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Designer looks close at the space, and even closer at the client

The founder of the design company Aparat asks her clients to describe the life they want to lead, and goes from there

By The Washington Post | October 6, 2020 | Trends

A couple of years ago, Catherine Burns found herself in a rut. She, her husband and their son had moved into a new home in Brooklyn, and as hard as they tried, they couldn't get settled. The house, stuffed with everything they had collected over the years, she says, "just looked junky."

On a personal level, too, she felt unsettled. Burns, who is artistic director of the Moth and frequent host of "The Moth Radio Hour," had gained weight, and she had stopped reading and meditating - two things that were important to her. Maybe, she thought, her surroundings had something to do with it.

Not one to hire a traditional decorator, Burns turned to Olga Naiman, an unconventional stylist, designer and creative director. The daughter of two Russian psychiatrists who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, Naiman studied clinical psychology in college, earned a master's degree in theatrical set design and embarked on a rigorous study of meditation, yoga, tantric principles and alternative healing techniques.

Naiman founded her design company, Aparat, in 2003 and has worked for an impressive number of commercial clients, including Target, Disney, Oscar de la Renta and Elle magazine. But it's the work she does for personal clients that she finds most rewarding because it allows to her blend her varied interests in science, psychology, spirituality and design.

Burns describes her first design meeting with Naiman as "magical" (a refrain I heard from every client of Naiman's with whom I spoke). "She did not just come in to decorate. Instead she listened to my design needs, but also my emotional needs and what my goals were. She asked me what I wanted my life to really look like, and then she helped me construct a home that actively supports those goals."

Naiman created a few reading nooks in the house, which entailed moving several pieces of furniture and relocating a large pile of unread books from Burns's bedroom into her home office. Burns recalls Naiman saying, "You can't have the focal point of your relaxation room be a pile of guilt." Naiman also created a peaceful place for Burns to meditate in her bedroom by placing an antique mirror that had belonged to Burns's grandmother over an old chest that Burns had purchased on a trip to Tajikistan.

In the kitchen, Naiman made room for some beautiful bowls that she encouraged Burns to keep filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, thereby encouraging healthy eating. Naiman also instructed Burns in a little DIY project: Burns covered a piece of plywood with a beautiful fabric remnant, hammered in some nails, then hung her necklace collection from them.

"Seeing my necklaces out all the time inspires me to wear them, which means I am more apt to get dressed in something other than sweats, so I look more put together, which in turn makes me feel good about myself, so I am more likely to make a healthy choice at lunch," says Burns. She has lost an impressive amount of weight and now meditates and reads every day.

Rebecca Dreyfus, an award-winning filmmaker also from Brooklyn, calls Naiman her "design therapist." She needed help with her home office, a room that she described as "uninspired," not at all conducive to her creative endeavors. Dreyfus had read a friend's Facebook post about Naiman and how she rearranged, rehung and reimagined the woman's space all using items the woman had on hand, an appealing description for someone not looking to spend a lot of money. Within minutes of their first visit, Naiman had assessed the situation; Naiman recalls "needing to turn down the visual noise of Dreyfus's office. There was just too much stuff so it was not conducive to being centered and calm." The process, Dreyfus says, "wasn't just about how to make the room look nice, it was more about how the room became an extension of me and the world that I wanted to create in my work."

Not buying stuff is a cornerstone of Naiman's craft and is one that sets her apart from other designers. She tries to use what her clients have but mix it all in a different way to suit their style and energy. Compared with Marie Kondo, say, she is less about getting rid of things, and more about finding balance.

She believes that if you "tune a space to a person's future - to what they want to become - then that future will become a reality." Think "Field of Dreams": If you build it, they will come. Both Burns and Dreyfus have witnessed this "magic." Naiman explains: "I want to understand not who the client is, but who he or she wants to become. And part of reaching that goal is for them to look at themselves and their surroundings as two parts of a whole."

To achieve this, Naiman starts the design process with a coaching session during which she and her client discuss not only what they want the space to feel like, but how the client wants to personally evolve in two years' time. Naiman chose a two-year timeline because, she says, "it's far enough away for someone to stretch into, but not too far off that it feels intangible or uncomfortable."

Once she and her clients have clarity as to where the process needs to go, Naiman helps them clear their spaces by editing, purging and redirecting items. Then she focuses on the aesthetics and balancing beauty with function - paying close attention to mixing materials, choosing colors and balancing what she calls masculine and feminine elements: masculine being the functional elements that form the backbone of the space and feminine being the tactile elements that nourish the soul. The last step is layering into the space personal items - the accessories and objects that make a room unique. These steps, while not revolutionary in design practice, are done with a conscious intention and purpose.

For Naiman, her methods have never seemed more relevant than right now. "If being stuck at home has made you realize, wait, this isn't working for me - and you want to change, you need to find a catalyst. And one massive catalyst can be your home." But, cautions Naiman, change can be hard. Assessing yourself and your surroundings requires painful honesty; you need to first dissolve what doesn't work before you can fill the space with what does work.

Feature image: Unsplash

This originally appeared on The Washington Post | Author: Elizabeth Mayhew