No Corner Unconsidered

Shawn Merkel was once a personal chef. Now she takes a personal interest in her clients’ spaces.
Portrait by Clark Hodgin

Commercial projects figured heavily in interior designer Shawn Merkel’s early career in Michigan. While studying at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, she learned much about appointing doctors’ offices, airports, and schools, but ended up focusing on restaurant design. “I’d been a personal chef and taught cooking classes, so perhaps designing restaurant spaces was a logical transition,” says Merkel. 

As founder and owner of Align Design in Asheville, Merkel brings a broad skillset to her range of services: renovation overhauls; furniture, color, and finish consultation; space planning; and Feng Shui consultation. It adds up to a fresh yet analytical design approach.

You travel a lot — how did you choose Asheville?

A chef friend said we had to visit Asheville. We did, in 2008. I returned with my partner, and even though we saw Asheville through a vacationer’s lens, we were sold. [Getting away from] Michigan’s brutal winters motivated us, too. We told our friends in April 2015 that we were moving, they were super surprised, and in August we bought a house. I did the design work while we were visiting, we hired a contractor, and then once we got the work started, we headed back to Michigan to pack up for our eventual move in November. I managed the project remotely.

How did your clientele evolve after relocating here?

Differently than in Michigan. My work here has unfolded to be nearly 100 percent residential. I do a lot of kitchen and bath redesigns, and new construction projects. 

You also have a love of architecture. 

After high school, I was interested in architecture, but worried about the math, plus there weren’t many women architects then. I love it, though. Architecture dictates how a space will work — or not work. Often, I can review an architect’s plans and suggest tweaks that make my client’s space work more efficiently and easily. 

What’s your primary role when working with clients?

A lot of what I do is about managing expectations, problem solving, and serving as a liaison. I strive to build trust so we can collaborate comfortably, and that goes for everyone I work with: clients, architects, contractors, and artisans. I learn from all of them — a strong team makes projects easier. I particularly love the contractors I work with because they take what’s in my head and make it tangible. 

I’ve also been able to save my clients time, money, and hassle by selling a few lines of tile, countertops, lighting, and cabinets. I have access to things they don’t, and then they’re not left to wander Lowe’s, overwhelmed. Ultimately, I want their homes to reflect what they love and to work well for them. 

Do you ever feel like a therapist of sorts?

Absolutely! Renovation is disruptive and stressful, but if I can help my clients understand the process and trust me to provide a great end product, all will be well. Enduring the chaos is worth it, because if you’re not happy in your space, you take that out into the world. 

What influences you most while creating?

Mother Nature has lots of impact here. The shape of the mountains, the colors of the land, water, and sky, and my clients’ tastes and lifestyle. Their visions inform mine. I approach a project one way if it’s “vanilla” new construction, and another if it’s an old house where angles are crooked and floors aren’t plumb.   

Tell me about incorporating Feng Shui into your work. 

The art is about more than placement; it’s about ritual and intention. It impacts how you experience a room, and can amp up a space that’s stagnating or feeling “off.” I trained under Thomas Lin Yun, who brought Feng Shui to the United States in the 1980s. 

Once, a newly divorced client’s ex-wife took every beautiful thing out of their very nice house when she left. My client hadn’t dated in eons. The home’s “relationship corner” [the furthest righthand corner in the home on each level, according to Feng Shui principles] was in the kitchen, and during the demo, I placed a rose quartz inside the framing. After we drywalled and put the kitchen back together, he started dating immediately. 

Any new trends you’re loving?

I’m jazzed about using metals freely, and adore the wallpaper trend. You can do fun things using wall coverings, and it’s so much easier to apply and remove now. Color’s coming back too, and that’s exciting. 

I also love working with a room’s fifth wall, the ceiling. Adding architectural interest with trim applications or color looks great. You look up more than you realize — it’s time ceilings got their due. 

Shawn Merkel, Align Design, Asheville. For more information, call 828-338-8505, e-mail shawnmerk@gmail.com, or see aligndesigngr.com.

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