This Designer Doesn't Want Her Kitchens to Make You Feel Bad
Aiming to inspire, not intimidate, Catherine Weiland lifts the veil on how her projects are photographed.
ABOVE Realistic portrayals of professionally designed kitchens — with, say, mismatched mugs, food packages, or refrigerator art on display — are healthier for consumers, Portland designer Catherine Weiland says. Photograph by Erin Little.
TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
On designer Catherine Weiland’s website are photos of a Portland kitchen she says many in her field wouldn’t feature. Colorful and adorable, it nevertheless has shelves packed with the owners’ pantry items, mismatched pots, and crooked stacks of dishes. “Everything you’re looking at is real and where it really is in their house,” says Weiland, who owns Balance Design Studio in Portland. “When I saw the pictures, I was like, ‘Perfect!’”
The kitchen is somewhat of an outlier in the high-end design world Weiland operates in, where pros often stage rooms to cast them in the best possible light. But Weiland worries hewing too close to perfection can lead to what she calls “supermodel syndrome”: the glorification of hard-to-obtain things — like an impossibly tidy kitchen — that primes consumers to feel dissatisfied with themselves. To head off such feelings, she might prod a stager she hires to display clients’ possessions instead of bringing in props, show dishes in a drying rack, or leave photos on the refrigerator. “Authenticity statements” alongside project images on her website detail what was changed to highlight the design — from the editing of a china cabinet’s contents to the removal of an outlet with Photoshop. (Regarding the outlet, she writes, “I’m torn…outlets are useful and required by code, so we should probably just accept them.”)
Small concessions, especially in kitchens like Weiland’s that often cost six figures, but ones she hopes make an incremental difference in consumers’ minds. “I’m trying to be the very subtle person who says, ‘Hey, let’s take the edge off all of this perfection.’ These aren’t radical choices, but they are intentional choices to try and forge a path to saying, ‘This is pretty too.’”
The contrived side of the design business has irked Weiland since she got into the field in 2004, after a career in tech that ended abruptly when the dot-com bubble burst and she wound up working at Lowe’s. She and her husband own a modest Pownal home and, after a classmate of her son’s told him it was “a dump,” they avoided having people over. Later, when a former coworker at Portland’s Performance Building Supply, the green-building-products company Weiland partners with, confided that the pristine rooms portrayed in some design magazines made her feel bad, she resolved to do more to try to protect consumers from the shame she once felt.
Ultimately, it may be the pricey custom features in Weiland’s kitchens that intimidate, and forgoing a fussy flower arrangement for what she deems is a more relatable tangle of wildflowers isn’t going to change that. But Weiland insists that in an industry she believes is hyper-focused on idealism, little doses of reality can have an outsized impact. “To show the clients’ not-crazy-pretty coffee and tea packages,” pictured here — “it sends a great message that if you keep your tea in a box on a convenient shelf, it’s ok.”