Radio Maine Episode 23

Vanessa Helmick: Creating a Life on Her Terms 

 Vanessa Helmick started her Maine interior design business, Fiore Interiors, using a unique approach: she ignored all of her well-intentioned advisors, and made decisions that were best for her. She avoided networking, she moved out of the city of Portland, and she chose clients that she liked and who liked her aesthetic. Vanessa’s aesthetic, one that she describes as “Scandi Beach,” is a combination of Scandanavian minimalism and a heavily textured coastal experience.  With each of her projects, she incorporates art into her design and engages with her clients to choose signature pieces that will enhance their daily lives.  Vanessa’s own daily life has taken her to Yarmouth where she is raising her daughter, and their new pup, minutes away from her new storefront, located near the bustling boatyards of the Royal River. You’ll enjoy getting to know more about Vanessa’s personal and professional style on today’s episode of Radio Maine with Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for joining our Radio Maine community. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine. And today we have with us, Vanessa Helmick, who is an interior designer who has really built her career from the ground up in really interesting ways. I know that she's integrated art into the work that she's done. And we're going to talk a little bit about that today. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Vanessa.  

Vanessa Helmick:

Thank you for having me. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've actually heard your story from farther back than Vanessa Helmick interior designer. I understand that you worked your way to this place and that at one point you actually were working at the Inn by the Sea?

Vanessa Helmick:

In Maine I worked my way to this point. I did interior design for quite some time before I moved to Maine.  But when you move across country things change. I actually didn't plan on doing interior design when I moved here. I didn't plan on staying in Maine. I was actually taking some time off. I was seeing my family and thought, well, I'll just wait tables for the summer. I had done it in college so I can do it again. And it was actually great. That was 2010 and I never left Maine. And, I actually just hired my former supervisor from Inn by the Sea.  I hired her to work for me to be the guru of all things organizational.  Her name is Misty and she’s great. I've stayed in touch with her and knew she was a wonderful human.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I know that when you moved to Maine it was just going to be a resting place for a bit. That was your intention. And thus the time at Inn by the Sea. But obviously you're still here. So what has kept you with us?

Vanessa Helmick:

 I know we're supposed to look at this as a linear process. Like I came, I stayed, and I go through the different years. But it's just not a linear process. I think when you move anywhere, and when you are re-evaluating your goals and directions, it's sometimes a circular process. For example I'm going this particular way but this doesn't actually bring me joy. I'm going to go a little this way. I did the Portland thing, lived here, listened to everyone’s advice on what I should do and who I should know and all those things. 

Then I started ignoring all of it and found my way,  found my people, and just went from there. I know that sounds silly, but that's the process. I was trying all these things I'm supposed to do, that were miserable, and then I just did what I wanted and connected with the clients that I want and the peers that I want.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Give me examples of the things that you did that made sense to you, that you wanted to, not the things that you were told that you should do.

Vanessa Helmick:

Networking.  I did none of it. I know you're supposed to go to the events but they actually really stress me out. So I only go to events that I want to go to, and if I see people that I want to see, that’s great. And if I don't, that's fine, too.  I do go to a ton of art events, obviously pre-COVID,  because they make me happy and they inspire me.  It's where I reconnect with a lot of old clients. If I go early and no one's there, it's still going to be a wonderful time. So these types of things inspire me.

Another example of doing it my way was getting out of the city and into Yarmouth. Like I said, I didn't move here for the nightlife. I moved to Yarmouth for my daughter and I was really surprised that I was so much happier there.  I love my trees. I have great neighbors. It's just quiet and that was a really nice change for me because I found myself getting outside more because you have to get outside more to go anywhere. And it just reminded me that I need to connect with being outdoors. And that's a huge part of being happy in Maine. For me, that's kind of the whole point. 

I connected with a couple people in the building trades and I just really liked how they treated clients. I liked how we interacted creatively without egos. And I've gone on to now work with them on the majority of my design jobs that require heavy renovations.  So I built a team that way.  We all have families. And  It's just sort of like family now. And that just came from working on some job sites where I'm supposed to be doing design with the builder, which I did, but then connecting with one or two carpenters, six or seven years ago, that are now my main contractors.

Vanessa Helmick:

I had said to them “ You know what, we work really well together. I know you're not a big name.” And we went on to build together. And that was probably another example of what you’re not supposed to do but it’s how I built my business, the direction that I went myself. 

And then, in terms of style, I started showing my own aesthetic. And if people liked it then great. And if they don't, they don't. I quit taking on clients that were not aligned with my aesthetic. There's nothing wrong with those clients. It's just not the type of project I want to do. And, in the beginning, I would always do that because I thought I should be doing this. They're nice people. They would want to hire me, and I would take their projects, but I found that it just wasn't what I wanted to do. So I just began to follow what made me happy. And my business just evolved on its own.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Describe your aesthetic. What, what would you say is the type of client that resonates with that aesthetic?

Vanessa Helmick:

Very organic, modern. I love clean lines. I hate accessories; I just hate them so much. Whenever we style a shoot, I'm always loading up the car thinking that I hate all of these things. But they do look beautiful, and people collect them,  but I'd rather have a sculpture or a couple of meaningful pieces on display rather than decorating out bookshelves. I just like a very clean  but very textured and warm look. 

 I grew up outside of Yosemite National Park. A lot of what I love about Maine is very similar to Yosemite; the rocks, the pine trees.  It's just what makes me happy and I think that comes across in my work. 

So my aesthetic is very nature inspired without being themed. There was a recent article about my work where I explained it as Scandi Beach; which is just a way for people to understand what my style is. Because when I say organic, modern and coastal, they have no clue what I'm talking about. If I say it's like Scandinavian went to the beach, then they get it.  So, again, I use texture, texture, and more texture and clean, not fussy lines.  And that is also why, as an interior design firm, we have included so much art in projects;  we've left space for it.  And we haven't overbuilt our renovations. We haven't overdone all the built-ins. We leave walls and windows and room for life.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

In the studio with me, I have a Darthea Cross, whose work I understand you’ve purchased for your clients,  called Spring Thaw.  When I look at it, it makes me think of rocks and the jagged coast. And it has some colors involved in it.  Why would you include pieces like this one in your projects?

Vanessa Helmick:

Well, I did snag one of Darthea Cross’s pieces in the blue tones  which is very hard to get right now. They're now mostly in greens, which are lovely, but it's hard to get one of her pieces in the blues. 

I put it in a project this year which was  more modern. They bought a home with an ocean view because that is what makes them happy, the whole vitamin sea thing.  And that Darthea Cross painting, with the blue tones, is the first thing they see when they wake up in the morning.

 We're actually doing a custom chandelier with a glass artist in Rhode Island named Tracy Glover. And we're pulling out all the colors of the Darthea Cross piece. My client wants a reflection of what makes them happy. Literally, it's opposite the ocean view, but it's artistic and modern and it isn't super defined. There's room for them to look at the painting and get lost in the piece. They can have  a different experience with that piece than they would looking out the window, still a beautiful one, but just a different experience. It all works really well in the same room. Darthea’s work does that in just about any setting really so I can't take credit for that. Darthea makes my work look good. But I was excited to nab a blue one. As I said, there's not a lot of those.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So give me other examples of how you've used art in the designs that you've created for people's homes.

Vanessa Helmick:

 A lot of it depends on where and what kind of project it is. If it's a renovation, from the beginning, I set aside space, and protect what is going to go in that space, and I dig my heels into that idea.  If you don't, other things get put there and then there's no space.  So renovations are a little bit different.  But I do try to, from the beginning, when we're doing our initial concept boards, put in different artists. 

There's a project that I have been working on in Munjoy Hill. From the beginning, in the first three mood boards, were a bunch of different artist’s work. They were all pieces that I felt would look good in the home but, obviously, more selections than would fit in the home. I wanted to get feedback from the client and help them understand their own aesthetic with art.

Vanessa Helmick:

Even though I can make just about any piece of art look good, the artwork  needs to resonate with the client. So, we start with a bunch of visuals and then I drill that down into a final presentation.  I really prefer to bring my clients a couple of pieces of art. The experience is just very different in person. 

 I know we've all had to do a lot remotely during the last couple of years but nothing can replace seeing art in person.  My style is more “I think you'll like all of these but obviously only one will stay. What do you like?”  That way people feel comfortable investing because they know that the piece works for their home. They're also empowered to make their own decisions. It isn't “pushy designer made me do this.”

Vanessa Helmick:

I don't want that. I'm not going to look at the piece every day. They are. So it’s a balance of aesthetics. What makes me happy is to run into a client, a couple of years after the project, and to have them still love everything so much. That's the point; to keep working yourself out of a job over and over because then they don't want to go back and change it all. 

 I do have a lot of clients that collect art. It’s interesting to listen to their stories of collecting so far, even if it's something they just got in college, and it's random, but they might love it so much. Art collecting has stories. Everyone remembers where they were, where they lived, what was going on in their life when they got that piece. I don't think it's a shopping story. I think it's a connection story of why they connected with that piece at that time. It's more than, it's just pretty, there's lots of pretty things we can go by.  It's really this connection with something creative.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What types of questions would you ask someone if you were looking through art that you had suggested? Is there a way that you help open up their ability to make decisions about something that they might actually feel a little intimidated by?

Vanessa Helmick:

 One of the first things that I talk about is that no one is going to hear their feedback but me. This is why working with a designer and a gallery can be really helpful. 

Let's say, hypothetically, that the couple doesn’t always like the same things which, of course,  will happen because they're two different humans. If they were working directly with an artist, they might feel very uncomfortable. One person might be thinking “ I don't really love that piece”. And then,  as a result, they might not even pursue getting the painting  because they don't know how to have that conversation in front of the artist. So the first thing that I say is “all of your feedback is between us.” There are no right or wrong answers. I did not paint this myself, so I will not be offended if you don't like it.

Vanessa Helmick:

It's the first thing we start with because art buying can be very overwhelming for folks who have not collected before.  I also find out, in advance, if they have collected art, if they've gone to museums or galleries, or anywhere they've traveled and just seen something that they love.  A lot of times you have to really find out what they don't like. That makes sense. So if someone's talking to me hypothetically and asking me about, you know, well, what does your home look like? My answer is going to be, I don't want anything red. I don't want anything orange. And I have very little yellow because I like the calming colors in my own home, which you know, if you remember young children and their energy level and puppies, like when you have a couple, you just want calm. So those are the colors that I like. But usually when you ask those questions to clients, they're pretty forthcoming with it.

Vanessa Helmick:

Then we just look at pictures and again, we will look at the pieces in person, but it's very easy for me to go into, what do you like about this? What do you not like about this?  Some people were really abstract. Other people hate it. Some people really want a piece that is almost emotional and how they feel. Other people just want something that reminds them of something very personal to them, which I won't necessarily know until they look at the piece, if that makes sense. Joanne Parent did this huge piece and I can't remember the name of it, but it was brand new. It's sold in like an hour. Like I literally got here right after it sold. I was in my car and had a client who saw it and wanted it.  There's a picture of me hugging the empty wall.

Vanessa Helmick:

We always had to commission something. But it's the series she's doing with light coming through the clouds. It's very different from what she's done before. And every client that I had shown that to said that it felt spiritual to them. And I also think that was part of the timing of what we've all kind been going through the last year and a half. Everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are, has been impacted by the last, you know, year, year and a half. And it wasn't just that it’s beautiful. All of her work is beautiful. It was that that was connecting with clients because it was uplifting.  A couple of good custom commissions came out of that, which is very exciting because I have clients who are excited to look at that every day.  So that was kind of art filling a need that clients had, that they maybe wouldn't have two years ago. So I just got to find out what are people's goals with the art? Are they wanting to collect? Are they wanting to feel good every time they look at it? Are they wanting to decorate with it? Whatever the answer is is fine. It's just good to know. What is their purpose?

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

My understanding is that you recently, speaking of puppies, welcomed a new one into your home and you have a seven year old. And do you have another dog also? Or just the one?

Vanessa Helmick:

So I just got my dog, a dog. So far it's going pretty well. So we ended up with the pandemic puppy, not on purpose. We had agreed to adopt her before COVID hit. And so that sweet dog is not properly socialized because we couldn't go to the puppy classes during COVID. I couldn't bring my daughter who was obviously home. There was no in-person learning at that time. So, yes, we just got an adorable three pounds Mi-Ki puppy for my other dog. I got my dog, a dog–not my proudest moment, but it's going very well. And I'm going to be out of the house probably full-time again for work five days a week in September. So I'm going to go back to being out of the house when second grade starts that same week. And so, you know, you can't have a dog home alone. It's just very sad when they've had everyone at home around them, but yeah, I've never been a dog person and I'm learning. But yes, puppies are a good thing.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I have to admit when I went to get our first dog in our island family, I got two, so I don't think you can get just one dog in my opinion, because I grew up in a family of 10 and I wouldn't have had it any other way. I couldn't have been an only child. So I'm behind you on this. I support you, Vanessa.

Vanessa Helmick:

Well, it's funny, there's a photo of the first dog up in the first grade classroom, because it's such a big part of my daughter's life and all of her classmates have met the dog cause I would bring it to pick her up from school. It's a very big deal to my seven year old, like, that is her puppy.  And she was very involved in, obviously picking out the new one and the name and it's a whole thing for her. So it's fine. It makes her happy. And I think it's good to have two.  I probably needed the second one as much as I needed the first, which is not at all. Everyone said you have enough on your plate.  But you know, they’re family. That's how that works.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So as you're describing your home situation, it's for me invoking a pretty high energy existence. So are you in your own home having a place of quietude in your design? Do you have quiet art and quiet Scandi beach?

Vanessa Helmick:

Yes. So I do actually have a decent amount of art.  When I closed my office in Portland, I actually traded some really beautiful pieces with a local artist who was like, “oh, what are you getting rid of? Any chance you want to trade for some art?” And my answer is always yes.  So that was really fun. I have too many things actually. I have a lot of it I've collected over the years. Some little, some small, some directly from artists, some random stuff I've gotten, I don't know if they do this that often, but First Friday Art Walk, when I moved here in 2010, there were tons of people outdoors selling their art outdoors, and a lot of young kids selling originals that were really fun–a lot of students. And I haven't seen it obviously as much the last couple of years, not so much because of COVID, but because of a young kid and bedtimes, I miss the First Friday Art Walks quite a bit.

Vanessa Helmick:

But I have a lot that I got from when I first moved here. And then when I actually moved from California, I kept most of my artwork. I just took it out of the frames and rolled it and took it with me.  So I do have a decent amount.  The last two pieces I got actually had a lot of color in them which is new for me, but they went in my dining room that doesn't have any color. So that's fine.  My house is a mix of leftover pieces from the store.  Right now I think the focal point of my living room is a huge puppy pen.

Vanessa Helmick:

Yeah, that's it. But I do have a lot of pieces with rettan, with cane. I have some antique pieces.  I don't really like heavy, so I do have a white sectional, but it's upholstered in a fabric that is really hard to stain because I do know what I'm doing. So you can scrub raspberries right off of it. Not a problem. It's okay to drink coffee on that sofa. I no longer have rugs. I have a puppy, so it's self-explanatory, but yeah, I do try to have my home kind of be my calmer place. I have adjusted how it looks in the last couple of years.  Last year when I figured out I was going to have to be home a lot, I went in, luckily did it before, when I started doing this, but did some work on my daylight basement and did custom built-ins and did a workspace for myself down there. And now we're juggling trying to fit four people down there, which doesn't work.  So looking forward to September getting everyone in the back into a bigger studio. So the rush was to get everyone vaccinated. And now we're all just waiting for the new space.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I understand that you spent some time training with kind of an Asian style. And I'm wondering if that influences even now, even though what you've said is kind of the Scandinavian beach that you're doing. It seems to me that there's a spareness to that type of look. Does that still impact you?

Vanessa Helmick:

Well, it's an interesting combination.  My dad and his entire heritage is Belgian. And if you see the Belgian aesthetic, it is very naturally organic, modern. I carry a line of furniture that is a Belgian design and Belgian manufacturer, and it's just very clean.  So I have that side of my family and then my mom actually lives in the Philippines right now. Her husband is Filipino. I've been over there multiple times. And also traveled around Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Japan, I don't think South Korea counts. I was just at the airport.  But quite a bit, Macau. And it's what completely inspires me. All of those places are so drastically different. I don't know if you've ever been to Hong Kong, but the architecture is crazy. I mean, I love it. It's just bonkers.  So that really inspires me and travel has always been a big driving force behind anything that inspires me.

Vanessa Helmick:

I still have random photos from years ago that I keep because it was a color or texture or just something different. And I know that's true, honestly, for most creatives, I think travel obviously inspires all of us. And a lack of travel the last year and a half is why I think I have worked so much with putting art in people's homes. People are like needing some inspiration and they're needing to connect with something creative. And I really think that's why there's been so much art going on, which is not a bad thing.  But yeah, I miss traveling. I love going to Asia. I've been to Europe.  Europe's great. Would love to go back, but I will say that pre-child days, there was one winter we had here that was pretty rough. Do you remember when Boston actually shut down the city because a snow storm was so bad?

Vanessa Helmick:

It was in 2012 maybe? Anyways, I just got really tired of winter that year and I went to Thailand because it's great. It's affordable. You just pack a bag and go, there are the nicest people there. Don't count on understanding the language ever, but just such a welcoming place. And it was a great way to spend a couple of weeks. I loved it. I loved everything about it, even the parts that were just completely crazy.  It was great. I came home to a humongous snowstorm that Boston was closing the city down for as I was landing. Like as I was landing, I looked up and all the flights were canceled completely, which I had heard about when I was coming back and I was stuck on a layover in Japan, which is a great place to get stuck. It's wonderful.

Vanessa Helmick:

I kept asking, is it safe to fly in? Are the flights canceled? And all anyone would tell me was, thank you. No one would answer me at the airport and I'm reading these crazy emails. And my dad, who lives here on Munjoy Hill was nice enough to drive down to Boston and pick me up. And he said, we're not waiting for your bags. You have to get in the car and we need to go, they're closing the streets down. No one's allowed on the streets. And we drove back in this wild snow storm back to Maine, it was just crazy. We got a foot and a half of snow that night. And it was just such an awesome experience, probably because I wasn't the one driving, to come back from warmth, color, hearing all these sounds that you are not used to and aren't familiar with and then coming back to this quiet, peaceful town, like no one was out, it was so beautiful. And you kind of then process the experiences of the last couple of weeks in this beautiful, quiet, blanketed-with-snow environment. So it was great. I think if I'd come back to you know, like Portland in the summer or something, I went right back into hustle and bustle, you kind of lose some of those experiences that you have while traveling, cause you don't have time to really process them. I mean, yes, you'd take a million photos, but that doesn't mean you're kind of processing and rethinking through all these new things that you just saw.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Vanessa, how can people find out about you and look into possibly working with you as a designer?

Vanessa Helmick:

Oh, good question.  Fiorehome.com. I think I'm going to put my new website live in the next couple of weeks.  It's actually done. I just haven't clicked to make it public.  Fiorehome.com is the best way to  reach me.  I do phone calls with folks who have questions or are interested. I'm not doing meetings for inquiries; those meetings are on the phone if you're interested in working together just because of how far out we are booking into next year right now.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you're a popular woman. Is that what you're saying?

Vanessa Helmick:

No, I mean, yes, I'm good at what I do. I'm better than some, I'm worse than others. I just think that everyone is busy right now. Everyone is moving to Maine. It's a good thing.  And I've been busy for a few years and I'm really thankful for it but I don't know that that is necessarily related to anything I do. I think that's just the industry in Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And you say your new space in Yarmouth is opening up soon.

Vanessa Helmick:

Yes, September 1st. I can't formally announce the location for a few more weeks but I have been trying to get a space in Yarmouth for years. It's really hard to do, you know, it's not that big, there's only so many spaces. I'm just excited that I will be just 10 minutes from home, even less from my kiddo’s school. And I just want as much time with her.  Seven years old is great. Like it's awesome. I said that about six, also, it's so wonderful.  We have projects all over Maine, so it doesn't really matter where Fiore’s located, but Yarmouth is where I want to be. And Yarmouth is it for me for a while. I don't want to commute. I just want to pop on over, do some work, go pick up my kid, go take the pup to the park and keep it simple.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, we are happy to have you in Yarmouth. We're glad that you have your space here, and your child here, and your life here, and more. We're just thrilled that you've been working with the Portland Art Gallery and the fact that you are such a strong advocate and champion of art. It's wonderful to have had this conversation with you here today. I've been speaking with Vanessa Helmick. I encourage you to take the time to reach out to her. She's a pretty intriguing individual. I think she does good stuff.  

Thank you very much, Vanessa, for joining me. 

Vanessa Helmick:

Well thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I appreciate everything the Portland Art Gallery does. I get nothing but really positive feedback from my clients because everyone feels welcomed, which is kind of the most important thing.