GLBT AMERICA Interior Shelly Rosenberg uses interior design to change lives

Shelly Rosenberg uses interior design to change lives

Photography by Stephen Karlisch.

What did that look like on the professional front? 

To justify the shift, ego wise and among the design friends, I looked into the science behind design. It’s not just me wanting this pious life, you know? There were more angles to this. What I found is that there is an incredible amount of evidence-based scientific research that interior design has great power to affect society’s health. I am paraphrasing a researcher who said, because we are inside 90% of our day, architects and designers have more power to affect health and wellness than actual medical practitioners. It’s not just about how aesthetics can make you feel or even affect your immune system. We can go deeper — let’s look at water and air quality, off gassing of toxins that are filling our homes from disposable furniture with glues and foams that are filled with those forever chemicals. It’s a rabbit hole. 

That’s a lot. How are you using this?

I’m teaching my clients. I’m starting to speak and teach designers and architects. I don’t go negative. You can scare the hell out of people and get compliance, but that’s not my MO and I never feel like that works as well as showing people all the amazing benefits of things that aren’t super difficult or expensive, like getting a Brita water filter. 

What it comes down to is that this approach reaches everyone — I don’t care whether you’re money driven, mission driven or you want to be famous, I have an argument that looking into building more universal spaces that support more people is better for your bottom line.  

How did you wind up as one of 26 (of a gazillion applicants) selected to work on this year’s Kips Bay Show House — which Architectural Digest called “the ne plus ultra venue for high end interior design”?

My best friend Amanda Lang and I went to the show house Dallas’ inaugural year. We were like, if we could do this, it could help the cause, give us a national stage to talk about disability and accessible design. But, if we were selected, I don’t even have an employee, I worried I could never pull it off. She said she’d help. Her daughter has Rett syndrome. And my heart goes out to them. It’s another level. 

In the application, I asked if anyone’s ever done a handicapped room in the show house. I worried a little that they might not want anything political or sad. This is supposed to be about luxury. But it happened.

How did you and your zero employees manage this? 

We overworked ourselves, but got it done. Amanda and I enlisted a small-scale contractor, Sam Graham’s 2g Habitats. We needed him — we’re here working alongside designers like Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who has a staff of maybe 75 rock stars, and we’re working from carpool lines, making chicken nuggets while ordering wallpaper. Our husbands both were a little frustrated at the time. 

How did the experience play into your bigger-picture plans? 

The recognition from national media — even a little blip in AdPro (Architectural Digest) — it’s a tiny snowflake that starts to snowball, where they start thinking about luxury rooms for certain needs, aging in place, and begin understanding that this is an important thing to start discussing.

If I can plant seeds with every other designer and architect, then they run with it, we start scaling as a society. I’m not a great business woman. I’m a creative thinker. A nurturer. But I’ve got bills to pay like everyone else. It took some time to figure out what my business was. As usual, I sought input from families about what they needed, and it turns out they don’t want a consultant. Every person said, I don’t want one more email. I want you to come to my house, hold my hand and do it for me. And I do want to be in people’s homes doing design. Not just writing and advising on the website. So I may be working with one or two clients at a time right now, implementing inclusive, universal design that fits their lives. 

The goal is, make enough money to, at some point, create a foundation where the earnings can trickle back to families that could not afford to hire a designer. In Dallas ISD, 80% of our students are under the poverty line. There’s so much of Dallas that is desperate for help. I am wired to work with the underserved- not the typical design client, but I plan to change that. 

Interview has been edited for brevity. 

Virtually tour the Kips Bay Decorator Show House here.