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Million Dollar Decorating: Podcast Interview with James Swan

I was recently interviewed by James Swan from Million Dollar Decorating. Together we explored some principles of Feng Shui, talked about overcoming obstacles, and reflected upon our design processes. Check out the transcript below, or click here to listen to the podcast.

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Swan: She’s a graduate of the prestigious NY School for Interior Design. Color and its uses to create mood and harmony are hallmarks of her style; a passion from her years in clothing design. Prior to working on interiors, she had a successful career as a buyer for fashion merchandise. Her years in the retail business, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Business perfectly prepared her for her design career. Her interior design experience and business acumen, combined with her training in the Eastern Art of Feng Shui distinguish her and her work. Her holistic approach will allow you to adjust your surroundings to stimulate your life. This process allows her clients to realize their life visions and create spaces that enhance these dreams. She also uses her abilities to give back to her community. As a breast cancer survivor, she’s worked as project manager at Holiday House, the Holiday House Design Themed Show-house in NYC. She designs, she creates, she cares deeply, and all the while, she’s busy making the world more beautiful. Julie Schuster, welcome to Million Dollar Decorating!

Schuster: Thank you, James. Wow. That was a lovely introduction, I appreciate it.

Swan: Well, it wouldn’t have been possible without you, so it’s my pleasure. You’ve certainly had quite a journey in life, and I hope you’re going to tell us all about it. Take us back to what it was like transitioning from a career in fashion to a career in design.

Schuster: That’s an interesting question, no-one has every really asked it to me that way. I have to tell you, it felt a pretty seamless progression. I didn’t go directly from one to the other, I took a few years off to launch a couple of children, and had the privilege to spend a bit of time thinking and researching about what I would like to do. The New York School for Design was a great fit for me.

Swan: They are a wonderful group of people aren’t they?

Schuster: Absolutely!

Swan: You brought a lot of experience from the business world to your education experience. What was that like? How did you fit into the student body at that point?

Schuster: That had a lot to do with why I selected the NY School for Interior Design. There were more than a few career changers like myself there, and the interesting thing about design, and I’m sure you find this as you talk to us in our community, is we come from a lot of different places – there is no one path to this type of work. This is for most of us a passion that we discover somewhere along the line.

Swan: Interesting! You were certainly in a creative / business environment weren’t you? Schuster: Oh absolutely, no doubt about it. I think we can benefit from having a little bit of business in our backgrounds. It’s sort of like the things you learn on your mother’s knee –somewhere along the line you will find a place for it all.

Swan: Exactly. Now there’s another facet to your current career that I’m fascinated by but, I have to admit, I know very little about, so will you educate me? Please tell me about Feng Shui! First, how you discovered it, then, your decision to implement it and make it part of your design business. What was that like?

Schuster: The two stories kind if flow together. Taking you back a few years, I had just come out of my design program at NY School, was looking around on the school’s job board for something to do next. One thing my business background had shown me clearly was that while I knew how to be a designer, I didn’t really know how to run a small design business. So my first thought was to work for someone else. There was an interesting post on the jobs board for project management of an interior design showcase. It was a short-term job, as most of these showcases are, and it sounded like a great opportunity to meet people in my new industry. So I took the position. It was a wonderful experience for me – I learned that my favorite place is the job site. Being where the creative process is being implemented is the best. About 3 weeks after I took that job, which was a charity project for the breast cancer research foundation, I was diagnosed with breast cancer myself. It was one of those moments in your life where you realize something guided your steps to be in the place that you’re standing in. I knew the universe was looking after me. I was on site with other survivors, I had access to their doctors, their advice, right from the get-go. In hindsight I feel very, very lucky to be where I was at that time.

At that same point, while I was working, making some decisions about my treatment, I heard the words “Feng Shui” for the first time. I knew that I wanted to know more about this. That was sort of a gift to myself for getting through my treatment and getting healthy: this was going to be another road for me to walk down. So I started doing some research, and found that the program that fit me best wasn’t in California or Europe, or in China – it was right here in New York on Long Island! I ended up taking my program of study at the Metropolitan Institute for Interior Design. The program helped me think about the parallels between good design and good Feng Shui.

Swan: Wow! I’m reflecting back on my life and the times when I have had that experience of realizing that I’m in the right place at the right time. And it sounds like you had a series of those experiences?

Schuster: Absolutely. It’s not the last one that I’ll have, hopefully there will be more. I think that if we pay attention, James, life is full of these – they’re all out there for us.

Swan: The key is paying attention isn’t it?

Schuster: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Swan: I only have the slightest understanding of what Feng Shui is and how it impacts our environment. Can you give us a crash course?

Schuster: Feng Shui is really a study of the placement of our objects in such a manner that it allows us to have a little control over the flow of energy in our space. So it’s about placing things auspiciously for energy flow. People ask me if it’s a religion, and other questions of that type, and I always end up saying that it’s a little more science than it is religion to me. It’s about harnessing energy for our benefit, and the way we place our things, and the intent with which we do so can help us to do that.

Swan: I’m going to imagine I’m your client and we’re working together. “Julie, what’s the upside to me paying attention to the placement of my belongings in my home?”

Schuster: Have you ever walked into a room, James, that just didn’t feel right?

Swan: Oh yeah.

Schuster: You get that little feeling up the back of your neck, or the pit of your stomach, that something is just not “good” here? I think the upside of it all is that the opposite of that is a space that, not only do we feel comfortable in, but supports our basic nature. And, when we’re supported, and comfortable, we’re not only more serene, we’re more confident. We’re better able to deal with life outside of our space if we know there is a place where we are calm, comfortable and nurtured.

Swan: Wow, so it’s a win-win, isn’t it?

Schuster: I think so!

Swan: Something tells me your clients think so too.

Schuster: You know, I bring Feng Shui to everything that I do, and not every client is necessarily on board with it in the same manner. Most of them are comfortable enough with the whole idea that they know it can’t do them any harm, and it may do them good. And I like to think that applying Feng Shui in our spaces not only can help us get a good night’s sleep, it can protect our health, and it can invite new people and experiences into our lives – and what’s wrong with that?

Swan: I’ll take all the good I can get, the new and the good – that’s a good combination. Now Julie, I’m going to ask a question that’s going to seem obvious, but I think there’s some digging we can do if you’ll bear with me. Clearly you’ve experienced days where things haven’t gone as planned.

Schuster: Almost every day (chuckles).

Swan: (Chuckles) some days bigger than others. When those things happen, when everything goes sideways, how do you navigate those waters? How do you keep moving forward?

Schuster: Good question. The first thing to do is to breathe, take a calming breath and really try to be dispassionate in the analysis of what needs to be done. Sometimes it’s just a matter of prioritizing the myriads of things that are coming at you.

Swan: That’s true. Given that many of our listeners are working hard to create their own beautiful home, you’ve seen a lot, you’ve been in and out of people’s homes, you’ve seen the way people live, the good things and sometimes the mistakes people make. What do you think is a mistake that you see regularly in people’s homes that could be avoided if people were just more conscious?

Schuster: Hmmm. I think so much of what makes our spaces personal is based in color. As a Feng Shui practitioner, I try to tie in the décor to the personal element of the client, and choose colors that support and nurture the person I’m decorating for. I think that that’s something we can all apply, even the most basic “do it yourself” project can have color.

Swan: Something that seems to me to be lacking in many interiors these days? I might be wrong.

Schuster: Well, for some odd reason, people are afraid of color. They’re afraid that making a commitment to it, somehow it inherently digs too deep. I’ve had clients say “gosh I love that color, but I think I would get tired of it”, and I’ve always been curious about that. If it’s something you love, do you really get tired of it? So, it’s sort of like the inability to make a commitment to a relationship, perhaps? There’s something so intimate about the selection of color that it scares people.

Swan: Interesting. It is frightening for some people. I’ve watched the look of terror cross people’s faces when presented with the idea of using, not even a particularly bold, color but just a color predominantly in an interior. Do you find that you can educate people through moments like that or pretty much a forgone conclusion when you hit that wall, there’s no navigating around it?

Schuster: It’s an interesting thing. One of the few things that is pretty consistent with me is that it’s a rare thing when I’ll paint the four walls of a room in one color. If you show a client something and their reaction is “oh no that’s too bold,” sometimes it’s really just OK to back it off a little bit and make it a little bit lighter and bring the other color back in with an accent wall, part of the furnishings, or in part of the carpeting. It’s a way of presenting things so that they’re a little less frightening.

Swan: I like that approach, you’re re-packaging the concept, but still moving them in the direction of more color in their environment, but doing it in a way that’s more palatable to them.

Schuster: That’s really what it’s about in a lot of cases, finding the strength of the hue, or the saturation level that’s “just right” for the person, and still bringing more of that personality into the space.

Swan: That’s incredibly personalized isn’t it? It’s different for everyone?

Schuster: It absolutely is!

Swan: What’s your greatest strength when you’re working with your clients?

Schuster: I’m not afraid to try something new or do something I’ve never done before. I think that fear of the unknown stops a lot of people, and it’s not necessarily something I’ve found within myself to any degree. So I’m always willing to do something different.

Swan: Nice! Your clients must like that. A little adventure in their project and process.

Schuster: Sometimes, I think, then not always.

Swan: And then there are the other times.

Schuster: A lot of the time they think it’s like a surgeon. They want to know I’ve done it 150 times before they’re willing to jump into it.

Swan: Let’s talk about the other side of the coin. What about your weakness?

Schuster: I really hate to be hard on people. I’m not the best boss when it comes to discipline. I’m the kind of person that accepts people’s shortcomings and tries to fix what’s not done right myself… All mistakes are an opportunity to learn.

Swan: What’s one thing that’s still out on the horizon?

Schuster: I would love that one project that’s entirely bespoke. I would love to be a Robert Adam or a Frank Lloyd Wright and create everything in a space, down to the doorknobs. One time. One client. No budget, just creation.

Swan: Wow. That sounds nice.

Schuster: Wouldn’t it be?

Swan: Well you just put it out to the universe, and the universe has a way of brining those things back around. What’s the best decorating advice you’ve ever been given?

Schuster: Start with the big stuff. Paint those walls, put on some color, then it becomes a snowball effect. Once you put up that color it will move you in the direction of wanting to do a lot of great stuff.

Swan: It is rather freeing, once you tick that off. What’s a book you could recommend to our listeners? Something that should be in every design-lover’s library.

Schuster: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Condo. Again, it about taking control. There’s nothing more in control than a perfectly organized space. That’s when we feel powerful. Another great one is “Feng Shui Astrology” by John Sandifer. It’s a great primer for tapping into our own personal energy and ways to support it.

Swan: We’ve come to our final question, Julie. Imagine you wake up tomorrow and you’re in a brand new world, it’s physically identical to the earth you know, but you don’t know a single soul. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently possess, your food and shelter are taken care of, but your new home is empty. All you have is a laptop, mobile phone and $1000. What would you do to begin to decorate your new home?

Schuster: Paint and hang some amazing art that feeds my soul. Then of course buy a really great bed.

Swan: And some great linen?

Schuster: Of course. That’s a requirement.

Swan: Julie thank you so much, it’s been great chatting with you.

Schuster: Thank you. There are few things I enjoy talking about more than Feng Shui and Design. You gave me a gift today, James, so thank you.

Swan: It’s been a gift that’s been well received. Thanks for your time and generosity today.

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