With an eye for design, an appreciation for history and a vision for the future, Elise King, associate professor of interior design at Baylor University, is leading tomorrow’s designers to make built spaces more livable and sustainable for the modern world. With a background in both interior design and architectural history, and in her eighth year at Baylor, King describes what inspires her, talks about her favorite local examples of great design and offers tips for people creating a look for their own home.
WACOAN: How did you become interested in interior design?
King: I’ve been interested in the built environment for as long as I can remember. ‘Light’ was my first word. For a school project in elementary school, I wrote that I wanted to go to architecture school. But it wasn’t until the end of high school that I decided on interior design.
WACOAN: Why did you decide to pursue it as a career?
King: I remember doing a career day assignment comparing architecture and interior design, and by the end of it I’d decided on interior design. To be honest, I don’t recall what pushed me to one side versus the other, but by my senior year I was set on interior design.
WACOAN: Why is it important to teach interior design at a collegiate level?
King: I love this question. It’s so important because, on average, most of us will spend more than 90% of our lives indoors. And we know that the built environment, which includes things like lighting, indoor air quality, acoustics and materials, can impact our health and well-being for better or worse. We’re training designers to create environments that at a base-level are code-compliant, accessible and inclusive.
WACOAN: How are today’s interior design students the visionaries of our communities’ future built environments?
King: We need spaces designed by individuals who consider the complex mental and physical needs of users and who are making responsible environmental decisions. It’s a lot to pack in to four years.
At the end of the day, what matters is creating human-centered spaces that people want to inhabit, that function well for all users and, ideally, can help to improve people’s quality of life. Future designers will need to be visionaries by seeking unique ways to solve increasingly complex problems and, hopefully, making good design more equitable and inclusive.
WACOAN: What are some ways you foster community engagement and hands-on learning in your students?
King: Whenever possible I try to incorporate projects that include working with a local partner or organization. We’ve done some fun ones over the past few years. One of my design studios designed and then constructed an urban parklet on Austin Avenue. The class studied urban patterns and analyzed downtown pedestrian traffic before proposing their designs. In the end we combined several concepts into a final design, which we actually built and installed on-site. Locally, we’ve also created schematic design proposals for a wellness center, a pedestrian bridge and a restaurant.
WACOAN: That’s a big responsibility, working for an actual client.
King: There’s an added stress of working with a real client, at least on the professor’s side, but it’s such an important part of [the students’] education and offers an opportunity to give back to the community.
WACOAN: Many people view interior design as a luxury, but explain how it is really about a methodology that promotes the health, safety and well-being of all users in a built environment.
King: I’ll be honest, as professions, interior design and architecture still have a way to go in this area. There’s certainly a greater awareness of the need for design equity, but we’re not there yet. We’re making progress though.
In affordable housing and public schools for instance, there’s a much greater concern for the materials being used and how they’ll affect the occupants. Indoor air pollutants, which come from a variety of materials as well as mold, for example, can exacerbate asthma and contribute to even worse health issues. This, combined with limited ventilation in schools, isn’t great. So, we’re doing a better job of that, using materials with lower concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for example and considering the need for natural light and better artificial lighting.
When you think about where you and your family spend most of the day, for many it’s a workplace or school, so improving those environments are a way that design professionals can impact a lot of people.
WACOAN: I see you’ve done some interdisciplinary work. What do you see as the value in working with experts in other fields? How do you instill that value in your students?
King: Most of my research is interdisciplinary. I’ve had opportunities to collaborate with faculty in psychology and computer science on projects, which has been great. I tend to be drawn to interdisciplinary work because our profession is inherently interdisciplinary. Interior design is a field that requires working with other related disciplines, like architects, landscape architects, engineers, lighting designers and others. Our students recognize that early on.
WACOAN: Do you specialize in a particular type of design — residential, commercial?
King: As a practitioner, I mainly worked in residential, and in the past, when I served as consulting historian, that could span a variety of building types.
WACOAN: Do you enjoy designing existing or older spaces, or do you prefer to work in new construction?
King: There are inherent challenges and opportunities with both. With older buildings there’s an existing narrative and an innate character to work with. There’s also a quality of construction and materials, which we rarely see today.
The challenge, though, is to maintain the features that define the character of the original building, while ensuring it functions well for contemporary life. If you’re working with historic tax credits and commercial structures this can be fairly restrictive, which is a good thing, but it requires a greater degree of sensitivity.
Working with new construction certainly has its own challenges, which vary widely depending on the intended use. I’m not sure that I could choose one or the other, which is good because variety keeps things interesting.
WACOAN: What are some of your favorite examples of interesting design in Waco?
King: There’s a lot of great design to love in Waco. Like many Wacoans, the Alico holds a special place in my heart. On Baylor’s campus, Armstrong Browning [Library] is certainly a beautiful space. But, for me, when thinking about some of my favorite designs locally, most of them aren’t even grand or what we’d traditionally think of as important buildings. I love finding beauty in little moments, objects or environments that are unique or tell a story. Old cobblestone bricks or mosaic tiles near a sidewalk, for instance.
Around 17th [Street] and Washington [Avenue] there’s some sort of auto repair shop, [Victor’s Garage Auto Repair]. In the parking lot they have a streetlight that looks like one of those arched floor lamps with a metal shade from the ’60s. But this one is of a much larger scale, and I love that thing. That’s at the heart of why I think preservation in its various forms is so important because otherwise, every city and neighborhood starts to look the same.
Think about the silos and how different the Magnolia complex would be if they had torn them down. This isn’t to say that everything needs to be preserved, but the more we can integrate the new with the old, the better. Even if we’re just keeping small moments or artifacts from the past.
WACOAN: What about some of the spaces around the country or the world that have left an impression on you?
King: If we’re talking nationwide, then Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is certainly near the top for me. I’m a bit biased, since I interned there for a summer, but the house is such a unique experience. There’s a deep connection to nature and the site that is reinforced throughout the design.
The home sits over a creek and waterfall, and walking through the house you see and experience that connection to nature. For example, in front of the living room fireplace, there are several large, smooth boulders, which are integrated into the hearth as place to lounge in front of the fire. Prior to construction of the home, the family had enjoyed sunbathing on the same boulders, so there’s this blurring of the delineation between indoors and out.
The flagstone floor was quarried on-site and its waxed finish gives the appearance of a creek bed. The ceiling is lowered in front of the windows to help draw your eye outside. I’ll stop now because I’ll just keep going, but what I really love is the level of intentionality behind the design and that it’s not just theoretical. The resulting design is impactful without requiring any awareness of Wright’s philosophy; the design is powerful by itself, which is not always the case.
WACOAN: Is there someone who has served as a mentor or an inspiration to you in your profession?
King: I’ve been lucky to have some great mentors along the way, both as an undergrad and in grad school. I even had the opportunity to teach with a few of them when I returned to Baylor. My mentors at the University of Texas had a big impact on me as well. I really appreciated when I was given the opportunity to fail, to try things that were outside of my comfort zone, and sometimes they worked out and other times they didn’t.
I think it was my second semester of grad school, and one of my professors asked me to give an hour-long lecture to an auditorium filled with several hundred students on a topic that I knew very little about. I had time to prepare, but I was starting from square one on this particular topic, which my professor knew. I learned a lot from this early experience, and it helped me in later years when I spoke at conferences, planned lectures for my own courses and gave job talks.
Another mentor placed me in a leadership role with responsibilities over the planning, organizing and execution of a large event. Having others believe in you, even when you aren’t yet sure of yourself is a really great gift.
WACOAN: How would you describe your own personal design style?
King: With my personal style I certainly have some modernist tendencies. However, I love incorporating imperfect, more organic materials too. We have a structural clay block wall in our home separating the living room from the stairs. It adds a warmth to the space, and it has some chips and nicks, which makes it even better. I don’t want a house that I can’t ‘live’ in.
WACOAN: What are some of your favorite local places to find decorative items for your home?
King: I enjoy going to Laverty’s [Antiques & Furnishings] because you never know what you’ll find. My favorite piece of art in our house, which is a painting of an old sea captain, came from Laverty’s.
I also love when Magnolia hosts their vendor fairs. I’ve really missed them with COVID because they bring a lot of unique and fun small businesses to Waco. I’m a frequent browser of Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace too. In general, I love the excitement of finding something unexpected.
We also enjoy working with local craftspeople whenever we have the opportunity. In our last house, Cody Benton from Reckless Iron Works created steel floating shelves for the kitchen. I sketched out the design, which was loosely based on a sectioned I-beam, and Cody did such a great job making that vision come to life. He now has a shop on Franklin [Avenue]. Black Oak Art is another great one if you’re in the market for locally produced goods, and they’re located on Franklin as well.
WACOAN: What would you say to someone who is completely starting fresh in his or her home? What things should they consider before making major purchases?
King: There are a few things to consider. Before you start furniture shopping make sure you know what your room and furniture size requirements are. Do a quick Google search for things like ‘How much space should be around a dining room table?’ so that you can determine the maximum and minimum table size you can put in a room before you start shopping. Otherwise, it’s way too easy to fall in love with a piece that really doesn’t fit in the space.
Also, furniture stores may not agree with me here, but I’d suggest trying to limit the number of pieces you buy from any one store. Find your key pieces first and then build around them. Mix in vintage or antique items, and don’t worry about having everything come together at once — good design takes time.
And finally, make sure what you’re buying will fit your family and lifestyle.
WACOAN: What about a person who has an established home but just wants to change things up a bit?
King: In most cases, the same general rules apply here as well. Be strategic about assessing what you need beforehand. Really break down what the problem is that you’re trying to solve and then determine the general parameters of what is needed to fix it. This might include relative dimensions, color, durability and cleaning requirements. Knowing this information upfront will help to guide your purchasing decisions and hopefully lead you to find something that you’ll enjoy for a long time.
WACOAN: Fall is here and many people like to decorate their home seasonally. Are you a fan of doing that?
King: Sure, I love when people decorate seasonally. To be honest, I’m lucky if I get a pumpkin on our front porch for Halloween, but decorating seasonally brings a lot of people joy. And at the end of the day, you want to be surrounded by an environment that cultivates that. If decorating for every season is stressful, maybe it’s time to consider paring things down. But if you delight in it, go for it. I tend to agree with English Arts and Crafts designer William Morris on this one, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful,’ so if seasonal decorating meets either of those criteria for you, then decorate away.
WACOAN: Tell me a little bit about your family.
King: My husband’s name is David. I’m a designer and he’s a clinical pharmacist, so we’re very different in some respects but also very similar. During one of our first dates, I asked if he wanted to watch an architecture documentary, and he actually did. And it wasn’t just to win me over. He still loves watching them, even without me.
We both love to learn, which I think is at the heart of many of our shared interests. Outside of work he’s an avid runner, and he and I are also always working on some sort of project around the house. Recently, we pine-tarred the wood around our porch, regraded the backyard, and attempted a bit of masonry work.
WACOAN: That’s a lot of work.
King: Thankfully, he’s always game for a good project. It’s our stress relief.
WACOAN: Any kids or pets?
King: We have a puppy who’s just under a year old. We named her Knoll after modern design pioneers and fellow dog lovers Hans and Florence Knoll. Our last dog was a wonderful basset hound, Lloyd, named after Frank Lloyd Wright, so we had to keep the trend going.
WACOAN: What kinds of things do you enjoy doing for fun?
King: I’ve loved taking photos since I was a kid. My dad is interested in photography as well, so I grew up with a camera in hand from a pretty young age.
I also play guitar. Before college I mainly played classical guitar, and then I took a 15-year hiatus until I picked up guitar again during the early days of COVID. I’ve really enjoyed getting back into it. This time though, I’m playing a lot more on a steel-string acoustic.
When the weather is nice, we also love walking the dog, going to the farmers market and enjoying our beautiful city.
Elise’s 5 Must-Have Items
1. A sketchbook. Right now I’m using one from Leuchtturm1917.
2. My new Crocs. I used to be skeptic but now that I own a pair, I get it.
3. A laser measuring tool. My pocked-sized Bosch one has come in handy more times than I can count.
4. A sturdy, durable bag. I’m usually pretty tough on my bags, but my Filson backpack is holding up well after five-plus years.
5. My favorite weather apps. Texas Storm Chasers has a good one, and they’re also great to follow on social media. I also really like the RadarScope app. It’s not free, but with the unpredictability of Central Texas weather it’s nice to have.