I was thrust back in time the other day when I spied a very familiar ceramic tableau featured in a travel piece by USA Today. The years fell away, and I was suddenly a naive graduate student of design and architecture, with a side gig at a Lincoln Park retail store created in the mode of Crate & Barrel.
Graduating from college in 1982 with an English Literature, Art & History major was a feat, but not a ticket to a job. So, after scrambling about a bit, spending a year running an ancient Heidelberg Letterpress in a dismal industrial corridor (bleak), I enrolled in a three year interior architecture and design graduate school on Chicago’s glorious Michigan Avenue.
Needing to pay tuition, rent, health insurance, sundry expenses, and afford the grocery stockpile of a true twenty-something gourmand which consisted of a weekly stash of Chock Full’O’Nuts Coffee, Ramen noodles, one Vidalia onion and a jug of Carlo Rossi Chablis, I got a job at The House Store.
In an old warehouse a few blocks from my apartment, I sold furniture, dishes, wine glasses, flatware, convertible couches, lamps, coffee tables and the Elfa system to people just like me (except these people could actually afford new cool furniture for their new apartments and definitely had a bigger entertainment budget than I did.) Beyond getting a batch of amazing lifelong friends, a few dates (was even set up for a date to Michael Jackson concert by a mother who was shopping for her son – red flag), I also got my first design project.
One of the owners of The House Store, Richard Butler, (he who as design consultant for major appliance brands gave the world Avocado and Golden Harvest refrigerators, ovens and dishwashers decades earlier) hired me to help him with his current client interior design project.
Richard was the chief designer of Kohler’s Museum, a jewel in the crown of the bathroom, kitchen, tub and sinks manufacturer of the same name on the Kohler, Wisconsin campus (which would grow to enormous popularity years later with a swanky lodge, resort, golf club, et al).
Knowing that I was, indeed, in design school, and was also in ownership of a plastic template for interiors which included the outlines of toilets, sinks, tubs, showers and general washing up basins, he hired me to draft, TO SCALE, the elevation that was his bizarre yet timeless concept: a wall of stacked bathtubs, johns, sinks and jacuzzis.
Feeling very important, and grabbing the chance to earn $50 cold hard cash, I took the job, dashed home that night after work, rolled out my trace paper, turned on the architect’s lamp in that 3rd bedroom on North Burling Street, and filled the page, per Richard’s instructions, with stacks of brown, mauve, golden, blue and puce-colored Kohler fixtures, creating majestic towers of kaleidoscopic muted hues of the 70s/80s.
So, these decades later, while stuck in traffic while heading to a creative collaboration in a hip hospitality HQ on Chicago’s west side, I was instantly transported back in time from my current status of 58 year old mom of three grown (incredible) children to a companion age of theirs. Starkly remembering how I navigated from there, step by step, timid about asking questions, wanting to grip into a career of creativity and passion, earnestly hoping that one day, some day, I’d have it all, well, from my perch in my zippy Italian-designed Jeep Renegade, glamorously chugging along in a glorious traffic jam, I realized that, yes, I’d made it after all.
And my claim to fame all these years later? Drafting a tower of sinks, tubs and toilets! And thanks to this article, I just might hop in the car and visit Kohler for the very first time.