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An Exercise of Faith: Kenneth Nilson on Being a Designer

Designer Kenneth Nilson started his education in design at Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minnesota, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1992.


His notice in design started early;

“My interest in design was mostly an eighties greed inspired cop-out. I was always interested in art as a child and had pretty good technical skills when it came to drawing and 3-D modeling. But I was worried about making a living so I latched on to design because it could actually lead to a steady paycheck. I studied graphic design; I thought I did well at it. I had a decent portfolio upon leaving college but the profession required things that I did not have, such as the ability to assist an art director on their vision. Even they had a great vision; I had no passion for it. I also lacked the ability to care about the client's product. This was especially true for financial and pharmaceutical products.”

He worked two years as a graphic designer in Minneapolis. In 1994 he moved to New York City, where he kept working as a graphic designer until he switched to his real passion, furniture design. He ended up self-employed, working on his "own pieces in much the same way as a studio artist would and never seeing a steady paycheck, always struggling to make ends meet”.

“The greatest challenge of this profession is taking something so personal as a creation and submitting it to the world and hoping it brings money in return. As much as I try, I can't seem to separate myself from the outcome. Quite often it will take an interior designer years to find a client that will be the right fit for one of my pieces, no matter how much the designer likes it. Sometimes nobody likes my pieces, but even if they do, it may be years before it sparks some kind of sale.”

Mesh Daybed

Today Kenneth Nilson has reached a successful career in design, with clients like The Smithsonian Institution, Paul Smith, Bananna Republic, Kenneth Cole, Saks Fifth Avenue, Liz Claiborne, Jamie Drake, Scott Sanders and Anjali Pollack.

“I find I have to focus on the process and how I feel I have realized a piece instead of what it brings in return in the form of praise and money. It becomes an exercise of faith. Faith in what I'm doing and in my self-worth. Sometimes this exercise is a sprint, sometimes it's a marathon, sometimes it's just a cramp. In this economy it's even harder. I finally got into the showroom I've been after for years, I got some nice publicity and genuine praise from people I really respect. But not much is moving in terms of sales. So, on the surface, it's a hollow victory. But it is a step.”

“I'm not sure this is ever overcome. It's like being an addict in recovery. I'm not sure I can ever detach my work from money or praise, I just have to deal with the ups and downs of making a living this way. I would advise a young designer to work for somebody. Apprentice, work cheap, wait tables. Learn from somebody who has been doing it for years. It may sound counter-intuitive, but in the long run it's cheaper than forging your own way and making all your own mistakes with your own money. I don't think there are a lot of jobs out there now, anyway.”

Mandala Orb

Nilson also explains that design has changed in another way for him throughout the years:

“Over the years design has become a more spiritual pursuit for me. It started out as a mental exercise. I was once told that a designer doesn't practice design to bring beautiful things into the world, but to learn about life. It certainly has turned into a series of hard lessons on life. Some days it makes sense and some days I feel like I'm praying to a golden calf. Except it's not golden, its hollow fiberglass covered with gold spray paint.”

"I read once that when a typical weekend golfer is asked what goes through his/her mind when they are trying to sink a crucial put they often have a long list of things they tell themselves. When the same question is posed to somebody like Tiger Woods, the answer is nothing. I try to remember that my head must really be clear in order for things to flow. I can't really force it. I have to clear my head and find what I'm looking for. I can't think the solution out into the open. It doesn't sound right, but my best pieces have come to me from nowhere. They haven't evolved from a thought process."


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  1. Tony says:

    Making all my own mistakes with my own money has been really heavy. At the same time it makes me more focused and determined to improve, learn and further develop necessary skills.

    Great post, thanks for this one!

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