California native Michelle Chandler always knew she’d be a designer of some stripe. After high school, she briefly studied fashion design in San Francisco, before moving to Newport Beach, where she decided to try a few interior design classes. The rest is history. Michelle built her design career with firms in Los Angeles and Orange County, leading projects in hospitality, commercial and residential design. Influenced by California fashion and culture, Michelle’s designs marry West Coast modernity with art-forward bohemian touches for a look that is not only singular and sophisticated, but also unique to each client. After moving to Birmingham for her husband’s new job, Michelle took the leap and launched her own design studio, Harper James Design, in 2015. And soon after that, a trip to Children’s of Alabama was the catalyst for a personal epiphany that led her to use her design skills for a greater purpose, her nonprofit Flower Child Project. We asked Michelle to describe her design aesthetic, let us in on some tricks of the trade and give us a glimpse of her stunning portfolio. We hope you enjoy!
Harper James Design is your interior design studio and home decor shop, but Flower Child Project is a totally out-of-the-box design venture. Tell us about it and how it came to be.
Flower Child Project really came about once I became a mom. I went back to work six weeks after having my first daughter, Phoebe, and even though I loved the design firm I was with at the time in California, I guess it was just never the same. I had a sudden shift in wanting to do more as a designer. I just wasn’t sure what that was yet. Shortly after we moved to Birmingham in 2015, Phoebe was having difficulty breathing and was treated in Children’s Hospital. She recovered and we left that same day, but I was completely overwhelmed by the experience. I was hit hard by the reality of how many children were in that hospital. It truly takes becoming a parent to fully grasp the immense, life-changing love you can have for a child. And in turn, to imagine the heartbreak in watching your child suffer from a life-threatening illness. I turned to my husband that day in the hospital room and said to him, “I’m going to design dream bedrooms for kids who are sick.” And he said, “Do it!”
Flower Child Project started right then. We completed the first bedroom in May of this year, and it turned out beautiful. This project has become a mission for me as a designer and as a mother. When we can give away our talents and resources to those who deserve it and need it most, that’s how we inch our way to a kinder and better world. The little things matter. A beautiful, well-planned bedroom full of the colors and the things a child loves, that matters — especially to a child that is in bed more often than not or confined indoors while they fight for their life. And the community was incredible in helping to raise money for the project. Right now, I am looking to find sponsors and start the next bedroom for Flower Child Project. I am so proud of this project, and I look forward to impacting more kids and families.
What is your design aesthetic, and how do you translate that to a client’s home?
My design aesthetic is 80% California eclectic and 20% everything else. I go with spaces that are not just one thing. Every home is different, so bringing a certain style into an existing space can be a challenge. I look at a new project as a story; what story are we trying to tell? I ask my clients about their daily lives and what they envision their dream home to be like. I bring in a good mix of old and new and build off contrasting textures. Making a space that’s unique is what it’s all about.
Where are your favorite local spots to source decor for a client’s home?
At Home Furnishings in Homewood is a great place to shop. Urban Suburban and Winslet & Rhys are amazing and remind me of the shops in L.A. Arhaus, which just opened at The Summit, is also a great source.
Are there any trends you’re loving at the moment, and, alternately, any timeless aspects of design that you cling to?
I love the curated looks that are popular right now. In kitchens, the mixing of prints and textures of surfaces and open shelving with handmade tiles. I love the vintage combined with the new in furnishings. And I love everything I am seeing in kids’ bedrooms. I am a big believer in having those classic, always-in-style bones in a project. Neutral color palettes as the base of your home are always a good idea. You can’t go wrong with beautiful stones and textured wood with mixed metals.
What has been your most challenging project to date and why?
My most challenging project is my own home! It’s like the designer curse: You can do everyone else’s home, no problem! But it’s like pulling teeth trying to decide what you want for yourself. I’m chipping away at it, but it will never be done in my mind.
What brings you the most professional joy?
Knowing I am able to create something beautiful that people live their lives in. That there are people every day enjoying and making memories in the spaces I designed — that’s been all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s awesome.
How does Birmingham’s design scene differ from the rest of the country?
This is a great time to be a designer in Birmingham because the city is reinventing itself. There is so much potential and possibility here. The dichotomy of the deep-rooted history with this new, very contemporary city scene is incredible. The development going on downtown is putting Birmingham on the map. Coming from California, I had no idea what it would be like, but I could not be more proud to live and work here.
Where do you get your inspiration?
It’s so true that inspiration is everywhere, and I am always seeking it. I will take pictures of design elements I come across, color combinations I like, a tile I want to remember. I mean, it’s constant with me. I am never not designing or storing inspiration for projects I can use one day. I keep up with projects from my favorite designers and architects. There is so much good work going on in interiors, it’s crazy.
Share one designer secret with us regular folk.
Hang all art at eye level and don’t be afraid of oversized art! I go crazy when I see a tiny art piece hanging on a huge wall and it’s almost to the ceiling. A good guide to follow is to have the center or your painting hit around 60 inches from the floor.
What are your predictions for interior design in the next 10 to 15 years?
In 10 to 15 years, I think interior design will be an even more accessible and in-demand service and profession than it is now. It’s funny, because when I was in design school, interior design was not exactly respected in a lot of ways. Although much of that was due to the lack of public knowledge on what interior designers actually do. Now, 10 years later, interior design has this massive following. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. I think innovation of new, ethically sourced products from around the world will be standard. I see us going in that direction as designers. I also think there will be more of an industry jump between fashion and interiors … more fashion brands jumping into the home decor game.
If you could squeeze your design philosophy into five words or less, what would it be?
There are no rules.
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your insights, inspirations and impressively diverse design portfolio. To contact Michelle regarding her design work, visit Harper James Design. To contact Michelle regarding her charitable work designing children’s bedrooms, visit Flower Child Project.
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