Ayse Birsel: How I Learned to Design the Life I Love

Designer Ayse Birsel keynoted an IIDA chapter event with a fascinating lecture that instructs you how to refocus your life via a series of exercises.

Professional associations, in the AEC world and beyond, can seem rather dull, but they often act as springboards for launching careers, generating public awareness for the value of design, and contributing to a vibrant community. Last month, I found myself at the World War I Memorial Museum (the country’s only museum dedicated to WWI) in Kansas City, where the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Mid-America Chapter turned their annual awards presentation into an interesting new event they called “Elevate.”

Ayse Birsel, a dynamic designer who practices in New York and Istanbul, keynoted the event, and she did not disappoint. Birsel led the audience through her “Design the Life You Love” concept, which compels individuals to refocus their lives via a series of exercises. (This process is better served by a full day workshop; Molly Klimas covered it eloquently for this blog last year). These entail some drawing, listing of heroes and their characteristics, creating metaphors for one’s ideal life, and generally trying to tease out the values and priorities of each individual. These can then be mapped out in any number of ways, as a kind of frame for a life. “I’m not promising a happy life,” Birsel says of her process. “But you can create an original life that has your values.”

Birsel, who led two workshops at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in mid-May, says she wants to be the “Katy Perry of Design the Life You Love.” The idea came to her recently, she explains, when her 10-year-old daughter was watching the Katy Perry film, Part of Me. Birsel joined in and found herself unexpectedly moved by Perry’s story. Days later, she made the connection from the pop star to her own design message. “This my metaphorical way of saying, I want to connect with great big audiences, especially young people who have their life ahead of them, and inspire them to think about life creatively,” she says. “You’d be amazed how much imagination people have when they’re given a creative process and tools.”

Ayse Birsel, Bob Gould, Kira Gould at the IIDA Mid America event

© Crissy Dastrup, courtesy IIDA Mid America

Birsel’s messaged unexpectedly resonated with me and my own career. I also had the great privilege of speaking at the event; I focused my talk on my mother, Karen Wight Gould, who was a member of this active IIDA chapter throughout her own interior-design career (with Gould Evans, the architecture firm co-founded by my father, architect Bob Gould). She died last October, and the IIDA leadership invited my family to talk about her “life lived in color.” Those in attendance who knew her well didn’t even realize what an extensive fiber-art career she had before she translated her love of color and design to interiors, and subsequently, a tandem career with my dad. She was especially adept at fiber art: batik, weaving, and quilted and painted pieces she called “Art-to-Wear.” She also set up a gallery, was a leading advocate for arts and design at the state level, and much more. In her memory, we have established the Karen Wight Gould Fiber Art Project award for students at the Kansas City Art Institute. (Anyone seeking more information or interested in contributing, please contact Nicolle Ratliff or Emily Hess).

My mom was an inspiration to me in many ways, and a much-loved creative collaborator of many in the design community of Kansas City, and later the Bay Area. As we were doing the Design the Life You Love exercises, I found myself wondering who Karen Gould might have listed as her own heroes. Who were the key fashion, fiber art, and interior design figures that inspired her? My list was a little idiosyncratic, and included Janine Benyus, Rachel Carson, Isabel Allende, Alice Munro, David Orr, all the Women in Green, Harriet the Spy, and Mary Poppins. Ayse Birsel never knew my mom, or how she designed a designing life, but she told me later that Karen Gould was her hero.

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