them “Methodist church colors”), olives and its complementary coral oranges; velvets and roughened silk. I have two shelves of Dover books and I’m into historic dollhouses, of course. What I like is unfortunately looked down upon as “interior decoration,” where design, as I recently learned, now has to do more with space planning, safety, sustainability, functionality and architecture. 

“How do you buy a French chateau and hang grommet top draperies?” I overhead myself saying in a nasally voice to my best friend a few weeks ago. I despise grommet top drapes, but I suppose I sounded fairly obnoxious. 

In design school, one must suck up criticism. It’s part of the design process. In the end, I made an A in the class, but I had to watch a movie on global warming and write an essay on sustainable design to get that A. Meh.

In my retirement, or next career, whichever comes first, I would really like do so something more creative than be a librarian. It isn’t that I do not like being a librarian per se, but the academic library is mostly gone now, which makes it very challenging to do my job.

You see, the whole of the academic library at most schools, even very large ones, can be reduced to a web page with links to subscription databases each year, prefixed by a Google-like search box we call “discovery.” And even discovery is not as customizable as it once was. It is an index fed by scholarly database publishers and aggregators. Anyone can manage it. Procurement is as easy as checking boxes on the back end. Vendors do the rest.

Sadly, we must embrace this reality of the invisible library as progress in the field or be accused of “failing to evolve,” even if we object on reasonable grounds as to what we are evolving to. I have done both library technical services and public services, but either way, we seem to have become commodified by our vendors, who will likely replace us in a few years, or already have for the most part.

For thirty years, I have ridden the wave of automation in libraries and museums. But I am not seeing too many waves these days. All I see are hospitals and clinics springing up all over all around me in Houston, and freeways and cars going nowhere. I have no idea why the traffic here in Houston is so bad. Where is everyone going? 

Probably to their second jobs, my husband offered.

However, I was very pleased and surprised to discover, when I took my husband to the new UTMB hospital for emergency gallbladder surgery, that UTMB has pretty good taste in art. Throughout their new hospital, they have reproduced the paintings of Galveston artist Rene Wiley and painted the walls to enhance the experience of the art, just like museums do. I wandered the entire hospital admiring the art, hunting for more and more Rene Wiley pieces. I even took one son on a gallery walk around the hospital and he too was impressed. UTMB’s medical offices also have surprisingly good art, too. I recognized reproductions of the work of commercial artist, Norman Wyatt Jr, at my own doctor’s office. Well done, UTMB! I could do that job, buying art for hospitals and doctor’s offices. 

I got my MLIS degree before the Internet, more than a decade Before Google (B.G.). My expertise was in metadata, special collections, historic prints and descriptive bibliography. English Lit. Art History. Rare books. Also Unix. Also Perl. C++, too. VB and VBA. JavaScript. Latin and Ancient Greek. I have a collection of rare books which I acquired back in the day, and a large classics library consisting of discards from academic libraries who no longer teach Classics. I have of a bookcase dedicated to New Testament Greek, and two books just on Greek verb tenses (one is specifically on The Greek Participle). One amazing thing about ancient languages, and counterintuitive, is that they have more words than we moderns do, even though, of course, we have many more things than they ever did or could imagine. They have words for abstract concepts and emotional states (and reflected light) which we lack. It is a deep and poetic language. Very strangely, the words can be in any order in a sentence and a sentence in Greek is long, really long. To decode it, one must find the verb, then the subject, then tackle phrases and clauses, working backwards like a puzzle. The founding fathers wrote really, really long sentences, called “long periods,” to emulate the convoluted and complex sentences of the ancient Greeks, where a sentence really is a complete thought in every which way. Latin is a more superficial language, compact. The Romans say a lot with a little. 

In library school, I specialized in descriptive bibliography, aka “cataloging.” Descriptive bibliography is describing a cultural or intellectual object according to a formal set of rules and with an eye to fitting the object into to the larger cultural or intellectual context, like a community puzzle or tapestry, ultimately to formulate a big picture view of knowledge and human intellectual achievement. In academic libraries, the objective of cataloging is not just to make the item discoverable, but to describe its contents in such a way that knowledge might be preserved, appreciated and known by others. To me, descriptive bibliography and librarianship are inseparable, and always will be. These days, catalogers are thought no longer needed and most have been let go, even though they were, in my experience, often the smartest and most interesting people in the library. They may not have advanced degrees, but they read and know things.

The organization and representation of knowledge and culture (intellectual and cultural objects) was once held to be vital to our sacred mission as academic librarians. I took that culture-bearing, knowledge-preserving mission very seriously. I also studied computing to customize library systems and develop websites. Through collection development and display, the library was the mouthpiece for the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, the collective unconscious which gives rise to culture. 

Librarianship itself is the art and act of identifying, describing, preserving and expressing scholarly value, what is good in the world of scholarship and sharing that goodness with others. We once organized knowledge into collections so it could become better known. Now, presumably, no one is needed to organize anything for anyone else. That is what search engines are for. And despite our best efforts to preserve texts and the records of them, the books are all gone. They are not online either, as many people assume. 

They are all at my house, because I took them home when the library got rid of them. 

Especially books on the history of interiors and design, art and art history, including some beautifully illustrated books with engravings and chromolithographs for plates.

I am also fastidious in my own way, like an ID. I recently ordered two Hinkley light fixtures recently and was bitterly disappointed, just as any real interior designer would be. I want my antiqued bronze fixtures to look like antiqued bronze, not black. Black is not antique bronze. Is bronze the new black? No! I told Hinkley so, that their descriptions of color online are misleading, but I kept the black light fixtures out of sheer practicality (meaning, I liked them better than anything at Lowe’s or Home Depot). 

No, despite losing major points on my design projects, I think I would really make an excellent ID. I know the difference between “ecru,” “taupe” and “beige.” I also know my periods and historic interiors.

I used to be a whiz at furniture provenance (I took a “Furniture Appreciation” course in my first semester at The University of Texas, but my formative years of dollhouses and Dover books gave me a real leg up in that class). I am a walking Grammar of Ornament, another Dover book I own, along with Speltz’s The Styles of Ornament, and Projective Ornament by Claude Bragdon, so mysterious and beautiful! Not like those Wayfair people who insist on lumping everything with a pattern or more than two colors into the category of “boho.” I know suzani and ikat, for example. Not that I can define these necessarily, but I know them when I see them. 

Another challenge–or an assignment with a short deadline–I had in that class was one where we had to research two architectural design companies in Houston who hire IDs, one commercial and the other residential, and compare them.

My prof hated my choice of David Weekley. . . she took off many points for that. . . but it isn’t like she provided the class with a pick list. I live in a DW home. Everyone in my neighborhood does, too. She said that David Weekley is not an architectural designer of residential homes. I don’t know why not. He hires architects to design his homes, I would assume. He (it is family-owned) sometimes hires Interior Designers, as I showed on I thought that was the whole purpose of the assignment, to identify where we were potentially going to work after design school. She also asked us to “describe the culture” there, but I didn’t know how to do this because Glassdoor was forcing me to rate my university before I could get in to see the reviews, and I didn’t want to do that. What was I supposed to do, call up random people at David Weekley and Gensler and say, “Tell me. How do you like working there? What’s it like? How do you like your job and your coworkers?”

Right. No, I wasn’t going to do that. . . 

She counted off points!

Gensler was my commercial AD. I know of Gensler only because they design and build libraries. But I suspect from their website that Gensler hires only beautiful people to work for them. 

Also during this class, I had to design a kitchen. That was the first project, actually.

I loved the kitchen I designed, because of the rippled opaque glass in the upper cabinets which would add fire and movement through reflected light, but I was uncomfortable not knowing how to calculate the amount of light needed for the space because my walls and finishes were dark, like a small playhouse theatre. It was an intimate, cave-like space with slate (porcelain emulating slate, because we know real slate has durability issues) floors for cooking over fire with glinting, reflected light in the glass and copper. The palette was green, charcoal and copper with some ivory tan enamel trim. I haven’t taken lighting yet, so I wasn’t sure how many recessed and pendants and central fixtures were needed so the eye could discern that the color of the island was a dark green, not charcoal grey or black, and that there was enough light on the countertops. I wanted a warm, burning light, not soupy and diffuse LEDs, with their notoriously poor CRV (Color Reflective Value). That people see the true color of the island was important to me. I’m sure there are algorithms for light which can be applied in these situations. Or maybe designers use software and the program figures it all out for them. I asked my professor, but she did not respond.

I got dinged on the light fixtures, not because I didn’t put enough in, but because I couldn’t source them. I broke a cardinal rule of design class. I tried, and in all honesty, I deserved to be dinged. But they really made the space! 

The problem of illuminating a small dark green kitchen was solved by this designer by just taking off the ceiling (I think there is a glass dome). The kitchen I designed had a lighting problem I did not know how to solve because I did not know how light would be absorbed by dark surfaces. I haven’t taken lighting yet.

I did offer alternatives, but this prof doesn’t like choices.

“Don’t provide me with your choices! Present me with your vision!”

My greatest interior design challenge will be, if I pursue this as a career, which I don’t see how I can because I can never leave the library during the week to take the requisite in-person drafting classes needed to progress, would be to get on with a company with a product or service I love. I am ambitious, but I have been known to chase unicorns.

That is also what I like best about me, however. I consider it my best quality.

For example, I have written to a few companies who sell historic wallpapers and textiles, companies I like, asking them if they need a local Sales Rep.

Bradbury & Bradbury is so great! Even though they are not open to the public, I’ve been inside of their workshop in Benicia, CA where wallpaper is still made by hand through an elaborate silk screen process. I have seen this with my own eyes! I think historic neighborhoods which have Victorian homes and bungalows would make excellent B&B customers. Maybe one day I could represent Morris & Co. In my gypsy caravan of samples of everything good from everywhere in the world, I could travel to St. Pete where there is a new museum dedicated to the Arts and Craft Movement and historic neighborhoods full of bungalows. “Step this way” to my gypsy caravan order museum-quality reproduction wallpaper, friezes, window treatments and interior fabrics! I might think to put postcards or sample books in Sherwin Williams locations, because, astonishingly, SW is the only place left in many cities to actually see any wallpaper sample books.

For a start, I could meet clients and sell right out of Sherwin Williams, right here in H-town.

I’m convinced that Sherwin Williams retail locations could sell more paint and compete with Lowe’s and Home Depot–after all, Lowe’s now sells Sherwin Williams paint, so why does anyone bother going to SW?–if they pushed wallpaper and window treatments, a neighborhood design center, right there in their stores, becoming a one-stop shop for interior design and DIYers. They even have a coffee maker and a large table, an excellent start. They just need the vision, the marketing, sample books, and someone to manage the space and the sale of custom order products. That could be me one day. I can see it all in my mind’s eye.

There are many who cater to the 1% who can afford Schumacher, Thibault, Lee Jofa, Scalamandre and GP & J Baker. (I still “study” fabrics and have bins of samples at home for no reason.) We are talking, hmmm, $300 to $500 a yard or more. Even their fabric scraps on eBay are exorbitant. Who is buying them? I wonder. Rich quilters?

Houston has no shortage of lux showrooms, which is surprising to me, since most of the city is a slum, at least compared to how Houston used to look when I was growing up. Houston also has a decorator center open to “members of the trade.” I went in anyway, no one stopped me, because I wanted to see other wallpaper books by GP & J Baker. But I am more a woman of the people. Or more realistically, I have no desire to sell what I myself would or could never conceivably buy, which I suppose is a bit limiting from a sales perspective, since my price point is low. Sherwin Williams already has the paint store locations where the 99% live. I know the product lines in the price point of the people who shop at Sherwin Williams. Middle class DIYers whose home is all they have.

I could be really good at this, I think. I could really do something here, if only I had the chance and some ID credential to back me up! 

The store manager at the SW location by me, who looks like a scruffy John Goodman and sort of knows me by now, was skeptical when I brought my concept. In my idea’s defense, I said, “Hey, if I bought my ‘Dover White’ paint from you for almost $100 a gallon because it perfectly coordinated with the A Street ‘Anemone’ wallpaper I found in this wallpaper book in your store, other people will do the same.”

No one but you ever looks at those books, he informed me. “People just come in and buy paint.” No, I said. Contractors are buying your paint. But guess who is picking out the paint colors and telling the contractors what to buy? Whenever I come in here, more and more wallpaper books are missing (Did you know your best book, your Vincent Van Gogh wallpaper book from BN wallcoverings in the Netherlands, has seemingly walked! Do you know who took it?) and they are always all flopped over. Other people are using them. And no one else has them! Lowe’s doesn’t have them! No one in Houston who sells paint has wallpaper sample books. But Lowes is selling your paint. Put out a sign letting people driving by on Hwy 3 know that you sell wallpaper. Get more books in. Branch out into widow coverings! Offer a samples library. Make this area into a functional design center!

He couldn’t see the potential of an in-store design center, and it probably wasn’t his call anyway.

He walked back to his post behind the paint counter and vacantly gazed out the store front, cars whizzing by on Highway 3, a road to Galveston lined with tank farms, vein clinics, auto repairs in disrepair, bail bondsmen and boat storage places. I could tell, and not just from this conversation, that he wanted nothing to do with wallpaper or home décor, or that little corner of his store which made him feel just a bit uncomfortable. If anyone headed in that direction, he would bark defensively, “If you need help with wallpaper, call the 1-800 number! I can’t help you with that!” He just wanted to sell paint and paint supplies. 

I really wondered what he thought about Lowe’s now selling Sherwin Williams paint. That must be a big bummer.

If I were in Cleveland, I could walk into their home office and make the case for Sherwin Williams Neighborhood Design Centers

“But what would you get out of it?” my husband inquired, meaning, as always, how would it benefit us financially. He is an accountant, and always asks those kinds of practical questions, completely ignoring the big picture. “I don’t have the details all worked out yet,” I reassured him, even though, as with many of my schemes, money had nothing to do with it. I was, as always, lamenting the degradation and loss of our material culture and thinking a design center with wallpaper and fabric sample books, a design resource library, in our area would be a great thing.

But I live in Houston, and realistically, I myself can only do so much to keep our collective intellectual, visual and material culture from completely. . .  slipping . . .  away . . .