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Kim Possible

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Kim Lewis calls herself a little lady with big ideas. It’s an apt description, as her petite stature puts her height well below that of most people. But most people probably wouldn’t have come up with the idea to put a plane fuselage inside a house as a design feature, as Lewis did on an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In her eight years with the show, Lewis designed more than 120 homes in 43 states. Currently, she’s the wildly creative mind behind her own Austin-based design company, Kim Lewis Designs.

By Rachel Merriman, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Styled by Ashely Hargrove, Hair and makeup by Jennell Ballard, Naava Salon

Kim Lewis calls herself a little lady with big ideas. It’s an apt description, as her petite stature puts her height well below that of most people. But most people probably wouldn’t have come up with the idea to put a plane fuselage inside a house as a design feature, as Lewis did on an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In her eight years with the show, Lewis designed more than 120 homes in 43 states. Currently, she’s the wildly creative mind behind her own Austin-based design company, Kim Lewis Designs.

Kim Lewis has been utilizing her creative abilities for as long as she can remember. She fondly recalls Miss Rosie, the woman who watched her after school while her mother received chemotherapy and who sat Lewis down at the kitchen table to do arts and crafts, telling Lewis she thought she would grow up to be an artist. When Lewis lost her mother to cancer when she was just 10 years old, having a creative outlet made a profound difference for her.

“Creativity was my therapy. The way I healed from losing her was just to dance, draw and paint. My dad threw me into grieving classes because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but that wasn’t the way I healed. The way I healed was through creativity and that outlet,” Lewis says. “I think I would be a different person if I hadn’t lost her. I’m super strong, independent and passionate, and I think her death made me dig my heels into life.”

Lewis pursued journalism and marketing at Texas A&M University, just a few hours from her hometown of Tyler, Texas. She even briefly considered switching her major to architecture, but ultimately decided to stay the course and made time for her artistic endeavors on the side, taking graphic-design and art classes.

“During the day, I was taking my normal classes, and then at night, I would be up on a 15-foot ladder painting a mural for the architecture department,” Lewis says.

After college, she spent about a year working in advertising, but Lewis discovered being in front of a computer all day just wasn’t hands-on enough for her. So, she transitioned into a new position as marketing director for Four Hands Furniture, and met a producer for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition at the High Point Market trade show. Lewis flew out to work with the show’s team on a project that used Four Hands furnishings, and the very next day, the producer asked to hire her. Soon, Lewis found herself jet-setting throughout the U.S., designing homes for deserving families.

“I did a lot of drawings on a tray table in a plane because that’s all I had time for,” Lewis says. “The producers would hand me information about a family [and]I would jump on a plane, draw all night, go meet with an architect and a builder the next morning and draft a plan in eight hours. I drew a new house twice a week. It was amazing, though. My nickname on the show became Kim Possible. My team was responsible for not only creating things that nobody had ever seen before, but [that]also meant something to the family.”

Lewis pushed her team in order to make Extreme Makeover: Home Edition interesting for its burgeoning viewership, which grew to nearly 16 million at the height of the show’s popularity. The show’s focus was to give beautifully designed dream homes to families that had faced incredible hardship, such as the loss of a family member, medical issues or a natural disaster.

“I started challenging the builders to start doing something different. I was tired of seeing the same exteriors and the same floor plans,” Lewis says. “The builders would try to fit a floor plan they had already done into a family’s life, and I started saying no to that. We had the opportunity to solve a lot of problems for families, [especially those with]medical needs. And also, the plans often weren’t that interesting. If you’re going to have a home showcased to [millions of]people, it needs to have character. So, I adopted this tagline of ‘character-driven homes.’ ”

Surprisingly, Lewis says one of the biggest challenges she faced during her time on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition wasn’t coming up with creative ideas season after season, but toeing the line between the producers’ expectations and the families she felt an obligation to.

“I was really caught between keeping the producers happy and doing things that made actual sense for the family, [including]making an effort to fix problems around their home that were major issues,” Lewis says. “What I found was that the only way to manage the expectations on both ends was to always keep it about the family. At the end of the day, the home is for the family.”

Another challenge for Lewis involved the fact that she rarely met the families whose homes she was designing, instead working from information given to her by the show’s producers. But Lewis felt she needed more information than what she was getting, so she created a 30-page interview document that would give her enough details about a family to make their home truly right for them.

“If I’m building a home for you, I want to know every intimate detail of what you need. I had questions like, ‘If you could sit anywhere in the world, where would you sit?’ That tells me a lot about a person. I included 30 different house pictures and told them to circle their top three. So, it helped me get into their head,” Lewis says. “Then, on the plane flying to their location, I would look at the document and read it over and over, and really dig into it. Sometimes, at the end of the show, someone in the family would say, ‘It’s like somebody got into my head,’ [or,] ‘It’s like somebody read my mind.’ When they said that, I knew we had done a good job.”

Despite the challenges of being thrown into the midst of a rigorous, fast-paced production schedule, Lewis thrived in her role behind the scenes of the show, where she learned by doing.

“People know me for my risk-taking with color, but I probably wouldn’t be so confident with it if it wasn’t for Extreme Makeover. We would rapid-fire select colors. We would have a schedule with 45 different colors and we would have to pick it in three hours. I just had to go for it and hope for the best,” Lewis says. “I also learned a lot about scale. Scale in home design is the hardest part; you try and fail before you understand it. There were also times we would build something and not think about which door it was going to enter through. I’ve made that mistake. Once, we had to tear out drywall to get this beautiful 8-foot-tall upholstered bed into a room.”

The show relied on donations from local businesses and volunteers from the community, and Lewis seized the opportunity to bring people together.

“There was a camaraderie that we couldn’t always show in a 48-minute segment. So many times, people would tell us that they wanted to volunteer somewhere but just didn’t have an outlet,” Lewis says. “And after we left, we would hear that people got back together and fixed someone’s roof down the street or whatever. The show really struck a match of helping your neighbor.”

On the set of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Lewis met singer-songwriter Jewel, who hired Lewis to design her rustic bohemian home at her Stephenville, Texas, ranch. That fortuitous meeting also led Lewis to start her design company, Kim Lewis Designs.

“She told me, ‘Kim, you need to invest in yourself.’ It hit me that I’ve been making all these people look good for eight years,” Lewis says. “I was the busy bee in the background doing all the hard work. And I was totally fine with that, but when she said that, it just made so much sense to me.”

Starting her own company also prompted Lewis to make a change and move from Los Angeles to Austin, where she happily put down some much-needed roots after years of jet-setting.

“They say you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl!” Lewis says. “I found immediately that the creative culture in Austin is so inviting, warm and welcoming. This town, at its core, is all about creative collaboration.”

Lewis is responsible for designing some of Austin’s most beloved eateries, including the hip Lamar Union juice bar Juice Society, Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant Chi’Lantro and urban winery Infinite Monkey Theorem. A home designer at her core, Lewis strives to bring the warmth and comfort usually associated with residential spaces into her commercial work.

“I love translating that warm, fuzzy vibe into commercial spaces so that people walk in and they want to sit awhile. Even in a fast-casual restaurant where I’m just going to have a taco, I want to feel comfortable [because]the space feels warm, inviting and approachable,” Lewis says. “At the Chi’Lantro on Burnet, I incorporated accessories that I found at the Austin City Wide Garage Sale—old cameras, old postcards—to make it feel like somebody just took things off Grandpa’s shelf.”

Although the first thing that often stands out about Lewis’ designs is the way she works with bright, bold colors (She often incorporates colorful textiles collected from her world travels.), she believes it is important for design to engage all senses.

“It’s my responsibility to a client that when they walk into their space, all five of their senses are engaged,” she explains. “They should not just see something pretty; they should hear something and be able to touch something. Design is an experiential thing.”

When she’s working on residential projects, Lewis encourages her clients to find creative ways to showcase their most meaningful items so their home tells the story of who they are.

“I’m not a fan of our homes just being filled with stuff. Our stuff should mean something. It should be part of us. It should tell a story. In my house, everything says something about who I am,” Lewis says. “What I try to teach my clients is to make meaningful decisions. One of my first questions to them is, ‘What is sentimental to you?’ ”

In addition to her residential and commercial work, Lewis is currently exploring her passion for smaller spaces. Last year, she designed a midcentury, Marfa-themed tiny house for the FYI Network show Tiny House Nation, which quickly garnered media interest from throughout the world. As a result of the overwhelming interest, Lewis decided to create her own line of affordable and stylish tiny houses, which will be available at the beginning of 2017.

“It just seemed like the natural thing to do next,” Lewis says. “I personally love the philosophy behind tiny houses. It was something that I could honestly get behind. I saw it as an opportunity to help people get into a home that they can afford, and that allows them to do more outside of the home. I’m all about experiences. I don’t think our homes should be something that prevent us from living life.”

Two different models of tiny homes will be available: The larger model (only 378 square feet!) consists of two trailers joined together in the shape of an L, while the smaller model is a single trailer with a lofted bedroom to create a separate sleeping space. Rather than concentrate on completely customized interior options, Lewis will offer a “tiny-house menu” of three different designs to choose from, each with their own distinct vibe.

“They’re going to be statement pieces. We’re not doing the traditional box shape with wood siding that everybody does,” Lewis vows. “They’ll have color, they’ll have texture and they’ll have character. It’s like a personality in a box.”

Lewis is quick to dismiss the idea that tiny houses are just a fad that will eventually pass. In her experience, tiny houses are highly desirable to a wide range of people for many different reasons.

“There’s a misconception that tiny houses are just for wanderlust millennials who are traveling in a tiny house to the Grand Canyon and Instagramming things because it’s cool,” an unconvinced Lewis says. “There’s a whole generation in the middle that maybe work from home and need home offices in their backyards. And then there are the baby boomers that are retiring who want to downsize and get back on the road, and they need a glorified RV to go and visit their grandkids.”

Certainly, a big reason for the rising popularity of tiny houses is that they allow people more financial freedom. The reduced cost of a tiny house can free up extra money for savings or to be spent on meaningful experiences, such as travel and hobbies. Many people are also turning to tiny homes out of financial necessity. People with a lot of student-loan debt simply need a low mortgage payment, and homeowners facing rising costs of living are putting up tiny homes for rent in their own backyards. Small-business owners can also benefit from using a tiny house as a home office rather than pay for costly office space.

“Tiny houses allow people to live and breathe and explore other areas of life,” Lewis says. “You have extra money to go do dance classes, go to restaurants, go travel. You’re not locked into a mortgage.

“Millennials have student loans. People need a space to work, but they can’t necessarily afford to go and lease an office. Statistics show that there are more small-business owners and entrepreneurs than there ever have been. People are renting out an Airbnb as a supplemental-income stream. Cities like Austin are growing and becoming more popular, [and]our taxes are getting raised, so we can’t afford to live in the cities that we want to live in anymore. But if you add a supplemental income in your backyard—guess what—now you can.” One obvious drawback that puts most people off tiny-house living is that it requires major downsizing. But paring down possessions to the bare minimum can actually be extremely freeing, Lewis says.

“On Tiny House Nation, we had an exercise where we told people, ‘Here’s a twin-sized bed. You can take whatever you want to take with you if it fits on it. If it doesn’t fit, you can’t take it.’ It’s a massive lifestyle change,” Lewis says. “But it’s a huge weight lifted off our shoulders when we don’t have so much stuff to deal with and so much space to clean and maintain. It’s only what you really need. Less is more.”

Currently, the major logistical hurdles to tiny-house living are finding land to park or build on, and obtaining the proper permits. As the tiny-house movement gains more momentum, city codes and permitting processes have been slow to catch up. But Lewis predicts the process of building a tiny house will become much easier in time.

“We do live in a funny gray area right now with tiny houses [because]there are challenges with city permitting. But I believe our nation is going to resolve that soon because this is a trend that is not going away,” Lewis says. “People are pushing for it, and the cities have to accept it and adapt. It’s just going to take awhile. But I think it’s going happen. We’ve already seen changes in cities like Portland and Chicago.”

Lewis is fond of saying design changes lives, so it shouldn’t surprise Austinites that in addition to using her design skills to enrich our beautiful city, she’s making a difference by building therapeutic art centers for children in Ghana, Cambodia and Honduras, in partnership with Dallas nonprofit Touch a Life. Many of the children Lewis meets live in extreme poverty and some have no parents. She believes giving them creative opportunities will help to heal and empower them, the same way having a creative outlet allowed her to heal and follow her passion after losing her mother.

“When I saw these children who had been abandoned by their parents, I knew what they needed was creativity because you can give a man a fish and he eats for the day, but you can teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. [Other organizations] do water, shelter and food, which is all necessary and good, but if you teach someone to tap into their creativity, they start fighting for themselves. They start to become empowered,” Lewis says.

“The day before I left Honduras, a man walked by and asked what we were doing. He commissioned this little boy named Jairo, who is 16 with no parents (If he eats, it’s because he buys his own meal.) to paint something for him. The next day, he brought Jairo 20 bucks, which is two days’ wages in Honduras. The next day, Jairo had a haircut and a new pair of sunglasses, and I’m like, ‘This is working.’ That’s what I’m talking about, empowering through creativity.”

Lewis also currently works with artisans in Ghana, India, Ethiopia, Thailand and Honduras to bring ethically made home-décor and apparel products with unique culture and craftsmanship to the U.S.

“I love meeting people and getting to share their stories. I met Gong, who is 85 years old and has been doing indigo batik since she was 10 years old, in Chiang Mai, [Thailand,] at a market. She dips each of her pieces three times a day for seven days straight. And someone bought one of her pillowcases at ACL,” says Lewis, who sold items as a vendor at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival. “It’s such an honor to be able to meet someone like that, and then be able to carry her legacy all the way back to the United States.”

Lewis works closely with the nonprofit Mamas en Catacamas, which helps at-risk single mothers in Catacamas, Honduras, provide for their children. She designed a creative space where mothers can participate in art healing programs and job training. Eight of the mamas use the space to make pillows and bags out of leather and textiles Lewis sources from throughout the world. As Lewis was getting ready to set up shop at ACL Fest, she pulled out the last shipment from Catacamas and found an incredible surprise.

“I asked the mamas to write their names and put them inside of each product because I wanted to make sure we knew who was making it,” Lewis says. “So, I opened the box and pulled out two letters. The first one that I pulled out said, ‘Soy Glenda,’ which was my mother’s name. The next one I pulled out [from another woman]said, ‘Tengo una hija su llame Kimberly,’ ‘I have a daughter named Kimberly.’ I nearly fell to the floor. Like, what are the odds? Those are the moments where I know this is meaningful work. This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.”

 

KIM LEWIS’ DECORATING TIPS

Have fun with color! Give your space a neutral backdrop of black or white, and then add in pops of color. Three colors is always a good number. Each color should have a hierarchy in scale, meaning don’t use the same amount of two different bright colors. Let one color be your lead.”

Bring the outdoors in with lots of natural light, windows and doors.”

Add character and warmth with global textiles. Next time you travel, get something for your home so you’re surrounding yourself with memories that share your own story.”

Give your interior walls texture with shiplap siding, barn wood, stone or even CNC cutout panels. Dimension on the walls gives spaces character.”

Layer rugs for an eclectic, bohemian look. Doing so will give your space an instantly cozy, inviting vibe.”

Cultivate a space that says who you are. Our homes should feel lived in. Don’t purchase the full matching collection out of your favorite home magazine. Allow things to be mismatched.”

 

KIM LEWIS’ TINY-HOUSE DOWNSIZING TIPS

Surround yourself with meaningful things. Rather than buying knickknacks, keep the pieces with sentimental value that tell your story, and get rid of the rest.”

Multi-functional furniture pieces are the key to successful tiny-house living. Every piece should have two to three purposes. For example, a kitchen island can also serve as a dining table and a desk.”

Less is more! On Tiny House Nation, we had homeowners pare their things down to only what they could fit on a twin-sized bed.”

Don’t keep too many multiples of items. For example, keep only the blankets you use in the linen closet, and donate the rest to a local homeless or animal shelter.”

Open upper shelving in the kitchen naturally reduces clutter and forces us to keep kitchenware organized.”

Make creative storage solutions by looking at things from a different perspective. For example, a filing cabinet could function as a nightstand, and [can be]used for storing paperwork or even jewelry.”

Kim Lewis designed this midcentury, Marfa-themed tiny house in Austin featured on FYI Network’s Tiny House Nation.

 

Photos by Kate Zimmerman. Ch’Lantro photo by Ari Morales. Photos by Molly Winters.

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