D.C. based designer Coleen O’Leary sat down with us to discuss the origin of her design passion, the differences between big and small firms, and her own words of wisdom for new designers.
tell us your story?
Tarra: We’re currently at SWATCHROOM. Can you start your beginning part of your story? How did you decide you wanted to get into design?
Coleen: There’s not a lot of creative people in my family. There’s a lot of scientists and finance people, and then there’s a couple of creative people. So I was always the weird one, growing up. It’s fine. But I always knew I wanted to do something creative. For a while, it was, “Oh, I think I want to do landscape architecture,” because my mom had these big, beautiful gardens, and my grandmother did too, and I would just sit in the garden growing up all day.
Tarra: Where are you from?
Coleen: I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina. And at some point I think that just led me – I think that’s everyone’s story, and I hate that this is my story – but, I watched a lot of HGTV!
Tarra: One thing in particular, or just all of it?
Coleen: At thirteen years old, I was like, “I want to be an interior designer.” And my high school actually offered an interior design class, which was very rare. But I took it, and during that we had to do a research project on a designer, or someone we’d want to work for in the future. And I don’t even honestly remember which one I wrote about, but I remember looking into commercial interior design and architecture and sustainability and all of these things, and being exposed to that.
Tarra: That’s really cool that the research led you to...that’s cool.
Coleen: It was cool I got the opportunity to do that, because not a lot of people have that exposure. I was, what, like 14? So, I did that, and I was like, “That’s what I want to do. That’s it.” And I don’t think I ever wavered. For a while, I was like, “I could be a…” I wanted to be an environmental scientist for a while. I really did. I was like, “I just want to be in the woods collecting soil samples.”
Tarra: Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. That’s my personal biggest fear and nightmare, that someone will drop me in the middle of the woods. But for you, that’s cool.
Coleen: For me that was the dream. But that didn’t really – I decided, I was like, “No, I want to do something creative, I definitely want to do something creative.” So I ended up going to University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for, at that time it was interior design, I think they changed it now to interior architecture, the degree. But it was part of the school of architecture and it was an awesome program, and I loved it. And we took a trip to D.C. sophomore year of college.
Coleen: It was such a fun trip, and I think that was when I knew. I ended up coming to D.C. a lot, because my grandparents lived here.
Tarra: Oh, ok. I was going to ask if that was your first time. So your grandparents, you came here a lot, always liked it?
Coleen: Always liked it, but never really saw the city as a place where you can live and work. But then when we visited, I kind of walked around on my own a little bit, and was like, “This is it. This is the place I want to be.” So then, after school, I applied to jobs and got a job with Perkins and Will, the D.C. office here, and did that for a little under two years. And then randomly found SWATCHROOM. I saw their storefront on the side of the road.
And I was like, “What is that?” And so I googled it, and realized it was a design firm, and I have a couple of friends who were very much in the creative community in D.C. so I asked, “Have you guys heard of them?” They were like, “Oh yeah, we just met the owners of that company a few weeks ago.” And so that kind of is like where it stayed for a few months. And then they, SWATCHROOM, posted they were hiring and the friends I reached out to were like “Hey! You should apply!” And I was like, “No, no, no.” I was perfectly happy at Perkins and Will. I had a really good group of girlfriends there that I worked with and was working on really cool projects. But there was always something about SWATCHROOM that was appealing, yeah. So then over the holiday of 2016-2017, so like over the Christmas and New Years there, I applied. And then in 2017, in February, I got a job, and then I started here. So, it was a big change.
Coleen: It definitely took me awhile to transition. Because I came from a place where, this is your job description, this is what you do, all day every day, super structured. And then I came here and it was like, now you’re doing everything! But I’d never done everything before. So I was a little paralyzed, I think, at first, at the idea of like, “Oh, oh I actually can actually do that, but I’ve never done that and I don’t know how.”
Tarra: So just kind of doing without asking for permission, almost? Was that kind of hard? Like, “Oh I can do that?”
Coleen: Yeah, or without being told, we’re just kind of expected to know everything and do everything. And not that everyone here wasn’t good at training or teaching. If I had a question, they would answer, for sure, for sure.
Tarra: They would answer. It’s just a different way, small company versus big company. It’s just different processes.
Coleen: So different, but I think once I got the hang of things, I really gained some confidence. Because before I think I was entry-level. I was the lowest level of designer at Perkins and Will, which was fine. I still loved what I did. But I think there was a lot less autonomy and just, I touched a lot less of the project. And then when I came here it was like, “Ok, we need to come up with the concept for this project. What do you think, Coleen?” And I was like, “Uhhh…I haven’t done this since school, so I don’t really remember how to go through this process.”
Tarra: In case anyone is thinking about transitioning, or is in that spot, what gave you the confidence to get over that hump? Like, at some point you got over that hump, and now you’re like, “I’m comfortable, I get it.” Was it just time? Or was there anything that really gave you that, you know, confidence to feel better?
Coleen: I think it was time. One of our principals here, Alex, is a fantastic manager. And she really was invested in building the confidence of the team because we’re all very young, very young designers. And she’s even young. We’re a really young team, altogether. But she’s been really invested in kind of building our confidence and making us feel like we can do this on our own, and building us into designers that can be project designers, and be people that can be project leads and take everything on so that there’s not a low-level person or whatever. It’s just like everyone has the autonomy and responsibility and capability to manage a project. So a lot of that was just being thrown into the deep end.
Coleen: I remember in particular a project that I worked on that finished last summer. It’s really good, if you’re in D.C., go to Poca Madre. It’s a traditional Mexican restaurant down in Chinatown, it’s really good.
Tarra: Oh my gosh, wait, this was a recommendation to me from someone. That is so weird. And did you guys design it?
Coleen: Yeah, we designed it. I don’t remember why I did this, but there was like, that project was wild. I love it. It’s one of my favorite places to show people because I love it. But for me, it was so hard because I was thrown into the deep end. It was just crazy, the construction process was crazy, the design process was crazy, but it ended up being such a good project and such a good relationship with a client.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO IN 5 YEARS?
Coleen: I am interested in management. That, I don’t – you don’t go to design school to be a manager. Nobody teaches you how to be a manager. But I think that just my interest in mentorship and building up a team, I never want to own my own practice, I know that for sure. But I’d love to be able to carry out the vision of this firm or somebody’s firm, and have a team that I’m empowering and getting them to get to the goal. So whether that’s just like – here that looks very different than at Perkins and Will or a larger firm, but I think that will fall into place, whatever that looks like, whether it’s here or somewhere else. Yeah, I just want to be a manager.
Tarra: First off, I think that’s an amazing answer, because it’s very, very doable. It’s not a high-in-the-sky dream, it’s very doable, which I think is cool.
Coleen: And I think I could do that anywhere. I don’t even know that I would need to be at a design, a traditional design place to do that.
Tarra: Those skills could really transfer.
Coleen: Yeah, and I think I’ve thought about going back to school and just doing something completely different even, so.
Tarra: You never know. I think that’s the beauty of it. I always want to follow up with people five years after we did this answer, but it seems really stressful. Really anything could happen, you know, especially, a lot of people always say that they never thought their career would go in one direction, and it just changes.
Words of wisdom for other Next Gen'ers
Coleen: Yeah, I think that if I had to give words of wisdom, it would be...
And if you start out at one company, we get set in our ways, like, “This is the process” or, “This is the way we do things. This is the way the industry works.” I have been really grateful to see in this smaller setting in this company, people push that and challenge what traditional architecture and design really looks like. And I think we even can do that and just manage our expectations, like, “Wait, there’s way more that’s possible.” We don’t always have to do projects this way, we don’t always have to do these types of projects. There’s way more out there, and I think even from clients we’ve heard people are just getting tired of the way things have always been done. And so there’s new ways of doing architecture, and I think that’s super exciting.
FAVORITE D.C. PLACES?
Tarra: I feel like that’s so interesting about D.C., there’s so many varieties of food here. Like, I was trying to find out what the D.C. food is, and I’m like, it’s all over the place. Kind of New York style. I love that.
Coleen: The Rammy’s, which is the food industry’s big awards ceremony in D.C., that was a couple of weeks ago now, they just had that. And I think, Maggie, one of our founders, was saying, and I don’t know if this is 100 percent accurate, but she was saying the food and beverage industry, and that includes suppliers and distributors of food and people who supply plates and dish-ware or whatever and the restaurateurs and waitstaff and whatever, is the second largest industry in D.C. next to the federal government.
Tarra: That’s wild. That’s so interesting. Well thank you for having me, I really appreciate it. But also my stereotypical view of coming to D.C., because the first time I came is when I came for the dinner that you were at, you were at the very first one. And I really thought the whole dinner, I was so intimidated, because I thought the whole dinner would be about government, and very serious projects. And D.C. has some really cool, creative, amazing people, so that was just my viewpoint of never being here. But now that I’ve come, I’m excited to share how creative and cool everyone is. Because it’s just different than I think the stereotype D.C. is given.
Coleen: I think that people think it’s really stuffy and everybody’s just a fed, but like, I mean there is a lot of it. I was just saying, my boyfriend works in the federal government, I have no idea what he does. But there’s so much, and I think it’s a growing creative community. Because even when I moved here, which was only four years ago, it was still budding, and now there’s just people everywhere. There’s a mural festival every year called Powwow D.C. And they bring in artists from all over the country, and it’s mostly located in the northeast neighborhood of D.C. And we just have all these old abandoned buildings that developers are like, “Yeah, sure, whatever. Paint whatever is on the side of my building.” And they have these fantastic, amazing murals just all over this one area.
We just have to look for it and keep pushing the envelope a little bit, even in just the way we think – which is why I want to go into management, our process, and what that looks like.
This process of being an interior designer or architect, doesn’t always have to look the same way.
1. Poca Madre’s is good.
2. Little Pearl is my favorite.
It’s this little intimate space over in Southeast D.C. near the naval barracks,
in eastern market. They have amazing food. You have to do the set menu
( it's amazing) , it’s like 40 dollars to 50 dollars. I’ve never had a bad dish there.
3. Thip Khao
Laotian food. It’s spicy, and I don’t like spicy, but they do have things that
are like not as spicy. They have the jungle menu and serve alligator and
crazy animals that you would never normally eat. And you’re like,
“What is this?” But if you’re a little adventurous, and you
try it, I promise it’s really, really good.
And I think the fact that it was wild but it ended really positively for me, that was what built that confidence. Like, “Ok, I can do this. I can actually…”