This Geeky House: Designer Spotlight

photo courtesy of Jennifer Brouwer Design

It’s been over a month since I started clearing the way using the KonMari method, and while it has taken longer than I anticipated, the results are unfolding in a spectacular way. I am becoming less attached to sentimental objects, or saving things in case I need them. I took back a dress the other day because when I truly looked at it in the space of my own home, it did not spark joy. It was not unexpected to me that once my house was cleared of the things I no longer needed or wanted, I would turn my head towards what makes good design, what would make my home feel beautiful to me.

Many people I know either think they can’t afford a professional interior designer or don’t think they need one. This past year I have learned that this is not necessarily true. My first experience with interior design was actually a consult with Bay Area designer Kim McGowan while replacing a foundation wall. Because this project would require ripping out most of my kitchen, which was tiny and angular, I decided to test the waters and see if she could optimize the space in a way I hadn’t thought of yet.

Admittedly, I was skeptical, mostly because I had already designed a kitchen once before and it turned out fantastic. But that was a big rectangle and IKEA cabinetry. This was a much more complicated endeavor. Turns out, she was an absolute gift. Not only did she make the space feel bigger in her designs, but she made every inch functional while maintaining the aesthetic I wanted (I was her first request for a Middle Earth-inspired modern kitchen). While she was here, she took a look at our gutted basement and advised us where to add space and where to save our money. She helped us come up with a plan before it was even finished so we could be efficient and economical. Not only was I grateful, but I was also enlightened to new possibilities! While the kitchen was ultimately saved by some tricky engineering and a large steel beam, and that project is now on hold so we can address the collapsing fence outside, that genius design is what is guiding our decisions moving forward and saving us a lot of time, energy, and money in the end.

Last month I spoke at a conference of entrepreneurs and during a break I had a lovely chat about how our traditional education system can have a complex effect on the way in which we make decisions and move through the world as adults. That is a whole different article, but I mention the topic because the woman I was speaking to really resonated with what I was saying. After the conference, I had a chance to meet with her via Skype and benefit from her wisdom around creating a workspace that was productive and inspiring. It really is all connected. I talk about centering education around a learner’s passions, she talks about centering your environment around the same passions so that you feel comfortable and empowered. So, in the end, we are all talking about living a more authentic and joyful life. The space we live in and work in has a profound effect on us.

photo courtesy of Jennifer Brouwer Design

I contacted the designer I met last month, Jennifer Brouwer of Jennifer Brouwer Design, who lives just north of Toronto on a farm with her husband and three kids. I asked her if she would answer a few questions that GeekMom had about interior design and she graciously agreed to give us a few tips!

GeekMom: What drew you to become a designer?
Brouwer: I really feel like design found me. I was always creative, and artistic. However growing up Polish, my European parents didn’t want me to become a starving artist, so my pleas for art school were quickly denied. Twenty-five years ago, girls definitely were more limited in options, and I was encouraged to go in specific directions based on my love of science and good marks in the health sciences. I love people and connection, and always felt great when working as part of team. Nursing seemed logical, and I was able to help people. I could secure a steady government job with a great income at 20 years old. Who could ask for anything more? Or so I thought. I graduated three years later and walked into an industry that simply did not agree with me. I loved the job—HATED the environment. It was a horrific time, many nurses were being laid off, health care was hit hardest, and the atmosphere was bleak. One thing I learned about myself quite early on—I need to be around positive people and ideally needed to create a life that encouraged growth and self-development, through the use of creativity. I started taking classes as soon as I graduated from nursing school—and FELL IN LOVE!! I was a natural, as I could always see and draw in three dimension. If you can see it you can build it. First more classes and then more, then working for friends, then for family. Within two years, I not only let my job go, I replaced my scrubs for full-time design work. Within a year, I gave up my nursing license. Best thing I have ever done. NO regrets!!
GeekMom: Does being a parent influence your work?
Brouwer: You have to live it to understand it and integrate it into your work in a real way. I have three kids and live on a farm, so I always say if it works in our house it will work in a zoo! Of course I love beautiful things, but if its impractical it won’t work and in turn doesn’t stay beautiful for long either. It needs to function well, and embrace the experiences of your life and the life of your family. Your home needs to align with who you all are, and how you live your life.
This reminds me of my very brief moment as a labour and delivery nurse, when I was 20 and childless. I had many a mom in the heart of labour, pushing for hours—many of whom I am sure were feeling the desire to knock my head off. At the time, I didn’t quite get it. They felt I couldn’t relate to their pain. Now I get it.
GeekMom: What is your favorite room to design? Why?
Brouwer: Kitchens and Master suites! Kitchens because they are the hub of the home and the return on investment is strong, so people tend to invest more and allow me the opportunity to be more creative on an individual custom design that suits the dynamic of the family. Master suites because no one pays enough attention to the space we spend half of our lives in. Master bedrooms and Ensuites are most often a mother’s only refuge from the chaos.  I like to create a spa-like environment within the home, so you can shut the door, power down, unwind, and enjoy. We deserve to be immersed in all things luxurious, beautiful, and most importantly motivational.
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photo courtesy of Jennifer Brouwer Design
GeekMom: What are the the most important things to know about designing a room?
Brouwer: What’s your super power? Self-awareness is key. So many people design for someone else. I design for you—actually more for your intentions and goals—the woman you will become ten years from now. I incorporate all sorts of fun into my schemes, to help motivate and keep you on a path to personal success. If you think about it, we dress for success yet so many of us forget ourselves and be become unaligned with that philosophy at home. If you go home to a builder-beige box and endless unfinished projects—psychologically it has an impact on you. Goals and desires are important. I work on “vision based design,” not a vision board. Ask yourself: What rocks your world when you think of it? What’s your best day look like and why? What’s your favorite scent? What’s your favorite vacation destination? What reminds you that you have a specific goal to reach? This is how my clients “inspire the design.” They provide the navigational pieces and I map out the journey to the end destination with them.
GeekMom: What’s the most unusual/unique/weird theme/item someone has asked for in their home?
Brouwer: Oh goodness—One lady had a taxidermist stuff her cat. I nearly died. No judgment, though it was a little creepy. Obviously good old kitty made her very happy dead or alive. So what ever floats your boat! I always thought that was an American thing, but apparently not. Canucks (Canadians) do it as well!
GeekMom: Can you speak for a moment about under-designing… Results that look natural, like the owner did it, effortless, not overly coordinated or integrated, or perhaps incomplete from a designer’s point of view?
Brouwer: Listen, I am the biggest DIY advocate! There are amazing ways to improve, embellish, rock your own world, and do what ever it is that brings you joy at home. Sure there are rules. I break them every day! Bottom line: a “designer LOOK” needs to align with a “designer person.” Many people are not, and that’s the beauty of self-awareness. If some people lived in a home that was 110% complete, down to every finite detail, they would not feel natural nor comfortable in their own home. Incomplete is fine as long as it doesn’t gnaw at you—sending negative chatter.
I say have a plan, map it out, design like you dress. The best starting point is you. Most people don’t dress opposite of who they are, so use that as a beginning to define your style. Do you dress preppy khaki, beachy casual, or understated? Then an under-designed look with not many bells and whistles and loose concepts may work well. Your home should reflect you—with integrity. It should honor you and propel you to do and seek better for yourself.
GeekMom: What do you geek out on?
Brouwer: Concepts in general, but specifically fabrics and wallpapers! I’m very tactile so I can sit and touch, feel and draw out patterns all day, every day and it never gets old!
GeekMom: What advice do you have for geeks like me who want to integrate their passions and fandoms into their living space? How would you approach designing around a theme, like Star Wars for example?
Brouwer: If I had a dollar for every collection I have had to create a solution for! Do it! What could possibly be wrong with integrating your passion? My only word of advice would be have a family design plan, so everyone who uses the space has a say and is as excited to flourish from the new surroundings.
For example, I was once called in to consult on a basement. The husband was an electrical engineer, specializing in concerts and events, and he had been working on this project for months. Oh my goodness, the basement was lit up like a firecracker on the fourth of July. The ceiling was all micro fiber pin dot lighting, the walls had commercial wall pots, the flooring was raised and had rope lighting integrated around the seating. The TV area was up on a stage and had a rectangle of wall lighting as a perimeter. Unfortunately, his wife was in tears at what she perceived as a ruined basement.
They both wanted a space they could use and be proud of, but they did not communicate on vision or a design plan ahead of time and neither would budge on their point of view, so in the end it resulted in a difficult, expensive, larger conflict which challenged their relationship. Again, what fuels one person may be like kryptonite to another and its important to integrate family values and alignment at home.
So, define your vision: What is it? Why is it important? How does displaying your collection make you feel? What happens when you don’t get to be inspired by it? What does your best day look like? Does this fit in somehow or does it need a separate area? Or is the whole room just going to be a “because I can” space?
Then have fun! Keep it simple. Design that is over complicated is never fun, easy, or attractive. Open storage and well styled collections are the best and least expensive method to showcase anything from stuffed cats, to figurines, to tea cups you name it—if curated well, it can look brilliant! The best piece of advice I have is: just because you can doesn’t mean you should. If you love something, and are not generally a creative visionary, this is the perfect place to hire a consultant to seek a solution and a plan so you can consider the big picture. My point is we plan everything else in our lives, so give some thought to your next design endeavor. It impacts you and your family, and it’s important!
photo courtesy of Jennifer Brouwer Design
So, in the end, what I got most out of my session with Jennifer Brouwer was permission to design. With the foundation done, I have been moving into the basement and using it as my office and art studio. I have been using whatever furniture was left over, because I felt guilty at the idea of spending any money on a space that was meant for me. Of course I did, because this is what I see mothers doing all the time. I’m sure fathers do this too. With this new empowerment, I am going to implement the ideas she gave me to create a space that I enjoy working in, that reflects my changing and evolving professional path.
Brouwer also provided some great advice around being budget conscious. For example, I could replace all the mismatched bookcases with matching ones lined up across the wall, or I could install an eye beam track and hang curtains to hide the entire wall for far less expense. The curtains should open at various points for easy access, and if I get simple cheap ones, I can add a panel of more interesting fabric to make them custom. She saw my new office without any of the overwhelmed exhaustion or indecision that had been holding me up. She saw it with the eyes of someone who wanted me to succeed, someone who knew I was capable of great things, and the space I create in should reflect that.
So this GeekMom is now a firm believer in design vision, and a well-timed, well-matched designer to provide clarity and a compass when I needed one. My understanding around working with designers is also more expansive; I now feel I could call one for a quick idea consult, hire them to help me build a plan, or even have them execute the entire process if that is what works best for me, whereas before I was completely convinced that was something I would never need.  I hope this serves to help you illuminate and refine a design vision for your own Geeky House!