As a self-taught designer, Aimee Anderson isn’t afraid to break the rules because she never really learned them in the first place. Here’s how the renovation specialist breathes new life into old homes

Written by Juno DeMelo

Photography by Sabrina Cole Quinn Photography, @aimeeandersondesign

When did you start on the path to becoming a designer?

I’m actually self-trained. I have an MBA and used to work in a totally different field, doing marketing and business development. In 2015 I bought a Victorian that was built in 1870 and did my own gut renovation. I fell in love with construction and design and left my career to focus on my own project. My business degree came in handy, because running design projects is half about the pretty selections and half about managing schedules, budgets, and people.

Design is something I’ve always been interested in. My family business in San Diego is actually rentals, so I’ve been around construction my whole life. I didn’t know how to gut-renovate, but I felt like I could really reimagine the house we bought, and I hired a great architect who’s since brought me in on a lot of projects. We totally opened it up and did a lot of modern finishes and a modern kitchen and lots of glass.

When did it click that you wanted to do this for a living?

I just liked the energy of it. It’s been five years in this home, and I’m ready to sell it and do another one! I like the process of full construction. I’m not stressed by it, despite all the surprises. I think I enjoy that creative problem-solving. I wasn’t intending for design to become my full-time career. It was an accident.

What was your first project after the renovation of your own home?

At the conclusion of my renovation, my former CEO came over and was really complimentary. She was selling her suburban home and buying a condo, and she asked me to manage it. I spent the whole next year doing her project, which included managing the project and hiring the architect and overseeing the construction, on top of picking all the fun stuff. She knew I didn’t have a design background but appreciated what I did in my own house. She trusted me in a totally different capacity.

What draws you to a project?

I really love the holistic projects where you’re gutting, taking all the interior walls down, and starting with a fresh palette. Not all of my jobs are that way, but those are ones that I love the most. 

What draws clients to you?

I think my clients want something different. My work is really custom. I don’t repeat designs. I think I’m drawn to clients for the same reason they’re drawn to me: We’re open to taking risks and have the confidence to make cool decisions.

When I reflect back, my former CEO and most of my other clients were kind of taking on their next act on life. Their children had left the house for college or they were moving to new cities. I’ve done a lot of projects with people who want something unique, that’s 100 percent theirs. Some of my favorite designs are the ones where the clients ask, “are you sure I can do that?” I always say I’m sure, but I’m not! The combinations I imagine are a gut feeling. I think because I don’t have a design degree, I don’t know the rules, so I can’t really break them.

What makes design in Boston particular to Boston?

A lot of the homes are very large in Boston, in the 5,000 + feet range. And because Boston is so historic, the design scene here is mostly filled with designers and architects whose work is on the traditional side.

Often homeowners feel if they have an older home, they need to respect the historic space or the bones, and that’s definitely important. My challenge is helping clients have the confidence to mix in fresher styles while still respecting or appreciating the things that made the house so special. So many homes here have beautiful moldings and inlays and hardwoods, all these things that bring character to a home. But that doesn’t have to dictate the whole design direction. You can have an 1870 Victorian with a modern kitchen and open-floor room plan and still have those beautiful existing moldings.

What advice do you give to clients who are afraid that today’s design won’t hold up in five or 10 years?

Unless you’re designing a home to sell, you’re in a home to enjoy yourself for a big chunk of time. By the time you go to sell, your home probably is going to be outdated, and someone else will want to change it. Good advice is to design for what you like now! For bigger decisions, timelessness should definitely be considered, but at the same time, unless you’re doing something really trendy, it won’t really go out of style any time soon.  

How do you use tile in unexpected ways?

Tile is one of the last things to go in, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be chosen first. You can build whole designs around it. What’s kind of interesting about me is my personal tendency is for the backdrops to be really neutral: white walls, etc. Loud fabrics and rugs are not really my thing. But with tile, I’ll go bold, use color, and go with clashing patterns and unexpected combinations. That’s one of the reasons I love Ann Sacks; it doesn’t read safe, and there are tons and tons of choices.

Bathrooms are kind of contained, so they feel like an especially safe place to go nuts. People aren’t expecting to walk into a bathroom and see something crazy. One thing I love about Ann Sacks is that I can offer something 100 percent unique using their tile because there aren’t a lot of reference points for any two tiles working well together. I’m putting my own combos together.

Where do you begin when you start choosing materials, especially if your clients don’t have a strong sense of what they want?

I’m definitely inspired by their personalities, and if I don’t know them well, maybe there’s something in their existing space that will help me read them. I really try hard to reflect on them, not me. Art is usually one of my big clues; that’s a great starting point I can use to get insight into their vibe and the colors they’re drawn to.

In terms of getting down to what’s really important to them about all the selections—tile and lighting and hardware and faucets and the furniture and soft finishes—usually that’s a direct question of, “what do you really love?” The answer always translates into, “I don’t mind spending money on XYZ. I really love tile, it’s important to me, we can go over budget there, but I don’t really care where we buy the couch. Let’s do the tile first and then decide around that.”

I think looking at an overall budget holistically from the start is also a good idea. The builder’s contract will give allowances for most finishes, and some clients want to stick to those numbers, while others are willing to spend less on one thing and go big on another. Even though real estate and constructions costs are high in Boston, that doesn’t mean that everything has to cost a lot in a high-end project. I’ve bought a $10,000 table and then made up for it with $100 chairs from Wayfair.

Do clients usually come to you with photos of something they’d like you to recreate?

One of the ways I get to know a client’s style is looking online with them to pinpoint their general style. But we’re talking inspiration only. They’ll say, “this bathroom or cabinetry appeals to me.” It’s a way to get a conversation started. Pinterest is good because you can share folders. I use it as a jumping-off point. I’ve rarely had someone come to me and say, “I want this tile or that light.” It’s more, “this is what I’m generally thinking,” and then we start digging into selections.

What inspires you? Do you go to tradeshows?

I don’t, but I’ll follow the hashtag. I don’t do a lot of networking within the Boston design community or in general. Not on purpose, but I have three kids and am otherwise occupied when I’m not focused on my clients. I definitely look at other designs on Instagram, and I post there too. It’s how designers really get their work now, by sharing individual projects.