I believe that our lives ARE complicated by design. That said, I also feel that they don’t have to be as complicated as we make them.
After owning an award-winning interior design firm for twenty-five years, I recently realized that we spend more time and money designing our living spaces than we do our lives. Essentially meaning, happiness is an inside job, not something that can be bought by fancy furniture and expensive interiors.
Once that revelation sunk in, it led me to do some interior work on myself – how had I designed my life? OR, maybe the better question was, how had I allowed my life to be designed by others.
I grew up on a farm in Northern Illinois where my dad used to say, “Who needs to sit inside a church once a week when you’re surrounded by the beauty God created everyday.” He’d gesture to the 168 acres of rolling hills with 100-year-old oak trees and a meandering creek where we’d fish in the summer and ice skate in the winter.
When I wasn’t running around outside with bare feet, I’d spend hours sitting on the creaky floorboards of the farmhouse using decks of cards to build elaborate structures that, in my mind, rivaled the Taj Mahal.
When I was around ten or eleven, I knew that I wanted to be an architect. My mom would buy me magazines filled with house plans, as encouragement was the norm in our house. Labels and judgements were rare in my youthful world.
That changed once I entered high school and my counselor told me that BOYS are architects.
GIRLS are decorators.
I believed her, and convinced myself that it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t good at math anyway.
Another bit of news that rocked my peaceful teenage years was when I learned that my high-school sweetheart’s parents didn’t like me because…
1) I was a farm girl AND 2) I wasn’t Catholic.
In college, I majored in interior design at Iowa State University.
I was also a college athlete, which led another counselor, as well as several professors, to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to handle the class load if I did gymnastics. Yet, the student-body president was a football player AND majored in Architecture. Hmmm.
I wanted to tell the professors, “Listen, I don’t give a crap what you think, I’m gonna to do it anyway.” Of course, I didn’t want them to see my sassy side, so I swallowed my words and went about quietly proving them wrong.
My college boyfriends’ parents were farmers, hence they were delighted I was a country girl.
However, they were disappointed I wasn’t Methodist. Boy, I just wasn’t living up to anyone’s expectations, was I?
Fast forward twenty years. I was married to a wonderful man whom didn’t require me to check a specific religion box. Hallelujah! He loved my crooked toes and had no issues that as a child they’d ran through a cow pie or, two. Okay, maybe three…hundred. What can I say, I was a tomboy. We had two beautiful, blue-eyed boys and I owned a successful, thriving business. We lived in sunny Sarasota.
Life was good. So, I thought.
I was in a builder’s office one day working on a mega-mansion for a CEO of a billion dollar company when the builder, whom I respected for his knowledge in engineering and architecture, said, “You should’ve been an architect. You have a better grasp on construction and design than most architects I work with.”
My exterior appearance may have remained calm, my interior was anything but. Let me just say, you would’ve thought that I had won a medal. I’m not talking about a participation medal here. I mean, it was as if I’d won a gold medal so huge that if it was draped around my neck on the podium, I would’ve toppled over.
That was a defining moment for me. One, that ultimately led to the collapse of my house of cards.
Why? Because, even though I hadn’t realized it, up until that builder validated my career, inside I had felt like a failure. It didn’t matter how many awards I’d won, or how many magazines my design work had been in, I was a designer, not an architect.
On top of that, my exterior had become what most designers hated. I was this…
Beige. I wasn’t passion pink.
I wasn’t interesting aqua.
I was boring beige.
The shade varied day by day with my mood. And, see how straight the lines are. That was my life. Rigid.
My car was basic black with tan leather seats. It was a Saab because if I drove a Mercedes S Class, my clients would think that I made too much money. If I drove a Chevy Malibu, they’d think I wasn’t making enough. My closet was one of a chameleon. Sexy sheaths for working with professional athletes, boring Hillary-Clinton suits for dealing with conservatives.
I had been afraid to tell clients that I’d grown up on a farm, as they might not hire me. “How can a farm girl design multi-million-dollar mansions?” was a question I was often asked when I did share personal stories. Talk about labels and judgement.
I had strict rules about NOT discussing politics or religion with clients. I later added global warming to that list.
It was as if I was living someone else’s life, yet it wasn’t, it was the one that I had designed. It was fake. Or, as we’d say in the design world, faux. Even though I had a supportive, loving family, I was unfulfilled in my career and I yearned for my freedom from the materialistic design world.
It took years to peel back the layers of boring beige paint that covered my true colors. But, I can happily say that I’ve exposed the rainbow.
The messy bits of color are my inner child leaping out to make my boys laugh by burping at the dinner table, or screaming like a girl when we ride a roller coaster. The bolder strokes are my novel, and my thought-provoking speeches and blog posts.
Simply put, my life didn’t have to be as complicated as I made it. All I had to do was toss aside wasteful endeavors and move forward with things that mattered.