Why the term “Addition by subtraction” always makes me want to use the B-word(s)

Been a while…I know. Been busy. See. Already, the “B’s” are everywhere. Beware. Let’s get to it. Addition by subtraction…that’s what everyone has heard. Less is more right? Well, I’m not so sure. If I know one thing after twenty plus years in the business…I know this; Most interiors don’t typically underachieve because there’s too much stuff. They suffer from the wrong stuff, in the wrong places…and not enough of the right stuff exactly where it should be. But this is what we do. We settle. We design without a plan. We decorate in haste. And when the bad decisions pile up over the years, we convince ourselves it’s time to purge our decorating spirit from our visual and functional sins..and we “de-clutter.” Which begs the questions, who in world is collecting clutter? And why on God’s green earth are you pulling anything remotely classified as clutter into your homes or lives for that matter. But that’s a WAY different blog…or maybe even a vlog. I’m not sure. Nevertheless, for too many us…the cycle…is..endless.

We’ve all been there. It happens to even the most ardent editors of interiors. Things begin to pile up. But the best interiors account for your stuff in stylish and function ways poorly designed rooms do not. The best interiors know how to evolve, flex and scale without sacrificing the core of what they are and what they’ve been designed to do. The best interiors have been constructed with the bones, the backdrops and the brains to stretch and style seasonally, and still stay authentic and beautiful. And I would even argue the most inspiring and interesting interiors actually aesthetically “school us” when we’ve introduced an element into that environment that’s just not quite right.

To illustrate my point, let’s circle back and drill down on the three “B’s” that can help you to create interiors that account for the lifestyle confetti we call clutter. Save you from the silly cycle of constant purging. And lay the foundation for spaces that will evolve with you, your family and the passions that make them personal. To do this I’m going to reference a recent project where the three “B’s” carried the design day. And a little foreshadowing here…the order is important.

Bones: This is where we look to put function first. Otherwise known as the building blocks of a successful space. See, even more “B’s”. All too often we look to leap toward decorating, without addressing what actually makes great interiors work. And that’s function. What does the room need to do? And if not’s doing it, let’s define that before we decorate. No amount of decoration with ever make a room feel finished…if it doesn’t function first. I get it. Decorating is fun. I love the decorating phase of ever project. But let me ask you this; Would you ever wear an outfit if didn’t fit JUST because you liked the way it looked? No, you’d put the “fit” first. Including reviewing the layout and scale of the furniture to make sure that works too. Take this approach with your interiors and the decoration will only serve to enhance and elevate the interior to the next level.

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In this Lower Level of a recent lake home project, the existing basement configuration just wasn’t working for the homeowner. Originally, the area pictured above was mostly all dead space and served very little purpose, but accounted for almost a third of the rooms total square footage. As is the case with many staircase walls in rooms like this one, the wall space and adjacent area were under-utilized. There was a rarely used place-holder of a pub table in corner, the existing wet bar had limited counter space, and the seating was inadequate for larger gatherings. Upon designing a much more functional room with client, they wanted more seating, surface area and overall entertaining space. They thought a bar might just be the answer. But where? In addition, a well designed Lower Level meant the first floor didn’t have to shoulder the brunt of the load when lake house gatherings started to grow. So, we took the least used corner of the room and transformed it into this beautiful bar area, which immediately added more seating and surface area. Plus, putting the bar in this under-utilized space meant we could still retain the existing generous seating area. Then we looked to add the necessary function into the bar in the form of lighting, refrigeration and storage. Note, we didn’t start with the style or even size of the bar, the decoration on the walls, the color room, over even the popular designer/homeowner “feel we wanted to achieve” discussion. No, rather we began with where and what the opportunities were that best met the lifestyle objectives of the client. Only after we applied functional design accordingly did we look to introduce the style. It’s simple, but often overlooked and under-rated…focus on function first. Then we talk about the fun stuff. But if the visual equation is flawed from the beginning, and the lifestyle math doesn’t work…neither will the room. And even the most inspired decoration will only serve to mask the problems or confuse things altogether.

Backdrops: Most interiors typically miss on the biggest canvases in a room. Floors and ceilings are most notable. Especially ceilings…they can be deserts of drywall. Endless expanses of sheet rock leaving too many interiors thirsting for interest…as was the case with this first floor interior.

The previous owner chose not to leverage the largest visual opportunities in the Living Room and the Kitchen. The vaulted and coffered ceilings. So, my client and I agreed to the introduction of a soft application of reclaimed barn siding in custom colors to canopy the Living Room, added grass cloth wallpaper to the insets of the coffered ceilings in the Kitchen…and then looked to enhance the very brown columns with linen fabric insets featuring nail head detailing. The addition of molding, millwork and other decorative elements to the largest or most visible canvases in the room ALWAYS pays visual dividends, and begins the important process of layering. From columns to crown molding, from wainscot to wallpaper, addressing these areas with interest sets the stage for the remaining finishing details to be competed with a sense of context, color and confidence.

Brains: Once the bones (function) and backdrops (context) have been addressed now comes the part everyone loves…the decoration. Or as I call it the brains of the space. While most might assume the intellectual nature of a room to attributed to function…I see it a bit differently. I think of it in terms of thoughtfulness and intent. The fabrics, finds and fantastic style elements, are the things that make great interiors personal, thoughtful and authentic. What is the special story of the space? And in my design studio, if an interior has nothing to say or unique to share…than it’s just not that interesting. And always feel a little flat when you get beyond the money spent and the materials chosen.

This is where accessories, artwork and other finishing details are so important. All too often we introduce elements at this stage that just don’t work. We settle. We force things. Or even worse…we copy. Whether they’re impersonal, lack quality, are unoriginal or are just plain forgettable, this where what you choose and how you choose to display it can make or break the room. Look to create a variety of well orchestrated groupings on walls and table tops. If a room deserves an enhanced level of decoration don’t be afraid to take it over the top…go for it. In this particular lake home, we looked to balance an upscale cottage feel on the first floor, with a well-themed Lower Level Lakeside Pub. Remember that the fabrics and special finds in a room exist to tell your story and punctuate the design statement. Be mindful that a well orchestrated fabric package is always worth the effort as it tends to visually tie spaces together. And never lose sight of the fact that the accessories and art should mean something to you and support the overall aesthetic of the interior. At this critical finishing stage, it’s not the quantity of elements in a room that makes them successful or unsuccessful…but rather the quality. That’s why the focus on addition by subtraction can be so misleading. It’s only true if you’ve collected too many things that don’t fit…or never really mattered in the first place. So, all that being said…I’ll leave you with a few more important B-words. Begin. Build. And Beautify.

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Check out our latest featured project in Lakeshore Living Magazine: Summer 2019!

Well, there you have it. Thanks to Lakeshore Living Magazine for the beautiful photos. Thanks to our amazing client for trusting us with this vision. And for the record, I’m fully aware that you might want to flag this blog as a design note for 2020, as the carnival of Holiday Decorating is certainly upon us. But remember this, the cycle won’t end unless you design with a balance of passion and purpose, and equal parts substance and style. Be brave. Be bold. Be beautiful. And oh yeah…and you’ve Been coached. Design on.


5 reasons the world could use a few more gravel roads.


Maybe it’s because it represents something unfinished that it appeals to me? To be honest, I see so many things in the same light. In people, places, projects I see possibilities…and in their own way unfinished works in progress, always evolving, curiously adapting and hopefully improving. Or, maybe it’s just the simple that fact that it’s so familiar as I grew up on a gravel road in the most unlikely of places. Either way, here’s what I know…lessons abound on roads like these if you will only allow yourself to slow down long enough to really let them sink in.


I always chuckle, mostly on the inside as reflected through a crooked smile, when people visit a make a joke or crack about driving down the gravel road to get to us. Maybe this blog will help put it in perspective on some small level. Maybe not. But this I do know. The concept of the well-paved, faster path or road can be appear convenient…but on many levels is so completely over-rated. Something I think you only have an appreciation for if you’ve “run enough races” in life. The kinds of races where life’s inherent, inspirational imagery blurs in a rush to beat the clock…and stay on schedule. That happens with less frequency on a gravel road for a number of different reasons. It’s one of the reasons my wife and I chose to live here and raise our family. And as we begin to finally celebrate Summer…I thought I’d illustrate a few thoughts from those of us who live on streets some refer to as “unimproved.” Hmmm…I guess I beg to differ.


1.) The best roads encourage exploration and discovery…that hopefully lead to knowledge and understanding. But it can be difficult to distill understanding into wisdom if you’re always trying to rush the process or needlessly push the pace.

2.) If you put too much of an emphasis on the potholes and imperfections in the road, you’ll miss the beauty that surrounds you. Negativity is everywhere. Rather than avoiding potholes, maybe we should all try avoiding that.


3.) We can learn so much from creatures that are completely obliviously to the concept of roads. Leave a little cushion in the pace of your life for the unexpected visitor, you just never know what they may share with you…or when you may see them again.

4.) Gravel roads have a way of transforming a mindset of maintenance into the concept of stewardship. Maintenance has become such a dirty word, but stewardship implies ownership and regular care. And, an understanding that sometimes the responsibility for the roads maintenance falls upon those who benefit from its existence.

5.) Don’t judge a road by how well it’s paved, or how it looks. As it’s value isn’t always in found in where it can take you or how quickly you can travel on it…but by how many lessons it can teach you along the way.


I hope you enjoy your Sunday…and this message from a middle-aged, middle-child from the Midwest who hopes you find a gravel road every once in a while. I’ve got mine…somewhere on a road called Ferris on the outskirts of Harvard, Illinois.


A blog dedicated to a Summer of discovery, the memory Illinois resident and screenwriter John Hughes, and immortalized in the words of one Ferris Bueller…


From Hockey to Headboards: (6) Keys to All-Star Interiors.

Listen…I get it. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…we’re a very different kind of interior design team. One part artistic workshop, one part specialty contracting company, and another part full-service interior design firm. We’re uncomfortable with traditional industry labels, as they never seem to capture the individual style and unique personality of each client…and from design to delivery we do business a bit differently. But that’s entirely…by design. I guess while so many design professionals, and self-proclaimed DIY experts, seem hard at work trying to compose the next staged style picture for their fans and their feed…we’re way more interested in composing great interiors for our valued clients. In an industry that can be obsessed with itself, and showcasing the coolest kids in the room…we’re simply dedicated to making our clients feel like the coolest kid…in every room of their home. And speaking of cool, the project I’d like to share with you on this terribly cold January day embodies that word in more ways than one. And is an example of what I’ve been hammering home on the radio for the past couple weeks. That outside of everything you’ve read, seen or been digitally fed, there really are only six keys to creating the perfect room. That’s right six. And…if your interior is missing any one of these elements, it’s probably never going to reach All-Star status.

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To illustrate these six keys I turned to one of our favorite projects; The Family Recreation Center. I know, it’s sounds like a YMCA or name your local municipal athletic facility…only this one’s a residence, has a red metal roof and looks like a modern barn. Sitting on the top of hill, in the middle of a Midwestern prairie, it showcases a swimming pool, an arcade/media room, a killer bar area, a massive Kitchen, sleeps as many as a small hotel…and, oh yeah…has a full-sized ice rink if you’re so inclined.

But what makes this ultimate entertainment home so special isn’t only the materials, the amenities or the original aesthetic…as a limited focus on just those attributes would be a shallow, stylistic review of its coveted features. No, what makes this home so incredible is the amount of care, effort and personality that went into making it a place others could enjoy. Throughout the process of designing this project, the intention on the part of the homeowners was as much an invitation as it was an inspiration for themselves. “Wanna play?” It’s sound so simple right?! Interiors should be designed with intent and maximize their full potential. Something I think we all want for every room in our home, but is often times easier said than done. But with these six keys this homeowner nailed it…and you can too!

1.) Organization: Beyond the endless conversation involving confining the clutter, the baskets and bins, the labels and lamenting, is a discussion of a rooms true purpose. Proper layout and space planning, are the result of an interiors well-defined sense of itself. If you don’t clearly define the intention or purpose of a room, no amount of traditional organization is going to make it function the way it should.

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Design note: This all-in-one entertaining room (Kitchen, Bar, and Multiple Seating Groupings) was specifically designed to find a place for everything, but also look great with everything completely out of place. That’s purposeful flow. From culinary adventures to creative cocktails to great conversation…everything has a place. Evolve your understanding of the term “organization” to one grounded in finding a rooms purpose…and you’ll be amazed how much it can hold.

2.) Personality: The most interesting and complete interiors reveal something personal and important all in an effort to connect us to them on an intimate level. Have you ever dated a really good looking person that for a little while, seems to have it all together? But after a few more dates, you begin to realize you’re in a relationship with someone that doesn’t really have anything to say. Our interiors are no different. When style trumps substance in a room, you’ll tire of it sooner or later.

Design note: It was evident from the very beginning of the project, that this space was going to have a strong personality and a little risk at the core of it’s design. From the complex use of patterned fabrics to the found objects personally curated by the homeowner on the shelving…this interior is as authentic as it gets. So much so, that even the oil paintings (See the image on the back of the Kitchen wall) are landscapes painted by the homeowners Mother.

3.) Durability: Contrary to popular opinion, durable-elegance does exist, you just need to know where to look. Fabric technology has advanced to the point where stains release easily from luxurious and natural looking fabrics we’re often at times hesitant to use. Embrace luxury textiles from some of the best mills on the planet, and look to use them in percentages that make a big impact for less cost.


Design note: Allow yourself to fall in love with luxury fabrics and great fabric companies! Use them in the right percentages, and on the right elements, and it will pay off big time in the overall look of the design. Leave them out of the design…and you’ll always wonder what might have been. Great fabrics punctuate your design. So do well-placed nail heads by the way…as evidenced below.


4.) Flexibility: Remember the days when the furniture in your Mother’s Living Room NEVER moved. So sacred where the layouts to these rooms that only “company” was allowed to use them?! We really don’t live like this anymore, and neither should our rooms. The best rooms, like the best friends, can dress up and dress down in a moment’s notice, pull more people together and if need be move the party outside. We tend to downplay the value of small accent furniture, which allow spaces to expand and contract with our lifestyle. Benches, square ottomans and even occasional chairs that can enhance the fun and function of our rooms are must haves for the complete interior. And always remember to design your exterior environments with as much care and thought as your interior spaces.

Design note: Design with well-scaled accent furniture and create additional groupings that can move around the room wherever they’re needed. And always look to utilize awkward corners and available space in front of windows…as the right piece can make these dead spaces come alive!  

5.) Quality: Unfortunately, we live in an ever increasing disposable world…and our interiors are suffering because of it. The appetite for low-cost, stylish furniture, drop shipped to your house in less than a week has distorted the conversation of what constitutes quality in our interiors…and in our lives for that matter. This is where I like to explain The Design Coach Doctrine of Quality as it relates to interiors; It’s not about how much you spend, but rather where you choose to spend it! Fact, interior design products, especially upholstered goods that cost more are typically made better. That being said, you have to do your homework and discuss what matters to you most. No interior is built in a financial vacuum…so, figure out what you truly value in a room and apply your assets accordingly. And remember, it’s not a question of cost…but one of value. If a rock the size of a quarter costs $50.00, you’d never buy it. But if that same rock was a diamond, you’d be asking how many they have. Remember…value, not cost. But if you don’t really know the difference, educate yourself. Find out how, where and why things were made. Those kinds of quality details matter in the best rooms.

Design note: Expose yourself to quality materials and design products. Educate yourself beyond the digital universe. Explore, touch, feel…inquire. The more you learn why something is priced the way it is, the more you’ll understand its value, and it’s place in your design. What’s more expensive? The sofa you’ll never have to replace? Or the one you’ll replace two or three times over? Don’t think it exists? Just give us a call. We’ll be more than happy to introduce you to our network of quality people and their amazing products. 

6.) History: This one is simple, but it requires some effort. Like the wedding saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.” the most interesting and complete interiors have hints of tradition. Not traditional…tradition. A sense of something that preceded its current design. Elements of, or items related to the passions of our past that we still appreciate today…and will for many years to come. We create our own history every day, and don’t forget to include those details in your design.

Design note: An interior without a sense of the past is like someone who’s  forgotten where they came from. Display the passions of your personal history. Look to create rooms…with roots.

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Stay warm everyone…you’ve been coached.

Our valued design/build partners:

Architects: Northworks Archtitects

Construction: Altounian Construction

Three ways to crush your Christmas this year!

On the radio show this morning, and for most of November, I’ve been discussing my maturing Midwestern perspective on the transition from Fall to Winter, as well as Christmas and holiday decorating. The act itself, at least for me, is a way to calibrate my mind, body and spirit for the coming celebrations and gatherings – not to mention the more peaceful moments in between. The times when I tend to stuff my stocking of a brain with more reflective, authentic and nostalgic thoughts when not a creature is stirring… except maybe me… and my Jack Daniels on ice.

It’s a combination of factors this year that have led me to a place of such comfortable cheer. Sorry, I got stuck in my Night Before Christmas narrative for a bit. Moving right along. I guess it’s just that for the first time in a long time, I feel even more connected to the spirit of this season… and feel compelled to personally crush Christmas. Maybe just like the drink in my glass, it all distills down to a sense of gratitude. For my family, my friends and an insatiable need (and occasional neurosis) to create something special. So in an effort to boil it all down for you, here are three ways to give your season’s sled the nudge it may need to crush Christmas in 2018.

1.) Adopt the “hospitality-mentality” this time of year. Think of yourself as the ultimate Christmas and Holiday Concierge. Remember your offerings do not need to be extravagant or expensive to be considered special… as it’s often times the personal and thoughtful details you introduce that are the most well-received. Think of your house and it’s amenities as the ultimate gift to your guests, and try secretly surveying them in advance to identify the things they enjoy in this special season. From food to fun, there’s nothing better than a “How did you know!?” experience to warm the hearts of your family and friends. So, do a little homework… and design accordingly. After all, holiday parties have a reputation for moving people from the Naughty to the Nice list… and vice-versa.

2.) There are ZERO decorating rules during the holiday season. Anything goes! And I’m not just talking about your Christmas decorations. Consider pushing together groupings of mismatched chairs to make sure everyone feels welcome. I personally love the look of vintage spectator chairs… but folding chairs will absolutely do. Don’t have enough serving space?! Create a buffet with two saw horses, some plywood and an inexpensive, colorful Christmas tablecloth! It’s not really about the bar anyway! It’s about the bounty of beverages for all to enjoy. Create environments with careless disregard for your already over-thought interior. Surround yourself and your guests with as much decoration as your home can handle. This year, I suspended a collection of vintage sleds from the ceilings of my lower level. And you know what, I’m not stopping there. Really go for it this season! And consider decorating areas of your home that have not been blessed with the Spirit in Seasons past.

3.) There’s always room for a little more Christmas. Leaving alone the obvious “style manger” analogy, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…the most interesting interiors always leave room for more inspiration both large and small. Don’t let your design and decoration become static or stale. Always be searching for Spirit this Season in more ways than one. And there may be no better functional and decorative time of the year to embrace layering your look than at Christmas. A sense of authenticity should be baked into everything you do, everything you say and everything you display this Christmas and holiday season. So bust out the old photos and send them off to be turned into ornaments! Find creative ways to string together Christmas memories of the past in your decorating. Framing and displaying old family Christmas cards is an easy one. Reminiscing and laughing about our shared holiday memories connects us in so many ways. The design of your home should both facilitate and enhance those important and personal connections.

In my year-round search for authenticity, I like to patronize and promote the small, independent shops and the sole proprietors that help me introduce a little local in to my layering. One must-visit place this (and every) season is the Cornerstone Shop in downtown Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Owners Bruce and Karin Bennett, as well as their amazing merchandising team always find both traditional and innovative ways to help you celebrate, authenticate and decorate for the holiday season. In a recent visit to their shop, I was inspired by the wonderful style diversity I found in their vast selection of seasonal offerings. Here’s a quick peek:

Other honorable mentions that will most certainly inspire you to pack up your sleigh are:

Twill Cottage located in Walworth, WI

Angelus Home & located in Walworth, WI

Vintage Bliss located in Beloit, WI

Midwest Retro located in East Dundee, IL

Boxed & Burlap located in Delavan, WI

Pesches Floral & Gifts located in Lake Geneva, WI

Please remember to support your local, independent businesses this Christmas and holiday season as you search for inspiration. Now back to my projects at hand… enjoy your Sunday, everyone. More from our house to yours in the weeks to come.


Of passions, pets and of course…a plethora of plaid.

I think what I enjoy most about the transition from Fall to Winter might just be that fact that it’s the ultimate exercise in layering. From fashion to furnishings, it’s the perfect blend of style embracing function, assembled and coordinated with a sense of purpose. And in the Midwest, other than the traditional celebration of the Holidays, the main objective is obviously warmth. Large or small, the artist’s studio can be an intensely personal space. Often times the environment itself is its own creation. Designed to evolve and take visual risks in search of inspiration, it tends be a reflection of the artists current passions and creative path. In some cases, it even reveals clues as to the artistic inspirations and influences of their past. This season, my creative studio definitely embodies all of that, as well as the celebratory spirit and functional requirements of this amazing time of year.

Starting in early October my arguably subconscious salvage search begins. I don’t even really think about it…it just happens…my mind, body and spirit begin to crave a level of authenticity only items with a curious history possess. Something I don’t seem to relish quite as much in the heat of Summer fun. With each visit to the small shops, markets, outposts and passionate purveyors of vintage inspiration, I’m emotionally nourished by the assembly of this seasonal and evolving collage. Nostalgic, reflective and colorful the environment that is my artistic home feels close to perfect. At least for the time being. And now that the snow has arrived, I thought I’d share the vision that surrounds me this season, and a few of the elements I thoughtfully and somewhat accidentally collected to create it.

It all started with the reclaimed shelf above the sofa in my studio. For this very personal space, I loved the idea of a shelf with reclaimed corbels versus a large piece of art, a mirror or other flat grouping. I wanted some dimension over the sofa, a kind of cozy and decorative canopy. The functional and visual advantages of a statement shelf both inspire and challenge me to change the theme in search of new groupings.

From the vintage images of the military jets I built as models as a kid, to the antique snow shoes, ski poles, English trophies and other curiosities…I add and subtract from this living display on a regular basis. As a firm believer that the best interiors always leave room in their design for evolution, the shelf, like the blank canvas has come to symbolize the promise and acceptance of the next new idea. For me a new thought, idea, vision or perspective has always been my True North. As for the vintage boxing gloves…I guess they’re reminders that sometimes you’ll need to fight to stay true to your artistic self. Something easier said than done as creativity can be a contact sport, worth the mental and even physical blows you may take along the way.


This vintage Hardware Store ladder was one of my favorite finds of the season, and will be put to good use in the studio as both a functional and decorative element. I think what I love the most about it is the simplicity of its primitive design. Sturdy and Nostalgic. It’s like a monument to a “keep it simple stupid” mantra, as so many of us, especially artists tend to overthink and complicate just about everything.


These vintage oil paintings of an unnamed dog were just too interesting to pass up. I laugh every time I look at them. Detailed, textural and well executed they were painted in 1935 by a Mrs. Floyd Vermilyea. The vertical portrait gives the terrier an almost human posture and facial expression. And in a way, don’t we all see our pets in that same way? I don’t know much of anything about the artist…and it really doesn’t matter. It’s likely she isn’t around anymore. I’d like to think she’s looking down and laughing that another artist actually bothered to purchase a pair of paintings of her prized pet. I guess the joke’s on me. So be it. And from the expression on the dogs face, I bet he’s laughing too.

I’m a sucker for old, large paint brushes made of horse or badger hair. They remind me that the contractors and craftsman of the past often used far less sophisticated tools to create things of incredible beauty, quality and value. For fun, try actually painting with one of these. The weight of these brushes loaded with paint will make you appreciate their efforts all the more. The vintage typewriter is no different. Another technological relic of an era when things were less disposable. Including the words pressed into meaning by this beautiful ancestor of the laptop from which I hammer out this blog.


The pair of vintage space heaters have been with me for sometime, they will eventually be turned into light fixtures. Stay tuned. Until then, I just love their industrial vibe and soft metallic green paint color. My house growing up had radiators that from time to time would make the house unbelievably hot…or leave it ice cold. This pair remind me of a time when I would heat up my pillow in front of a similar heater before heading off to bed. Yeah, just file that memory right next to the one that has me and my four siblings fighting in the station wagon with no seat belts on. We survived…like so many great memories from my childhood. Familiar objects like these seem to settle my soul, helping me lay the foundation for the creativity to come.

I consider the collection of vintage keys and salvaged corks a bit like cooking spices. You don’t immediately notice their presence, but when you do, you soon appreciate the complexity and flavor they add to an interior. Plus, I love to imagine the stories they could tell. There’s something so intriguing to me about their mysterious past. Where were they from? What did they open? When you think about it, wine corks and keys do have one thing in common. Both possess the ability to open doors and unlock secrets if used correctly.


I come across vintage spectator chairs all the time, but not quite like these. The pattern in their wooden construction and unique seat shape made them an instant studio mainstay. I’m quite certain they’ll still be welcoming guests far beyond this season and this latest version of my studio. Simple. Useful. And at home in just about any setting. I have a set of four, and like my siblings, are often at their best when we’re all together.

And finally, it was the collection of vintage wool blankets from iconic American mills like Faribault and Pendleton that gave this interior it’s true identity. Colorful, perfectly patterned and as tasteful as they are timeless. And like my family and good friends…I simply cannot image going through a Winter season without them around.

It looks like Cody & Tucker would most certainly agree with me. After all, nothing quite seems right without a proper parade of pets in plaid this time of year. Stay warm. Be safe…and go create something beautiful. -The Design Coach


Designing as many smiles as possible.


The van was packed. We were ready. We had been planning this for weeks. Nevertheless, I must have reviewed the checklist a half a dozen times…with no new revelations. I was a perfect mix of nervousness, excitement… and determination. The team had done an outstanding job helping us prepare for a makeover the likes of which we had never done. This one was going to be a surprise with a very special purpose. We intentionally left the client out of the mix. She attended no meetings, reviewed no visuals… didn’t handle any fabrics. We thought it best to work through her “people” to put this together… and their input was all we really needed to make this happen. This particular makeover story doesn’t begin with an outline of lifestyle objectives or budgets. Instead, it begins with a relationship between two very special little girls… and a family fighting to keep the memory one of  those children forever in the design of their lives.

A few months prior I had approached the organization Kisses from Keegan & Friends about donating time to do room makeovers for children and families, struggling with the challenges and aftermath of pediatric cancer care. I’ve always believed that the design of one’s surroundings was so much more than a stylistic statement, big reveal, or frantic flip. I believe that meaningful interior design involves creating spaces of real purpose that both could and should inspire and elevate. And I was hoping our resources and ideas could in some way be a fit for this wonderful organization. Having been familiar with their mission and some of the people involved in their important work, I was inspired by the hands-on nature of their approach to helping families. None of the board members are paid and all unselfishly volunteer their time and talents to make a difference. They would never say this about themselves, so I’ll say it for them: They are nothing short of amazing… and I’m a better person every time we’re in a room together. What the founders Paul & Carey Deneke have created, inspired by their daughter Keegan and their family’s struggle with pediatric cancer, is incredible. We are so honored to be involved in their mission. And so was born was the Designing to Make a Difference Program, and the story of our first makeover… with many more to come. And it is my hope that this blog entry helps bring increased awareness to this organization and the ways they rally every day in support of families in need.

We first visited Caitlin, Theresa, and little Aubre at their apartment in South Milwaukee in the spring to see the room we could transform. 4-year-old Aubre was shy, but soon warmed up to Paul. He has that effect on people, just ask anyone whose kid he’s coached… or any family he’s helped. Theresa and Caitlin greeted us with hugs and thanked us for coming. We expressed that it was we, who should be thanking them, for agreeing to be the first family for which we had ever done something like this. They had lost their beloved Angel to pediatric cancer in February. She was 13. I knew immediately, as we looked at the pictures of Angel, both before her diagnosis and throughout her treatment, that her recent passing was going to make this experience intensely personal for everyone involved. You want to talk about a “purpose?” How about helping a family heal from a devastating loss beyond words? Want to talk about “meaningful?” How about creating something for a family that both honors and celebrates the vibrant, colorful, and passionate life of the child they lost to cancer? Honestly, that was all the inspiration we needed. Now it was time to get to work.

After the initial visit, we invited Theresa, Ralph, and Caitlin (Aubre’s Mother) to meet with us at our design office to talk about the makeover for young Aubre… and to get to know Angel, the amazing girl that had brought us all together. They talked about Angel’s spirit, enthusiasm for life, and her determination, as well as their family motto throughout treatment: “Fight like an Angel”. She was a passionate fashionista, a dancer, a photographer, a cheerleader, a girl scout, and so much more. They talked about how much of an inspiration she was to so many, how much they wanted her to be remembered, and what we could do to help do something special for Aubre. Capturing the spirit of something in a meaningful and creative way has always been an important part of my design process. Something that would describe both the decoration of the room and intent behind the design. The ‘Ultimate Princess Bedroom’ was where we were headed, but the subtle theme that seemed to fit was “Someone to Watch Over Me”. It was going to be such an honor assembling this project for them. By reaching out to our partners at Wayfair, Home Depot, and Hobby Lobby, we found all of the elements we needed to pull it off. Our delivery company, Dreiske Moving & Storage/TH Rogers in McHenry, IL, donated the delivery of the larger items to the home. And our team at The Design Coach made sure the personal images and important details provided by the family found their way into the makeover. We were ready to use design to make a difference for this family.

The volunteers arrived on time to complete our caravan of creativity and when we arrived at the house I was blown away by the ease with which they worked together. Efficient. Enthusiastic. You would have thought we had done this a hundred times. We could not have asked for a better team! From the assembly of the bed canopy to the installation of the wallpaper princess panels, not only did it come together beautifully… but ahead of schedule. I cannot say enough about the effort these volunteers gave that day. The love, care, and respect for each other and their task at hand was a gift in and of itself. And I can’t help but think that in some small way we were all channeling Angel’s spirit that afternoon. Interiors can have a molecular affect on people if they really mean something. This one sure did. And when I look back at the photos of that day, I realize just how special it is to be a part of an organization that just tries to design as many smiles as possible for families and children going through some pretty tough times.

Thank you to everyone involved for helping us put this together! Thank you to Theresa, Caitlin, Ralph, and Aubre for allowing us to share your story. And thank you to Angel. May your memory and example of courage continue to be an inspiration for everyone… and we know you’re watching over us all.

For more information about the amazing work done by Kisses from Keegan & Friends, to support their mission, and the Designing to Make a Difference Program go to www.kissesfromkeegan.org.



As another Mother’s Day enters it’s final hours, I have a message for those of you out there like myself…whose Mother’s are no longer with us:

When we embrace the best of the memories she gave us…
we honor the sacrifices she made to create them.

When our actions are a reflection of her finest qualities…
we celebrate her life in so many different ways.

And when we begin to rely on the lessons she taught us, that at the time of instruction we didn’t completely understand…it’s at that moment we realize she isn’t absent at all.


We love you. We miss you. Thanks for still being there…and taking us to school every day. Happy Mother’s Day!


Dedicated to my Mother, Nancy Elyn Sassano. Thanks for taking the time to coach me even today from the great unknown.

You’re never going to guess what else I dug up in the garden…

The collectively attentive gaze told me I was registering in their minds as a bit of a Martian. Well, I am an artist after all…and truth be told, we are processed by most people from time to time as possibly originating from another planet. A circumstance from which I now draw enormous joy and professional satisfaction. In a recent visit with students from Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I was invited to speak with two classes about my somewhat unorthodox path to where I am today. Interestingly enough, I believe many high school students also feel like aliens from time to time. I told them that my story, both professionally and personally, can be likened to the Rascal Flatt’s song “God Bless The Broken Road.” I shared with them that sometimes the most important paths were the ones that deadened, and it was up to me to blaze a new trail for myself, my family or my company.

I summarized for them my challenges in school at an early age, my feeling of invisibility as a high school student, my formation as an artist in college, and ultimately how I managed to transform a lifelong passion into a career in creativity. I attempted to leave the students with three main thoughts. First, that finding my true purpose in life had been a process of elimination…and warned them to be more fearful of self-doubt, than failure of any given activity or situation. Second, that my work ethic has been the ladder on which my goals have been achieved. There may be more talented artists, but to this day, I refuse to be outworked. And that any job I may have held, no matter how small, was a relevant rung on my ladder of life. Lastly, I expressed to them that my continued development both professionally and personally, has been to relay on the lessons of my faith, to be both my biggest cheerleader…and harshest critic. The healthy balance of both has given me the strength to persevere, kept me grounded along the way, and constantly searching for new ways to improve as an Artist, Husband and Father.

As is often the case with this blog, I make connections between significant events and creative activities as way to illustrate, or even find synergy in the world. Such is the case with this blog entry, my visit with the high school students, and the start of Spring planting season. It was in this quiet and fulfilling work that I felt compelled to add to my original blog from July 10, 2016: 5 Life Lessons Reinforced by Merely Watering the Garden. https://thedesigncoach.com/2016/07/10/five-life-lessons-reinforced-by-merely-watering-the-garden/

Emerging from the fertile soil underneath my finger nails are numbers 6 through 10:

6.) The pace of saturation matters. Give people time to absorb what you’re attempting to communicate. We can be so obsessed with the immediacy of gaining agreement on our perspective, that we push out words so quickly that all they really do is make a splash. Think of words as water for the mind. Water too quickly, and risk runoff, rather than making certain it’s sinking in to reach the roots. Similar is the path from the head…to the heart.

7.) Recognize that Individual species of flowers require slightly different care to achieve the same result. Recently, I’ve started to really become a student of each of the species I’m planting on my property. In addition to the obvious sunlight and watering requirements, I’m noticing the ways they respond to being handled when putting them in the ground…even their country of origin. And although most of us refer to them generically as flowers…the nature of the stems, the depth of the roots, the size of the bloom, and especially their history, make each species totally original and special. That being said, all of them still require the same elements of care, carefully customized to suit their individual make-up in order to make success more likely. Hmmm….

8.) Only the mindless fear maintenance. Ouch, that might have stung a bit. But it’s true. The older I get, the more I realize that anything you want to last takes effort to maintain and requires consistent care. So enamored are we with the term “maintenance free” that we try to apply it to everything from relationships, to politics and to our lives. The problem is…tilling the soil on so many levels is necessary. Which means getting a little dirty is a foregone conclusion.

9.) Water isn’t enough, sometimes all flowers need is a little time in the sun. The control freak in us, is the suffocating cousin to the maintenance-free side of our psyche…so tread lightly. Remember, sometimes the best thing you can do for a flowering plant is be patient, and let the environment in which you’ve created do some of the important work for you.

10.) Newly planted flowers are the most deserving of our attention. This is the time when they are trying to find a way to develop the root system that will ultimately allow them to thrive in various conditions. When they’re young, they need your attention, patience, support and nourishment the most. Oh, wait I’m sorry…we were talking about flowers, right?


Dedicated to high school students everywhere…struggling to find their place in the garden of life.

Work hard…and be open to the endless possibilities that await your willingness to simply try.

You’ve been Coached!


Jerry Seinfeld, Pablo Picasso and The Design Coach all walk into a bar…6 keys to improving your creative productivity in 2018. No joke.

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you’re all ready to attack 2018 like a beautiful big blank canvas. I know I am. Which is why it troubles me when I hear artists, musicians, writers, marketers, entrepreneurs (the artists of the business world) and the like, rationalize the reasons for their lack of creative productivity. Having spent the better part of 48 years as an artist…I can certainly relate. In so many ways, one of the fatal flaws in the human condition related to creativity, is that we often sabotage and sacrifice the more vulnerable parts of our being to protect our fragile psyche. The dilemma of course, is that it’s our vulnerability that typically generates the necessary heat to steam…and eventually erupt…the underground reservoir of thoughts, ideas and talents from our individual creative geyser. Which begs the major question at the beginning of this blog: How do we maintain our creative momentum with the right balance of sensitivity…and the discipline required to keep it flowing? The answer might just be a concept often lost in the romance of the aha creative moment. The concept is called productivity.


I recently saw Jerry Seinfeld on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. In referencing one of Jerry’s new projects, Jerry Before Seinfeld, Fallon showed a picture of a lifetime of Seinfeld’s material, in 8 ½ x 11 notebook form, patch-worked together on a street in New York City.




Commenting on it, Seinfeld made two fascinating remarks. First, he referenced how the photo put into context his productivity over the years as a comedian and creative. Commenting further, that photo only showed the material that actually “worked”, noting that throughout his career, there was probably ten times the amount pictured that didn’t. And second, he said it illustrated how committed you really needed to be if you wanted to be successful as an artist. A concept that is all too often lost in the unfortunate references of creativity as a compartmentalized craft, inconsistent inspiration or wonderful whim…versus a skill that needs to be mastered to really be marketable. The greater point being, that the development of creativity throughout history, is most successful when approached as more habit…than hobby.

Unfortunately for so many artists, professional development comes to a screeching halt after some kind of formal arts training…or puberty. Not to mention the lifelong annoyance of not being viewed as a “serious” profession. Which parenthetically might also be a contributing factor related to why people might arrest or ignore their own creative development. No one, including the artist, bothers to cultivate that passion into a disciplined talent of tremendous value. It’s the difference between telling someone it’s time to put away the crayons, or encouraging them to progress to more impressive medium. For me, over the years the choice has always been simple…but nonetheless difficult at times. I can either let life get in the way of my creativity, or allow it to act as the spark that ignites the fire of a more fulfilling life.

It wasn’t until I flat out rejected the traditional myths and constructs surrounding the creative process, and the stereotype of the starving artist in general, that I truly realized the personal and professional power of sustained creative momentum. Productivity, my friends, is what turns that hobby of yours into something so much more rewarding…and that transforms that intermittent passion into a profession filled with purpose.


2018 is here. Why not make this is your breakout year?! The one that changes the trajectory of your life both professionally and personally…as well as the way you approach your creative contribution to the world. Allow me to share my 6 keys to sustaining creative momentum over my 20 year artistic career…and hopefully for many years to come!


  • Create a space or area you can creatively call you own: Throughout my career, I’ve always thrived when I’ve designated a space, large or small, to just experiment, make a mess (both figuratively and literally)…and just create. A place I where I could learn to not fear failure, and play with the tools of my trade. A dorm room, a garage, a bedroom, a table in the corner of a bedroom, a parent’s basement, a basement I owned, and basements I’ve rented. All of these, over the years have been places where my creative efforts have called home. Without a designated creative area in your living space, finding a somewhere you can be consistently creative can be a real challenge. So stop searching for the perfect place to be creative. Just find a spot and start. If you’d like to really fly…you need a nest.


  • Consider working on multiple projects or pieces at the same time: Over the years, I’ve learned that you develop a relationship with creative projects. Believe it or not, to me they have personalities, quirks, even a kind of telepathic ebb and flow…and like actual relationships, some are more fulfilling than others…often at different times. More importantly, I learn different things from all of them, especially when I collaborate with them simultaneously. For me, it’s been a great way of working on expanding my productivity in an organic manner, versus the linear approach to creativity, that can lead to the activity feeling like an obligatory task…one project at a time. Cautionary note: For those of you who have a hard time finishing projects…limit yourself to three, and don’t introduce another until you’ve completed at least one.


  • Recognize that creative time and free time are very different: If you really want to be successful…you need to live it. Don’t just make time for your creativity….make it a habitual part of your day, and if need be, put in the extra hours without hesitation. If you’re not willing to go in to overtime…then I wish you the best of luck with your hobby. The difference between and artist and a hobbyist is their level of commitment. What’s yours?


  • Embrace that real creative development involves massive amounts of failure: Growth as an artist comes from the moments you pushed the limits of your current set of skills, as well as continually testing the relevance and authenticity of your current creative direction. Be fearless in your creative approach, and develop the courage to not only honestly critique yourself, but graciously accept the criticism of others. This was so valuable to me as a young artist…and even today as it relates to client feedback. You might not always like what you hear, but all of it helps you hone and improve your ability to convey and delivery your original artistic perspective. Yes…all of it. Failure is an amazing teacher…but only as effective as your ability to learn from it. Understand the lesson and then let it go…moving on to the next base camp on your courageous creative climb.


  • Authenticity makes inspiration easy: When I get stuck creatively, I will often just start by attacking a blank canvas with no specific subject matter or technique in mind. I let my love for the creative activity unclog the opening to the geyser of life’s debris. It’s amazing when you clear your mind, the things that come to the surface. This often helps me connect with my natural passions and leads to a very simple, proven, but often ignored creative formula: Write, draw, paint, sing and create involving the things you know and love. Get out there, gain as many unique experiences as you can…this only adds to the complexity and interest of your creative palette. For those of you who like to live in the comfort zone of perfecting a technique…I have a question. Once you’ve perfected the technical, what do you plan to say or do with it? Don’t lose sight of the fact that your talent is only as good as your ability to connect others with it.


  • Not every project needs to be a masterpiece: Reality check: Name your favorite artist. Now do you honestly think EVERYTHING they ever created was amazing? Or do you think that it’s more likely that ones we see are the gems from piles of rocks? I’m going to stick with Seinfeld on this one. There will most likely be ten times as many creative failures than successful outcomes. So, get over yourself Picasso. Bm3x5roIcAA_s1Y Like paths to a destination, some projects are simply meant to get you from A to B. Something that over time you’ll understand in greater detail. The key is to start walking down the path making creativity a larger part of your daily routine. Do that, and creative productivity will come naturally…one step at a time.

Skeptical of my keys to creative productivity? That’s fine. Then do it your way. But let me leave you with these words from the master himself…


From our studio to a creative place of your own…Happy New Year!

Why the secret to marketing your small business…might just involve a rather big ball of twine.

This past week, I had the extraordinary pleasure of speaking to members of the Wisconsin Bed & Breakfast Association, kicking off their annual conference at the Abbey Resort is Fontana, Wisconsin. Special thanks to Kerri Thiel, Ed Svitak and Susan Smolarek for connecting me with such a wonderful group! I must admit, my wife and I have often talked about how fun it would be to run our own Bed & Breakfast someday. And while for us it seems “fun”…I am in awe of the immense effort I know it takes to maintain, promote, much less decorate these types of properties. As a small business advocate, I started my speech by thanking them for the valuable contributions they make to their communities, as well as their dedication to delivering something unique to a modern consumer that can be a bit of a moving marketing target to say the least. It takes special kind of crazy these days to be in business for yourself. For those of you who are doing it…you know exactly what I’m talking about. And for those who have never done it…it’s almost impossible for you to completely comprehend the depth of the overall experience. The risk. The reward. The sense of accomplishment when it works…and the level of disappointment when it doesn’t. It was in that light that I shared with them some key strategies to help them compete in a marketplace dominated by big data and the digital dominance of the deal.

The overarching strategy is fairly simple, not all that new, but it’s still something so many businesses miss in their overall customer experience. Here it is. The businesses that communicate and reinforce on a personal level, their value to customers…will win. So in my speech I asked them…are you doing everything you can to document, display and share the stories that make your business worth patronizing? Are you focused on establishing the kinds of human connections that define truly personal service experiences? Does the design and decoration of your physical location facilitate engagement with your value story? Or, is your environment, like so many I see today both personally and professionally, a hollow exercise in decoration that trumps style over the substance of the experience you offer? Now more than ever, you have to give your guests something different, something authentic, and an experience they’ll want to share with others. I reminded them it’s amazing how far people will travel to experience something they haven’t before. In essence, what was their “big ball of twine” experience, and did their design act as a catalyst for guests to REALLY engage with their story?

The following is the shorthand of my presentation to the WBBA, that I believe has an application not only for other businesses looking to engage customers, but also for anyone interested in creating authentic interiors with a mix of both substance and style.


Start by documenting YOUR original story: Rule #1-Don’t assume people already know it…or remember it.

  • Do your homework. Dig up your history! The people, places and significant events or milestones that have shaped your establishments unique journey.
  • No history? Newer establishment? Then tell the story of WHO you are and WHY you opened it. Sometimes that story is best one to tell.
  • Grab everything you can find, photos, letters from guests, reviews, awards and articles. Do your research and get personal. Authenticity is often times the emotional currency that buys someone’s attention.
  • Recipes and remembrances count…write it, photograph it, and keep it. You never know when you might want to use those items to create an experience.

Borrow stories you love!: Rule #2-Let the story of your Region or Area help build your value:

  • Again, do your research. Tell the guests the people, places and significant events that may have happened in or near your establishment. Local history offers an inherently personal and original experience.
  • Maps are awesome. Both functionally and visually. Orient your guests! Encourage them to explore.
  • Your staff needs to know the stories. Take the time to teach and train. Lack of knowledge of the inn and the area…equals a lack of interest in the mind of the customer.

Display: Best practice example-The Wickwood Inn: Saugatuck, MI (https://wickwoodinn.com)

  • All of that great documentation can be turned into engaging artwork that helps the customer connect! Themes, legacy walls, weird collections…ALL of it matters.
  • Think cohesive and curated. Framing and professional presentation is so important. A cohesive, well-crafted visual tells people they’re some place special.
  • There’s a reason why museum displays look the way they do. Curate! Pay attention to detail, and make it easy for the customer comprehend your story. True hospitality means your guests shouldn’t have to work for it.

Develop the relationship: Be mindful that every guest, every event and every micro-interaction with your staff is an opportunity to reinforce your story.

  • Invite your guests to become a part of your history and continuing story. This is where social media posts, offering to take your guests picture, and a digital guest book are so important. These are automatic and easy opportunities to engage!
  • Start your own, or promote tradition(s) that are unique to your inn and your area. When people travel they’re more apt to try new things. And most everyone enjoys an interesting tradition. Do you have a signature “When in Rome do as the Romans” experience or tradition?
  • Ask for feedback on something more than a card or email. Think of customer feedback as a double sided coin. The information on both sides can make you more profitable. Yes, tell us what we’re missing? But also ask them to share one of their favorite moments. “Hope you enjoyed your stay.” Or “ Thank you for staying with us.” Is not a personal goodbye.
  • Digital mailing lists and personal data, are the new currency of marketing. And small businesses can no longer rely on just their own charm, or the charm of their town to carry them to success. People forget. You need to remind them why you’re relevant…and that their next great experience is waiting for them.

I guess in a way, our homes are our own versions of a bed & breakfast. Both should be designed to inspire excitement and relaxation simultaneously. And in this Season on Giving…what kinds of stories is your interior offering? At The Design Coach…we can actually show you our big ball of twine. So gather up and display your special stories, and before your know it…you’ll be spinning them into an experiences people will never forget.