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The Power of Perseverance

By Michele Meyer

Staying alive and creative despite the downturn.

By Michele Meyer

Creativity has always fueled design. But now, downsized architects and Interior Designers find it’s spurring more — and that’s helping them keep their artistic juices flowing so they can pay the bills until they’re rehired. “When the recession hit in September 2008, architecture and design projects screeched to a halt. Thousands of people were laid off,” says Kerry Harding, President and Chief Recruiting Officer of The Talent Bank, Inc., in Washington, D.C. “For a while — as one of my clients put it — we cut fat, three months later the muscle, and two months later the bone.”

If they’re among the masses laid off or underemployed, designers and architects should use the time wisely by making themselves more marketable, Harding advises. Learn how to use the industry standard, Autodesk’s Revit® computer-aided design software; become green with the LEED accreditation many firms seek; and update your portfolio using self-launching PowerPoint, Adobe Flash Player and music.
Then let ingenuity guide you to new income sources. “If design is your passion, never give that up,” Harding says. “Exploring new angles to make money may lead to something that makes you deliriously happy.’’

Here are imaginative ways several designers and architects are staying afloat.

Kathy Andrews, ASID, Principal at Houston’s Kathy Andrews Interiors, rebooted her 34-year career in January. “We’ve never had a downturn like this,” says Andrews, a multi-family home designer whose policy became “If the phone rings, we do it.” She and Ladco Design Center, a trade-targeting seller of furniture and lighting, formed Campus Design Group to design and furnish private dorm rooms and public spaces. “It was diversity neither of us had.”

And the collaboration will endure once the economy recovers. “It’s exciting and challenging to learn new skills — and as old as I am, it’s fun to be around campuses and students again.”

Henry Vega, IIDA, developed a love for photography when he was laid off in November 2008 after a decade designing corporate and healthcare interiors in Philadelphia. “I’ve exhibited at a gallery and been hired to photograph ads and corporate events,” Vega says. While he hopes to return to a full-time firm, he even uses his new skill as the director for IIDA’s Philadelphia City Center. “I’m able to maintain my connection to design — and my sanity.”

After Integrated Design Solutions of Troy, Mich., cut Becky Fixel, Assoc. IIDA, as an education project design intern last June, she realized she had learned more than she’d thought. “I was taught to create presentation layouts, and it’s pretty similar to creating flyers, brochures and websites.” She’s found that those niches — plus T-shirt, business card and custom invitation design — not only pay her bills, but also have their own rewards. “They’re creative and you see results quickly.”

She discovered another passion: repurposing T-shirts into grocery totes, magazine stacks into gift wrap bows and left-over upholstery scraps into pillows and placemats (with pockets for the silverware). “My crafts are such a relief when my eyes are beginning to cross from doing the graphic projects, and now they’re selling at local art markets.”

Not only that, she’s built an impressive portfolio that shows her flexibility. “My dream is to work in hotel and restaurant design, but in the meantime, I plan to stay the course. I love the freedom and flexibility, and working one-on-one with clients will benefit me if I work at a firm again.”

The blow of the economy quickly faded for Judy Klich, AAHID, a former IIDA National Healthcare Advisor, despite Nashville’s Gresham Smith and Partners slashing her post as a healthcare Interior Designer a year ago. She picked up paintbrushes and has rarely put them down since. “I’ve sold paintings, organized shows and taught art workshops to adults and children,” she says. “I’m challenging myself and pushing my creativity beyond my comfort zone.”

Uncertain what the future holds, she’s hoping it includes representation — which she’s currently pursuing — in several art galleries by sometime early next year.

Laid off by San Antonio’s Marmon Mok last February, architecture intern and student Erin Karr embraced a previous artistic craft: cake designing.

“If I can’t do architecture, I want to use my design skills,” says Karr, who became a made-to-order specialty cake designer of 3-D My Little Pony birthday cakes and seven-tier wedding cakes. “Cakes allow you to have visions and express them.”

In fact, Marmon Mok hired her to design a cake almost five years ago due to a delicious portfolio of cakes she’d designed while working at a bakery to pay for school. She’ll be adding to that — and an architectural portfolio — to assist in her job search after graduating from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Architecture this year.

“The next best thing to designing buildings is making high-end cakes,” she says. “Once I got a taste of design, I never could go back to working retail. I have to do something creative.”

Lauren Dalrymple, CID, of Canton, Md., sells her work by the slice. “People hear ‘Interior Designer’ and think, ‘That’s going to cost me,’” she says. So, since The H. Chambers Company laid her off last January, she opened L’Hirondelle Interior Design, breaking business into affordable bite-size portions. She charges hourly rates for interior color consultations, room revival, home staging or furniture downsizing (to accommodate smaller square footage). She also donates two- to five-hour consultations to charity auctions.

“It starts with something small,” she says. “I might meet with a client for something à la carte and that could turn into a larger-scale project.”
The economy has forced Dalrymple to be creative as a marketer, not just a designer — a skill that will pay off whether working on her own or joining another firm. “It all leads back to doing what I want with my life: Be an Interior Designer. Since I was nine, it was that or be a “Solid Gold” dancer, but that went off the air when I was in third grade.”

Like many out-of-work architects, Bryan Couchenour, LEED AP, who lives on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John, barters. While some professionals trade with doctors, lawyers, accountants and even daycare centers, Couchenour was able to lower his rent by offering his landlord the skills he acquired as an architect such as re-roofing, painting and installing solar heating at his bayside villa.
“Construction makes me more marketable,” says Couchenour, who worked in construction while attending the University of Cincinnati. “And I fulfill a need to use my hands and put something together.”

And according to Harding, the crisis is almost over. “Just hang in there. Work put on hold two years ago has started up, and employee searches are rising. Things are getting much better.”