The Toughest Customer

This post has no photos because my latest makeover was done for a small studio apartment and the toughest customer was… my mom.

I have learned a lot of valuable lessons because having close relationships with your “customer” can be both a blessing and a curse. I think the most practical application of this experience is redesigning a classroom with your own co-worker, a person who you know well, who matters to you, and who might or might not have the same opinion about things for which you invest your time and efforts.

So here is the story. It all started with my suggestion to paint the walls in my mom’s apartment that was last renovated more than a decade ago. She got very excited and this idea dominated our conversations. The problems started when she realized that simply painting the walls wouldn’t bring about the change she was hoping for. And after we went into discussions about new furniture or linens or decorations, she would get overwhelmed and say that “we don’t need to do anything, really, I like it the way it is”.

Lesson 1. It is not easy to imagine a dramatic change in your space, especially if it requires a lot of work and creative thinking. Acknowledge it. But also know that if you don’t work through that “fear of the unknown”, there is likely to be no change.

However, after I visited her place, I realized that it definitely can be improved. So I made her an offer (which she could easily refuse). I said, “If you buy paint (asking for some commitment there), I will paint your walls for you in a few days. You decide.” She agreed on the spot.

Lesson 2. Be specific about your plans, assign tasks and responsibilities from the beginning, and set clear deadlines.

Well, instead of putting one coat of paint, I had to paint the walls and the ceiling in the living room FOUR times, and the kitchen and the hallway twice. We decided to go with the white colour and a minimalist Scandinavian look. What we didn’t know was that the original peach-coloured coating was not paint but rather coloured lime wash over gypsum. It slowly “sucked in” the paint but only after the whole wall was done. Since I already started, I had to finish applying the first coat, then the primer, and then add two coats on top of it. It was just like that saying that any construction project costs twice as much and takes twice as long as planned.

Lesson 3. Do your due diligence and plan for the “worst case scenario”, even if you are very hopeful for the best. There are always unexpected delays and challenges.

I was getting really antsy trying to make those walls perfect because I set my mind on making them “better”. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that “better” might not mean “the best”.

Lesson 4. Don’t get stuck. Sometimes you can’t fix the unfixable no matter how hard you try. If you are not willing to spend a huge amount of time and money on it, do your best and then let go.

After we finished the walls, the old and tattered furniture didn’t seem to fit. So we lived through the joy of de-cluttering mom’s storage closet and turning it into a walk-in closet, which allowed us to throw away the old wardrobe. We turned the old bookcase upside down, took off the glass doors, and turned it into a slick new bookshelf. We rescued an oil lamp from the storage and made it a part of the decor. We cut the old painting in three, framed them separately and it became a new triptych. We moved the furniture, added a new rug, new pillows, and plants. Each decision, each purchase was discussed and we truly listened to each other’s ideas until we found the one we both were happy with.

Lesson 5. Rethink, reuse and recycle. We often have most things we need in our classrooms. Looking at our environments from a different angle might solve many issues without having to spend a lot of money.

Funny thing, when I sent my mom a link to the Jysk website and asked her to go to the actual store and find something she liked, she was convinced that there was nothing there for her. After we went to the store together, she bought some things and later she brought my dad there just to show him what a cool store she discovered!

Lesson 6. It takes some time to accept that someone’s suggestion is exactly what you were looking for. And it takes time to accept this idea as “your own” because it came from someone else.

I have to give my mom credit for being such a trooper though. She was really hesitant in the beginning but she was working so hard! I knew it was not easy for her but she didn’t complain or moan and we became a really great team.

Lesson 7. Living through a difficult experience can bring people closer.

And then there was this big thing about identities and styles. I made sure that I acknowledged that my mom was who she was and I wasn’t not trying to change that but rather reflect her presence through the physical objects that were arranged in a different way. While she would have a tons of trinkets littering the shelves, I would pick one or two meaningful items and display them with pride. Often, I would pull something out of the storage and it would trigger my own memories of my childhood but it was not about me, it was about her. I would leave with a suggestion (why don’t you try this?) and come back to see it done. Leaving some space to try things out and play with them provided enough freedom for my mom that she didn’t feel pushed to do things “my way”.

Lesson 8. Take time and respect the differences. If you are working on a shared space like a classroom, look for compromises and mutually agreeable solutions.

The biggest takeaway is this: the makeover made my mom feel better. It made her feel proud of her space again, inspired her to continue working on it and improving it. It made us a better team even though we were already a loving family. Thank you, mom, and enjoy your home!

2 thoughts on “The Toughest Customer”

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