I’ve never been a fan of the word “destiny”. It sounds like such a hippy dippy, head-in-the-clouds kind of word. The truth is, though, that destiny is such vital force in our life that if we don’t have a vision for where we’re going, we’ll find ourselves wandering around aimlessly doomed to repeat the same mistakes. When finally coming up for air after a rough time in my life I invited interior stylist Suzanne O’Donnell over to help me organize my home and it turned out she had a lot of insight into my destiny and how our living environments affect our faith in ourselves and our future.
The first thing she did was look at all the photos around my house and say, “Do you want to be single forever?” I burst out laughing. “What do you mean?” I said.
“Every picture in your place is either you and your daughter, alone, or a portrait or sketch of a woman alone, or pictures of you and your girlfriends.” I saw her point, but what was I gonna put up instead? That’s my life right now! And I really enjoy it, actually. “Well, I’m really not in any rush to fill a man-vacancy” I told her. “It’s wonderful to celebrate the beauty of your family is it is now” she said, “but it’s also important to surround yourself with things that remind you where you’re going. If there are no couples in your life you admire, then choose some couples from history whom your admire. Place a few pictures of them around, just to remind you that the kind of love you hope for is possible. It’s not a focal point, it’s just something you know is coming in it’s time and you’re honoring that.”
This mindset shifted a lot in me and I began to look at everything around me in a new way. What am I surrounding myself with and what does it represent to me? I’m I holding on to old things so tightly that I can’t make space for the new things?
I asked Suzanne to have a chat with MVL in hopes that she could pass on more of her wisdom for all of you too! Here’s what we found out…
BJL: How did you get started as an interior decorator?
SO: Well, the truth is, I refer to myself as a “Professional Organizer and Interior Stylist”. My sister is a real interior decorator and I can’t compare to what she does. But I have a lot of design background in my family history so I’ve always had an eye for how to put things in places that make sense. I started as an assistant to Keenen Ivory Wayons and at some point he decided to redo his house. We hired a designer who just ultimately had a totally different vision than Keenen’s but we had gotten so far in the process that I just ended up finishing it all with him, just the two of us. I went out and got a license so I could buy the stuff wholesale. He’s like me–has a great eye, I think it’s the director in him.
BJL: So it just sparked and took off from there?
SO: Not exactly, it took a few years before I was ready to fully embrace it. I still wanted to be an actress at the time, but it wasn’t happening the way I wanted it to. I was getting lots of callback but things would always fall through at the last minute. And I’m not the kind of gal who likes to sit around and flip through magazines or get on Facebook. I make projects for myself! So, I created my organizing company. After 4 years of coming close but never booking, my agents dropped me and but my organizing business was going so well it just took off before I had a chance to think about it. That all sort of led me through this process of trying to find out who I was when I wasn’t taking care of someone, which is all I’d been doing for so long.
BJL: I wonder if your commitment to that process for yourself is part of why you’re so empathetic and in tune with your client’s needs– with finding out who they are.
SO: I’ve always been a student of the human condition, especially as an actor, so I’ve done a lot of reading on psychology in my life. I want to understand why ‘this’ human being is the way they are today, what happened in their past… I’m not the kind of organizer or designer who is coming in with my history or my tan on what YOU should do— it has to work for YOU. I don’t want to project what I think you should do. You know, it’s very hard to teach an old dog new tricks, as they say. And having worked as a celebrity personal assistant for a long time, it’s my whole job to put someone else first. It’s easier for someone to adjust to something that’s already in their realm than a whole new system.
BJL: And that’s where the actor in you comes in…
SO: Exactly, I have to put myself in their position in order to make the decisions around the house. I am massively informed about who people are by seeing how they live.
BJL: Yes, I remember before you came over you said “Don’t change anything. Don’t clean up, don’t try and organize anything yourself. Just leave everything the way you live. I have to be able to see how you live everyday before I can help you”. I was struck by this because I’ve had organizers come in before (usually my mother 🙂 and everything is moved around into an order that makes total sense, but is completely impractical for my day-to-day living.
BJL: So, what did you feel when you came into my space? What could you tell about me as a person and how did that inform you for your job?
SO: When I walked into your place I felt… chaos. Like everything was temporary, as if you were still in college, like, “this is where I landed, for now”. So, I knew you needed a sense of calm and I wanted to help create that for you. The truth is that you are a grown woman who is in a time of transition, so, naturally things feel temporary. But you can still have peace in transition and you have to be able to have a vision for what is on the other side of the transition. Temporary doesn’t mean unimportant.
BJL: It’s true, it’s like I wouldn’t commit to living the transition and learning all those transition-time lessons, I was just waiting for it to be over.
SO: What you have decided to believe about your space will manifest. If you think it’s unimportant- you’ll treat it like it’s unimportant… and that will make you feel unimportant.
BJL: Once someone has decided to embrace their space, because that’s what we have for however long the season lasts… How does one begin to create that calm?
SO: Declutter! Take everything out of your space that doesn’t feed you, that doesn’t feed your vision. What is your vision–do you want to change your job? Relationship? Write out your vision and eliminate what in your home doesn’t propel you forward. Then bring in things that DO feed that vision.
BJL: But what about all those things we keep because we just KNOW one day we’re going to need them.
SO: You have to trust that if you “need that someday” you will have the means to get it. I work with billionaires and with people on a very limited budget. I find the less prosperous the individual is—the more they hold onto things. If you don’t trust, it’s not going to come to you. You’re putting up a wall, you have to take the wall down and trust.
BJL: For example, in my home, you encouraged me to take the portrait I have of a single woman down from the main focal point of the room and move it somewhere secondary. Then we created a photo wall with personal photos combined with some great vintage pictures of famous couples I admire; The Mandelas, Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward, Johnny Cash & June Carter… You also rearranged the furniture to make the space more open. I can’t tell you how many people have come over and commented on the difference!
SO: It feels like a real home now. There aren’t a bunch of baskets of stuff on the floor against walls, you have good-quality pillows on your couch, the art is hung on the wall instead of leaning on a mantle–
BJL: I still haven’t hung the TV, but I’m getting there.
SO: Ha, yes, one step at a time.
BJL: What about the cost of doing these re-visions (pun intended)? I know a lot of people who want to redecorate or organize but it seems so cost prohibitive!
SO: I constantly study the current trends to help each client to better find their own aesthetic so I need to know lots of different aesthetics. But I’m working with what you HAVE not just adding all new things. I was watching a program on HGTV–this girl was very much like me and this show was about design. She’d come into a home and would design the living room or dining room for about $50,000. The clients would come in LOVE IT, they would just freak out. Then she’d tell them the price which was shocking to say the least, and that she was going to clear it all out and redo the room at a $5,000 price. When she was done with the $5k version, it looked almost identical. You can have a very beautiful home without spending a lot of money. What does the higher end look like? Target, World Market, CB2, West Elm—all on trend. Find what feels good to you, what speaks of you and then go search for those pieces and make it a fabulous home.
BJL: What if people don’t know what kind of trend or aesthetic they want? They feel attracted to too many styles.
SO: There’s a way to make everything work. You are made up of all kinds of unique perspectives and quirks–and you work. We all are that way. Interior design is no different. Many of my clients in the entertainment industry say ‘come art-direct my home!’ Because, as an art-director, you’re looking at the background and you don’t want anything to distract from the foreground (the actors, the main focus of the scene). Once you know what the main focus is, the vision, then you can start having fun with the style and look of things. Aesthetically, if you’re looking for a design vision go on house.com, flip thru magazines, walk into stores… what vignette gives you a sense of calm/prosperity? And what’s your through-line? In the story of you… what are the themes? And go from there…
I found that by taking Suzanne’s advice on that, my home quickly transformed. I started painting again, not because I’m any good at it but because I love it! I have my art all over my walls now, not because I think they’re wonderful and I want people to see them–but because I love being reminded of who I am… someone who likes to stick her hands in a bucket of paint and mix it with sand and pour it all over a canvas. I love getting dirty and walking around all day with paint on me. Right now, I really need the constant reminder that I like to play! I’m an artist, I’m earthy, I’m rooted and I’m a very tactile person. I may not always decorate like this, but right now, I need those reminders. And it does all work, it all just comes together.