The Emotional Undercurrent of Interior Design

Dear Renovation Diary,

Yesterday I was at Emily’s house shooting some promo stills for Get it Together! when I got news from my mom that the contractor I hired to renovate their kitchen told her it was going to be another two months until it was finished. I was furious. This project started nearly a year ago has taken months longer than expected, cost twice as much as expected, and been filled with compromises I didn’t care to make. I called the contractor to check in on what was going on and completely lost my cool. I tend to be pretty level-headed and easy to work for/with. I believe in being respectful and giving people the time and space they need to do their jobs. I hate micromanaging and I normally just trust people to do their jobs. But I couldn’t hide my frustration with the contractor, because he’s changed the completion date every single month since we signed the contract with him in April 2017. My parents have been out of their kitchen for almost six months. The price tag for labor ballooned from under $100k to much higher (I think it’s around $140k right now, which does not include the approximately $80k of free fixtures/furnishings I’ve procured for them via sponsorships). My point here isn’t to drag the contractor (who is a very kind man who we all like a lot) but more to explain why I was screaming on the phone yesterday at someone I genuinely like. If you mess with my parents you’re gonna get screamed at.

Design can get emotional and uncomfortable. Designing and renovating is fraught with emotional undercurrent that can make a process that seems like it should be all fun and laughs into one that is stressful and overwhelming. My experience designing my parents’ kitchen has been a lesson in patience, diplomacy, and management. I’ve never had a construction project go off the rails like the kitchen renovation I’m doing for my parents, my most important clients ever. I plan on writing more extensively about the harrowing process of this renovation, but today I’m here to chat about the connection between design and emotion.

My parents moved to their house in 2012, away from the house I grew up in. The living room from the Yosemite house I grew up in is pictured above, a shot I grabbed years after they’d left by sneaking in the back door. It’s still under renovation for the next tenant (apparently it was filled with asbestos and all the Sorias will be dead soon). When my parents moved into their Rincon Valley house, I immediately wanted to help them figure out how to plan it and make it as nice as possible. I don’t really know where this urge came from, but that’s what I’m here to explore today.

Obviously, one of the reasons I wanted to design my parents’ house was that I am naturally drawn to creating beautiful spaces. That is why I became a designer. But I think a more germane reason has to do with how I was raised, the type of expectations my parents had about their home, and a response to going to my own grandparents houses growing up (keep in mind my parents moved to Sonoma County to be close to my niece and nephew, who live about 25 minutes away).

The house I grew up in was lovely and cozy, naturally collected over time. I don’t think my parents ever sat down and thought about how to lay the whole thing out. They never came up with a design plan, mood boards, or contemplated how different furnishings worked together. Instead, they designed their house the way most people would. If they had an old sofa that was too worn to use, they’d go out and find one. And then they’d keep it forever. My parents are a combination of frugal and environmental, which means they hate replacing things not only because of the cost, but also because they hate waste. They were born in the 50s but sometimes it feels more like they were raised in the Depression Era, they have always had a strong fear of scarcity, despite the fact that I never wanted for anything (aside from designer clothes, which I had to buy with my own money) growing up, and it colors the way they consume.

My parents spent most of their adult lives planning and saving for retirement. I remember hearing about their retirement plans from a pretty early age. They were way more on top of it than I have been (though I do have a retirement plan set up finally, GO ME!). I think one of the reasons I want their house to be perfect is that they’ve worked so hard for it. They have saved and scrimped their whole adult lives. They both come from humble means and didn’t get a hefty inheritance or help from their parents. Instead, they did the thing you used to be able to do in America. They worked hard, went to excellent schools, and saved their money until they elevated themselves into a more comfortable financial place.

One of my dad’s go to phrases is “we’re poor.” I think he says this because he wants to make sure my mom doesn’t spend too much money, but it definitely seeped into my brain growing up. It wasn’t until I arrived at a fancy east coast college that I realized the privilege with which I’d been raised. While we didn’t grow up with a lot of material spoiling, we did get to go on trips, to see plays, dance performances, museums, ski trips, etc. My siblings and I all got jobs when we turned 14, but my parents made sure we were exposed to great cultural experiences. So part of the desire to make their house great is a bit of a thank you for making sure we grew up to be worldly, interested people despite the fact that they were also trying to be super frugal with money so they’d be set up for retirement.

Another reason I’m so keen to make sure my parents’ house is perfect has to do with my grandparents’ homes. There was a stark contrast between my mother’s mom’s house (Grandma English) and my father’s parents’ house (Grandma and Grampa Soria), even though they were less than a mile away from each other. Grandma English’s house was bright and open, with lots of windows and natural light and the lights turned on when they needed to be. Grandma and Grandpa Soria’s house was dark, with wood paneled walls and lights that were never on. I never really wanted to go there as a kid because it felt scary and dark. And it wasn’t because my grandparents weren’t amazing. Grandpa Soria LOVED his grandkids and was always genuinely so excited to see us. And Grandma Soria (who was bedridden due to horribly debilitating arthritis), was always down to goss about celebs and world events. She laid in her bed and I’d sit on a chair next to it, listening to her stories, which were plentiful and filled with exuberance. She was an incredibly spirited woman and it still breaks my heart to think about how cruelly her body betrayed her. I could tell she just wanted to get up and dance but was barely able to sit up by the end of her life.

I have a lot of residual guilt about not wanting to spend more time at Grandma and Grandpa Soria’s house. And when I look back on it I think it had a lot to do with how uncomfortable, dark, and forbidding it was. So part of me wants to make sure my parents’ house is as bright, airy, and comfortable as possible because I want my niece and nephews to want to hang out there. I want to make sure my parents get lots of visitors, that their house is a destination and that they never feel lonely. I’m making them sound pathetic, they are actually busier than me and are often hard to schedule with because they always seem to have something on their calendar. orMOMdo and orlanDAD are very popular, especially with their kids and grandkids. Nevertheless, I just want to make sure they get as much love and attention as possible.

I have a reputation in my family for being controlling. I think this comes from the fact that I’m the youngest and I never really felt like anyone was listening to me. So when it comes to home-related topics, I always make my case in a more aggressive, pushy way than my siblings do. I’m also much more of a perfectionist and more crazy type A than my siblings. My way of showing love is butting into other people’s business. I think my family wishes I’d butt in less and I wish my family would butt in more. But part of getting older is accepting your family as they are and just trying to have the best relationship possible based on that.

Now back to my parents’ kitchen, which is the first of a number of makeovers I’m doing at Casa Soria. The reason that I am so easily enraged by a contractor who is mismanaging the project, allowing it to go months over our timeline and tens of thousands of dollars over budget, is that there’s this whole emotional backstory behind it. A whole set of hopes and desires the renovation represents. Not only for me, for my parents as well, who I’m sure have a completely different set of baggage in how they’re approaching this project. One of the largest stressors for them is probably the money, as I’ve already established how frugal they are and how freaked out they are by spending money.

When I work with clients I try to be sensitive to all the emotional backstory they bring to the table. A house is the most personal possession you have. It is a representation of what you think your life is, what you think your life will be in the future, and what you think your life was in the past. Knowing that past experiences color current perspective on your home and any makeovers/renovations you might be doing helps you keep everything in perspective.

From the outside, other people’s renovations just look like fun makeover design shows. But everyone brings something different to the table. That’s why people you talk to about renovation usually have some kind of crazy, stressful stories to account. There’s are few things more personal than your home and there are few tasks more personal than designing it.













23 thoughts on “The Emotional Undercurrent of Interior Design

  1. Just wanted to say that you’ve been knocking it out of the park with your blog entries lately. I so appreciate the extra time you spend to put together these extra glimpses into your life and the process of design. It always makes me smile when a new entry pops up in my RSS feed, which I still use because I’m exactly eleventy squillion years old.

  2. I agree with Sarah. Your heart is SO FREAKIN BIG and sharing it so deeply with us connects the thread that runs through all us human people even stronger. You are a really good man (that’s all underscored but I used invisible ink), a really funny man and, dadgummit, a good designer too! Question re contractor: how did you resolve delaying issue and how can you prevent pattern from continuing?

  3. Thank you for blogging Orlando! I’m in my late 40s and over time have become quite ruthless about the blogs I follow–in fact, I think we have a responsibility to ourselves to curate the “voices” we listen (and inevitably compare ourselves) to. Thanks for your authenticity, vulnerability, humanity, and wisdom. And, obviously, your fabulous design talent. I’m glad to have your voice in my life.

  4. I can relate to this on so any levels! Just wondering if the delays could be contributed to the fires. I live in Marin County and it took me six months to get my Contractor and this was last year. I have heard that it is really going to be difficult to get a Contractor. Also their subs are so busy.

  5. I’ve been through working with contractors during a big renovation and fact is…you’re too damn nice. A contractor usually works several projects at a time and it sounds like yours gets pushed to the back burner because you (and your parents) are kind people. Please get pushier with the guy. MUCH pushier. He is not actually a “nice” guy if he is not fulfilling his obligation!

  6. love the honesty in this — it puts all the polished, beautiful images we see on social media into perspective! Sometimes it DOES feel like the before and after pics happen at the snap of someone’s fingers, and I self-shame myself for not finishing those baseboards that I’ve been meaning to finish for the past six months, or for not painting the vanity that I bought paint for a YEAR ago. Sigh. Thanks Orlando, you really are the best.

  7. I related to this post on so many levels, thank you for sharing. I’m the type A in my family and I’m still trying to learn how to adapt to their ways. It’s challenging to adapt to adult relationships with family members. Usually my dad and brother refer to my behavior as “passion”… which could be their own euphemism for gay? Oh well. At some point we all will feel protective of our family members, and I empathize with your desire to give your parents the reward of a thoughtfully designed home.

  8. I don’t care how “nice” this contractor is. He is definately not doing right by you or your parents! Does the contract bind you to him forever? Are there any legal avenues you can pursue?

  9. Describes it perfectly–sometimes I wonder if I’m blaming too much on the stress of having this process drag on for so long.

  10. I love your blog. I love your insta. I love your blend of hilarity and raw sincerity. When it comes to your online presence, I just love all the things. Kudos for being more than just another person decorating pretty spaces (although please continue to do that too, because ??)

  11. Great post. My husband is a contractor (we call them builders here in Australia) and often talks about the fact that people doing renovations are spending “emotional dollars”. So it’s about more than the money and that’s why things can get fraught – especially with time delays and cost over runs on top of that. He also talks about “the reverse curve of happiness” which is that you tend to start renovations or building projects full of optimism and then it’s basically downhill from there. Great fun when you’re picking tiles and the demo happens – after that it’s just hard work!

    1. Well said. My husband is a builder as well. Residential construction is rooted in emotion. As a homeowner, I have undergone an extensive remodel and also gone way over budget both in time and $. My husband was my contractor… (Imagine that pillow “talk”.) On the flip side, I also see the emotional toll it takes on him. His job is akin to herding cats at times. The barrier to entry for semi-skilled laborers is nil. The next paycheck being more important than work ethic, and in a booming market, there is always another job. Getting people to show up and do their job can be a feat in itself. Love what you said about the “curve of happiness,” although, I believe the curve comes full circle once the remodel amnesia sets in.

  12. I love your fierce devotion to your family. It’s very refreshing. Thank you for sharing these different sides to you!

  13. This made me cry. I feel the same yearning for my parents…they are retired but aren’t in a safe/Good house and it is eating away at me. Trying to get them out of there!!!!

  14. Your writing is so good. I like your honesty and devotion to your family even more. Good luck and keep us posted!

  15. I love how insightful you are, willing to examine yourself so closely for the “why” and then to put it out there. It’s a great example, and very heartening for those of us who look at your skills and accomplishments and could so easily just see the perfection.

    1. Well said, Susan!

      O, please know how much we appreciate the extra hours you are putting in to writing these candid posts — they are absolutely beautiful.

  16. I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but I love that we are both “mountain people”. Growing up in and around Mariposa, and still visiting my Dad, Aunts and Uncle there, was an experience and a perspective that I’m so grateful for. It’s a big lesson in “enough,” both because of cost but also with an eye to sustainability.

    I LOVE that you are spoiling your parents with those wonderful appliances and design work. I know in the end it will all be worth it. And if you need help, I’ll come and wring that (nice) contractor’s neck for you.

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