Designer / Builder Kim Gordon on an Unconventional Path to Success
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Designer / Builder Kim Gordon on an Unconventional Path to Success

Hi, welcome to our Forbes video series. I am here today with Kim Gordon one of the most amazing builder and designers that I know of. Whenever you walk into a Kim Gordon house you just feel different. As a woman I feel more of a woman, I feel lighter. There’s a real sensory, sensual, seductive aspect to Kim Gordon’s design and what’s most interesting about Kim is the fact that she became a builder and designer through a very unconventional means. She did not go to college, she did not have this training architecture background that most builders have yet her last house sold for 5.25 million one of the record-breaking prices in Venice just this year. So, Kim is here to give us some advice about how she overcame her challenges and just her path to becoming this incredible builder an architect and designer. God Raquel, Jeepers! Wow ok I want to know her. So, tell me what led you to a career in design. When I was younger I used to decorate my own room and I was I had a lot of private side of that. I’d go shopping and do things and sort of lay the room out and then how did that lead to architecture? It’s crazy, right? How it all started was I moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico and in moving to San Juan, Puerto Rico I met this fantastic designer. Her house was so magical. I remember walking in there and it was just full of the most divine things and I didn’t know anything, I was so clueless about design or what design means or how it feels in space. This house was magic, I remember just going I know what this is but I need to end up living there for a while and I learned a little bit about finishing and glazes and antiquing and when I moved to Los Angeles I started to do more of it and when I started to do more of that, I loved it and people started hiring me. But you didn’t have a background. No background at all, no background in anything. I didn’t go to school, I worked and school didn’t pay me i couldn’t get away from design there was no it just somehow or another was just it just became of that groove that you have inside of yourself. What was the biggest challenge you faced not having this traditional background? I think it’s because I never went to school and didn’t go to college I’m an artist so I never had to show anyone a resume to say this is my education no one really asked. So I would go to different designers and architects and they just I would just have these ideas and you know when you’re in a creative field no one’s really thinking that much about it. As I became more successful and I started to do more homes then people started going who especially you know architects and people who have invested their whole life and the whole world and a lot of money and their entire mindset on the way that architects build or certain formulas for building and even though I people talk about how the space works always been very lucky that people like it and they walk in and they go oh the flow or the volume or the the way you capture the light and people that are confident really seem to groove on that but people who aren’t as successful they look at it and make it very resentful. I didn’t sign up for any of that. You know? I mean I didn’t I didn’t say i’m not going to have a you know a lot of money I have to pay back the government from education. I didn’t have to stay up all night long. No, I did stay up all night long cleaning floors and do these you know things But in a way you weren’t box by like a formula by a process that you had to go through that almost constrained you. By basically really being very creative and not having any rules you really were you know, you were able to kind of find your own designs. I have to say that’s exactly true. What are the benefits of taking a non-traditional approach to a career path versus a traditional approach? I think that number one is problem solving. I think in any business it’s being able to not freak out when something’s going on whatever it is because you’ve got this boots-on-the-ground knowledge and you’re able to find the solution to something and then be able to do it and I think you can only get that from real-world experience but just coming up with solutions of things you just go we have to fix it I think in any business I would imagine in journalism, and anything something’s like “ugh” as soon as you see it “what’s the solution”? I don’t know how you get that in school, I just don’t. What is the formula for that? What is the height of the stone so, what is the light when it reflects on this, what is this building called, what is this process called I don’t do architect speak but when it comes down to doing the space, knowing that this light feels really good in here, I love how this room is moving. Stuff like that, you know, it’s very special ok I mean it’s and I don’t know if you can get that if you’re not in school. What designers inspired you? Oh I the Belgians, I think. you know Axel Velvoordt is so genius and he’s also he didn’t go to school. There’s so many, Vince Van Duyson did but he went to architecture school but a lot of them dropped out I mean in the real world i think that we have to live and eat and work but that groove is still there. I designed this I like interiors I think my heart is just so set on home you know that that’s what that’s why I ended up designing like this. Let’s talk about risk, it seems like you’ve taken a lot of risk to get to where you are today. What’s interesting about real estate and about developing homes is it takes you months to get the permits and then it takes months to build it and it’s all cash and the risk is so ginormous that it scares and when you really think I want to flip houses and you look and you go goodness that’s all cash that’s all cash and you’re holding it in not being afraid to lose in me not being afraid again to wash floors not wash floors but to do my my finishes and I’m not I’ve done it I’ve been there I didn’t die you know, I just did it. I just don’t know any business you have to have the risk and getting back to risk in the market, the thing about real estate is that, you know the thing about flipping is it’s a year or so, almost a year and you know what the markets going to do 1,000 things can happen so you have all this money, time, love invested into it and all the sudden something happens with the market a year down the road nevermind, nevermind trends, you have to order tile you have to order these things and you have to foresee what are they going to want to have a year from now that’s what I’m saying about risk in this business but the rewards of course are you know they’re ginormous. You don’t build for somebody, you know you don’t have somebody you know hire you and say I want you to build this house for me, you just do it you do it when you buy the property but you you tear it down and rebuild it and you’re designing for the future owner whoever that might be. That’s correct and its kind of and that’s when you think about it. Yeah, that’s a lot of risk and have to just design something for someone you don’t know, I mean really. And you think to yourself, do have children? Do they not? If there’s a certain element of finding a muse that you would imagine would live somewhere. Tell me about your process of feeling a design I feel like there’s something very intuitive and sensory, sensual about how about your your design style. It’s very unique Kim Gordon style. I think it’s about feeling I think it’s really just about all the experiences that you bring into a home what you we’re talking about homes here, we’re talking about the single most precious thing. I mean you have a home where you’re going to make children where you’re going to create, you’re having a tough day you want to come home I mean this place has to be a nest you know it’s really filled with all these weird things you’ve gotten over the years and and I think that’s really important in making houses for someone you don’t know which is what I do is that I have to imagine what it would feel like to flow through the house. I’m walking in the door, where do I put my keys, am I hit with something lovely does it smell really nice right here do I have an opportunity for plantings right there, is there water flowing? You know something that kinda gets me like “Oh, I’m home” and you just want to be there just those little moments i think. A lot of people have said that you design for a woman and that I think it’s much more than that. Yeah I think you’re right in a weird way I feel like I don’t want to be just designing for women. I mean I can’t help it I’m going I’m a woman and I’m a mom and I’m you know I’m a person running around but I don’t know if it’s just a matter of thinking about the sensory, thinking more about the analog thinking more about the tactile, we’re women you know that we’re doing sort of make the nest and the guys are hunting or something. Bringing home something. So, you know I really wanted it to be this beautiful space and and I think that we think about that I guess that’s the most female part that I could really relate to. It’s very sensory absolutely there and it’s funny because when purchasing materials it has to be something you touch something your crank or i’ll say I need little crunch over there, you hear that constantly, it needs to be a little crunchier that’s a little too crunchy, I need a little bling. And building your career as a designer and builder, you had to overcome a lot of criticism from other architects who were perhaps jealous, who were not prepared for your success, how did you overcome that criticism? That was hard i have to say it’s so painful because you and you feel like for me I didn’t have much confidence. I was married to someone who we’re friends but it was hard he was very very educated he was a financial guy so money equals success if and I was doing something wasn’t making money with my art or whatever as well it’s not working you know you’re not you know it wasn’t it’s almost extinct like a soup you know it’s not quite tasting good yet it’s gotta cook a little bit, I was just cooking. But you found a way to overcome that criticism I mean you found a way I think you have to ignore it, I mean in a way I take it back you absolutely, positively, have to ignore criticism. That’s what it is for an artist. I think starting out as an artist and getting used to people who are getting or not um you just go “well, they don’t get it.” It obviously started small and then people kept coming and going and it’s feeding it I get nervous I’m very insecure about it all, still! When people say this has really moved me what you’ve done here is really special amazing I’m not taking it as something that can now go to the store with, to me it really feels like it’s it’s just like “thank you so much”, because I feel like I feel like this is a good thing I feel like this is going in a cool place and that keeps you that busy when people are saying something else number one if they’re not in the game they can’t say anything to me like I’m going to talk about politics to someone who doesn’t vote, just forget about it. If you’re not doing buildings you can’t talk about buildings if you’re just afraid because you just got your your kind of just taking little jobs and you’re not taking that huge risk and putting your money and your world out there I don’t really know what you have to tell me because there’s so many elements. Yes, I had to do that. Yes it was an expensive but that’s what I had to do right then and you would understand it if you were here with me on the same risk level otherwise what are they going to tell you there’s a million little things and it makes me sad I mean I’ve lost friends and I was very naive and really kind of like super like I’m gonna help you with your house but you know really miss I’m gonna do it I’m so excited and wow people really took advantage and I would just sit there going to drop this person really going “Oh my god this person’s really gonna do this to me, this is crazy i just can’t.” and then just let them go like there’s just there’s no real you just have to go “Wow, I gotta let this go”. Friends of mine are architects and they’re not very successful and as I was getting more successful there’s little pieces of information they’d give me like “Well yeah, but I would blah blah” you know you’re listening to it like people are giving you advice thinking they think they’re trying to help you and then you have to realize.. But I don’t know if they’re helping because if it’s not going to tell me yeah exactly what is it it’s more about aesthetic I mean it’s just like art like this is a painting I’m an artist, do you like it, yes or no? Do you sell the painting it’s kind of the same thing it just so happened that these houses are houses, that’s what’s really scary you go for as an artist to make little installations or little shrines that cost whatever and now you’re looking at This is a huge installation! This massive thing that you’ve got to sell and then you’ve gotta let it go so it’s not just like I got this cute painting on a wall it’s a whole world people going to make babies in I mean you just think oh my god this is a place that they chose, they chose to buy a part of Earth that they’re going to live in and I just can’t believe i have this level of responsibility when you think about, it’s really intense, it’s really intense. Well let’s talk a little bit about your personal life, if you don’t mind. You’re the mother two children 13 and an eight-year-old? Yes, two boys. Talk about building this incredible career that you have that’s so inspiring, how do you do that and be a mom and I don’t know that just be a woman and have a life I mean how do you have that? Balance is hard, man. It’s really I don’t even honestly I just my biggest challenge is and I think it’s really important to talk about is the gear shifting. If I’m really in my head and I’m designing and deeply designing and you’re really really into it and then you gotta stop at four o’ clock or 3:30 to pick the kids up. Going from designing such a level was all in my head to switch from that to going to like literally doing kids homework and getting into some fight on the way home and then they want to eat, I’m gonna have to make dinner and I’m just I just get like, well, how am I gonna do that? And it’s that feeling again it’s just about how do you take that huge boat of mine and just kind of move it into Ok I can cook dinner what do you guys want, what do you guys want to eat, the fight ensues. Gear shifting. If I’m in the head and then someone even asks me a question and they’re like oh so what about this bill or something I go like “rawr” you know what I mean it’s really hard that I find to be the hardest thing what the answer is I guess is the commitment obviously children are really important that that really I mean that’s the most important thing in the world and it’s true for myself whenever I feel guilty because I beat myself up not being with the kids more and I’m lucky to have a flexible schedule all over the world, people killing themselves to just work and just to survive and thrive and it takes up so much time and then to be able to sit there with your children I’m lucky that can be there as much as I can. You know, people are stressed out the world is so hard to give the kids what they need. I wish,I mean really that’s intense that’s a big deal it freaks me out more than all the houses. Oh my god. Well, what a responsibility. I’m sure you’re quite the mother. Oh, I don’t know. We laugh a lot, I can tell you that much. For somebody that wants to become a builder or architect or wants to go be something that requires just this long laundry list of education, experience you know, just degrees, what advice would you give them? You can’t be afraid to be dirty and you’re doing absolutely every little element of the house and this using an example of what happens no singer there when they’re sort of pulling out the the house and see how they actually demo you learn so much about who built it before when you get into the ground and start looking at the foundation and there’s all these elements and you have to be completely open to doing anything. I mean I’m saying anything, like there are times we have an open house or we have someone come in and I am on my hands and knees scrubbing something, we’re not afraid it’s just you’re just getting in it and getting it done and you can’t be afraid of any of that. You can’t ever think to yourself “Well, I’m too good for that”. don’t think that there’s any room for that at all in and as someone who’s going to be self that sounds, self-made is that the way they call it? Right? Because it’s just it’s just this thing that you’re like I’m gonna do it I’m gonna get in there you know what you need it’s a it’s a personality you know what I mean because you really have to get in there connect with people outside. Like when I want to get a great price on this fantastic table, I want to go do a million things. The neighbors, the neighbors hate construction when you really get into it, you really have to have a certain kind of whatever to get through it and just be positive and not be kind of stuck in it not get caught up in the pieces, not get caught up in any of it. Not let these little individual setbacks just get you down. They’re all solution based. The thing is, what is the problem? I have a bad neighbor, or the neighbors are sensitive. What is the solution? It’s to make her happy. We have a house where the two houses that we did right in the middle is a tiny little house and I felt so bad for the man i just couldn’t please the poor guy who lives in the middle of these two houses during construction but we got along so long with them and we end up giving him like full landscape it was just this little thing which was just a kind of I don’t know, could you imagine living next to construction for a year and a half between two houses, it’s so bad. But it’s also like not just feeling a home but it’s feeling the people that you’re working with whether it’s you know somebody that you’re trying to buy a table or your neighbors it’s like feeling just feeling somebody else and saying okay you know how can I work with them to get what I want. Absolutely and and it’s what’s good for all. So you’re blossoming you I think you found a way to create your own design style. For somebody, for another artist you know whether it’s a car designer yacht designer, and architect, a builder what advice would you recommend in giving somebody who say, somebody who wants to create their own unique design style? You have to really pay attention and trust yourself I think everything’s derivative and I believe that when you’re looking through magazines or you’re looking through books and you really get whatever it is all of a sudden you find yourself saying that I love that I really love that you don’t know, what is “that”? As a designer, that is something that is your whatever your creative genius saying “that’s your vibe, that’s your style that you like”. So maybe pinterest that, put that over here look at that put that on your board and it might not be exactly that but it’s it’s a little story, it’s a little narrative that somehow your soul is relating to and I think that for me it was European magazines we talked a little bit about this french magazine that I loved and back in 20 years ago find these older magazines and just go oh my god this is great how in the world did they take that old house and put that new Italian furniture in there. What is the next chapter in Kim Gordon’s life what is the next just what is the next challenge? You know what I think it, is I think it’s being happy. I think that when you work as hard as I have and try to figure out where you’re going to go with work how you’re gonna survive how you’re gonna make it how are you gonna retire like, how are the kids going to get to school, you know all of these things I think that finally to able to go like “I could actually be happy”. What about balance and a little bit of happy? How do you get that? All of a sudden your just so like that the hamster wheel right and you’re like I gotta go there, gotta do this and it’s funny because it really stresses me out when I get to finally kind of relax for these houses like oh ok, money is kind of like oh, okay. People are like “the houses are good” Oh, ok. “The kids are fine, they’re doing really well in school”. Oh, ok. And things start to get like that I almost have a panic attack, like somewhere within the quiet is a panic attack. Where you’re going I wasn’t panicked before when I was running around like a crazy person but as soon as I start to relax i’m ready to jump out of my head, out of my body, I just can’t. I’m like “Oh my God what do I do” I got it I got clean because you never say no when you work for yourself you know and you’re your own person you literally can never say no to a job and you might know this yourself you get the phone call you’re like I have to say yes I mean you have to say yes. You don’t know when it’s going to end It can just end at any time and you don’t know who you’re going to meet, relationships. So it’s always saying yes, the relationships with people you’re going to meet and not being afraid to take those risks. I think that is ginormous I mean probably the biggest thing, do they teach that in school? Maybe, I didn’t go to school. At the Kim Gordon School. Well thank you so much Kim, I really appreciate your time. Guys if you can ever come into a Kim Gordon house you should it’s beautiful and hopefully I’ll have a chance to live in one of your homes someday. If kim can share anything the most what I got out of it is that you don’t need the formal education you don’t need just this straight traditional approach to achieve your creative art you just need to feel it though you need to understand what you what you want to do and and and trust yourself, trust yourself to get that confidence. Thank you and until next time.

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