I am all but certain the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue is designed, printed and distributed to make parents feel like crap. I wince when I see it waiting for me in the pile of mail. I can hear its contents of happy children and organized playrooms mocking me as I inch towards it. And yet, like a masochist, I can’t just throw it out. I have to open it. I get sucked in. I start to wonder not only what is wrong with me but why my children don’t look that happy and that clean and why doesn’t my playroom EVER look like that? So for this week’s expert, I turned to famed Washington designer and mom of two, one just 2 months old, Liz Levin of Liz Levin Interiors and Liz Levin Nesting. Not only does she provide us with some great tips on decorating and organizing a kid’s playroom but she also weighs in on the age-old question of balancing work with life, especially as a small-business owner.
Q: Tell us how long you have been in business for yourself?
Sure, I started seeing my own clients in 2004. I hired my first assistant designer in 2007 and by last summer, I had 3 people working for me as independent contractors. My operations manager is actually my sister. I always knew that I wanted to be in business for myself, well before I had children I knew this, and before I had the kids I really had time to ramp up and work 24/7 on building my business. I was eager to work for myself but I knew I wanted to have a career that would allow me to see my kids right after school.
Q: We’ve been talking here on WM a lot about “balancing” work and family life and so, tell us how you, as the owner of your own business, manage to draw the line and really separate your work from your home life and give each one of them time?
It is so hard. Working for yourself, you get all the good and all the bad. It is very easy to get sucked in and believe that someone’s living room is a life or death emergency but with kids, I’ve had to learn to draw the line in the sand and keep the perspective that I have to set boundaries and stick to them. I worked out of my house at first when I had my first daughter and that worked out fine until she was almost 2. Then she was very aware of me being home, I practically had to sneak to use the powder room so she wouldn’t see me and I always worried that clients could hear a toddler in the background of phone calls. Now I have my own separate office space in Georgetown and I take Fridays off as my day to be at-home.
Q: I’ve found that it’s very difficult to stick to a shorter work schedule, that it takes a lot of confidence to say “no” to people and really stick to the plan of only working your set days of the week. Do you experience this and how do you handle it?
Definitely. Initially I worried that it took away the legitimacy of my business to work a shorter week. I would have my assistant handle calls because I didn’t want people to know I was home with the kids. I really was insecure about it but I kept banging myself on the head and reminding myself that this is my business and I can do whatever I want! Where I would then get tripped up was figuring out what it is that I wanted – did I want a bigger office, bigger staff or did I want to be home more? The reality is that you can put as much into it as you want but if you do good work, then you can take time off during the week and people will respect it. In my path to discovering that and believing in that, I blew plenty of nap times on conference calls and struggled with pulling myself away from work. I also worried when I saw my team, who didn’t have children, coming in earlier than me and staying later than me. But again, you realize that you put this stuff on yourself and we don’t need to put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and do it all.
Q: OK. I could talk to you about working and home life all day long. But we are here to also talk about what might be the end of me: playrooms. And why I want to set a Pottery Barn Kids catalog on fire after reading it. It makes me feel so inadequate in every way. How does one have a playroom that looks like a magazine?
Well first, there were probably 20 stylists without any children in sight who made those playrooms look like they do in the magazine. And the problem is that we all have more toys and more stuff than we do storage. I have a small townhouse and my daughter’s room is also part playroom. The truth is we all need to purge and store. Head to the Container Store and purchase some bins that fit under a bed, I use those for storing art supplies, plastic food, and then use baskets for blocks and puzzles. Initially we had bins in the living room but we learned that the kids don’t play with half the stuff in the bins because they can’t reach that far into the basket. Storing the toys also helps because when they haven’t seen them in a while, they will actually want to play with them. Organizers often tell clients to have more storage space than you do stuff – and this really applies to children’s playrooms. Learn to think of yourself as a toy collector and reality is that you will be adding to your collection over time. So if you purchase storage pieces that have space for more things, you will have space for them as your collection grows. The other thing I am discovering and reminding myself is that kids don’t need a room full of stuff all the time. Less is more.
Q: I love this idea of thinking of ourselves as toy collectors. Great advice! So how about colors – are there trends in color for kids playrooms – any popular colors?
I don’t really think there are trends for colors in kids rooms but I encourage my clients to look for inspiration pieces when decorating a room. One playroom I did for a client who had 2 sons was midnight blue and white with red accents. We used navy window treatments and painted a blackboard wall. It was a really cute room but it also didn’t look like a romper room. I had a catch-all room at my house where I used a graphic poster as my jumping off point and accented the room with red-white wallpaper and a red desk. The trick when doing these rooms is more about the appropriate storage. I once had a client who added a built-in window seat with a lid that opened up and they added 4 dividers inside. This was a great idea for the kids play room but then they learned the only issue was the depth – again – like those large bins I used to have in my living room – the kids couldn’t easily reach all the way inside. So that is something to consider as you are trying to figure out storage and kids rooms.
Q: More excellent advice and I know I regularly fall victim to thinking something is a great storage piece and then realizing it is way too deep for my little 2-year-old’s arms to reach inside. Let’s move on to talk about fabrics when decorating with kids. Any advice?
Sure. Obviously you want to look for stain resistant materials like ultra suede or leather. I often use nano-tex technology to treat material on furniture for homes with kids or pets to really keep it stain resistant. Outdoor fabrics are now softer and I like to use them as well. I have a chair in my living room with outdoor fabric on it. Another cool way to go is vinylizing fabric. It will give it a really funky look, like vinylizing a banquette seat in a pretty bold pattern and then it wipes off easily. I saw it once in an Elle Decor magazine and thought it looked great. Since seeing it, I’ve done it for a client.
Q: Ohh – I love that idea and would have never thought of it myself. I can see how that can be funky and certainly kind of retro. How about carpets?
Dark carpets are a great way to go with children because you really can’t see anything on them. There is a company called Fiber Seal and they will come treat your carpet for you, it’s not toxic and it should last about 18 months. I put a cream carpet by my front door and used Fiber Seal on it and it really works beautifully. You don’t have to be in the trade to use them.
Awesome advice from Liz Levin today. I really appreciated her insights not only in running a successful business while also spending time with her kids, but on how to think of ourselves as toy collectors and manage the chaos with style! For more design tips, here’s a link to 10 tips from Liz Levin featured on HGTV. Be on the lookout for more expert topics from the amazing moms living around us here in DC, and be sure to “Like” the Wired Momma FB page or subscribe to the RSS feed to easily keep up with my shenanigans and rants.