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In 2003, I was living in the lower Pac-Heights neighborhood of San Francisco with my then fiancee. Every day, we woke up at 5:30 AM, walked the dog (in the dark) up to Alta Plaza park, got dressed and drove 45 miles south to Santa Clara in stop and go traffic. At 5:00, we’d repeat the whole process in reverse and go to bed by 9:00.

I was a Data Engineer at a major tech company. Please don’t ask me what that is because I didn’t know then, and the ensuing decade certainly hadn’t provided any clarity. I sat in a gray cubicle in the midst of a sea of identical gray cubicles, and over the course of that year, I increasingly improved my aptitude at both playing solitaire and hiding the fact that all I did was play solitaire.

I went to college to become an engineer because…well, I’m not sure why. At the time, it had something to do with proving to my boyfriend and his friends that I was just as smart as they were. But, proving the point didn’t necessarily bring fulfillment, happiness or even mild content. In short, I was miserable.

In the two years since I graduated, I had researched graduate schools, looked for countless other jobs, and begged my parents to move home (they said no). I felt trapped because the only other work I was qualified to do that would afford my San Francisco rent and car payment was the same work that was currently driving me slowly insane.

I knew that I wasn’t on the right path. I knew I couldn’t survive in this environment for the next 30 years until I finally got to enjoy my life. I just didn’t know what I should do or how to go about doing it.

And, I was so afraid.

I was afraid of being a failure. I was afraid of disappointing my parents. I was afraid of not living up to my potential. I was afraid of being poor. The list goes on and on.

One unremarkable day, I was sitting in my cubicle. Tired of playing solitaire and chatting on AIM with my friends, I was surfing the net and somehow stumbled on an article that would permanently alter the direction of my life.

The article was called What Should I Do with My Life? and it was written by a guy named Po Bronson.

I devoured the article. (Later, I consumed the book. I emailed Po and shamefully spilled my guts, which is, in retrospect, embarrassing to admit. I felt like he was talking right to me, so why shouldn’t I talk back at him?)

Po wrote…

“[People] thrive by focusing on the question of who they really are — and connecting that to work that they truly love (and, in so doing, unleashing a productive and creative power that they never imagined).”

With each paragraph of the article, I could feel my heart beating faster. I thought, albeit tentatively, maybe it’s okay that I don’t want to be an engineer even though I just devoted four years of my life and 6 figures of my parents’ money to becoming one. I began to think maybe I could walk away, even though I’m only 24 and haven’t earned the right to be dissatisfied. I began to feel something other than fear and despair…possibly it was hope.

“There are far too many people who look like they have their act together but have yet to make an impact. You know who you are. It comes down to a simple gut check: You either love what you do or you don’t. Period.”

Wow, I thought. I envisioned a life of being an engineer (my version anyway). Going to work every day, staring at the clock, doing the bare minimum, to make a salary in order to finance a life I didn’t want, to always be living for five PM, for the week-end, for vacation, each year transitioning from one to the next with no discernible difference or accomplishment.

And, then I pictured a different path…one where I did work that meant something to me, that allowed me to be creative, that provided tangible evidence of effort, with people I enjoyed being around.

Po Bronson Quote

I lasted another year before I quit. And, everything I feared came true. My parents were crushed. My new husband (now ex) was disappointed…and disapproving. I spent one semester at Arizona State pursuing a new undergraduate degree in interior design, and then I lost my nerve. I hated feeling like a failure. I hated everyone looking at me like I was a fuck up. I hated feeling poor even though we weren’t. I was scared of being uncomfortable, and I was too weak to deal with it.

Within ten months of quitting, I was right back where I started. Literally. I took a job working at the same company but for a lot less pay. It makes me cringe just to write that.

I knew I wasn’t meant to be doing this. I knew I was creative and artistic and had a burning desire to make things. I also knew I was skilled technically and had an aptitude for building business systems and project management. After all, I had done well in engineering school and even in my internships before I realized…oh my God, I have to do this for the rest of my life.

“…avoiding crap shouldn’t be the objective in finding the right work. The right question is, How can I find something that moves my heart, so that the inevitable crap storm is bearable?”

That was the problem with tech. I couldn’t stand the crap involved…the pointless meetings, the canceled projects, the artificial deadlines, the meaningless acronyms people used like they were real words, and the buzz words and phrases. Like “that’s not in my wheelhouse” and “let me wrap my head around that” and (my favorite) “let’s poke on that a bit.” Gag.

I gave it another shot. I really tried that time, and I lasted one more year, until I took an escape hatch in the form of a job offered by an old acquaintance that would allow us to leave the Southwest for my native Northeast. It was a band-aid at best…tolerable but stultifying. I didn’t like what we were doing and I didn’t like who I was while I was working there. When the company ran out of money, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least, I wouldn’t have to keep pretending. At least, I could collect unemployment while I figured things out.

It had been four years now since I first read the article, and I wasn’t any closer.

“The relevant question in looking at a job is not What will I do? but Who will I become? What belief system will you adopt, and what will take on heightened importance in your life?”

My former employer, feeling guilty, asked me if he could do anything for me. I thought about it for a minute, screwed up the tiniest bit of courage, and then asked him to get me a job with his friend who was an interior designer. I would do anything. I would work for minimum wage.

Thankfully, she was open to the idea. She interviewed me and offered me a job on the spot. I started auditing classes at a local university so that I could enroll in a masters program for professionals who wanted to transition into interior design.

That job saved my life in more ways than one. The woman I worked for was certainly a talented designer and taught me so much of what I know and use today. But, she was also unfailingly kind and generous. When she found out I was getting divorced, she immediately gave me a huge raise so that I could support myself. I tear up now just thinking about it. When I decided to move to Iowa, she gave me a wonderful send-off. From her, I learned how I wanted to treat people. I learned first hand about the law of attraction – that what you put out into the world returns to you.

In short, I had found the work I’d been looking for all along – a place where I could express myself creatively, contribute my technical skills, work with and for people I loved.

“Probably the most debilitating obstacle to taking on The Question is the fear that making a choice is a one-way ride, that starting down a path means closing a door forever.”

I ended up completing a Masters in Interior Design. Today, I work as an interior designer, and I also teach design at the university level. But, I’m still constantly questioning if I’m on the right path. I keep asking myself if the crap is worth it. Some days, I can’t always say that it is.

The difference between my 2003 self and my 2015 self is that I know that the answer isn’t a new company or a shiny new cubicle or more money – certainly not more money. I’m making little more than half of what I used to make as an engineer and am far and away happier than I ever was before.

The answers were always inside myself. I’ve had to ask myself what truly mattered to me…what do I really value, who do I want to be, who do I want to become? I’ve worked in design jobs that were as miserable as my engineering days, and they were always a result of chasing money or recognition (or subjugating my value system in service of either or both).

Reading that article allowed me to believe that it was possible to be myself – artistic and introverted and dorky – and to do work that allowed me to feel like I was becoming my best self while contributing to others. It gave me permission to believe that it was possible to do so and still feel successful.

So I’m not making six figures like many of my college peers, and some days I am jealous of their houses and cars and wardrobes and vacations. And, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t ask what if. What if I could have kept on pleasing everyone else instead of myself?

But, now I know the answer to that question would have been a sad, stunted existence in which I gradually became less of myself rather than more.


A few months ago, a college friend reached out to me with some questions about renovating his kitchen using IKEA cabinets. I’ve designed two of my own kitchens with IKEA cabinets and several for clients, so I was able to give him some advice about how plan for and work with them.

IKEA cabinets are a really affordable option, and I think that you can use them to create a custom look on a budget. I recommend them to any client who has a budget under $35,000 and is willing to do a little leg work. Sarah Richardson (host of Sarah’s House and other shows on HGTV) frequently uses IKEA cabinets in the kitchens she designs.

But, before you decide that IKEA cabinets are the way to go, there are some things you need to know…

IKEA SEKTION Cabinets Are Frameless

If you have an old outdated kitchen, chances are that your cabinets are framed. This means that there is a lip around the front face of the cabinet, maybe up to 1.5″, like a picture frame. IKEA cabinets are frameless, which means that there is no lip.

Cabinet Box Construction - Frameless vs. Framed

Frameless vs. Framed

Cabinet Door Types - Frameless, Framed and Inset

Full Overlay Doors vs. Traditional Overlay vs. Inset

Why does this matter? Frameless cabinets have up to 10% more storage per linear foot than framed cabinets. The drawers and pullouts can maximize the width of the box and not be limited to the opening size. Aesthetically, it means that you won’t see any of the cabinet box behind the doors and drawers. You will only see the doors and drawers and no hinges.

It also matters because there are different rules for frameless cabinets when it comes to clearances at walls and when you change cabinet depths. If you don’t leave space between the cabinet and the wall, for example, your door or drawer won’t be able to open.

They Only Come in Standard Widths

There are three types of cabinets – stock, semi-custom, and fully custom. In the past year, I’ve designed kitchens with all three types of cabinets. Fully custom cabinets are built to order in whatever size you want. Semi-custom cabinets comes in standard sizes but can be modified at the factory, sometimes for an up-charge. Stock cabinets come in specific sizes, and what you see is what you get – no modifications.

IKEA cabinets are stock cabinets. I like to think of working with stock cabinets like solving one of those puzzles with the little plastic tiles that you need to rearrange until they make a picture. It often involves strategy, experimentation and a little guesswork.

The cabinets come in standard widths of 3″ increments, starting at 12″. For some reason, IKEA does not make 27″ wide or 33″ wide cabinets, which can make things extra interesting. For example, many people choose 33″ refrigerators, but the IKEA refrigerator cabinet only comes in 30″ and 36″ widths. You can work with the gaps in a couple of ways, but it can be frustrating if you aren’t sure exactly how you want it to look.

SEKTION wall cabinets come in heights of 20″, 30″ and 40″. This is a little different from standard American cabinets, which come in heights of 30″, 36″, 39″ and sometimes 42″ or 48″.

Wall Cabinets are 15″ Deep

Standard American wall cabinets are 12″ deep, sometimes 13″ is the door is inset (set inside the face frame). When IKEA introduced their SEKTION line, they increased the depth of their wall cabinets to 15″, so you get 3″ of additional depth on each cabinet.

The Cabinet Boxes Aren’t Finished

IKEA cabinet boxes come in two colors – white and dark brown. The white boxes are meant to be paired with all of the light colored doors and the brown boxes all of the dark doors.

The Twelve Things You Need to Know Before Planning Your IKEA Kitchen

No matter what door you choose, the box of the cabinet will not match the door. If you have an exposed end anywhere in your kitchen, you need a panel to finish it. This includes, for instance, the side of a pantry cabinet that is adjacent to a wall cabinet and base cabinet.

SEKTION Boxes Are Designed to Be Modular

The Twelve Things You Need to Know Before Planning Your IKEA Kitchen

The kooky sizes of the IKEA cabinet boxes do have a purpose. They were designed to be modular so that you can combine them in interesting ways and create your own custom combinations.

For example, you could stack two 20″ cabinets on top of each other and put them next to a 40″ wall cabinet.

You can also customize combinations of doors and drawers. A base cabinet is 30″ high. When you add feet to it, you can raise them to the standard 34.5″. Drawers come in increments of 5″ – 5″, 10″ and 15″. So you can have three 5″ drawers and a 15″ drawer or two 15″ drawers or three 10″ drawers.

IKEA also now offers an interior drawer feature. You can add a drawer behind a drawer or a door, which is nice if you want more shallow drawers for things like utensils but don’t want your fronts to get too busy.

Order Extra Toe Kicks

IKEA doesn’t sell filler pieces for those necessary gaps between cabinets and the wall or to make up some extra inches because your wall isn’t perfectly divisible by 3″. Instead of fillers, you can use toe kicks (PLINTH) that are cut down to size. You will always want to order a couple extra toe kicks just to make sure you have enough for your toe kick and for your fillers.

Order Extra Panels

Panels are easy to cut wrong and to damage. I always order one extra refrigerator panel, which is 36″x96″. You can cut smaller panels from it as well as filler pieces.

Whenever I design a frameless cabinet, I always include overlay fillers. I like to use the panels to create overlay fillers so that the fillers are flush with the cabinet doors.

If You Want Under-Cabinet Lights, You Need a Deco Strip

Under-cabinet lights require a little lip under the wall cabinet so that you don’t see them. Since IKEA cabinets are frameless, they don’t have a lip. They do sell deco strips that you can add to the bottom of the cabinet to conceal the under-counter lights. The wall cabinet panels actually come sized to accommodate a 2″ high deco strip.


In the above kitchen by Sarah Richardson Design, you can clearly see the deco strip under the wall cabinets. You can also see how Sarah used panels to cover the sides of the cabinets and in between the stacked cabinets. Inexpensive cabinets now look like more expensive custom cabinets.

I have been increasing the backsplash height to account for the 2″. There is nothing worse than discovering (too late) that your coffee maker won’t fit under your wall cabinets.

You Must Enter Your Plan into the IKEA Planner Before You Go to the Store to Order

You can design your kitchen with pencil and paper, or using a modeling program like SketchUp, or just inside the IKEA kitchen planner. Regardless of which method you use, you will need to enter your plan into the IKEA kitchen planner before you go to the store. You do not want to do this at the store. Plus, once you have your plan entered, you’ll know exactly how much it costs so there won’t be any unpleasant surprises.

IKEA Has Designers On-Site to Verify Your Order

When you get to the store, you will need to wait for one of their designers to become available to help you. They will pull up your online plan and go through it to make sure you haven’t missed anything like toe kicks or feet. In my experience, the designers are less about design and more about verification. They are not a substitute for a kitchen designer if this is something you think you need. IKEA now offers design services in some stores, but this is something you should do in advance.

Plan for the Ordering Process to Take a Few Hours

I have never spent less than a couple hours to complete the ordering process, including our last purchase which consisted of four boxes and some panels. If you can plan to go during the middle of the week, you definitely should. I can’t think of anything worse than trying to order an IKEA kitchen on a Saturday afternoon.

Bring a bottle of water, maybe a granola bar or some jerky. Just plan for it to take a while.

Don’t Blow Off the Order Checking Process

If you are planning to take your kitchen home the day you order, you will go down to the area near the exit where they pull the larger orders from the warehouse. Everything is going to come out in pieces. Each cabinet will have a cardboard box for the cabinet frame and another box for the drawers and doors. There could be multiple boxes for the doors and drawers for one cabinet if you created a custom combination. Drawers come out separately as well. So an individual cabinet could have five or more items associated with it and they are all separate.

You must check every piece against your order. It’s tedious and frustrating, but it’s totally necessary. What’s worse than trying to order an IKEA kitchen on a Saturday? Driving home two, three or four hours and finding out you forgot a drawer or a door.

I hope this post helped you decide whether IKEA cabinets are right for your kitchen and answered some of your questions. If you have other questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.


Book Review: Styled by Emily Henderson

My interior design mentors have all espoused the necessity of building a strong design library, and over the past few years, I’ve been making a conscious effort to invest in growing my personal design library with books by my favorite designers. I especially love when I can support a designer, like Emily Henderson who contributes so much free content that is consistently inspiring and educational. So, I did not hesitate to pre-order her very first book Styled by Emily Henderson.

Styled by Emily Henderson Book Review

When it comes to interior design, I think that styling is my weak spot. I find it overwhelming. In my own, house, I feel like I have a lot of stuff that I’ve held onto over the years and none of it looks particularly great, and I don’t tend to spend money on the decorative objects that can really pull a space together. My only real collection is a growing number of vintage ceramic planters in various shades of green, yellow and white.

Obviously, I need help in this area, and I eagerly anticipated this book as a sort of guide or text that I could reference.

Styled by Emily Henderson Book Review

After the introduction, the book starts with a style quiz. I got an 82 on the second half of the 20 questions, which put me at bohemian. I do like bohemian style, but I also enjoy Scandinavian interiors. Emily accounts for this with her Style Wheel, which is designed to help you mix and match styles, much like she used to do on her show Secrets of a Stylist.

Styled by Emily Henderson Book Review

The following chapters explain some of the basics of styling before laying out ten easy steps for styling your space. I found this section to be incredibly helpful and very actionable.

The second half of the book walks through room by room with tons of gorgeous photography of both entire rooms and detailed vignettes. Many of the photos are accompanied by helpful tips and explanations.

Styled by Emily Henderson Book Review

In summary, Styled is way more than your typical coffee table book. It’s exactly what I was looking for as a go-to source for helping me learn how to style both my own home and my clients. I keep it on the end table by my spot in the living room and frequently pick it up to read through the texts and study the photos.

Since I received the book last month, I’ve already been inspired to work with what I have and I’ve experimented with my bookcases and other little vignettes in my home.

If you’re interested in how you can better arrange your collections and stuff so that your home looks more polished and interesting, rather than cluttered and messy, this is definitely the book to buy.

Links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click on them and buy something, I may earn a very tiny bit of money.


How to Pick the Perfect Paint Color

Looking back over the years, I can admit that I have picked a lot of bad paint colors.

In my very first apartment, I thought a yellow kitchen would be bright and cheery. I had to buy a six foot ladder to reach the top of the walls, and after a very long weekend, I stood back and admired my handiwork. It was yellow all right. Bright Big Bird Yellow. I could see it glowing from the street even when my curtains were closed.

[click to continue…]


Books I’ve Read in 2015 – Fall Update


It’s been quite a while since I posted about what I’ve been reading this year. Truthfully, the amount I’ve been reading slowed quite a bit over the summer, and I haven’t been reading quite as much as I had been before. I spent most of July re-reading the Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes, which I was enjoying until I got to book six. For the first five books, Amazon had made the audio version available for free with Whispersync (the books were all on Kindle Unlimited), and I had been alternately listening in the car and on walks and then reading at night. The sixth book didn’t have an audio version, I didn’t much like the characters, and generally thought it was boring, so I abandoned the rest of the series. It was kind of disappointing to realize the books weren’t quite as great as I once thought they were.

On the plus side, I did read quite a few good books in August and over the past two months.

The Lake House: A Novel by Kate Morton

The only thing I dislike about Kate Morton is that she doesn’t publish oftener.  I had been eagerly awaiting Kate Morton’s newest novel since devouring The Secret Keeper a few years ago and snatched it up as soon as it was released in October.  The Lake House follows a similar formula to historical fiction by Morton, Suzanna Kearsley and others in that it involves parallel story lines – one in the present day (or  close to it) and one in the past. In this plot, Morton further complicated matters by time traveling to multiple points in the past and revealing the plot line from multiple character view points.

The story is told from the point of view of present day heroine Sadie Sparrow as well as Eleanor Edevane and her daughter Alice Edevane at various points in the first half the 20th century. The bulk of the novel revolves around the tragic disappearance of Theodore Edevane, Eleanor’s son and Alice’s young brother, on the night of an annual summer party at the family’s residence in Cornwall. Sadie Sparrow, a London detective, discovers the home, locked and abandoned, on a visit to Cornwall and becomes obsessed with unraveling its mysteries.

I found The Lake House to be an entertaining and captivating read, as are all of Morton’s novels. However, unlike the Secret Keeper whose ending was a total surprise, I suspected the eventual outcome almost from the very beginning. The fun was in discovering how all of the details unfolded. The Secret Keeper was definitely a tough act to follow, but the Lake House doesn’t disappoint.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I downloaded this first time novel by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan after hearing their interview on The Lively Show podcast. I normally stay away from fluffy, contemporary romance novels and I don’t particularly care for plots revolving around fictional royalty, but the interview with the authors was so interesting that I had to give it a shot.

The story is a fictionalized account of the courtship and engagement of Prince William and Princess Kate, except in this version, Kate is actually an American exchange student Bex Porter, with a twin sister, who happens to end up living on Prince William’s, I mean Nick’s, hall at Cambridge. I expected to think this book was silly and boring, but I ended up staying up late several nights in a row (it’s long!) to finish it. Anyone who follows the royals will recognize some key events from William and Kate’s relationship, including their breakup, but the characters come into their own, including Freddie, who is as charming and dashing as his real life counterpart Prince Harry appears to be in real life.

I’m already looking forward to the sequel.

Me Before You: A Novel by JoJo Moyes

I resisted reading Me Before You for ages but eventually decided I needed to start reading JoJo Moyes novels, mostly because of the fantastic font on her book covers. I was incredibly skeptical of the plot – caregiver Lousia Clark falls for her paralyzed patient Will, who is handsome yet incorrigible  – but I found myself engrossed in the will he or won’t he question that haunts both the plot and Louisa. I loved and hated the ending at the same time. Make sure you have plenty of tissues on hand.

The sequel After You is now available but receiving less positive reviews than the original. I liked Lousia’s character and wouldn’t mind finding out what happens to her, but I’ll probably wait for this one to go on sale.

The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman

The Plum Tree was a Kindle Unlimited read. I had been unofficially trying to avoid WWII novels after All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale partly because the subject can get depressing and partly because those books were just so good that I couldn’t bear to read anything less successful. The Plum Tree followed some of the key themes from other Holocaust and WWII centered plots, but it had its own twists on them. The ending, thankfully, is happy.

The Milliner’s Secret by Natalie Meg Evans

Since I broke my WWII genre resolution, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read one more. The Milliner’s Secret follows a young English woman who moves to Paris with her German officer lover prior to the start of the war. She works as a milliner and eventually opens her own hat shop. Like The Nightingale, the story eventually involves the Resistance.

I found important aspects of the book a little difficult to believe. For instance, the main character learns French and develops a French accent so perfect that everyone believes she was born in France. And, she manages to do so incredibly quickly.

Still, I generally enjoyed the book and would recommend it as a quick and easy read.

A Wilder Rose: A Novel by Susan Wittig Albert

Like many little girls, I was obsessed with the Little House books when I was younger. I read all of them including the lesser known followup books On the Way Home and West from Home. I always knew Rose existed, and I knew she was also a writer and helped with the Little House books. I didn’t know just how involved she was with the writing of the series and what a successful writer she herself was, as well as a passionate Libertarian. A Wilder Rose is told from Rose’s point of view as, later in life, she narrates the story of how the Little House books came to be to a friend. The book is a fictionalized account but reads more like a memoir. It was dry at times, but the insight into Laura Ingalls Wilder was fascinating as well as a little disconcerting.

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall by Winston Graham, 1783-1787 (The Poldark Saga)

I picked up the first Poldark novel after watching the first season of the television series on PBS. The book is richer in detail but the storyline is very similar to the show. I think I would have found it difficult to follow if I hadn’t seen the series, making it one of the few times I’ve been grateful to see the TV/movie version before reading the book.

I have quite a few books queued up in my Kindle as well as several non-fiction books that I’ve started and haven’t finished. Now that it’s getting dark earlier and cold, I feel like it’s a great time to hibernate and hole up in front of the fire with a sleeping dog, cup of tea, and a great book.

What have you been reading lately? Any recommendations?

Links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click on them and buy something, I may earn a very tiny bit of money.