DESIGNER & HUMANITARIAN KIM LEWIS
“I’m little, but I can be really feisty.”
Kim Lewis says this, then laughs, a high-pitched squeal that makes me wonder, just for a moment, if she has sneezed. She is already charming three minutes into our conversation. But there is serious conviction behind that tiny voice, which she sums up in one sentence.
“I think I went through what I went through because I’m supposed to be empowering children.”
Kim believes empowering children happens through fostering art and creativity; how that love of design was fostered in her, when she was a child, may in part explain how successful she has become.
Kim is the brains and the vision behind Kim Lewis Designs, based in Austin, Texas. Her in-demand team designs restaurants and wineries and can even boast of a few celebrity clients. But there’s a good chance that you recognize her from her turn as lead designer on the hit television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which ran on ABC from 2003 to 2012.
“It’s such a blessing to have been on that journey with so many friends. I ended up designing in 46 states. I pretty much got to see most of America. And the one thing I will say: there’s a lot of good people in our country. You don’t hear enough about them.”
Kim considers herself a storyteller through design. Her job on the show was to tell a person or a family’s story, to create a happy, safe home space for people all over the country who were most deserving. That was a challenge made more difficult by the fact she couldn’t speak with them before the makeover. In her quest to “get inside their heads” (“you have to be a chameleon to be a good designer!”) she created a questionnaire for applicants.
“You should be able to design your home in a way that takes you where you want to be. So, one of my questions was, if you could sit anywhere in the world to find peace, where would it be?”
That question led to what Kim remembers as her craziest design challenge on the show, an episode during which she jokes she earned the nickname “Kimpossible.”
“We craned (a plane) into this house, y’all!” she laughs again, then squeals, then explains how she let the family’s character match the character of her design.
“We went to Florida, to help a family who had done a lot in Haiti, sending water filters to Haiti. He was a pilot, and they did a lot of community work, and they didn’t have enough for themselves. So, I happened to be in a plane, drawing, and I drew a 22-foot fuselage in the house. The producers said, ‘you go do that, Kim!’” she remembers.
So, she did. The girl who was taught by her father to never take no for an answer picked up the phone.
“I know I sound young on the phone, but I called Southwest (Airlines) and asked them kindly if they could donate an old fuselage of a plane! To watch a 22-foot section of a plane getting dropped into the framework of our home as it was being built was pretty epic, I will say.”
But perhaps the truly epic way Extreme Makeover: Home Edition changed the trajectory of her life happened on her last series assignment. Kim was in search of better life balance and had decided to step away from the show. But she agreed to take on one final, monumental challenge.
Her team, along with some 10,000 volunteers, set their sights on Joplin, Missouri, with a goal of building seven houses in seven days where a devastating EF5 tornado wiped out 7500 homes and 500 businesses.
“People from all over the world came to help. What it reminded me of is an old barn-raising. We’re all in this together. Neighbors are meant to help neighbors. We’re supposed to help each other,” she says. “The very core of that show was all about reaching out and helping people with no incentive, other than it was the right thing to do.”
One of these ladies happened to be Meg Bourne, the force behind an organization called Art Feeds. Meg told Kim about an organization founded by Pam Cope called Touch A Life.
“I was standing in the street in Joplin. All these homes are getting built and everybody’s hitting my walkie-talkie and she’s like, wanna go to Africa? And I said yes, let’s go to Africa! I mean, let’s finish this week first, but then I’m in. That is how it started, y’all!”
Kim’s voice noticeably changes when she talks about Touch A Life; she’s more reverent, more contemplative. She believes she was supposed to have been in Joplin at that moment, for that project, because it led to what has become her deepest passion, a new purpose in her life: building art centers for children in disadvantaged areas.
Touch A Life identifies children around the world who are suffering, exploited, or at-risk; the art centers Kim designs and builds – now four of them in all, one in Ghana, two in Cambodia and one in Honduras – give the kids a space to think and draw and create for themselves. Kim knows a little something about the importance of that from her own childhood.
“When I was 6, my mother was diagnosed with skin cancer, and when I was 10 she passed,” she explains. “This woman, Miss Rosie, picked me up everyday after school. She said, ‘you’re going to be an artist. You’re so creative.’ And as a child, to hear that was very empowering. I didn’t know how to process (my mother’s death), but the way I started healing was through dancing and art.”
Kim feels a responsibility to children to be their positive force, to encourage them to open their hearts and minds and believe in themselves through painting, drawing, and dancing. She is especially connected to the moments in Ghana or Cambodia, “when I’m on a dirt path with kids around me. Those are my sunniest spots. I feel most connected to why I was born in that space.”
Kim put to good use what she learned about building on the fly from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and those art centers are now thriving. There are plans in the works for a fifth center, in Thailand, later this year.
“Of all the projects I do, the art centers are my heart. If I could drop all the restaurant design jobs to do them, I would! The art centers are what make me tick,” she says.
But there’s also something else on the horizon for later this year: Kim is pregnant with her first child, due in August. Not that she intends for motherhood in any way to slow her pace.
“I’m an Energizer Bunny, y’all!” she laughs. “I’m going to throw that baby on my back and go! The best gift I can give to our baby is to experience the world, learn about diversity and culture. What makes us tick as human beings is being able to connect with people.”
Today, Kim and her team are still designing restaurants and hotels and selling globally-inspired artisan products at her website. She has designed her own line of tiny homes; she and her husband live in one, and plan to stay there with the baby, at least for a few years. Kim isn’t surprised at all that the sale of tiny homes is skyrocketing, much like RV sales. She knows people are hungry for the unique experiences the open road can provide.
“People have the travel bug. They want the “open road” feel. Too many families commit to homes that lock them in their walls, and this generation of people have seen their parents make those mistakes. Less is just more.”
And Kim is thrilled to announce that she has solidified what she calls her dream collaboration, with a brand called The Purpose Hotel, based in Nashville.
“It’s a hotel that is made and curated by artisan products. Every single thing is made by artisans, and their stories are told. And every room sponsors a child. Talk about throwing the baby on my back, y’all! We have a lot of places to go!”
Kim explains that when someone staying at a Purpose Hotel gets their receipt, they’ll find that a portion of their purchase of a bottle of water or wi-fi, for example, will go towards clean water initiatives, or fighting sex trafficking, etc.
It’s the perfect marriage of the global design and humanitarian action on which she thrives. Throw in an element of women helping other women find their worth, and you have the solid foundation of Kim’s life, one well-traveled, and well-lived in service of others.
“I share my stories pretty publicly because I feel like I’m meant to. I relate it to a mountain. Everyone has a mountain to climb, and I was told once during a dark season, to name my mountain. (Somehow naming it makes you feel more empowered to conquer your mountain). You will go through valleys and trials, but you have to choose to keep going up."
“But what's the point in getting to the top of the mountain? It is not for self-glory. It's so once you've overcome those obstacles, you're in a better place to reach down and help someone going through something similar.”
Kim Lewis might have a diminutive frame, Little Lady With the Big Ideas, according to her website slogan. But she’s standing on top of her mountain right now, reaching down as far as her arms can go, doing what she does best: dancing, drawing, creating and inspiring, having a ball doing it, and hoping someone just might join in.
BY JULIE YELEN