When interior designer Claire Zinnecker took the jump branch out on her own and walk down the career path less traveled, she soon realized having a dream and a plan that didn’t pan out was quite possibly the best thing that could have happened.
By April Cumming, Photos by Andrew Chan, Hair and makeup by Laura Martinez, Styled by Niki Jones
This was not the plan. She was supposed to have her foot in the door at a full-time job the minute she graduated college. She was supposed to be living in California, not Austin, and she most certainly was not supposed to be moving back into her parents’ house.
It was the summer of 2009 when Claire Zinnecker graduated with a degree in interior design from the University of Texas’ School of Architecture. Just the summer before, she had interned at the prestigious architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in downtown Los Angeles. She had loved the experience, the culture of LA, and returned home with hopes of a potential job offer upon graduation.
She had planned to study architecture since high school but, with a nudge in the right direction from her uncle, decided to focus on interior design instead.
“I was clueless. I never took a design class before I went to college,” Zinnecker says of the switch. “Obviously, I had an artistic passion. My uncle’s an architect, and I don’t even remember what it was exactly, but he said, ‘I think that you’d like interiors more.’ I was just like, ‘OK.’ I never looked back. I didn’t know anything about it. I never designed anything besides my dollhouse.”
The dream post-college had always been California, to live and work there, and Zinnecker planned to pack up and move the minute she had her diploma in hand. With the news of the 2008 U.S. stock-market crash and the ensuing doom-day response across industries—including the downsizing of design firms—all the dominos that had been strategically stacked in favor of Zinnecker’s post-grad success soon began to topple.
For starters, the entire LA branch of SOM was shut down. Undeterred and eager, she accepted a short-term contract position at the firm’s San Francisco branch, where she put in long days of work to keep her dream alive. In the end, despite her dedicated display of talent, the firm, in the throes of letting go 40 percent of its team, couldn’t offer Zinnecker a job.
She remained persistent, if not a bit less than levelheaded, about staying in California. It wasn’t until she interviewed for and got offered a waitressing job at a comedy club in a strip center in LA that she had to, metaphorically, slap herself in the face. This wasn’t what she had worked for. This wasn’t the dream. This wasn’t panning out.
Zinnecker consulted her conscience and, although broke and sans any job offers, chose to move back to Austin, back to the city that had supported her thus far.
“I snapped myself out of it and moved in with my parents for a year after school, which was really hard for me. That was never the plan, but it ended up being so great in the long run,” Zinnecker says. “There’s no shame in living with your parents, but the path that I created, in addition to the path that people expected me to go on…it was definitely a little blow to the pride. I mean, I had worked since I was 15. Not having a job when I was supposed to have a job was really, really terrifying to me. You just make it work.”
The experience, she says, taught her how to be flexible and resourceful.
“You get good grades, you go to college, you graduate with your degree and you get a job. That is the goal,” Zinnecker says. “So many of my friends didn’t have that happen. It just forces you to work harder and really set out a plan for yourself.”
Her Big Break
For Zinnecker, making it work meant picking up four part-time jobs with Austin-area designers, running errands, picking up dry cleaning, helping with architectural drawings and aiming to, in the end, make a lasting impression.
Eventually, she whittled her workload down to a full-time job with one designer and, in 2011, Zinnecker reached out to her friend and budding lifestyle blogger, Camille Styles. Styles was on the hunt for regular contributors and offered Zinnecker a bimonthly column, Claire Zinnecker: Transformed, on her site. The blog series offered readers tips and how-to tutorials on an array of unique DIY home-décor projects, from how to make embossed photo business cards, pet beds and iPad cases to how to repurpose cheese graters and mason jars as wall sconces and mini herb gardens, respectively.
“I was honestly so fortunate with that,” Zinnecker says. “I mean, I’ve known Camille since I was little. I think about her as a mentor now, as well as a friend, but I was so clueless when I graduated at the time, with there being no jobs. I just reached out to her one day and was like, ‘Maybe I’m interested in styling photo shoots. I’d love to, just, any time you need help.’ She was like, ‘Actually, I’m going to start bringing on contributors if you want to do a design column.’ Then that somehow morphed into DIYs.”
Zinnecker adds that the regular posts lit a spark in her.
“Not only did that awaken a creative side of me that I really enjoy, but Instagram was coming out at the same time, and it really taught me how much I love creating, visually, a two-dimensional image,” she says. “I styled all my DIYs and things like that. We got photographers sometimes, but especially for the beginning ones, I did it all.”
Figuring out what her next design project would be was similar to putting a large puzzle together piece by piece.
“It’s a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure,” Zinnecker says. “It’s like, ‘OK, what do I need?’ Really, how I thought about it was either I found something or it was like, ‘What do I need? What do I need in my house and how can I make it?’ It taught me a lot.”
The topic of her blog posts still comes up today. From job offers to host a YouTube video series to potential client inquires, her blog posts served as an active portfolio of sorts, showing the creative critical thinking she was capable of when a design conundrum presented itself.
Zinnecker is a unicorn, that is, in the way the moniker is tossed around to describe anyone who was born and raised in Austin and still lives here. As a kid, she spent the majority of her time outside, playing along the banks of the Barton Creek Greenbelt “before it was popular,” she notes.
“Both of my parents are very much budget-conscious, in the sense of we don’t waste money on things. If there’s something we could make, then we would make it,” Zinnecker explains. “My mom taught me how to sew and I went to sewing classes. We would make doll clothes. We would make clay sculpture things. I had a little dollhouse, and I would make my own presents under the Christmas tree for the dolls.”
She had a natural knack for DIY projects. Both her grandfathers were skilled carpenters, so, indeed, one could say the skill ran in her blood.
“My grandfather built boats and he was a woodworker, and so, my dad taught me those skills,” she says. “My mom’s dad, when he was alive, he and my uncle built my playhouse as a child. They both had built me American Girl doll beds. I grew up in a very make-it-yourself kind of family, which I loved. … Then it becomes sort of a snobby thing where I’m like, ‘Well, I like this thing that I could buy, but I could do it better. How do I do it?’ “
She offers up a funny example.
“My friend and I, my best friend and I growing up, our baby dolls weren’t floppy enough. We made two different kinds of baby dolls. One, we cut out an outline of a baby and stuffed it with beans, so it was floppy. It was like a beanbag, sort of. The other one, we made it out of water balloons. We were always coming up with something.”
Did the water-balloon baby doll ever burst?
“It had to sleep in the bathtub because my mom was worried about that,” Zinnecker quickly clarifies.
Through her regular DIY contributions to Camille Style’s blog, Zinnecker became accustomed to readers and followers asking her questions. Then, one day, a woman complimented Zinnecker on her aesthetic and asked if she would design an addition the woman was building on her house.
“I was like, ‘I guess I’ve got to figure this out and form a business,’ ” Zinnecker says, reflecting. “So, I did.”
Her company, Claire Zinnecker Design, celebrated its fourth anniversary in September.
A journalist once summed up Zinnecker’s design aesthetic as “Scandinavian modernism with a touch of Japanese minimalism,” a coined term Zinnecker says is agreeably accurate.
“I actually got a bad grade in college for doing [a project]in that aesthetic because they didn’t like it,” she recalls. “I’ve always loved the Scandinavian design before it was super Pinterest-y. … Because of the DIYs and because of the styling of the shoots, I had really honed in on my own aesthetic, which I think was really beneficial. Oftentimes, when you’re working under a designer, you can be sort of taught that mindset. I kind of paved my own way.”
The days following the launch of her company were filled with their own questions and conundrums, ones outside of what paint color paired best with a particular wainscoting.
“It’s things you don’t even think about, right?” Zinnecker asks rhetorically. “Granted, I’ve never taken a business class in my life, and I had to teach myself how to start a business, which is a whole other thing: How to get insurance—you know?—how to find health insurance. There’s a lot, like taxes. I never learned how to do any of that. All of these things that your company does for you, I then had to figure out on my own.”
Needless to say, going down the career path less traveled presented Zinnecker with a sea of new territory to tackle, like how to explain her nontraditional career and an always-in-flux paycheck to her parents.
“Both my parents are very supportive. My mom, I’m sure she worries. I know she does. She kind of always knew I’m Claire. I can do anything. I’m her daughter,” Zinnecker says. “My dad is a dad, and the thought of his daughter being single and not having some kind of steady 9-to-5 job that he understands with a paycheck, I think it was really terrifying for him, not that he didn’t have faith in me, but just the understanding that I’m going to be OK. It’s been interesting. Now, I think he’s starting to understand it more. It’s been nice to prove that, in a way, to them. People are recognizing my name, and I think it makes him very proud, which is nice. It’s always good to make your parents proud.”
In addition to her myriad residential clients, or friends, as Zinnecker comes to refer to them, she is currently working on design projects for The Refinery, a creative co-working space located off Brazos Street that’s set to open this month, as well as an unnamed Windsor Park family-friendly restaurant project set to open in early 2018 that’s being spearheaded by Andy Means and Jessie Katz, owners of the now-shuttered Henri’s Cheese & Wine Shop.
As Zinnecker continues to leave her aesthetically pleasing fingerprints all over Austin, she notes she’s always trying to branch out of her design comfort zone. Past commercial projects include the redesign of the 38th Street clothing boutique Adelante, the new Camille Styles office space and the 7A Ranch in Wimberley, Texas. She has also designed event spaces such as the Create & Cultivate booth at this year’s South By Southwest conference and the Toyota tent for this year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival.
“Every time I go into Home Depot, I love it,” Zinnecker says. “You can catch [the men]off guard when you know what’s up. I mean, I teach a lot of guys how to use power tools.”
As a woman, establishing bonds and a level of respect with the male architects and contractors she works with on a day-to-day basis has been a learning experience for Zinnecker.
“I’m not really the person that likes to walk into a room and be the center of attention,” Zinnecker says, noting that she’s had to train herself to be confident and command attention. “When I’m on a jobsite and I’m a 5-foot-2 girl, I’m kind of like, ‘Yeah, I am sort of a badass.’ These gruff old men with tattoos are listening to me. I respect them and they, in turn, respect me.”
Of course, being a woman in power can be a double-edged sword, and Zinnecker has certainly felt the sting.
“I feel like, as a girl, if you are sort of bossy, you can be labeled in a negative way,” she expounds. “That’s been a very fine line, but I’m still learning. I think it helps because I feel like I can read people pretty well. I think if you speak thoughtfully and you listen to everyone, [it helps]. A lot of times, I nod and smile, [but]it doesn’t mean that I agree at all. You learn the people that you need to say, ‘Hey, I disagree with this,’ and the people that you just nod and smile and then on the side to someone else, you’re sort of like, ‘Hey, this is not the way this is going to go down.’ You don’t have to speak to let your presence be known. I think that’s a big thing that I want to continue pursuing, just showing girls what we can do. That sounds so silly and cliché, but we can do anything. I can hang a shelf. I can wire a light. I can do all these things. Being self-sufficient is such an important thing.”
Long gone are the days of Zinnecker living under someone else’s roof—or working under someone else’s thumb, for that matter. Her bright and airy pastel-hued bungalow in the Austin neighborhood of Hyde Park, which was recently featured in Domino Magazine, is where Zinnecker rests her head after long days spent out and about consulting with clients and visiting jobsites. She fondly calls her home “a collection of experiments and dog hair.” Her two dogs, Monte and Emma, gregariously greet her when she returns, and her two cats, Cat and Bunny, round out the tenants.
“It’s fun. I love it. I think it is very me,” Zinnecker says of her home, confessing that she remodeled her kitchen because of the Domino article.
If pressed, she could likely write a blog post about the benefits of being back in her hometown.
“I love Austin,” she says. “Even though it wasn’t my choice to be here, how lucky am I to be stuck in this city? You go to LA and there’s a lot more competition, whereas in [Austin,] I feel like you can go to each other with a problem and collaborate. That’s how the design-and-artist world should be. It shouldn’t be a competition. I think that as designers and as creatives, you blossom in that collaboration. I’m really thankful that this city is like that.”
In September, Zinnecker looked in the rearview mirror to reflect on all she had been through in the past year. She then took to Instagram for one of her regular “Real Reality” posts.
“The end of last year and beginning of this one brought a storm of challenges,” she wrote in the caption for a photo of her perched, arms around knees, on a millennial-pink-colored staircase in Mexico City. “Both personally and professionally, I was beaten down and most days, didn’t even want to get out of bed. I questioned every choice I had made and was making and wondered where I went wrong. I tried to act like everything was fine, but inside, I was broken. I knew that if I didn’t let myself break down and allow myself to be vulnerable, I wouldn’t be able to get past it.
“Probably for the first time in my life, I fully admitted to myself and to others that I didn’t have it together. I was insecure and confused and decided to just show that part of me. The result? I made some of the strongest friendships I have ever had. I became a person who others feel comfortable coming to with their issues as well. I gained back my confidence and approached life, friendships and work with a new drive. The results have been incredible.
“When I was in the darkest point of the storm, I couldn’t imagine myself getting out of it, but now, looking back, I am so thankful for all of it. It taught me so much and, for the first time in 30 years, I feel fully myself.”
The post, at last count, had 743 likes and 75 comments.
It wasn’t until this March, Zinnecker says, when she started to come out of the thick of it—a phrase translated, in part, to mean her breakup in February. Channeling her energy for good, she decided to stop stalling on certain projects that had been in discussion, a soon-to-debut rug line with Lulu & Georgia being one of them, as well as a jewelry line with Limbo that debuted in July.
She decided to delete the word “perfection” from her vocabulary, opting instead to be open and vulnerable. When friends asked her how she was, she reasoned, she would tell them the truth, no matter how ugly or unfiltered. Those friends that chose to stay, listen and console were the people she would continue surrounding herself with. Those that didn’t were free to move on.
“I’d run into people that I barely knew or that I’d just met, and I’d be like, ‘I’m a mess. Here’s my life story. Here’s what happened this past week.’ There’s some personal things that were happening, just so many things,” she says. “As a girl and as a human, you look at a relationship thing or you look at a work thing, and you’re struggling so much, and then you see that Instagram version of someone else and I was just like, ‘I can’t.’ I would hate it if anyone were to look at me and dislike themselves because of it. That, to me, just really hurt my heart to think. It was upsetting. I don’t ever want to be that person that makes anyone else feel bad. It makes me want to cry. But if I can make someone else that’s struggling in any way feel like they’re not alone, it’s such a wonderful thing, even if they’re silly things like I haven’t washed my hair in three days.”
Zinnecker confides that, for better or worse, she’s available to her clients 24/7. It’s in her workaholic nature, she explains, adding that she’s always trying to find balance.
“I think learning how to say no has been one of the hardest parts for me because I’m such a people pleaser,” Zinnecker says, “or not answering texts every weekend. That’s a hard one for me. But sometimes I’m like, ‘It’s Sunday. It can wait.’ ”
She notes that her schedule is entirely different every day, which fits her just fine, though she admits she’s rarely bright and cheery first thing in the morning.
“I’m not a morning person because I stay up really late,” she says. “In an ideal world, I wake up early, 6:30 or 7 a.m. If I don’t exercise, then I’ll just get up. I like to have my coffee and I like to work on my computer and not really communicate until 9 or 10 a.m., if possible. Then I’ll have meetings, go from jobsite to jobsite, have phone calls. It’s pretty nonstop. A lot of times, you just don’t know. I can have a day where I think the entire day is open, and then something can happen and it consumes my whole day. I think that way of living energizes me more than a routine.”
At least once a month, Zinnecker plans to take a trip somewhere. Whether it be a weekend spent antique hunting in Round Top, Texas, or an out-of-country expedition to Nicaragua with a couple girlfriends, she makes time to get away and clear her head.
“I’m of the mindset that I would rather work really, really hard so I can travel more and work while I’m traveling and get to do those experiences than stop working at 6 p.m. every day, you know?” she says. “I have the ability to stop in the middle of the day and go workout, go to the grocery store or go see my mom and then I make up for it by working until late at night.”
With hard work comes high reward, as the saying goes, so it’s understandable Zinnecker has had to field the occasional job offer. An offer to join another firm and leave her brand behind, though, is not in the plans.
“That’s sometimes really appealing, like stability,” Zinnecker says of the offers. “I don’t want to sound traditional, but I am 30 years old and single. You know, there are lots of things at this point in your life where you’re like, ‘Yeah, that health insurance would be really nice, or a paycheck or a 401K.’ No, ultimately, it would have to be a really amazing job for me to agree to go back. I just wouldn’t change it, I mean, as much as it really is hard sometimes.”
On Zinnecker’s portfolio site clairezinneckerdesign.com, there’s a blog post she wrote in September 2016 titled “How CZD Came to Be.” Toward the end of the post, Zinnecker does what she does best. She jots down her thoughts, the embodiment of transparency, and reflects on her journey so far, from those uncertain post-college days of dashed dreams to the unpredictable schedule she, as her own boss, now keeps.
It’s one of her trademark moments of authentic self-expression.
“Every day brings a new problem to solve. Income is never consistent,” she writes, “but I can say with complete certainty that I wouldn’t change a thing. My control freak, Type-A self has reluctantly admitted that perhaps having a plan that never happens just might be the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Five Women Who Inspire Claire Zinnecker
Past or present, these are the female forces who have inspired Claire Zinnecker throughout the years.
“I’ve admired Zaha since college and even did a project study on one of her projects while I was in studio. She was such an inspiration, a female leader, for sure, in the world of architecture. She was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize.”
“Ilse is another inspiring designer. She approaches design by focusing on human experiences and interactions in each space. Her iconic designs are full of subtle color palettes and textures. She has also had some incredible jobs before founding her own kick-ass design studio. I’m a total groupie!”
“[There are] so many things to say about her. She turned unfortunate childhood experiences into a creative path that then made her a fashion icon. I had my own personal high-school experiences that were less than ideal, and having women like Jenna to look up to definitely helped mold me into the person I am today.”
“What can I say? Annie was a childhood role model. She was hunting to support her mom and siblings when she was 8 years old and paid off her mom’s farm mortgage by 15! I mean, what a baller. Girls were rock stars even back in the 1800s.”
“[It] might be cheesy, but it’s true. My mom has never given up on me. I was really sick, dying actually, when I was a baby and the doctors weren’t able to figure out what was wrong. My mom never wavered. I think her determination and support helped me survive when all the odds were against me. Her encouragement is still something I rely on daily. She puts up with me even when I’m being whiny and is always there to listen and be a shoulder to cry on.”
Five Ways Claire Zinnecker Stays Real
In addition to her design skills, Claire Zinnecker is also known for her “Real Reality” Instagram story series. (Follow her @clairezinnecker.) Here, she offers five ways every woman can be more transparent and real.
- Be able to find the humor in a situation. “If you can laugh at yourself, then everything seems better.”
- Don’t always worry about being the best or looking the best. “Just be you, even if that you is a disheveled mess, like I typically am. Your humans, the ones you want in your life, won’t judge you.”
- When you are honest and open and real with others, they will respond in the same manner. “It’s crazy how much that can change a friendship for the better.”
- Sometimes your house is messy and you can’t manage the perfect Instagram photo. “Who cares? Life, somehow, will just keep going.”
- Enjoy the ride. “Accept the highs and lows. They will always teach you something.”