Ten Things You Need to Know about Apartment Therapy

Part 4 - My Path Has Been Twisty & Turny

It’s ICFF week here in New York, and design is in the air. I’ve had the honor of hosting a number of events already, including two Design Evenings in which I interviewed Danny Seo and Todd Bracher.

I was fascinated to discover that their paths, not unlike mine, were far from the straight and sensible paths that most parents wish for. I think it’s worth sharing my own as an example of how design can be a central thread in a career and to shed more light on what Apartment Therapy is about.

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When I was growing up, the family next door had six kids, and theirs was the house where everyone hung out. It wasn’t just all the kids that made it nice, there was something inviting, relaxed and fun about being in their house. The house was comfortable, the parents were very welcoming of friends and there were always cookies in the cookie jar and soda in the fridge (which you could have!).

In particular, I specifically remember many hours hanging out in their kitchen and how much MORE fun it was to hang out there than in my own family's kitchen next door. The kitchen itself was a very comfortable place - arranged around a small dining table, with plenty of counter space to sit up on. We’d be a whole gaggle of teenagers in that kitchen til late at night, before I’d slip through the bushes and go home next door.

Did you know a house like this growing up? I think many of us do.

Later on when I thought about this experience, I wanted to understand it and get that feeling back in my own home and life. I craved it. I wanted to figure out what the ingredients were, and while I knew there were many things about it that were intangible, I was convinced that there were lessons in the design of that home AND of the way that family lived.

This is the sort of thing I thought about, and I didn’t know it was design yet.

During this time, I went to an all-boys school in New York City with a very dry curriculum, where I was an extremely average student. C’s and B’s seemed to define me, and that carried through to high school where I remained solidly in the lower middle of the pack. It is very frustrating to not think you're dumb, but to feel it a lot of the time. There were some things that I just didn’t “get,” like why we needed to use note cards to write a report, the intricacies of good grammar or how a lot of algebra worked.

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One of the few teachers that I had and loved in elementary school wrote this book about his experience. That's pic is exactly what we looked like back then.

I was very relieved to discover creative outlets in high school, both in writing and painting, that allowed me to feel that I could be better than average at something and could get on the “inside” of the subject and really feel it.

That was a great feeling and it put me on my path.

From high school my life then improved a lot. I went to school for a year in England, followed by four years in Ohio, and one semester at the University of Texas in Austin.

During all of this time, I continued to balance my regular subjects (still average) with those that I could really do. I learned to sew and make clothes, I painted, silkscreened, drew and built bicycles and furniture.

When I graduated from college I went right to work for a design company in Manhattan. It was a dream job. I knew I wasn’t the type of creative person who would make a good painter, alone all day in his studio. Working in a design studio was creative, but it was also collaborative and a reasonable business (supporting myself was essential).

At first I was totally happy. The company I worked at designed fabric and wallpaper, as well as lighting and a range of furniture. Every day the room hummed with the energy of dozens of people designing things to be made. I was in heaven at first as I joined in, but after a short time disillusionment crept in.

There wasn’t a great deal of purpose to all of the things we were making, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. We were designing beautiful things, to be manufactured far away and then sold to people months later who didn’t need them.

The peak of my awareness of this came when I was put on a detail to design Christmas ornaments that July. My boss and the founder of the company sent me to Woolworths at Times Square to buy plastic fruit. Upon return he’d covered a large table with brown paper and presented us all with bowls of silver glitter, gold glitter and glue. We spent the afternoon covering the fruit with the glue and glitter, and when we were done, he was wild with joy. He loved all of our glittered fruit and proclaimed that this was going to totally BE the style at Christmas. These prototypes were going to be quickly shipped to China to be made asap.

While I appreciated his passion and unique style, I thought to myself, if this is what this is all about I can’t work here anymore. To work on something for my whole life, there has to be more of a purpose. I can’t base my life on success with glitter covered plastic fruit – even if it DOES make a lot of money.

I left that job in the fall, with very little sense of what was next, and got hired to work for a contractor on Long Island. It was a way to make more money, but really is was a way to step back and think about what to do next.

I learned something very valuable that first summer: that while discovering your skills allows you to create your own path, it feels aimless if it doesn’t have a sense of mission.

Finding the mission is what came next.

Previous:

3. We Are All Looking for our Own Path

Next:

5. All Good Paths Have Missions

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>> Introduction to "The Ten Things..."

(Images: Top - Harold N. Fisk/Mississippi River Commission and the War Dept. via NYTimes, Boys by Ronald Bazarini via Amazon)

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.