Meet the Woman Who Left Corporate Life to Become an Interior Designer

In honour of our co-founders Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s latest book, The Career Code: Must-Know Rules for a Strategic, Stylish, and Self-Made Career ($24), we’re running an interview series featuring 17 questions (to parallel the book’s 17 chapters) about the work lives of inspirational female leaders who are at the top of their fields. So far, we’ve tapped Lisa Gersh, Pip Edwards, Kelly Wearstler, and more. Up next? Interior designer Alix Helps.

Alix Helps is proof you don't have to have it all figured out in your twenties. As one of the most in-demand interior decorators on Sydney's North Shore, you'd be forgiven for assuming she has always worked in design. The truth is, though, this creative force spent decades working in the corporate world before finding her true career calling.

If you're pressing go on another year sitting at a cubicle and wondering if that little voice in the back of your head might be right, we know you'll get a lot from reading Helps' creative career change story. 

Before taking the leap, she juggled her corporate career with study at Sydney's International School of Colour and Design (ISCD). She completed a Certificate IV in Design and then a Diploma in Interior Styling, before launching Alix Helps Interiors

In this fun and frank Career Code interview, Helps shares her secret to sparking creativity every day, and her best advice when it comes to changing your career path in 2018.

If you've felt restless back at work and you're contemplating a career as an interior designer, this might just be the push you need.

Interior Decorator Alix Helps

I’m an interior decorator. Essentially, I help people fall in love with their homes. Most of my clients either know what they like and simply don’t know how to achieve it, or they just don’t have time to pull it together themselves. I’m entirely residential and I work on Sydney’s lower North Shore—I work all over Sydney really, but because I live here the majority of my clients are from this area.

Probably how much time I spend sitting at my desk. I’m the head designer, the CEO, the accountant, the social media manager, the PR girl, the marketing guru. . . and I’m the tea girl [laughs]. There is a huge element to my job that requires more than the creative skills you’d associate with design. Running your own business—you are it. You’re on your own with everything. I’m just about to reach the point where I’m about to start taking on some extra help.

I can remember what I wore to my first ever job interview, and I look back at it now and think ‘Oh my God, that was so inappropriate’ [laughs]. The things you learn over the years. Short skirts. But now I tend to be reasonably smart casual when I meet clients.

I’ve got a hit list! But there’s a designer called Kit Kemp. She has an amazing chain of hotels called Firmdale Hotels—they are just beautiful. She has this innate ability to bring about these gorgeous combinations of patterns, fabrics, and finishes. Her schemes absolutely stand out—my favorite would have to be the Crosby Street Hotel in New York, but The Whitby also looks fabulous and Ham Yard in London.

What on earth did we do before the Internet? I’m a very visual person, I love leafing through design books and magazines. I attend trade shows regularly to just touch and feel all the goodness. You have to surround yourself with that all the time—it’s constant. Whether it’s browsing through a beautiful book in a bookshop on a weekend, or coffee table books, cartography, and Instagram, obviously, is great for that kind of thing.

It’s the convenience of having that at your fingertips, isn’t it? So if you’re waiting at the doctor’s surgery you have a little look. It’s finding those opportunities throughout the day to keep abreast of what’s out there.

Waiting so long to start my design career, definitely. I should have backed myself much earlier, I should have pursued my passion. I didn’t realize I could carve a career out of doing something I love. I wish I’d had that moment of clarity earlier on.

But in saying that, I’m also a great believer that all of the experience I’ve collected along the way has honed my craft as a businesswoman. I have run two businesses before this one, so certainly that has given me an advantage in being very familiar with how to run a successful business. Because it’s just as important as the design side, really.

Number one for me is a genuine passion for what you do—you just can’t fake that. And if it’s not there, nothing else is going to work. Combine that with a willingness to work hard, and a dollop of confidence—just to try. You don’t have to always know everything in life. As long as you know a bit you can work the rest out as you go, really. I’m a doer, I like to roll my sleeves and get stuck in and I appreciate that quality in others.

An ability to communicate effectively, I’d say that’s key. Being able to express a clear message, whether that’s in design terms and certainly on client projects, is absolutely vital. My reputation relies fairly and squarely on happy customers and I want them to feel good at every step of the process.

And for me, you’ve gotta have fun! I can’t contemplate life without having fun. So if you’re not having fun. . . you’re not coming in! [Work] takes up such a big chunk of your day and of your life, if it’s not fun and you’re not actually making a profitable business out of it then what on earth are you doing?

a hotel room
Courtesy Alix Helps Interiors

I feel most confident when I’ve considered my outfit. And my hair’s not looking like a bedraggled bush, and there might be a slick of lippie on board! I’m not sure that I need to feel powerful, really, but if I did there would definitely be some amazing shoes. I’ve just redesigned my walk-in-wardrobe and I’ve now got all my beautiful shoes on display. I think my favorite pair I bought at Alannah Hill. They almost make me feel a little Dorothy-like.

Well, my current assistant is my bunny, Smudge. He spends a lot of time hopping around the office and he knows me quite well [laughs]. He agrees with everything I say, he laughs at all my jokes! He’d probably say I’m a good mummy, a hard worker and I really like food. But I guess an assistant would probably see my passion and drive, and unconditional commitment to having fun. Every day.

Usually, I would get out of the office. I go visit suppliers, showrooms, shops or bars or hotels, galleries, restaurants, people, places. . . I guess for me it’s all about having that connection with new and innovative design, and you’ve got to see it to soak it up and thrive on it. So, if I am feeling uninspired, then it’s: ‘Right, down tools and get out and see things.’ That fixes it immediately. Just having a break can do the job—getting out and seeing something new can absolutely change your day.

The best way is when you’ve got a considered plan for what comes next, and the will to make it happen. That’s certainly the way that I’ve conducted myself when navigating my way through different jobs. For me it’s never a good idea to burn any bridges—a respectable departure is always my best advice. And that you can always consider the positives of what each experience has taught you, and make sure you can call on that, both good and bad, in the future.

Mapping out a plan is always the best way to do things. Nothing on impulse, have a plan, have the supports in place, make sure you’ve looked at the pros and cons in every situation, and then just go for it. You’ve got to have the will to go for it.

a dining room
Courtesy Alix Helps Interiors

Whatever’s quick and handy. Most days I have lunch at my desk, which sounds very sad but it’s the truth. In winter I love having hot food, otherwise, you sit at your desk and just freeze.

I met someone recently as a potential design assistant. She was very sweet, but she had no idea about the type of work I did and hadn’t even looked up my website. So it was a short meeting! There is some essential preparation you need to do if you’re interested in working with someone. I guess, this sounds basic, but social media—if you’re serious about working in the industry, you need to keep it relevant. It’s one of the first things that we have a look at. Maybe have a personal profile, keep that private. And have another one as your public profile that reflects your passion and interests, that might just represent you a little better in [an interview] situation.

Firmdale Hotels. They’re just—oh, just gorgeous hotel style. I like following Sophie Paterson, she’s a U.K designer who appears to be living my dream life [laughs]. Often fabric and wallpaper houses are really inspirational. Schumacher is a really good one to keep you inspired—their photography is always beautiful and they have some amazing, gorgeous fabrics and wallpapers that I often use. . . The list goes on and on, really.

a reading nook
Courtesy Alix Helps Interiors

I’m an early riser—5 a.m in the morning I’m usually awake, sometimes before. So I find that if I can’t quiet my brain I’ll head down to the office, because those precious hours before 7 a.m when the phone doesn’t ring and I don’t have to respond to things immediately, I just seem to get so much done. I start my day off kicking goals, it’s great. Then I have to run around getting all the kids out the door before school, for the next chunk of the day before I can get back to work. So it kind of suits me really, I can get ahead.

Unfortunately, early risers don’t do well in the evenings! The opening credits of any movie can bring on the depths of sleep for me, to my husband’s eternal disappointment. If we’re talking about rituals, we always eat dinner together every night as a family. But after that, I’m a pretty simple person. A little bit of pottering around with the family in the evening and then I’m usually asleep within three minutes of my head hitting the pillow.

Go with your gut. Go with your gut, every single time. Every year that goes by and the more experience that I’ve gleaned, business-wise, it proves itself over and over again. And every time I ignore it, I always regret it.

Whenever you have that innate feeling about something, whether it’s a project or a relationship or a new client or whatever—absolutely go with your gut. It’s always a mistake to ignore those questioning moments. Always listen to that inner voice, those little thoughts that say 'No, no, no! Don’t do that one.'

I’m taking the whole of January off, which I usually do. The industry is usually very quiet in January anyway and it’s a good time to hang out with the kids while they’re off school. But what I’m most excited about is that during my downtime I’m completely re-doing my office. I’m having a completely new look and feel new desk space, and workspace so that I can accommodate extra staff, and I will be better set up for just how I operate here. So I’m really pumped to have fresh surroundings to work in for 2018.

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