My journey to becoming an interior designer is about as twisted and tangled as the interstate highways of “Spaghetti Junction” in Atlanta. It has definitely not been a straight or an easy path, but I can definitely say that it’s been one of the most fulfilling journeys that I have ever taken. And, the fact is that I still haven’t “arrived”. An interior designer is ever learning, ever creating and ever evolving into the greater designer that he or she hopes to one day become. A wise man once said, “The day that I stop learning is the day that I die.” That’s very much my mantra when it comes to life and to design.
When I look back, I’m amazed at all that I have learned since my first day of “Design 101” in 1999. Many people told me that I was crazy for being there. You see, I was only a mere internship and two classes away from graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations. But, I knew in my heart that I was called to be an interior designer. It was a calling that was undeniable, clear and certain. It seemed like a reckless decision to others to change career paths this late in the game and I understood why, but it was the harder path that I longed to take. My passion was at the end of that road and I knew that I couldn’t get there any other way. I sat in front of my stunned adviser as she explained that “starting over” now with an Interior Design major would mean three additional years of college, when I had already attended for over four years. I paused for a moment and nodded my head, “Okay,” I said, “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t you want to think about it for a while?” she inquired wide eyed. “No,” I said, “I know in my heart that it’s right.” You see, I didn’t find design. It found me. In previous years, I had been secretly jealous of my friends and colleagues who adored their jobs and college majors. I longed to know what that felt like. I had majored in Public Relations because, frankly, I had to declare a major and I liked to write. According to my professors, I was a natural writer and gifted public speaker, but the idea of being in PR for the rest of my life just didn’t excite me. I was always subconsciously searching for more.
Interior design found me when I moved into the little white house on Donaldson Street. It snuck up on me and jumped on me like a ravenous fever. I tried to ignore it and it refused to let me go. The passion welled up in me and I pushed it away it at first. It didn’t make any sense. I had four years of college under my belt and a bright future ahead of me in Public Relations. But, let me tell you folks, when you are truly called to something, there’s no escaping it. It will find you the way that design found me, ever calling and beckoning until I finally heeded the call. I was a naive newlywed, living away from my parent’s house for the very first time in my life. To say that I was still wet behind the ears would have probably been a huge understatement!
The little white house on Donaldson Street had been my grandfather’s house. Papa died when I was only three years old and I clung to the few faded memories that I still had of him. He was a big and tall man with a head full of gray hair, dark rimmed glasses and a kind smile. I remember him sitting in our green vinyl recliner, watching over me as I played with my dolls on the floor. “She’s such a creative child,” he told my mom, “I could watch her play and make up her little stories for hours.” It was a miracle that I had ever met him at all. He had almost died three years earlier when his heart stopped beating and the doctors had fought hard to start it beating again. All my life, I had wished that I could have known Papa longer.
So, when I got married and moved out of my parent’s house for the first time, I asked my Dad if we could live in Papa’s old house. He laughed out loud and said, “Are you sure you want to live there? It needs a lot of work, Jana. It’s old and it’s a mess.” But, I was determined to live there. In some strange way, it was a way to honor my grandfather. It was my way of feeling close to him again. I needed to live in that house. At the time, I had no idea what a significant role the little 1940’s house would play in my life. It would be the house where I found my calling and my passion.
It was the summer before I was supposed to graduate with a Public Relations degree and I didn’t have any classes to take. I would return to school in the fall to wrap up the last two classes and internship. Design had not yet called to me, but it would soon. It was waiting just around the corner, whispering to me at first and then calling more loudly. I worked tirelessly on the Donaldson Street house for every free moment during that first sweltering Georgia summer that I lived there. The tired and worn house began to take shape as I lovingly restored as much of it as I could. I painted every single room, even the sun porch with it’s dark paneling and nine tediously detailed windows. It seemed like there were a thousand window mullions in the eighteen windows of that tiny house and I painted them all. Blue painter’s tape became my closest friend and I completely gave up on trying to have nice looking finger nails. My next project was faux painting the three antique coal burning fireplaces. Then, I moved on to other design details.
I was a poor college student on a pauper’s budget, but I was on a mission to fix up Papa’s house. I frequently scouted the local Lowe’s parking lot for scratch and dent sales. When I found a chandelier for $25 that needed a little work, my brother hung it for me in the dining room along with the custom draperies that I sewed. I found peel and stick tiles for the kitchen floor that were 10 cents each on clearance. I cut them to size with kitchen scissors until I had blisters on my hands. I drove to every Lowe’s in surrounding counties to find enough peel and stick squares to finish that kitchen floor, too. There were two under the refrigerator that didn’t match, but that was my little secret! I made kitchen window treatments from an inexpensive table cloth and hung discount wallpaper in the neglected bathroom. After a little coaxing, my brother refinished the clawfoot bathtub, which was my favorite part of the house, along with the french doors to the dining room. My biggest splurges were black shutters for the front windows and an iron address plaque that proudly displayed “121”. The little white house was growing a new personality and my friends and family began to notice.
“Is this the same house?” They said, “This looks amazing! You should have been an interior designer!” First it was one friend, then two, then five…
“If one more person tells me that,” I exclaimed excitedly, “I’m gonna do it!” Then two more people said it. I had a decision to make and it suddenly overwhelmed me. It was no longer exciting. It was scary. I rebelled against the calling until I could not longer fight it. Everything in me tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t. Finally one night late into the summer, all of the emotions came rushing forth. I melted onto the floor crying and rolling around clutching the course catalog like a ridiculous child throwing a tantrum. “I can’t do it! I can’t start over NOW! I’m almost FINISHED with college! This is dumb! Why am I even thinking this way?” I beat the course catalog against the floor in frustration. I was trying to talk my self out of it, but my heart had already made it’s decision. I met with the adviser three days later.
The next three years would be the hardest work that I had ever done. There were many “all nighters” with no sleep, endless AutoCad drawings, many days of wearing flip flops and baseball caps to class, countless projects, glue sticks, colored pencils and rendering markers, expensive vellum, a plethora of drafting tools and numerous trips to the blueprinting store. But, all along the way, the passion still burned within me and I forged on. Those three years would cement some of the deepest friendships that I have ever known and that I still have to this day. There were many late night talks, lots of laughs, a few tears and scrambling to help each other glue final samples onto presentation boards just before they were due. It was crazy; it was stressful and it was wonderful. And, it was exactly where I was supposed to be.
In 2003, I stood with my classmates, proudly dressed in our caps and gowns and marched down the football field at Paulson Stadium to receive my diploma. We turned our tassels to the left. Then, as the school anthem played, our mascot, a bald eagle, made his ritual flight over our heads circling the field to signify that we had made it.
My friends and I quickly exchanged hugs and then I looked for my family through the never ending sea of excited people. After a few minutes, I saw my Dad coming toward me and I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. We embraced and he said that he was proud of me, through his own tears. I wished in that moment, that my Papa was there, too.
I lived in the little white house for another three months until I received my first job offer as a design assistant in Atlanta. Packing was bittersweet. I knew that I had lived there for a very important reason. I had found my calling in that house and I had connected to my grandfather again in a way that was very precious to me. In some ways, I feel like Papa was guiding me the whole time I lived there. And now, every time I go back home to visit, I drive by 121 Donaldson Street. My family doesn’t own it anymore, but it will always have a very special place in my heart. Thank you for all that you taught me, little house. I hope that your new owner loves you as much as I did. And, Papa, I hope that I made you proud.