Akilah Swan's motto had always been “go big or go home”. Fifteen years into her architecture and design career, however, she was not feeling particularly daring.
A chief concern was that clients were shuffled through the system too quickly to really get to the heart of their needs; she considered leaving the industry altogether.
“After a while you feel like you are a machine, sitting at a computer churning out drawings,” she said.
“About a year ago I was starting to feel disheartened.”
And then in January, she went to St Kitts to renovate a vacation property her family owned.
As she worked with construction and tradespeople to upgrade the kitchen and bathroom she was able to let her creativity flow.
“It was really fun,” she said.
The experience gave her the push she needed to open her own full-service architecture and design studio in May, Aina Curated.
She described the pandemic as “tragic”, but said that opening at that time offered an unexpected benefit.
“It allowed me the opportunity to develop the ideas I had in a time where everyone was down,” she said.
“It wasn't a situation where everyone was up and running and I was trying to figure things out. It allowed for blue-sky thinking.”
Her promise to clients was “to create the lifestyle you always wanted but didn't know you could have”.
“We really wanted a client-centred experience for the design so that what they are getting really reflects who they are, their personality and their goals,” Ms Swan said.
Five years ago she and her sister, Alandra, bought a fixer upper in Warwick. The floors needed work and half the roof had to be replaced.
“It was derelict,” she said. “But from the moment I set foot on the property, I knew this was it.”
The space around the property and the views of the nearby South Shore drew her in.
“I loved renovating my house,” Ms Swan said.
“I loved every second. My favourite parts were the design and construction.”
She made sure that her new home followed her favourite design aesthetic: bright, clean, airy. A few months later she was grateful that she had, when a mould problem at work made her sick.
“The building I was working in was relatively old,” she said, explaining how symptoms were written off by those around her as allergies.
“Finally there was a push to get an air-quality expert to come in. The air was toxic. I was impacted with mould poisoning.”
She spent the bulk of the summer in her new home recuperating. She thinks that because she had made sure it had lots of ventilation, her health started to improve.
“Being in my home, my body was healing itself, which was surprising to my doctors,” she said.
“They had to address things in the work environment so I could go back.”
She designs not just with aesthetics in mind but also environmental health. She is also mindful of her own experiences as a first-time homeowner.
“I know what it is like to have money coming directly out of your pocket,” she said.
“I would say that was the first spark of me really appreciating what I had to offer from a design standpoint.”
She also decided to streamline the architectural process at Aina Curated so she could spend more time getting to know the client, their needs and their lifestyle.
“From there I got into 3D modelling,” she said.
“I found that a lot of clients were getting lost in the hand sketching process.”
So far, most of her projects have been interior refreshes although she has also done some consulting. Having had such a great experience in St Kitts, she would like to do more work overseas; already a friend has suggested she help with a design project in London.
Ms Swan was a project manager at the last company she worked, so leading a firm is a new role.
“I wanted to stay hidden if I am honest,” she said. “But I have grown as a designer.”
Having been cooped up in their homes for an extended period due to Covid-19, there are many people eager to make improvements, Ms Swan added.
“In the fall, we will know more of the reality of Covid-19 for our industry,” she said.
She became interested in architecture when she was 12 while studying Bermuda building features in school.
Her mother, Arleen Swan, then encouraged her to think about it as a career.
She studied architecture and design, first at George Brown College and the University of Western Ontario in Toronto and then at the Boston Architectural College in Massachusetts.
At an architectural firm in Boston, she was part of a preservation team working on Trinity Church at Copley Square. Most impressive to her was the craftsmanship.
“That was cool,” she said. “We climbed all the way up this turret. We were walking through historic areas closed to the public. I had never been inside the church before.”
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