Episode 320

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Change is in the air! We are putting our house on the market, so we have to pretend that nobody lives there – but I do get to style my house every day before I leave. The business is getting a total rebrand, so things are starting to look different there as well. As I’m going through all these changes, I’m getting asked some big questions. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone back to basics here on the podcast. People often ask me how I got started and why I decided to become an interior designer, so I thought I would share those answers here with you all.

This episode, I answer questions about…

[3:34] Why I started Affordable Interior Design 

I started Affordable Interior Design over 17 years ago. I moved to New York City to be an actress and an artist in July 2001. At first, I sublet a bedroom from a folk singer in the East Village. I’m an only child, and I like my own space and energy. After a few weeks of living there, I learned that I really did not want to be in somebody else’s space. In New York City, someone is always up in your business – whether someone is listening to loud music on the subway, bumping into you on the sidewalk, or in line in front of you at a store. So when I got home and closed the door, I really wanted to completely control my environment. It was a short-term sublet, so I dealt with the roommate situation and I started working at Planet Hollywood as a waitress.

A few short weeks later, September 11th happened. I didn’t really know anyone in the city, and this huge event occurred in the place I had just decided to call home. I just moved from Minnesota, and I really had no resources. No one was coming into Planet Hollywood because there were no tourists, and I was really afraid. I was 21 years old with no place to go, and I had no skills. They were calling for people who had first aid experience, or nursing or EMT backgrounds, who could help triage people. I had gone to theater school and art school. What did I know? How could I help? All of a sudden, the entire reason I had moved to New York City, to be an actress and an artist, felt like a moot point. It felt ridiculous and stupid. I don’t feel like the arts are ridiculous at all, but I felt like I personally had nothing to contribute. I didn’t have any skills that could meet people’s needs, but I also knew that I had fallen deeply in love with New York City.

I had always dreamed of moving to New York City, and after 9/11 my family and friends were encouraging me to pack my bags and move back home. I wanted to stay and help the city, but I didn’t know how. I would wander the city and look in people’s windows, as everyone was hunkered inside with their families. I could see that they had no window treatments, bad lighting, no artwork, or bad furniture. I had no inclination to be an interior designer at that time, but my mantra as I walked around the city was, “Use me.” I’m not particularly religious, but I was really calling on a higher power because it was such a sad and terrifying time.

Fast forward, and I’m working on paintings in my studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. It was 150 square feet. As I painted, I would have interior design television shows on in the background. So one of my origin stories is that I wanted to be of use in New York City. I saw that people were living in spaces that were pretty tragic, that didn’t reflect the success that they had, or that wouldn’t feel like a safe space to me.

When I moved into my studio just a few short weeks after September 11th, I had no money. There were still no tourists frequenting Planet Hollywood. So, I shopped at the Dollar Store and fully furnished my apartment. I dumpster dove for a shower curtain that became my curtains. I hand sewed everything. I invested so much into my space, and it felt tragic to me to see that others weren’t doing the same with their spaces as I walked around the city.

[10:54] Why I really became an interior designer (hint: revenge!)

So that’s one story, but sometimes I share the real story of why I became an interior designer: REVENGE.

I had connected with another potential roommate, let’s call her Heidi. She had a studio apartment and I didn’t want to sleep on a couch, so we didn’t work out as roommates. We did become friends, and she was very welcoming and introduced me to her friends as well. She knew I was a painter, and she told her boss about me. Her boss was in finance and he made a lot of money, and he told Heidi he wanted to commission a painting. I showed him my portfolio, and I asked to go to his apartment so I could measure for the painting and learn more about what he liked. He told me he didn’t want anything custom, but he just wanted a really big painting so he could get laid. Not very inspiring to me as an artist.

Eventually, he reluctantly agreed to let me come measure in his apartment in Chelsea. Again, I asked him to tell me more about what he wanted in the painting, or at least what colors he liked. He was adamant that he just wanted a big painting so he could get laid. I looked around his apartment, and there was no couch. It had a gigantic TV, but no real furniture. It wasn’t inviting, and there wasn’t anywhere for another person to sit. I told him that I could make him the most amazing painting in the world and it still wouldn’t get him laid because women wouldn’t have anywhere to sit when they came over. They wouldn’t feel invited into the living room, let alone make their way into the bedroom. I offered to make him a sketch for a completely designed apartment and a sketch for the painting. I requested the same amount to design the apartment as I did for the painting. I offered to come back in a week with both, and he would tell me what he preferred. He agreed.

I made a sketch for each, and he was very drawn to the apartment design. Because I was so enthusiastic, the apartment design included two original paintings and an original custom shelving unit. I went all in on the presentation, and he commissioned the newly designed apartment. Now, I didn’t know the first thing about interior design or business. I contracted a painter, who put me in touch with a carpenter to make the custom shelves. We got the place painted and we got the shelving unit. I recommended new furniture. I did a treatment on the wall behind the couch that made it look like leather. I created two original paintings. I labored on this apartment, even though I was making pennies. I put in so much effort, and while he was working during the day I was there toiling with the team. I knew the doorman, and I would bring him coffee in the morning.

After several weeks, I showed up with the carpenter who was ready to install the custom shelves. The doorman told me that I no longer had access to the apartment. The owner told him to deny my access. I called him right away, and he didn’t pick up. I left several voicemails, and heard nothing back. I asked my friend Heidi, because I had an agreement with this guy. I put my own money into the project to the tune of hundreds of dollars. Luckily, he paid the painter and the carpenter because they knew how to run a business and took money in advance.

Heidi told me that he had gotten fired, and he was going to have to move out of his apartment. She said she didn’t blame him for not wanting to pay me if he wasn’t going to live there. I had done all this work, and I wanted him to pay me for the work we agreed on. I was so mad, and Heidi and I never spoke again. The guy never paid me, nor did he reimburse me for the expenses I was out. I was devastated and furious, and I didn’t know about small claims court or any other form of potential recourse. I felt like an idiot. I felt ashamed, and like I wanted to get him. I wished I had done things in a more professional manner, like getting some payment upfront or requiring a deposit.

I told myself I needed to learn how a real interior designer would have done this. I wanted to educate myself. At the time, I didn’t aspire to truly be an interior designer. I just wanted to know what I should have done so that I wouldn’t have gotten screwed. So, I went to the only interior designer I knew: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Thom Filicia. I Googled him, and it turned out he had an office right in Soho. When I reached out, they told me to come by with my portfolio. At the time, I only had my painting portfolio from college and that silly presentation I made for that guy’s apartment – which was, in retrospect, tragic. I showed up shaking like a leaf, was interviewed by one of his senior designers, and on the spot they hired me to be an apprentice. They were getting really busy because Thom’s show was taking off, and they were desperate for an extra pair of hands. I worked for him for almost a year for free, and I got quite an interior design education.

The only reason I pursued that opportunity was to get revenge on the guy that didn’t pay me. After my tenure at Thom Filicia came to an end, I was looking inward and wondering what I should do. I had also been bartending during that time, and my friends would come into the bar and ask for help with their apartments. I was working with high-end celebrity clientele, so I didn’t know the first thing about translating this to a budget. So while they were all asking me these things, I reached out to some of the interns at Thom Filicia. I told them I saw an opportunity, because all my friends were asking these questions. My fellow interns had been to school for interior design, and I suggested going into business together. I wanted to open Affordable Interior Design so we could help our friends, and people like us, have fabulous apartments. We can take that same beautiful aesthetic and translate it to low price points.

The interns I approached told me that they loved working on high-end projects and hobnobbing with celebrities. For me, I couldn’t even fathom spending that kind of money. It made my palms sweat, and I was nervous to be around these people. I branched off to start my own little gig, and I thought it would be supplemental money while I continued to paint and act, and bartend at night.

After a couple happy clients, the referrals just snowballed. To avoid some mistakes, I would take the interns out for drinks or dinner and ask them about my projects. I would talk to them about how they would have done it in design school. A designer at Thom Filicia hired me as a chauffeur, so I would drive him around and ask him interior design questions while I was driving. A couple years after I started taking my own clients, I realized I had transformed about 50 apartments in under two years. As I would walk down the streets of New York City, I could look in the windows and see buildings I had been in and designed in. Now I have designed over 2000 spaces in New York City.

To bring this full circle all the way back to September 11th, now I could walk down the street and know that I was transforming spaces. I used to keep a map that had little pinpoints of all the places I had worked on in New York. I truly feel like I have accomplished my goal of not only helping the people of New York City by improving their daily lives through interior design. Now I’m able to help people in Washington DC, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, as well as internationally.

I have a really deep why: September 11th, and a longing to help the city. I longed to be of use to New Yorkers and to make this city better than I found it. And of course, I longed to get revenge. Those two things together were the fuel I used to power my engine through lots of projects and lots of mistakes to get to where I am today, 17 years later.

Links:

Website:

https://www.betsyhelmuth.com

Book:

https://www.betsyhelmuth.com/my-book

Become a Premium Member:

https://www.affordableinteriordesign.com/podcast

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https://www.affordableinteriordesign.com/podcast

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https://www.instagram.com/affordableinteriordesign

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