In the midst of this before and after madness I received a thoughtful note from a blog friend asking me if I would share more candidly about the design process:
“I was reading Erin Gates’ post about her kitchen reno, and as always, was drawn in by her candid details about how she’s questioned each and every decision she made about it. Consequently, she received a lot of comments from readers who, though not professional designers, can relate to her struggles to get everything right, and to feel good about the final results…Did you experience this with this latest (or any) home project? I know you said in the article that the house itself pulled your design senses a certain way but (for example) did you know you wanted a dark green, glossy kitchen before you bought or did you just know you were feeling the white? Did you ever doubt any decision? You seem so confident in your design choices, I just love the idea of getting behind the curtain. Do you feel like you have to hold back to secure the exclusivity potential publishers require, or is it a way to preserve your brand, and just keep some things ‘close to the vest’?”
We wrote back and forth a bit about it, but I continued to receive emails and comments from readers either praising my “fearlessness” or asking me to talk more about the process.
First of all, some background: I have never actively not talked about it. I just assumed the details were boring and self-indulgent and what you want is the eye candy and sources. I still don’t know how many of you are interested in what goes on in my squirrely brain, but I figured since some of you had asked I would share a bit and see if y’all found it helpful or if you want me to shut it and just bring the pretty.
I will say I have never considered my style fearless. My style has evolved over the years and I think it has gotten better and more refined, but it really is just my style. I am flattered that people like it but I am always a little amused when the work is called “fearless”- like maybe I should be afraid of putting it out there because it is testing the boundaries of good taste? Whoopsies.
I don’t know that I would necessarily call it a skill, but certainly one of my characteristics is that I am incredibly decisive. It is one of my most noted qualities by my husband, business partners, teachers, contractors, salespeople in stores. People always comment on how quickly I make decisions. I think that it has a downside too as I can be hard to collaborate with since I often go through the debating/collaboration process in my head and find it difficult to let other people in on that. But, at least in these intensive renovations we have done over the past few years, it has served me well.
I also make better decisions under some sort of pressure and within practical constraints. I am a better editor than inventor. If you were to ask me to design some sort of fantasy dreamhouse out of thin air, I would have a really difficult time narrowing it down. I like to work within the parameters of a renovation- where there are problems that need to be solved and you can be informed by what is already there.
Finally, while I have an enormous amount of self-doubt in most areas of my life- design has never been one of them. This is kind of personal and I don’t think it is appropriate to go into on the internet, but basically I have been in a lot of environments in my life that have fostered a negative self-image, but my taste or talent or whatever you want to call it was always celebrated and has always been a great outlet for me and source of confidence.
TIP #1: Learn to trust yourself and honor your own tastes/desires. Or- if you truly have offensive taste and cannot be trusted- hire someone and TRUST them. Decorating help is not a prohibitive luxury anymore, you can hire for e-decorating and consultations at anywhere from $75-$500 which is way less than the cost of the average decorating mistake. BUT! If you hire someone, trust them. A good decorator will respect and consider your wants/needs but you won’t get their best work if you micro-manage and second guess their expertise.
How did I get there. Well you saw the “befores”. The first thing I noticed in looking at the space was that it needed more counter-space/storage and that an island was very obviously missing from the layout. I had posted a few years ago when we were in Chicago about being obsessed with this island, and it immediately came to mind. After considering its more practical perfection- its petite dimensions and lack of cabinet doors that would impede the walkway-it became the jumping off point for everything else.
The next element that fell into place was the oven. I had seen it in my internet travels and I immediately recalled the mix of metals that echoed the mix on the island and plugged it in to the wishlist.
Finally, I had just done two white kitchens that I thought came out really well and that I was proud of. One being super traditional, the other being more modern- I had gotten it out of my system. Plus, to me this whole house seemed to be much moodier and darker than it had been decorated, and it honestly just seemed obvious to me that I should go dark.
TIP #2: Look at a lot of good shit. I didn’t set out to find any of these things, and if I had I might not have known what to look for. I spend my time looking at design and thinking about it and recording it here on the blog, so when it comes to decision time there are a lot of short cuts I have created in my brain of things I love. Especially now with pinterest it is so easy to save special items that you never know when you might be able to use.
Now I don’t know if this is obvious or interesting to anyone but this is how my brain works: I knew I wanted dark and a kind of list of the colors of the rainbow then pops into my head. I can be very listy/robotic here, and every time I am picking a color for anything I go through ROYGBIV.
Red. I really don’t favor red. I wear it a lot but I typically don’t use it in my homes. Orange- I will get to that in the living room but again, not one of my go-to colors. Yellow. Too bright and we did yellow in our Austin kitchen. Green. Green is my most favorite color of them all. I love all shades of it equally and passionately. It can be bright and spring or really moody in the army/olive tones, or more traditional/british racing green. While I never use red, I use green in pretty much every room. So I flagged that as an idea. Blue- I remembered the hague blue kitchen Miles Redd did awhile back that has always been my favorite. Also tagged that.
Indigo- I’m just not a purple person and even though purple cabinets it would have really been fearless and ballsy and could have been amazing: I try to never do anything just in an effort to “push it”. I have in the past, and it always turns out a little obnoxious and insincere. Pink- again, too bright and not what I was feeling for the space. Brown/Black- black has been done a lot and I think was a little more traditional than I wanted here. Brown we had already decided on in the den.
So I had the hague blue kitchen Miles did as my major inspiration, along with my deep abiding love of green. I love hague blue and did our guest bedroom in it, and while I have no problem doing a trend if I really love it, the blue Miles kitchen was such perfection what would be the point of redoing it? What would that add to the conversation? If I ever want to enjoy it I can look at it on pinterest. I want to create some new good junk to look at. So green it was. And with the brass in the island and stove, a sort of hunter/evergreen seemed obvious to me.
I posted the plan here. I never thought of it as daring, although I did see an amazing matte finish dark green kitchen on a blog when we were in the middle of the process and everyone on this blog was trashing it being like UGH VOMIT!!! GREEN IN A KITCHEN?!? HOW GOUCHE!! And I was like, umm, shit? But again, though completely stunted by oppressive self doubt in literally every other aspect of my life/character, in this one thing:
TIP #3: That little color game is something I go through in every room. Even when I am already certain about the color direction I challenge myself to think through the rainbow and consider if there is a better less obvious option. A really great tool for this too is House Beautifuls Color Guide. I literally consult this every day. Paint decks are overwhelming and so blah. Their color guide sorts paint colors that have been vetted by designers first by color and then by room and room issues (small, south facing etc) and there are so many tones and ideas throughout, I often see a color that I had never considered in a new way. Probably the most helpful decorating tool I utilize.
Approaching the renovation I imagine what it will be like to actually live in the room. I think through daily tasks that will take place in there like cooking and Gracie playing on the floor next to me and getting under my feet while I am taking a hot pan out of the oven and tripping and at best wasting perfectly delicious baked goods and at worst really hurting her. So at least with the way my brain works it becomes obvious to take out the ovens and move them to one integrated cooking zone.
On the refrigerator, we didn’t have a lot of space and we don’t really use a freezer much, so I favor top/bottom freezer/fridges because I just think it offers more practical/useful fridge space. Both of these decisions were unpopular with my contractor who was in the doghouse about his bid and felt like taking out perfectly good ovens/refrigerators were wasteful. And in a way it is, but I didn’t like them and have found it is always more wasteful to spend money working around a big problem rather than addressing it head on. You will usually still hate what you hated at first and now you have spent more money disguising it rather than fixing it.
TIP #4: As much as you can, do not get bogged down by guilt at changing someone else’s idea of what is perfectly good. Homes should be personal and living with something you don’t like because it is fancy/nice is like living by someone else’s values/judgements. It isn’t always possible or financially responsible, but if you can change it don’t let guilt hold you back. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think creatively about all of your options- but if the answer is really that it doesn’t work for you, change it.
In terms of working with a contractor/architect, I have worked with both on all three homes. And in all three situations, for me at least, the contractor was way more important than the architect. You have to have an architect or accredited designer if you are going to move walls, and I do not have the proper credentials so after I have thought through all the changes I want, I draw them out to scale on graph paper and hire an architect to tell me if what I had envisioned works.
We have mostly ended up with proper versions of what I intitally drew, but in every renovation there is at least one big change that the architect suggests for better space utilization that we have gone with that has made the whole thing. In Chicago I had initially drawn our master suite occupying the entire third floor addition, and he moved it to the second floor and put our family room/guest bedroom on the third floor which was SO much better. In Austin I had his/hers closets on one side of our master and a shared bathroom on the other, and our architect suggested one space be used for a hers bath/closet combo and the other for a his bathroom/closet combo and again, it was so much better. Here the layout for the bathroom changed and made much better use of the space by hiding the toilet behind the shower when I had it right next to a sink. Eww.
TIP #5: Hire the right people. Listen to them but be prepared to illustrate what you want. Know when their expertise is better and when to trust what you know about how you live. Your contractor is everything. It doesn’t matter how highly recommended they are (and references are important) if they seem AT ALL arrogant, overwhelmed, frenzied, or lazy I would not hire them. The contractors I have had the best experiences with are super humble, super chill, and always say “yes”. That doesn’t mean that they can always do it- but they always say yes to at least exploring an idea. They have to manage a lot of personalities, so you want them to be tough and on it but not hot-headed. I have had really great contractors, and they have all been super respectful and listen to women (you would be surprised how many people in the renovation industry are not) and just sort of unassuming quietly confident people.
The glass cabinet doors were chosen because I thought it might break up the green and keep it from being too in-your-face while still creating a seemless flow of beautiful glossiness.
I wasn’t crazy about the color of the floors in the house, they are a little 90s orangey- but they are also wonderfully aged and beat up so they don’t look quite so cheap/outdated as that stain can be. Pete really wanted to refinish them but it would have added a month onto our renovation that I could not tolerate. I decided to keep them, but have added more rugs than I normally use to break it up and not make them such a presence.
The dining table was chosen for practicality- dealing with legs in an awkward space really limits you & a pedestal allows for unfettered movement. Also, I feel like family kitchen tables are a kind of defining thing. People usually have kitchen tables that seat exactly the number of people in their family, sometimes +1 but think about it. Because who wants to sit at dinner/breakfast with your family with empty chairs at empty tables.
Sooo in my overly analytical brain that also makes a tulip table a good choice because you don’t have the defined places for chairs that table legs create. We want a lot of children but don’t know how many we will have, and the table looks just as good with the 3 chairs we have now as it would if we added two more. I wanted a mix of materials, and we didn’t have any wood so I choose the dark stained top. Now- if I am going to be candid here is one area where I had some self doubt and made the wrong decision.
While most of our pieces have transitioned with us throughout our moves, we have gone through a lot of dining tables. We purchased a dining room and kitchen table for our house in Chicago, and replaced the kitchen table in Austin. In this house we would be replacing both yet again and even though I have been able to sell them, I felt wasteful. And I always get nervous showing our houses anticipating the inevitable negative comments about how young I am and money and all that (listen, I get it, but it is what it is) and this was one time when I could just hear the criticism and I wanted to be able to be like, Look! I got a deal! I can be frugal! And so I bought this knock off version of a tulip that at the time was about ¼ of the cost of the real deal.
I had used the marble top version in client spaces and it was great, but this one is…not. The grain on the top just looks super cheap and is rough to the touch. The color is uneven and it arrived pretty banged up. I think because the top is janky I now notice how the base is not quite as elegant as the real deal, and the whole thing just pisses me off. And it pisses me off because even though it was ¼ of the real deal, it was still a lot of money. And because I chose it out of a fear-induced desire to please others rather than sticking with what made the most sense for us.
So there is that.
TIP #6: Don’t be a poser in your own home. It is hard enough trying to conceal our true inner freak with instagram/twitter/facebook documenting every moment of our lives. At home? Give it a rest. Let your freak flag fly. Whether that means risking judgement from others on how you spend your money, or hanging a painting with the word “pussy” on it in your living room, just do you. I promise you will be happier.
Finally, I will say whether or not you love my style or is a little too fearless/out there for you- let yourself get excited in design. It costs money whether or not you go for it, so at least enjoy it. Reconsidering what I said earlier, maybe on some level I do feel the fearlessness of my design.
I have never thought of it like that, but I do find it truly exciting and invigorating. Maybe that is the test to push yourself a bit without going too far out? It should feel like a first kiss and the first day of school and like having to give a speech in front of an auditorium.
A first kiss is nerve wracking and its hard to make the move and there is a lot that can go wrong- but when it is good and comes from pure desire, it is always worth it.
The first day of school was always scary, but it was also full of possibility to be the best version of yourself and while for me at least I never quite got there because I was so scared of what kids would think about who I really was, don’t we all kind of wish we could go back to highschool with what we know now? Being the more interesting, confident, empathetic people we have become with age? Decorating authentically is kind of like that. Don’t let the bullies or the popular girls convince you that your denim leisure suit is anything less than fierce.
And giving a speech in an auditorium, or a toast, always something I struggle with. But when you nail it? And you are able to communicate honestly, openly and effectively and make those connections with people? It is such a breakthrough. And that is probably the closest way I could think of to describe what it feels like when my work is published and I get such incredible support and affirmations from all of you.
And that sounds ridiculously self-important. But if I am honest and own up to it, my work has given me a confidence and joy that does not come naturally in other areas of my life. It is a way for me to communicate who I am and who I want to be in a way that people seem to respond to, and with the perspective that it isn’t life or death, it is still pretty wonderful and I would hope everyone has something in their lives that does that for them, and that they get the same pleasure and comfort out of their home that I have found.
So…what do you think? Was any of this helpful? Would you like a less intensive/wordy version of the process when it is applicable for the rest of the before & afters or have I completely overreached? Have you ever read so many adverbs in one place in your life?