19 Sep 2015

built by women: arlene gibbs, interior decorator, screenwriter/producer

arlene gibbs

When I first visited Rome in 2008, Arlene took me to the most incredible Italian restaurant–one I would never have found on a map. We were introduced by a woman who was interested in adapting my memoir for film. Although the project fell through, I’m thankful for having met Arlene and for our long-distance friendship since, punctuated by my occasional visits to Italy.

I admire Arlene deeply, embarrassingly so. She left a job, country, and life in pursuit of something other. She wasn’t tethered to age as a means of trapping one in one’s vocation, rather she set out to find her place in the world. Up until a few months ago she was a successful writer/producer and now tell stories in another form: interiors. I love women with verve, women who take risks, break ranks, and live without apology. Arlene is all of these things, but in the end she’s a truth-teller. I only hope to be as successful as I move through my acts. Let her story inspire you. –FS

When I first met you, you’d recently emigrated to Rome from the U.S. Truth be told, I admired you, how brave you were to leave a successful career behind for something other. This was a time before we’d read articles about expats and second acts. Your career has spanned politics, film and entertainment—but tell us how you returned to your first love: decorating. Why did you leave producing behind?

Arlene Gibbs: What timing. Until two months ago, I had two careers going on, screenwriter/producer, and decorator.

When we first met, I was writing full-time and developing a few projects as a producer. Everyone told me it would be impossible to be a screenwriter/producer based in Rome (especially without a trust fund). Even after our movie Jumping The Broom was released, and importantly was a hit, I heard the same thing. Nothing changed. Nobody cared. It was a “niche” film. When I pointed out to a producer friend that there were plenty of successful British screenwriters who worked in Hollywood but lived in London, I was told, “Yes, but they are British, white, and male.”

To your last question, it took me forever to see the light. Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends, who lives in Rome, said that the universe was screaming at me and I was ignoring the signs. This friend is usually not that crunchy. I needed to heed her advice.

Then I read this quote from JJ Martin, an American fashion and design journalist who lives in Milan, and everything clicked.

The best advice I’ve ever received was to look at everything that comes your way as an opportunity. Do not underestimate the power of chance and fate. Do what you love, what opens you up, not what closes you down, and makes you act like an asshole. Be responsible, be loving, be caring. That’s what I advise to anyone starting out. If you truly love fashion, it will come to you.

She’s talking about fashion but it could be applied to any creative endeavor. I wasn’t an asshole when I worked in Hollywood, my former assistants still speak to me, but I was not myself. I became a very bitter person.

I was recently hired for a decorating project in Los Angeles. It was my first trip back since making my big decision. It was a great experience. I returned to Rome feeling positive instead of depressed.

I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner, hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

AG: I agree with you but I had so many regrets when I lived in Los Angeles. I wish I had started working in Hollywood at a younger age. That a woman in her EARLY 30s was told to lie about her age was ridiculous.

I wish I had worked on Wall Street, saved a lot of money, and then moved to L.A. to work in the Biz. I wish I had trusted my gut more, instead of trying to be something I wasn’t. My parents are from the Caribbean and couldn’t understand why I would choose to work in a field where migraines and panic attacks were normal.

Now, I don’t have regrets. It took me a while to get to the thing I’m supposed to do. I do believe all the experiences I’ve had, good and bad, were invaluable opportunities to learn. I think it’s just as important to know what you don’t do well, not just the areas/jobs where you excel.

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Image Credit: Gina Gomez.

You’ve endured and prospered (IMO) amidst the one-two punch of being an expat and building a business for yourself in Italy. The challenges you faced (and perhaps struggle with still?) –would you say they’re mutually exclusive, or are they more like a ven diagram, one challenge eclipsing or being born out of another?

AG: Hmmm. I worked in Hollywood, which is not a meritocracy, so many of the things that infuriate American and British expats/immigrants about Italy, don’t faze me.

Is it easy to be an entrepreneur in Italy? No, it’s not. True, I do work internationally but my business is based here and Italy ranks as one of the most difficult countries for businesses. The newish Renzi government is trying to make things easier. We’ll see.

The red tape here is bonkers but it’s still easier than being a black woman working in Hollywood. Did you see the first episode of Project Greenlight this week? No words (FS: I did, and I agree, no words. I thought Damon was one of the good ones).

Regarding your previous work in film and politics– I imagine both careers required navigating verbal landmines and dealing with strong personalities. Do you feel your time spent in both careers helped you in your freelance one?

AG: Absolutely. Also, all three are about story telling, a narrative. Interior design does it in a visual way, like film, but instead of moving images it’s more tactile, fabric, form/function, etc.

A practical question—how did you build a client base and portfolio? Are there any challenges distinct to Italy?

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Credits: Arlene Gibbs, Interior Designer. Architect: Domenico Minchilli. Photography: Mario Flores

AG: It doesn’t matter if you’re self taught or graduated from Parsons with straight A’s, when you’re first starting out, your clients will be friends and family (or people who are friends with your friends or family), especially for residential projects. It’s very intimate to work with someone in/on your home.

In time, if your work is published, clients who are not your friends/family will find you. However, even then, there is a courtship of sorts. Word of mouth is very important, of course. Clients will refer you to their family/friends.

Regarding my challenges that are unique to Italy, there are a few.

Before my internship, I never worked in an Italian office. I wrote all day, in English, at home by myself. My Italian did not improve when I first moved to Rome, as I wasn’t in school studying anymore. There are a lot of expats in Rome and my Italian friends speak English well. Now that I’m working with artisans, contractors, and some vendors who don’t speak English, I cannot just switch to English when I get frustrated trying to communicate. During most of my workday I’m using technical vocabulary that is not used in everyday conversation. It’s not surprising that sometimes my brain hurts. Learning a new language as an adult is tough but I’m determined to become truly fluent.

In Italy architects do the majority of interior design work. There are more architects in Rome than in the entire country of France. It’s very competitive.

In the States, technically, there’s a huge difference between an interior designer and a decorator. The former is able to do structural work and could be seen as an interior architect. Many American architects disagree. Here, there isn’t a difference as both decorators and interiors designers are not architects. End of story. If there is structural work to be done, you call an architect and/or an engineer and collaborate. I don’t know if it’s a plus or a minus that there aren’t many interior designers/decorators in Italy. Perhaps it’s not relevant.

I do know that networking in Italy is not like the States. It’s less aggressive, even in Milan. It’s a big learning curve.

Have you endured any challenges building an interior decorating business specific to being a woman or woman of color? How did you manage them?

AG: No, I haven’t. After working in a male-dominated industry for years, it was odd at first to attend design industry conferences/events and see so many women! And there are women over the age of forty. What is happening?

What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

AG: I’m surprised by how welcoming and helpful my colleagues were/are. It unnerves me. Seriously.

As my friends know, I’m very organized. My Italian friends find all my lists and my discomfort with last minutes plans hilarious but my anal retentive ways have served me well.

Working for myself, I still struggle with setting clear work/life boundaries. They bleed into each other. It’s not healthy and counter-productive especially when you work in a creative field. It’s important to step on the brakes and disconnect once in a while. If you’re going, going, going all the time how can you really take things in? What’s inspiring you?

Do I need to return text messages and emails on Sundays and/or at 9:00 p.m. at night? My business is young and I do feel a lot of pressure to be available to my clients 24/7.

As a friend said, I’m not an ER doctor. Of course it’s okay for clients to email me when things are on their minds but unless it’s an emergency (which in decorating what could that be on a day when there are no deliveries) I can return the emails on Monday.

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

AG: Man, this would be such a long list. There have been many people who have inspired me directly or indirectly. What they all have in common is passion. They have worked in different fields and many have had non-traditional career paths. I have been that person who was sleepwalking through life and now I appreciate how lucky I am to do what I love.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding interior-related ventures?

AG:
If you’re going to freelance in a creative field learn and respect the craft.
I know people complain about the Millennials but I don’t think this is a generation issue but an instant gratification issue.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring different fields. If you want to do something creative, do it but realize it’s going to take some time and hard work. Take it seriously, or don’t bother.

I was the oldest interior design intern ever but that experience was priceless. I’ve been fortunate to have people trust me and believe in my skills. I don’t know everything and I’m grateful to have more established peers in my life who mentor me. I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so as I’m not a robot. But I learn from them and try not to make the same mistake twice. I’m floored by the number of people I meet here who think they can just, poof, wake up one day and be a success at something they know nothing about and takes people years to learn.

Do your homework.
Some people freelance because they have been downsized. Others choose to freelance. Either way, it’s important to find out as much as you can about the nuts and bolts of your new endeavor, not just the fun and sexy part.

Write a business plan. One could be the most talented creative person on the planet but if they cannot run a business, they will not succeed. Attend design conferences in your city or the big national ones in New York or Los Angeles. In Europe there are large international conferences in Milan, Paris, and London.

Many designers have workshops or bootcamps. A note of caution, choose wisely. There are bloggers who decorate/design and decorator/designers who blog (occasionally). Huge difference. Be clear about what you want to gain from the experience. I attended Kathryn M. Ireland’s workshop in Los Angeles (she also has one in France) early in my career and still use the tools I learned everyday. It was informative and also a blast.

For design creatives I highly recommend the book, The Business of Design by Keith Granet.

Have a POV.
This doesn’t a mean a minimalist designer cannot work with a maximalist client. If you look at the work of the most respected and successful designers, they all have a distinct POV. There are elements of their DNA in each project but the home fits the client’s tastes and needs.

Anyone can take a pretty photo during Fashion Week and post it on Instagram. The street style photographers who have broken through did so because they had a POV. Once this social media bubble burst or shifts (again) the creatives who have something to say and an interesting way to say it will continue to work.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

Working out.
I’m a morning person and one of my favorite things to do is jog or walk through the streets of Rome to Villa Borghese or Doria Pamphili Park. That early in the morning, the streets are quiet and the light is incredible. Living in Rome is a pain sometimes with all the bureaucracy, the tour buses, drunk American exchange students, the noise, people who refuse to clean up after their dogs, etc. Then you jog past the building where Bernini lived and buildings like the Pantheon and remember why you put up with Rome’s craziness. She’s inspiring, beautiful, and humbling.

Moleskine daily calendar.
I do have a calendar on my Mac and each project has a punch sheet or action items list but there’s something about literally crossing things off on a to-do-list that makes me happy and feel very accomplished.

iPhone.
I resisted getting one, as I was tired of everyone going on about their iPhones as if they just had a baby or something.

Now I don’t know how I lived without it for so long. I have a ton of information in one tiny device. It holds my contacts, my calendar, a camera, apps I use all the time like Instagram, Pinterest, WhatApp, Shazam, Goggle, a translation app, a compass, my music, pictures of my projects and moodboards, etc. etc.

All images courtesy of Arlene Gibbs, except where noted.

25 Comments

  1. Heather in Arles wrote:

    This is just fabulously inspiring. I am another expat with a second act but as I moved to France to live AND work with my companion, I was often just following his lead. The courage required to make such a successful path alone in a foreign country (especially one with the day to day complications as Italy) is just mind-boggling. And yet Arlene just maps so much of “the hows” here in such a clear and accessible way, I can see how she was able to do it.

    It also made me smile to see that she works with the architect Domenico Minchilli as I am a long-time reader of his wife Elizabeth’s wonderful blog, Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome. Along with Gillian Mcguire of Gillian’s Lists, these are some good people! And in general it seems like there is a really interesting and supportive expat community in Rome…something I would love to have here in my lost corner of Provence. 🙂

    Thank you Felicia and Arlene…

    Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
    • Hello, Heather!

      Thank you for the kind words. The world is tiny. If you ever make to Rome, let me or Gillian know.

      Good luck with your move and your second act. One thing, don’t let other expats discourage you. I didn’t say this in the interview but when I first arrived in Rome, I heard a lot of “you’ll never make it. This country is a mess.”

      Well, Italy is trying at times. However, I know plenty of expats who are not just getting by but are thriving.

      Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
      • Heather in Arles wrote:

        I will get to Rome one of these days…I am Determined!
        And I really agree with your advice and appreciated hearing it anew. When I first moved to Paris fourteen years ago I actually completely removed myself from the expat community as I found it so negative AND competitive…now time has passed and I find myself more open to connecting with others with a similar background. Happily, the “good eggs” are out there, especially on the internet…

        Posted on 9.21.15 · Reply to comment
  2. kislanykim wrote:

    Fabulous interview Felicia. Two women I admire very much having a conversation and sharing with the rest of us. It doesn’t get better than that!

    Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
  3. Jannelle wrote:

    This interview gave me life. Arlene is one of my heroes. I’ve been greedily reading her blog for years. I’m currently drowning in an unsatisfying job and living in a cesspool of a city. I’ve always dreamed of venturing out like Arlene. I’m trying to reinvent myself, but I’m struggling to find my niche. I thought it was writing, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I’m so inspired now. Great article.

    Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
  4. gmcguireinrome wrote:

    Felicia you have so beautifully captured Arlene; her life and her work here in Rome. Heather you are so so kind. We have really got to make a plan to all get together somewhere in real life!

    Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
  5. Sara White wrote:

    I love this interview! Arlene is a seriously inspiring woman, and, maybe more importantly, seriously nice. Every time we cross paths (which is fairly often – we live in the same neighbourhood) our conversation leaves me smiling.

    Also, I love that quote from JJ Martin, which feels very relevant to my career right now and the feelings I’ve had about shifting it in a new direction.

    Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
    • Awww, thanks, Sara_

      I saw you ride by Bar Peru today.

      I don’t know what I would do if I met JJ in real life.

      Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
  6. Thank you, Felicia! I’m so glad a certain producer introduced us years ago.

    As you know, you’re an inspiration to me. You are one of the most generous and honest people I know. Your talent floors me and I cannot wait to read your novel.

    Posted on 9.20.15 · Reply to comment
  7. Deema Salem wrote:

    Thank you Arlene and Felicia! At the risk of sounding dramatic I just feel so grateful for reading this now and today. I have been following Arlene for quiet some time after reading your work on Fathomaway.com, my favorite travel blog. The article and JJ Martin quote directly relate to what I am experiencing right now and it and the comments below are hugely motivating. My visa is pending right now for a teaching position in Verona and if all goes as planned I will be leaving New York City (my home for 15 years) to take a huge leap and leave my career in the hospitality business to explore the other side of my brain (the creative side), which has been in hiding for quiet some time. I have been retreating a bit from what it was that inspired me to take the leap in the first place but now it is coming back to. Thank you, thank you!

    Posted on 9.21.15 · Reply to comment
    • Hello Deema,

      Thank you and good luck with your visa. I’ve never been to Verona (yet) but hear it’s a lovely city.

      Yes, it is frightening (and risky) to leave your home after fifteen years to move to another country but I think it’s worth it. You learn a lot about yourself, fast, when you’re out of your comfort zone.

      Posted on 9.21.15 · Reply to comment
  8. lamamahada wrote:

    This was amazing.

    Thank you for taking the time to interview, and close captioning this conversation. I swear, its exactly what I needed to read this Tuesday night. Gibbs is an inspiring woman, and i wish her nothing but success in her career. I trurly loved how she honestly spoke about her experiences, and what shes learned from them. She is seriously an incredible woman, and so are you. 🌻 Your blog is amazing and I am so glad to have access to such a powerful platform!

    Much love.
    Xo GC

    Posted on 9.22.15 · Reply to comment
  9. Sara Rosso wrote:

    Arlene is wonderful; that’s about the time (and country) I finally met her after years of ‘knowing’ her online. Living in Italy I’m lucky to be able to see her a bit more often now. I didn’t expect to see her profile on your site (been reading for a while now) but I should have known two talented women like yourselves would know each other!

    Posted on 10.10.15 · Reply to comment

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  • New post up on medium. Link in bio.
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“If I had my way, I’d never leave my house. My home is small, and I know every inch of it. An 800-square foot box with two windows, walls, and a doorbell that plays instrumental Julio Iglesias. Half the rooms are cloaked in effulgent light and the other a cool charcoal black. I’ve become fluent at oscillating between the two. I don’t even love the space in which I live, but I’m hard-pressed to leave it.”
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It’s bizarre that I’ve always been a city girl and all I want now is small. Quiet. Remote. I feel like my dad.
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I cracked my tooth on Friday (it’s all good—I got Percocet and a $3K bill), and it made me think that there’s so much I want to do, work-wise and artistically, but I’m always thinking about money. Years ago, I heard Paul Jarvis talk about reducing your expenses to feel richer. I know, captain  obvious, but it resonated with me on Friday while on Percocet.
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I’m considering another move when my lease is up to a small AF town in California not too far from the Redwoods and the ocean. I LOVE California, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the US. And I love the idea of FEWER people. Quiet to write. Maybe I can get a dog friend for my Felix! .
So, we’ll see. Does anyone here live in a remote or super small town? If so, what do you love about it?
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  • My breaking point was over a hazelnut. A hazelnut that cracked my tooth at two-thirty this morning. Because I was stress-eating granola. But it was the three thousand dollar bill to fix said tooth that did me in. Only a few weeks before, a persistent ache in another tooth turned into a five-hour fiasco involving a dentist, an endodontist, a $5,000 bill and me texting a friend — while the fifth shot in my mouth was kicking in, and I was inhaling nitrous gas like a glass of water in the fucking Sahara — ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS BULLSHIT?
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My dentist tried to reassure me, after rejecting my pleas for a fifteen-year repayment plan, that this particular tooth had already booked a one-way ticket to a root canal, so I ended up saving $2,000! Oh, cool. So, instead of dropping ten grand on two teeth, I was only paying eight. Like I have eight thousand dollars just laying around, waiting to be flushed down the dental toilet. Apparently, the hazelnut was my salvation. I started laughing and continued laughing. For a while. To the point where everyone in the waiting room was uncomfortable.
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****I wrote about teeth, money, and debt in my latest medium post. Link in bio.*****
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Today, I wrote a tutorial about crafting plots. Instead of vivisecting plot arcs — because frankly, I’d rather gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch — I invite you to consider three simple questions: what story will sustain your interest for 70,000 words? Can you commit to your story and the sequence of events that unfold for months or years of your life? Does your novel have the weight to capture and hold your reader until the end?
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Characters are delicious. When I was small, I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with books and my imagination. It’s a strange, magical thing to live your life inside your head, but this is what I did. Long, sultry summers formed a backdrop for one of the many worlds I’d created, complete with a cast of characters who felt so real you could touch them. This was more than inventing an imaginary friend or anthropomorphizing a stuffed bear; my characters were fully-formed people who had their own personalities, a particular way of talk, and facial features I’d cobbled together from television shows and magazines. They clasped pearls around their thin necks and wore sweaters and shoes made of silk and dyed blue. They were carriers of credit cards, plastic rectangular shapes I’d only seen on TV — a far cry from the crumpled bills and pennies we hoarded. My characters were breathing Frankensteins, only far less frightening. What made them real was they refused to follow a script — they rarely behaved the way I wanted them to.
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Denis Johnson once said that dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid. The leaner the dialogue, the bigger the bite. Darkness fell. The summer in 2005 was unseasonably chilly, and we wrapped ourselves in light jackets and thin cotton sweaters, watching the author of Jesus’ Sonchain-smoke and dole out advice with humor and humility. We were at a writer’s conference where we workshopped our stories during the day and mingled with boldfaced names in the evening. This would be the summer before I sold my first book and I was floored that my teacher at the time, Nick Flynn, found something honest and worthy in my essays that would become my memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. Back then, I was painfully shy and prone to giving violently awkward first impressions, so instead of the cocktails and conversation, I chose to sit on the wet grass and listen to writers whom I admired. One evening, Denis Johnson gave a talk on dialogue.
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Dialogue is difficult. I often think of it as the power-lifter of novel writing because it has to operate successfully on several different levels. Not only does it have to move the story forward, convey information quickly, and grant narrative breathing space (because who wants to plow through pages without an exhale), but it also has to reveal core character truths. Dialogue delivers what narrative can’t — a voyeuristic, in-depth look into the minds of characters through what they say, and more importantly, what they chose not to disclose. Characters come to life when they speak. We visualize them as living, breathing people who have a particular way of talk, a specific view of the world and their place in it. While the author has dominion over the narrative, serving as your tour guide through the story, the dialogue serves as the wild card, the wrench that could usurp everything you’ve just read and what you’re about to read.
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Today, I had a call with my friend @luciaioevans, and we started talking about a podcast idea we’ve been toying with—something news something you have NOT seen before I guarantee you. And it occurred to me that they’re myopic, borderline photocopies of a bland original. They’ve internalized brand consistency and continuity so much that they’ll build a whole world for themselves in their box and never have any desire to peer out and see what’s outside.
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These podcasts invite guests who look and sound just like them. They regurgitate the same bullshit business advice that Seth Godin wrote a decade ago, and pithy platitudes because it got that influencer turned entrepreneur rich on Instagram, and now she sells courses for $600 a pop when she’s never done the thing she teaches for anyone other than herself. These people are so obsessed with building their brand that they forgot to be human.
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And then I realized that since we have so little time, why not spend it being our truest selves. Why not fuse all the things that make us weird, strange, and unique, and bring them to bear on our work.
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Don’t listen to people who tell you that you should act or be a certain way. They’re telling you to behave in their way, in a way that’s safe, conforming, and possibly boring. They’re not wrecking things. They’re not thinking about the feel of every inch of our life slipping, slipping, slipping by. They clock-watch. They speak in coded jargon or vernacular. Plain English frightens them. People who are different paralyze them. And they’ll poke fun and use you as a prop for their amusement, but they’re small. And they’re not doing much with their life except for complaining about it.
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Over the next year, I have BIG sweeping plans. Education, podcasts, writing. And I plan to ignore what everyone else is doing, will give zero fucks about what people think of me because I think we’re our most brave when we are our most real, vulnerable selves.
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Every day I do something that doesn’t involve a device to EXPERIENCE the world. Today, it was getting into a coffin with a friend and checking out re-enactments of The Shining.
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