Design Aesthetics Influenced by Others
I moved eighteen times before I graduated from high school. My parents weren’t in the military or anything like that. I still don’t know why we moved so often. My parents could have been restless, mentally-ill, running away, upgrading a home, downsizing, or could have had any other number of motives. They were never able to explain why we were leaving or where we were going next.
For better or worse, I’ve carried their legacy on as an adult. I’ve moved more times than I can count at this point. Life is chaotic and unpredictable. I question my motives for drifting around, and I’m still not quite sure what they are. My life may not have much control in some regards, but something I’ve learned from moving so often and meeting people along the way is that there are things we can control. We build a home for ourselves, however temporary, wherever we go. We pick the items we put on our shelves, the chairs we sit on, the things we keep in boxes on the highest shelf that we’ll never look at but can’t bring ourselves to throw away. Over time, those items begin to project who we are to those we invite into our home. That has become design to me. The napkins I set out on the table, the books that line my bookshelf, the rug under the coffee table, the knick-knack that rests on the bedside table that I see every morning when I wake up, all have become my design aesthetic over time. My home’s location may change, but it feels the same to me wherever I land next.
There’s a vape shop in Seattle, Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that used to be a breakfast restaurant called Arabica. The owner is a Venezuelan man with a French background who worked as a photographer and artist before moving to Seattle to open his restaurant. He had lived all over the place, most recently Miami with his now deceased partner. I convinced him to give me a job one summer even though I’d never worked in the restaurant industry. I’d most recently worked at a bank for five years, and had essentially no transferable skills. The restaurant was unlike anything I’d seen up to that point. The furniture was an eclectic mix of mid century, vintage, sculptural, and handmade tables. The floors were ancient wood planks with a little space between some of them where crumbs fell down into the basement. The walls were mostly windows and over twenty feet high. The owner had a variety of art up on the walls, some of it his own and some of it created by local artists. He liked to call it a gallery space as well. He invited me to a dinner one night at the restaurant. The giant communal table was covered in a mismatch of brass candlesticks linked together by melted wax. People huddled around the meal talking to each other. It felt like we were in someone’s home sharing a meal made with love.
Jojo, the owner, taught me to cook, make coffee, arrange flowers, hang art, clean properly, and host an event. One day, he was trying to teach me how to cook an omelet without overcooking it. It was possibly the hundredth time we’d been standing over the burner together, me tearing apart the omelet with a spatula or burning the bottom. Like some kind of Yoda or sensei, he told me, “as long as you keep cooking with fear and not love, this won’t work.” I rolled my eyes as unnoticeably as I could. “Think about the people that are here for this food. They came here to share this space with us. They brought someone they love here. We are here to show them love through this food and this space.” It sounded like a joke to me, but the more I watched him cook and the more I watched the people that came to the restaurant, the more I realized that he was right. People could feel what he was putting into those meals and that space, and they kept coming back. When he arranged pastries in the case, he placed them in a way that he thought would be the most enjoyable for the person walking in the door. He arranged tables so that conversation could break out with the strangers next to you. In every home I’ve had since that time, there have been brass candle sticks on my table. My kitchen is the kitchen he taught me to have. In more ways than I’ve noticed, my home has become an extension of Jojo and Arabica.
I moved in with my boyfriend after dating for six months. As a serial single person, I was terrified. I’d never been with anyone longer than a couple of months, and moving in together seemed like a kiss of death for our young relationship. I brought my candlesticks, my books, and my clothes. We put my old bed in the spare bedroom. I hung my clothes up in that room too. I felt uncomfortable moving into someone else’s house; one roommate gone off with her boyfriend, a new roommate in her place. I met the next door neighbor, an eighty-year-old woman named Helen and we immediately became friends. Helen moved to the West Coast from Connecticut after getting divorced. She was the first person in her community to do that when it was still very taboo. She moved from city to city, traveled, and worked in non-profit fundraising. She has a keen eye for antiques and art. She was working on a novel about her experience having a stroke, losing part of her motor functions and losing some of her independence. Even after suffering a stroke, she was a force. The building that we lived in was sold to a developer from Boston that evicted everyone and tripled the rent. The older people in our building had no idea how to find a new apartment and pack up everything after being in the building for decades. Helen was fearless as usual and started digging through Craigslist until she found an adequate spot. She ended up selling a lot of her furniture to downsize to a studio apartment. She asked me to take a few things of hers to our new apartment. Throughout our new place in Los Angeles, Helen’s Turkish rugs cover our floors. A Picasso print in a gold frame that she gave us hangs on the wall of our bedroom. The things she gave us are beautiful, and they remind me that there’s always time to take a risk, do what your gut is telling you, and collect memories of the people and events that happen throughout our lives. Her design sense is impeccable, and, possibly more importantly, reflects who she is and the life that she has lived. She passed a little bit of that on to me when she entrusted me with some of her belongings.
Design mirrors the events and people that shape us. Through all the chaos that we swirl around in, these elements help me hold onto who I am and remind me of the moments and people that define me. I’m reminded of my mother’s first trip out of the country and the wanderlust it sparked in me when I see the Russian nesting doll sitting on my nightstand. I am reminded of a dusty antique store in Seattle that was run by an old friend whenever I see a stack of still dusty books stacked on the floor. The old clay pot on the shelf above my stove reminds me of the woman, Ale, who gave it to me as a going away gift when I left Peru. The chairs around our dining table remind me of the risk we took moving to another city. For me, design is intrinsically connected to our identity.
Kort Havens is a videographer, photographer, and content producer based in Los Angeles. You'll almost always find him at home cooking a meal, wandering around a new neighborhood, reading, or daydreaming.