A Life Refashioned

Kelee Katillac found her calling in a broken chair

| November / December 2002

KELEE KATILLAC WAS IN THE DUMPS when she found her calling. It was 1982, she was 22, down-and-out, and living in a trailer park in rural Kansas. One day, when she was walking to the convenience store, something caught her eye: a derelict chair that seemed to perfectly represent her life at that moment. It was dirty, tattered, missing a leg, and it seemed completely beyond repair. Katillac felt an urge to drag the thing home, and spent weeks restoring it. "I essentially applied what was left within me to that chair," she tells Kingsley Hammett in Designer/Builder (July/Aug. 2002).

That experience ignited a creative spark that turned Katillac’s life around. Next she spruced up the rest of her trailer, making it a showplace that led to some decorating jobs around town. Within a couple of years, Katillac landed a job at an interior design firm in Kansas City and soon moved on to New York City, where she gained national prominence with dozens of her projects featured in design magazines.

But something was amiss. Katillac felt trapped in the big-money New York design scene, creating lavish projects that were basically "gilded cages" for wealthy clients. Too often, she realized, both the interior design process and the finished product reflected only the designer’s vision, leaving little room for homeowners to express their own personality and creative spirit.

Katillac abruptly left New York and re-turned to Kansas City, where she took up the study of art history. She was drawn to the writings of English designer William Morris, who in the late 1800s observed that industrialization was putting artisans out of business, turning independent craftspeople into factory drones cut off from their own creativity.

Applying that insight to her own work, Katillac set out to refashion her interior design business so clients could get in touch with their own creative selves. She developed a new process, dubbed House of Belief (www.houseofbelief.org), that involves the client at every step. She asks her clients to think about what they value and believe in and tours their homes with them, asking about the history and meaning of their prized possessions. Katillac encourages people to recall the rooms they enjoyed in childhood. They then create models of their ideal spaces, to get a picture of what their home could actually look like. Finally, she helps them recreate those models as life-size spaces.

Circling back to her own roots, Katillac has tailored the process for low-income owners of Habitat for Humanity homes, some of whom now use the skills they learned in her workshops—such as painting, sewing, and upholstery—to help support their families. Interestingly, she learned through her Habitat experience—a four-year pilot project completed this year—that low-income families often need much less help unlocking their imaginations than her wealthier clients. "Those who are stricken by poverty are forced to rely much more on their creativity," she says.

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