My Interior Design Challenges 

Edouard Vuillard, Lucie Belin in the Studio, 1910.

Last summer (2023), I decided to take an online “Intro to 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 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 discussed my future plans with my parents, my father protested. “Architecture is a man’s world. You will never get ahead in that field.” What about Interior Design? “Oh, forget it! That’s worse. Interior design is a gay man’s world, and you will never get ahead there, either.” He was just trying to be protective of me, but I had already taken a semester of architecture and design electives at UT. I proposed various other majors, but my father constantly reminded me that I wasn’t good in math (I made A’s in most everything else). B’s in math ruled out Science. “Too much math,” he said. 

What bout Marketing? “Business was for your sister. It isn’t for you. And it’s a lot of math.” 

He encouraged me to study English, which back then was regarded as a more practical and versatile degree than it is today. Communications wasn’t around in 1983. All we had was English and RTF. However, because my age, if I do get a job in interior design, people will naturally assume I am experienced, which in fact I am, because I have lived through half a century of design trends and I have a house of my own which recently flooded, which puts me way ahead of other students who have no idea of the cost of a bathroom vanity, tile, carpet or light fixtures, doors, and other mundane aspects of home ownership. 

At the end of “Intro to 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, 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.

Being an ID already seems so far very much like being a librarian, which I already am, except librarians give their stuff away for free. Also like being a librarian, ordinary people may not grasp or necessarily appreciate that we have access to “better sources” than they can find on their own just by Googling. Unfortunately, it takes an educated consumer to appreciate the difference in quality we can provide. And like being a librarian, IDs have to take a lot of technical classes. It isn’t all playing with pantone books and fabric swatches and making mood boards. 

In class, everything you come up with MUST be a real product capable of actually being sourced. If you have a vision, but cannot translate that vision into saleable products and services to make your vision reality, that’s 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 semesters of Architectural Drafting, Rendering, AutoCAD, Revit, Sketchup, Lighting, Costing, Kitchen and Bath, Textiles, and Professional Ethics for Designers.

With the design challenge, you must state the product name and manufacturer in your presentation. If it is something which must be ordered custom from Kravet, you say so. All my products and sources are identified in my presentation, below.

My first client, Ryan Humphrey, wants 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. Besides, those manly 1950s architects were mainly interested in office furniture, not the boudoir. Designing a purely mid-century modern bedroom and bathroom would be a tall order, and wouldn’t be right for 2023 anyway. 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 mid-century modern wallpaper, challenging because 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, are “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.

All I could think of was Georgia O’Keeffe. 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 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.

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) 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:

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! At least mine showed interiors of rooms and things to go inside of them along with some of my favorite vendors. She deducted 10 points for it 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 historical art, tradition, decoration and pattern as evidence of an unwillingness to embrace the new, embrace “sustainability” and a spare design aesthetic. I like that show where they just happen to find a perfectly good barn door in the basement which can be used somewhere in their house, or where they take up the ugly carpet they find gorgeous hard woods underneath. 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. At one time, I wrote an article for American Bungalow magazine about this home in California I discovered driving around (my husband didn’t angle the flash on the camera and the pictures came out with large flash spots). I like antiques, dark walls, natural wood grains, jewel tones, moody spaces, tonalist painting and rich interior fabrics and wallpaper. 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, has to do more with space planning, safety, sustainability and functionality.

“How do you buy a French chateau and hang grommet top draperies?” I overhead myself saying to my friend a few weeks ago. 

In design school, one must suck up criticism. It’s part of the design process. 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.

As one might expect, my prof was really into both modernism and sustainable design, and the use of new building materials. I don’t care about bricks that act as filters to take CO2 out of the air (yes, they do turn black over time). I don’t want a parking lot or driveway that can grow more of itself for repairs. 

What is more sustainable than antiques?

In my retirement, or next career (whichever comes first), I would really like do so something more creative than be a librarian. We all do, right? It isn’t that I do not like being a librarian per se, but the academic library is mostly gone now, which makes it 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. I used to have access to the server, and now all have access to are APIs. It is static, an index fed by database scholarly publishers and aggregators. 

Sadly, we must embrace this reality as progress in the field or be accused of “failing to evolve,” even if we object on moral, intellectual and educational grounds to what we are evolving to, arguing that document retrieval cannot be the be-all and end-all of the user experience of the online academic library in this digital age. Oh, but it is! I have done both 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. 

Alleviating career angst is another reason I started taking design classes. For thirty years, I have ridden the wave of automation in libraries and museums. I was sent to the Met and Getty on official business, which is something. Now, I feel I am standing still and looking back. I want to look forward, riding a new wave! But I am not seeing too many waves these days. Not around me. All I see are hospitals and clinics springing up all over, and freeways and cars going nowhere. I have no idea why the traffic here in Houston is so bad. Am I missing out on something? What’s going on? 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 Galveston artist Rene Wiley. I wandered the entire hospital admiring the art, hunting for more and more Rene Wiley pieces. They painted the walls to enhance the experience of the art, just like museums do. UTMB’s medical offices also have surprisingly good art. 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. 

I got my MLIS degree before the Internet, more than a decade Before Google. My expertise is in metadata, special collections, historic prints and descriptive bibliography. English Lit. Art History. 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 a section on New Testament Greek, and two books on Greek verb tenses (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. They have words for abstractions which are perhaps not abstract in Ancient Greek because they had a word for it. It is a deep language, and strangely, the words can be in any order in a sentence. Imagine that. 

Descriptive bibliography is not just describing an object according to rules, but fitting the object into to the larger picture, like a community puzzle or tapestry, to formulate a big picture view of knowledge and human intellectual and creative achievement so it might be appreciated and known by others. It is as much about the metadata as the data. To me, descriptive bibliography and librarianship are inseparable, and always will be. Librarianship is a humanistic discipline.

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. Mentioned above, I also studied computing to customize library systems and develop websites. All along, to be honest with myself, I was in it for the books and for the intellectual and aesthetic experience of collections, of titles worthy of respect, better known and being passed down to the next generation. I was a Hegelian. Through collection development, I was the mouthpiece for the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, who speaks only through collections. Culture itself can only speak through a collective, through collections of thing. Collections are the way we give it voice. But collections are going away. 

Librarianship to me is the art and act of identifying, describing, preserving and communicating value, what is good and sharing that goodness with others across time and place. We organized knowledge so it could become known. Now, presumably, no one is needed to organize anything for anyone. Despite our best efforts to preserve texts and the records of them, the books are all gone.

No, 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 beautifully illustrated books with engravings and chromolithographs for plates. 

I am also fastidious in my own way. 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, their descriptions of color online are misleading, but still kept the black light fixtures out of sheer practicality (meaning, I liked them better than anything at Lowe’s or Home Depot). 

No, I would really make an excellent ID, despite losing major points on my design projects. 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–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 a pick list. I live in a DW home. Everyone in my neighborhood does, too. She said that David Weekley in not an architectural designer of residential homes. I don’t know why not. He hires architects to design his homes, I would think. Regardless, he sometimes hires Interior Designers (and I showed this on I thought that was the whole purpose of the assignment, to locate 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 others had written about their employers, and I didn’t want to do that. What was I supposed to do, call up random people at David Weekely 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 for that, too.

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 movement and sparkle, 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 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 it the color of the island was a dark green, not charcoal grey or black, and that there was enough light on the countertops. That people see the color of the island was important to me. I’m sure there are algorithms which are applied in these situations. Or maybe they just use BIM software and the program figures it all out for them. This designer solved the light problem in a green kitchen by just eliminating the ceiling. 

I got dinged on the lights, 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! 

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 to take the requisite in-person drafting classes at the community college, 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. My illumination is also my dark side. 

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 cool (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 think historic neighborhoods which have Victorian homes and bungalows would make excellent B&B customers. But do they know that? Maybe I could do Morris & Co, too. In my gypsy caravan of everything good from everywhere, 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. 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 wallpaper sample books, if one is lucky. (Some do and some don’t, it is very hit or miss at this point.) For a start, I could meet clients and sell right out of Sherwin Williams.

I had this all planned out, since Sherwin Williams is all over. 

Amazingly, the Sherwin Williams store by me still had a few shelves of wallpaper books, including a book from the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands, with wallpaper textured like brushstrokes. You can see the Japanese-inspired Van Gogh II collection here. This one, for example, comes in several colorways, including sage green. After a year of sage in my bathroom, the pale gray green color reminded me of poison. I was ready for an antidote of golden brown.

It didn’t seem to fit our lifestyle, but it was a unique find. 

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 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 products. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. 

Trust me, no one wants to walk into a store to place an order for wallpaper and be asked by the guy behind the paint counter to call a 1-800 number to place the order, like the one out by me does. People want reassurance and validation when they are ordering wallpaper.

As I have said over and over in the library world, “‘access to’ is not enough.”

There are many who cater to the 1% who can afford Schumacher, Thibault, Lee Jofa and GP & J Baker. 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, since most of the city looks like a slum, at least compared to how Houston used to look. Houston also has a decorator center open to “members of the trade” (I went in anyway, no one stopped me.) But I am more a woman of the people. Sherwin Williams already has the paint store locations where the 99% live and they are already repositioning their paint as a luxury brand with colors available only in their paint lines.

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 location by me, who looks like a scruffy John Goodman and sort of knows me by now, was skeptical when I brought my concept for SW up to him. I said in my idea’s defense, “Hey, if 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 and they are always all flopped over. Other people are using them. No one else has them. Lowe’s doesn’t have them. And more people would use them if they knew about them. You should make this place over here more attractive and develop that library! Branch out into window treatments. Put out a sign so people driving by will know that you sell wallpaper. You could really do something with this space! 

He couldn’t see the potential. He walked back to his post behind the paint counter and vacantly gazed out the store front, cars whizzing by on ugly Highway 3, a road to Galveston lined with tank farms, vein clinics, auto repairs in disrepair, bail bondsmen, boat storage and stand-up MRIs. I could tell he wanted nothing to do with wallpaper or home décor, or that little corner of his store maintained by whomever was on the other end of the 1-800 number. He just wanted to sell paint and paint supplies. 

I wondered what he thought about Lowe’s now selling Sherwin Williams paint, if he was in any way concerned about that cutting into his business. Of course, I didn’t ask, for that would have been rude.

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 questions, completely ignoring the big picture. “I don’t have the details all worked out yet,” I assured him, even though, as with many of my schemes, money had nothing to do with it.

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