Vermont Woman Spotlights Kim Deetjen
Kim Deetjen: Burlington’s Award-Winning Interior Designer
Written by Allison Teague
Interior designer Kim Deetjen has followed her passion, and admits she is living her dream job at Truex- Cullins, a Burlington architecture and design firm. In March, in recognition of her “excellence in design,” she will be honored at the 2014 Awards Gala given by the New England chapter of American Society of Interior Designers in Boston. One of four honorees in the “professional” category, this award is a career first for her at age 50.
Deetjen’s career began at TruexCullins nearly 25 years ago. In 2007, she became one of only six principals, or ownership partners, at the firm. Deetjen created, and now leads, the Interior Design Studio, a position for which she had no mentors or teachers. Yet she did have an influence, growing up.
Deetjen said she never wanted to do anything else. There was something about walking into a room, and wanting to make it comfortable that accompanied her earliest memories. It began with her mother, a painter. Twice a year, she would change-up the slipcovers in her living room, switch out the curtains, and replace elements to give the room a seasonal flavor. This experience stayed with Deetjen, and inspires her today, guiding her approach to interior design.
“The whole house was torn apart for a couple of days while she was doing that, and the result was really pretty cool. This was in the ’60s and ’70s,” Deetjen recalls.
She said she paid close attention to what her mother chose, and how she implemented the changes. “My mom was right there at the sewing machine, making things herself. It was not within the realm of reality that we would change out the furniture.”
If you are a young family, Deetjen still advises, “You invest in furniture to last a lifetime. You invest in pieces you want to last.”
She said she learned this, too, from experience. “Knowing which pieces to invest in, and then which pieces are easily switched up,” was key to her mom’s success. “My mom’s approach was the slipcover approach,” Deetjen laughed. “You could say she was years ahead of her time. She had it goin’ on— and I didn’t even realize it!”
Deetjen’s childhood influences led to her completing a bachelor of fine arts in Interior Design at Syracuse University. “I grew up skiing in Vermont, so I moved here after college for my love of skiing,” Deetjen said.
“I met Tom Cullins and Bill Truex in 1989,” she recalls. Cullins had designed Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington with Bill Henderson, while at Burlington Associates in the early 1970s. Bill Truex was designer of Church Street Market Place, also in the early 1970s. The partners placed their faith in her, and put her to work right out of college. She interned with them for two years. That gave her the confidence to pursue the rest of her career, she said.
She left in 1994 to intern for several years with several prestigious Washington D.C. and Boston interior design firms. When she and her husband wanted to return to Vermont, TruexCullins hired her back. She opened her interior design studio there in the fall of 1998.
She said their continued support and confidence in her, demonstrated by giving her free rein to build her own design studio within the architectural firm, gave her the ability to “combine that passion [of interior design] with my love of skiing” in Vermont.
Lessons Learned, Risks Taken
Deetjen said she never considered her career would take anything less than focused determination and a lot of hard work. She said her start at TruexCullins in Burlington and subsequent years assisting accomplished designers such as Mary Odyniec in D. C. and Boston interior designers William Hodgins, Judith Ross, and Eugene Lawrence were key to giving her a good knowledge base for her future work at TruexCullins.
Interning “for others who had successes, and were further on in their careers,” gave her real-world training, enabling her to then step into creating her own interior design studio. “But when I got here,” she said of TruexCullins, “I had to start from scratch.”
As the first and only interior designer at the firm, she had “no one to teach me or show the way.” And there were financial hardships that followed her investment as a principal during the 2008 “industry-wide” economic recession, she said, adding: “The best way to learn is from our own experience. You make a mistake once; you hope you’re not going to do it again.”
Her training, experience and background with TruexCullins and other designers gave her “confidence and knowledge [so] that, I felt like the sky is the limit to what I could accomplish.” And, she said, being a woman has never held her back. “Being female has been an advantage, because women have a sense for how arranging a room makes you feel good,” Deetjen claims, and, “more often than not, you’re designing to what women are looking for” in a room, she said.
Her philosophy is to do “the best job you can do. That is why it has worked out so well for me. I approach my work so nothing is personal,” she said. “The only thing that is personal is what we are there to do for the client or customer. It’s about their experience [and their] experience is extremely personal.”
“But in terms of the process, if someone doesn’t like my idea, I never take it personally,” Deetjen said.
Deetjen now works primarily in hospitality-focused interior design for hotels and inns. “I have come to really enjoy how hospitality work incorporates what I love about residential [interior design],” she says. “Hotel rooms have become much more residential, are much more in line with what you might do in your own home.”
She wants to create “spaces that make people feel good, where they go for enjoyment and relaxation and shelter [and to] recreate on vacation with family and friends.”
Hospitality has changed, and increasingly, Deetjen said, “boutique” destinations are where people “choose to go, and spend some time.”
This is fortuitous for Deetjen’s work, and she may be influencing this trend a bit herself.
With her background in learning how to make practical choices in the basics of a room, the furniture for instance, Deetjen’s approach has become recognized. Her recent Vermont projects include Topnotch Resort Spa in Stowe, the Hotel Vermont in Burlington, and the Trapp Family Lodge Villas and Health and Fitness Center.
All are about sustainable choices that include practical use of local resources whenever possible. She explained that in five years, when trends inevitably change, costs to keep up will be less for the owners.
Deetjen said she begins by responding to the existing building and property, if there is one, “and then the materiality.” Materiality means furnishings, lighting, textile coverings, all combined with Deetjen’s approach. “It is what I describe as timeless,” Deetjen emphasized.
While Deetjen’s mom “switched up” the family living room twice a year, hospitality venues follow a similar pattern only about every five years. But, assures Deetjen, “You won’t be feeling like you need to switch out the floor, but you might want to change the paint color, or bedding. Creating a timeless neutral backdrop allows you to bring in color and trend and fun and whimsy that fill the space—and with objects that are easily changed out.”
This approach works for both hospitality and residential design, Deetjen said.
Deetjen said she is “all about using lighting” to create the desired ambience in a space. Lighting can emphasize architectural space or features, and is something everyone can use in their own homes. She said when people buy homes, lighting the interior, and how the windows sit in relation to the sun, are some of the first things to consider.
Whether it is an old Vermont farmhouse, a newly built residence, or a hotel room in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the views from the windows, the light that reaches the interior, and how the rooms are lit from the inside, all contribute to a feeling of comfort and relaxation, she explained.
She said she approaches existing structures with this in mind, as well as in the planning stages of a new architectural project.
She also includes the history of the locale. For instance, one can highlight the beautiful wood floors of many a Vermont farmhouse with recessed lighting 15 inches above the floor. That allows you to see the floor, and creates a warm glow for the rest of the room.
She also uses a combination of LED, halogen, or fluorescent bulbs in a room for a specific task, such as reading in bed, or creating ambiance from several different light sources. These are important but simple choices available to everyone.
She explains: “A beautiful lighting effect when you enter the room is moving away from the old, alarming, overhead lighting from a center ceiling fixture, toward LED reading lights on headboards or wall lights, and adding indirect lighting wherever possible.” She says this “gives a beautiful effect when you don’t have all the lights on.”
Deetjen also suggested subtlety. “You might just have a warm glow from lighting under a bed platform, so you are illuminating a wood floor, or [you might] highlight a wood ceiling.” She said her team looks for, and plays to, the strength of a property. “For beautiful effects in a mix of lighting types, and where it comes from—lighting can be the jewelry in the room.”
She warned that new technology in lighting had created a knee-jerk reaction to change out all the bulbs in a room to fluorescent or LED bulbs to be environmentally friendly. “If you don’t know about the technology, “a room can be lit haphazardly and even alarmingly using the wrong bulb combinations or placement within a room,” Deetjen observed. “The single most simple way that we can implement a tremendous change is by doing lighting well.”
When designing for hospitality, Deetjen’s choices are “definitely sustainable. It’s a careful mix of elements that are fresh and current, without creating an interior that is going to become quickly outmoded. We’re ahead of the curve in terms of our design approach.”
Deetjen explained that “what you risk when you follow the trend, is you become dated much too quickly.” In today’s economy, most property owners have to “be careful how they are going to spend money. They want to see longevity, and know if they are going to invest in a floor, it is going to last, and not become dated too quickly.”
She suggested new homeowners, as well as hotel owners, should invest in “more timeless designs” for furniture, “because those are the most costly items to replace.” As she learned growing up, “furniture costs a lot more to replace than just switching up the [covering] the way my mom used to do. [The covering] can immediately change the interior look” of a room.
Giving an example of furniture decisions, she said that she and her husband had decided to first invest in a nice sideboard, where she could store her collectibles and dishes, but not in a dining table. Their combination living/ dining room was the project room for the kids during the day.
Yet on holidays, her guests would arrive to a lovely dining setting. Her secret was tablecloth skirts that went down to the floor, placed over folding tables and chairs she would rent for the occasion. She said that only now, with her children grown and the room no longer needed for projects, had she and her husband decided to invest in a dining table and chairs.
Practical choices in lighting and furnishings— whether for boutique hotels and spas or for young families—can create welcoming spaces that ensure time spent in the space is comfortable, Deetjen said. Rooms that are timeless invite residents to relax, enjoy the view, and stay awhile, she explained.
Then, if a new trend, or a whimsy, or a season change determine a “switch up” is needed, simple changes in bedding, curtains, or sofa covers, or lighting, can easily create a whole new look and feel.
Deetjen plans some changes for her next decade. Her jobs are now mostly the result of referrals. “That is what you want,” she explained. “People who have seen your work, and like it. That’s the best compliment.”
“I’m now in the phase where I’ve achieved many of my goals. I have the portfolio and experience and reputation in the market. I am enjoying the benefits of not having to work so hard at getting that next project,” Deetjen said.
With her children older, and the interior design studio established, “I can take on the giving-back part of my career. I’m at a place in my career now where I look forward to that, and embrace it, and am excited by it.” She intends to begin to travel more with her family. Having taught at Wentworth Institute of Technology and at Boston Architectural Center when she lived in Boston, she said she is also open to opportunities to teach again. The firm has interns in all its departments. She feels her wisdom and experience would be of value to new designers.
“Anyone who is really, truly dedicated and motivated can achieve dreams. But it does take time,” Deetjen said, adding that balance is key. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be around to take care of your family: Family, then friends, then work and things.”
She said she intentionally keeps “that check and balance,” trying not to let career or goals get in the way of the rest of her life. Deetjen said when work takes over, life “gets out of whack.” She recalled, “When there was maximum stress or pressure was when I was least happy, and not taking care of myself or family or friends.
“It’s important to carve out time to recharge the battery,” Deetjen advised. “If I am not feeling good about myself, I can’t do my best work.”
Deetjen admits she has seen her dreams come true. “I’m living it.” For a woman who came from modest beginnings, had a passion for skiing and interior design, and both a family and a career, the rewards are finally starting to come in. Next spring she will receive the first award of her career. But given her love for what is timeless, Deetjen may just be hitting her stride.
Writer and artist Allison Teague is a frequent contributor to Vermont Woman. She lives in Saxtons River.