50 Years of Interior Design – I Celebrate and Reflect on Turning 70
50 years of interior design, it hardly seems possible. Yet here I am, my wife and business partner Sally by my side. I invite you to join me as I look back and celebrate our years together.
We each took different paths along the way to our careers in the business. Sally was living in Florida, working as a secretary in the English Department at the University of Florida. As she tells the story, with an English degree and a minor in Art History, that was about all she could find. Professors would often send her to the mail room to pick up their mail. (Or worse yet, get them a cup of coffee!) On the way to and from she would think, “What am I doing? I could run this place!”
Several months later, after career counseling and taking a number aptitude tests, it was clear to her she needed to pursue a career in either music or interior design. Fortunately for me, she chose interior design, completing a degree in Interior Architecture at the University of Florida.
I took a more circuitous route. While attending Cornell University, I pursued a different major every year. As a freshman, it was Biology. Sophomore year, Sociology. Junior Year, Psych. Senior year, Design.
My back story is, as a junior (1970) my girlfriend at the time dared me to take a design course because I was always critiquing her work. So in the spring semester I took an introductory design course and LOVED it. Sweet talking my way into 4 design studios the fall of my senior year, I pursued my newly found love with a passion. All my professors told me they would tell me to drop out within the first two weeks of classes if they felt I couldn’t cut it. They did not and here I am today!
50 years of INterior design: in THE beginning
During Sally’s and my early years, we were blessed to have worked in several of the best interior design and architecture firms in Boston and Cambridge. My first job was with ISD Incorporated, where I learned how to put together a proper set of construction drawings. I still remember the phone call from the VP in charge the Boston office. “Kelsey, I need a warm body!” (ISD no longer exists. At the time, they were nationally renowned with offices in New York and Chicago.)
In 1978, I moved from ISD to Cambridge based architectural firm Hugh Stubbins Associates, where I met Sally. Stubbins had recently completed City Corp in New York and the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston.
It was at Stubbins we both learned how to work collaboratively on projects as part of a larger team. Our design director, Phil Seibert, was brilliant and taught us how to think and solve problems like a designer, owning every aspect of a project. “You are the designer. It’s your job to know how something goes together, if a product is appropriate for the application, etc.” he would often say.
In the early 80’s, Sally and I moved on. I to Earl Flansbugh & Associates. Sally to a small interiors firm in Boston. I wanted to learn more abut the business side of an office. Sally wanted a broader experience, where she would have to wear many hats. One of the more interesting projects I worked on while at Flansburgh was the Boston Design Center, for which I designed and detailed the main lobby. Originally done in rift cut white oak, it is now painted white. (I admit, I’m biased, but I find it to be a bit ironic, as rift cut white oak is trending so these days.)
By the mid 80’s, we had both gone out on our own. Sally realized it was time when at meetings the client would mistake her as the owner of the firm she was working for… For me, it was when I was not allowed to become an Associate because I was not an architect.
THE MIDDLE YEARS: ON OUR OWN
A lot happened between 1985 and 1996, when we merged our separate businesses forming Wilson Kelsey Design. In 1986, our son was born. For several years, Sally “retired” to raise Drew. I was so busy I needed to hire staff and find office space in downtown Salem. My projects were all commercial/corporate interiors. In the suburbs, projects ranged from basic tenant fit up to office space for high tech clients such as PictureTel Corporation, for whom I planned/designed over 1 million square feet of space.
We worked very closely with PictureTel’s marketing department, developing a brand and a set of interior standards designed to attract young talent.
In Boston, we working in all the new high-rises. Keyport Life Insurance Company is a classic example. We started with raw unfinished space, creating a new identity for them including a corporate art collection.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sally wasn’t actually retired. She was busy doing her own thing, including several residential projects – both contemporary and traditional. (These next images are scans of old photos, so the colors etc. in some of them are a bit off.)
Today this project would be called classic and timeless.
Even back in the day, Sally could swag and drape with the best of them…
This is still one of our favorite bathrooms.
When we merged our two businesses in 1996 creating Wilson Kelsey Design we didn’t see the light and pursued commercial interiors exclusively. Work continued unabated until the tech bubble burst in the early 2000’s. Commercial work quickly lost it’s shine, as we would be asked to do speculative work for free. No thank you…
THE LATER YEARS: The home stretch
Burned out and disenchanted with the profession, we slipped into the latter half of our 50 years in interior design. Founding Olivia Kent, a health and wellness company, Sally designed a line of eye pillows she sold to spas across the country. Unfortunately, the concept was about 20 years before it’s time.
I tied and sold flies. Tried my hand at being a local fishing guide.
The short version is neither venture was particularly successful… So, we circled back to what we knew – interior design. We knew we didn’t want to get back into commercial, so we shrugged our shoulders and said to each other, let’s try residential interiors. As luck would have it, in 2004 we interviewed for a major renovation of an historic carriage house/barn on Boston’s North Shore. Much to our delight, we landed the project.
The client’s vision was a “petite Versaille”. Other than Sally’s having decorated a few Victorian homes, we’d never done a traditional interior. Fortunately for us, the plan was to renovate the property one room at a time. We learned as the project progressed, completing and photographing the project in early 2009. We submitted the project for consideration in New England Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture’s Bulfinch Awards. Low and behold we won our category! The project was further recognized with 10 regional and national awards. Below are pictures of the dining area and living area. To learn more about the project, click here. (We often joke about how we earned our Master’s Degree on this project.)
Life should have been good. But we all remember what happened in 2008, don’t we… The bottom fell out of everything. To survive, we moved our office back into our house and eliminate all our staff, other than Sally’s part time design assistant. Like everyone, we scratched and scrambled – taking on a little here and a little there. Slowly work began to come back. A condo in Boston.
A fascinating 1670 antique colonial renovation in Essex.
Several kitchens came our way…
Along with several whole house decorating projects, including a traditional home in Metrowest Boston.
The above client then asked Sally to do their summer home on Cape Cod in a completely different style.
2018 was a very special year. We were one of five design firms selected by DXV, the luxury brand of American Standard, as participants in their 2018 DXV Design Panel. For the panel we designed a Monet inspired bathroom. In many ways, the bathroom represents the culmination of all our skills, rolled up into one jewel of a project.
Love the curved door’s hardware by Belgian architectural hardware manufacturer/designer Van Cronenburg.
In today’s world of the internet and social media, where an individual can parlay a DIY home renovation blog or a gorgeous Instagram or Pinterest account into an interior design career, it was very gratifying to be recognized by DXV and our peers for the years of knowledge and experience we poured into the design of the bathroom.
50 YEARS OF INTERIOR DESIGN – WHERE WE ARE TODAY
These past two years, other than progress shots, we haven’t photographed our recent work. We’re content doing the work and making sure our clients are happy and well cared for. Rather, I use the progress shots and my design sketches to talk about our projects and solving design challenges via our blog. For example, I chronicled the renovation of the full bath in our old home in Salem, MA. It was subsequently featured in Fine Home Building magazine.
More and more, I find myself writing about and raising questions about kitchen design and sharing my knowledge of interior architectural trim with other interior designers. I guess at the ripe age of 70, I feel a need to share as much of what I have learned over these 50 years of interior design with the next generation.
And perhaps, here and there, I’ll squeeze in a little fly tying and trout fishing.
If Sally and I can help you with any aspect of the design of your home, please don’t hesitate to contact us via the contact form on our website, here:
Or, if you’re not sure if you need to hire an interior designer, please give us a call. We’d be happy to chat.
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