Gabrielle Blair Interviews Mia on Design Mom
Mia shares "A jumble of old memories and current – how her home looked in the thick of having three kids under four years old, and how lovely and quiet and clean it looks today, and every stage in between" in an interview with Gabrielle Blair on Design Mom.
Take a tour of Mia's home on the Design Mom blog or read the interview below.
Hello! I’m Mia Galison. I’ve been married to artist Saxton Freymann for 25 years. Sax wrote and illustrated the Play with Your Food book series, and he currently works on his artwork when he isn’t developing games or illustrating for eeBoo.
We had Eyck, (named for the Flemish artist) in 1994, and less than two years later we had twins, Elodie and Finn.
Sax and I share an enormous and glorious studio space that used to be a Japanese Tea House on Manhattan’s Upper West side. I work upstairs with the eeBoo staff and he works downstairs, in what used to be a beautifully tiled kitchen. He is a great husband who is always happy to spend the day at a flea market with me and talk over projects even in the middle of the night.
Our son Eyck loves history and politics and is an intrepid adventurer. Last year, he took a year off from college to work and then traveled alone across Europe and China. He is currently studying East Asian History and is about to spend his summer at the Carnegie Institute for World Peace in Beijing.
Finn loves reading and performing Shakespeare and circus and card tricks. His specialty is word-smithing and he likes to write songs and play music. He’s also very funny and is usually surrounded by lots of friends.
Elodie is an artist and scientist. She cuts elaborate silhouettes, draws, paints, makes crazy things out of felt, and generally engages everyone around her in a project of one kind or another. She also has had a long-standing love of medicinal plants. As a child, she made balms and teas and pressed or dried everything she got her hands on. She’s thinking of majoring in Environmental science or traditional medicine, and she throws Javelin for her University’s Track and Field team.
We began looking for an apartment in New York City in 1990 soon after a significant real estate crash. When we saw our apartment, it had been on the market for a long time and it was a stinky mess. The herringbone wood floors had been covered by linoleum or wall-to-wall carpeting, there was five times more furniture squished in to every room then there should have been, and a gigantic sectional sofa filled the entire living room. The apartment seemed very dark because of the heavy floor-to-ceiling drapes that were hung over the French-door windows, but when we pulled the curtains aside, we saw the view of a small park, beyond which you could see the faintest bit of the Hudson River.
Sax and I loved the space immediately. When I looked around the rooms I could imagine it spare, with the opulent curves and glorious proportions. We felt that it had to be ours, and miraculously no one else wanted it.
Over the years we have done a lot to the apartment. When we had three kids in less than two years, we needed to be very creative. Sax boxed in the bathtub in the extra bathroom and that became Eyck’s bedroom. He had a soap dish over his head and a medicine cabinet in his room. The walls are covered with crackily 100 year old tiles – which are perfect for taping up posters.
Right after Eyck was born we started eeBoo in the basement apartment directly under ours, but they were not connected. Ten years later we were able to buy that space, and we joined the apartments with a staircase and replaced our puny little kitchen with a huge warm gathering space. Finn also moved downstairs since his former bedroom was so small that his bed couldn’t be any bigger than 6 feet – and he got to be 6’3”. Best of all we finally had a place to put all our books on shelves and get a huge long table for the dinners with family and friends that has been among the greatest joys of my life – and the center of our life as a family.
At night I often walk in to the living room to look at the windows and I cannot believe how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful peaceful place.
I live in the neighborhood where I grew up in – New York City’s Upper West Side. We live a short walk to where my mother lived as a child and where my grandmother and grandfather lived as children; it’s where my great grandparents settled when they arrived from Romania in 1904, so I have an obvious bias for the neighborhood!
It’s quiet and leafy and it’s still the ethnically diverse area it was when I was growing up in the 1960s. There are restaurants of every imaginable kind and great New York pizza. Riverside Park hugs the Hudson River, and is cool in the summer even when the rest of the city is not. You can walk along the banks on a small path that runs along with the water with the river sweeping by only feet away. Most of the buildings that line the winding and irregular Riverside Drive were built around the turn of the century, and are no taller than 12 stories with large elegant apartments with high ceilings and walls loaded with chunky mouldings. The tree lined side streets are filled with formal stone townhouses, and almost everyone has abundantly filled window boxes. Our apartment is on a tiny spur of the drive that makes a small loop around a little park and shelters us from almost all traffic. In the evenings, it is easy to imagine the sounds of horse hooves – if it wasn’t illuminated by electric lights, everything you see is as it was 100 years ago.
I was working as a creative director and product development person when I got pregnant with my first child. I wanted to find a way to be able to spend time with him, and thought I could contribute something unique to the children’s specialty market. My first products were Garden Bug cookie cutters (packaged in a jar with decorating instructions) that I had manufactured in a tiny factory in Pennsylvania, and a crazy hand-made alpaca cap with points that I called a satellite hat. They had nothing to do with one another but I only had the money to make one thing in a factory at a time and I figured I could fill my line up with things I could make myself as I sold them.
Right around the time that the Bug Cookie Cutters were ready to ship, I found out I was pregnant with twins. Going back to work for other people was now a logistical impossibility. I couldn’t afford a babysitter for that many infants, and my husband who was painting at the time could not care for three children under the age of three on his own – no way. I knew I had to work like a maniac and be really smart and frugal, so we worked out a complex revolving system of child care that included parents, friends, and babysitters, and which allowed me to be integral to the rotation and spend lots of times with my kids.
A revolving rotation of husband, friends, babysitters, relatives, and me – that’s how we spent the first few years. I was able to rent a crude apartment in the basement of our building, and Sax and I would take turns working there for a few hours at a time – weekends as well – running up and down the stairs.
Brenda, the designer I’ve worked with for 30 years, would drive in and we’d work from 9:00 pm after putting the kids to bed until 2:00 am. Then I’d wake Sax up and he’d walk her to her car. Efficiency, organization, and totally forgoing any trace of a social life other than time spent with family or close friends optimized the time I was able to work. Being careful about money was also key because really being able to spend time with my family meant that eeBoo had to grow enough to the point that it paid our bills.
Sax and I did as many things ourselves as we possibly could. Having eeBoo in the basement allowed me to conserve time not having to commute. We only had one phone line for the apartment and the office so when the kids were upstairs (supervised of course) and they needed me for something, they would go to a specific part of the ceiling and stomp – then I could pick up the phone and talk to them over the dial-tone.
I never worried about what the business looked like to other people, and I created my own paradigm for a modern mother in business. I never tried to conceal that we had kids and dogs running and barking in the background, nor tried to stop my mother walking into the office during a meeting. I embraced this early as my brand, and I was proud of it. I refused to embrace the compromise of work versus family – I was determined to have it all in one place, one self-perpetuating organism.
We encouraged our children to participate in activities together so that we could spend weekends as a family, not breaking up with one parent taking one kid somewhere and the others somewhere else. I felt this allowed for the more important development of us as a family unit. All for one, and one for all.
As a special time for each child, we had a babysitter come once a week in the evening and we took one child out alone for dinner. It was a great strategy because we got so much more meaningful communication with them when there was no competition for our attention. This tradition began when they were tiny and continued until they went to college. I never had as much time as I really wanted with my kids when they were growing up, so I made it my priority to make sure that it was as plentiful as I could humanly manage, and tried my hardest to be really present for it…and never take it for granted.
My toy philosophy is fairly simple. I love useful things made of paper, cloth, wood, or other natural material and old things that were designed beautifully for children. I like games that kids play around the house or outside just using their imagination and props – like taping leaves to themselves or sitting in an empty box in the middle of the living room floor. My kids played with wooden blocks, hats and scarves from flea markets, vintage costumes, loads of art supplies and books – and empty boxes. For over a year, we had an empty refrigerator box in the middle of our living room with control panels drawn on the inside walls.
Sax and I supplied the miscellany and technical support, but the play was all theirs. As far as games I’ve purchased for my home, I like toys that can be played across generations, that encourage individual and cooperative creative thinking, and that are beautiful enough to stay in a child’s mind for their lifetime. In that spirit, we have tried to create simple, wholesome games and activities that will be meaningful for children and their families.
I’ve always loved being a mom. I loved simple things like lying next to them when they’d fall asleep after a story and the way they smelled and how warm they were in their pajamas. But, the part I love the most about my life with children is also the part that made me go crazy sometimes: the constant hum of emotion, action, and affection. Family dinners with my kids, my parents, and their friends. Loud, messy dinners with arguing or singing and a house filled with people. Running the business out of our home while having plenty of family nearby, brought in lots of people…including Mr. Ross the piano teacher, a constant flow of visiting friends and relations from all over the world, all happy to have a place to stay in New York City.
I always strove to make our home inviting, comfortable and beautiful and always tried to have delicious things to eat. Seeing the kitchen filled with loud conversation, a floor filled with sleeping bodies, a group of kids playing a game around the table – made me so happy and gave me endless energy. Now that the kids are away, we still have plenty of house-guests (and our two dogs) but I really miss the clamor at the dinner table. Occasionally we are lucky enough to have one of their friends come over for dinner, and we don’t miss an opportunity to gather everyone together when they come home from school.
What surprised me was that our children still listened to what I said even after they got so much taller than me – which happened when they were still in elementary school!
Someone once told me that it all goes by so fast, and I understood it straight away. I knew that the time when my kids were young was very likely to be the best years of our life, and Sax and I really dug into making the most of it. Not having time for ourselves without the kids was not a sacrifice. Now that my kids are recently off to college, I don’t feel bad about how I spent the brief time I had with them home. Of course, I wish I had had more.
People tell you, but I didn’t know how true it was, that children internalize who you are as a parent: the good things and the bad. And it’s easy to forget when they are little, but then you see yourself in them so clearly when they get to be teenagers and by the time you see it – it’s kind of too late to change it! It can be positive things like a strong work ethic, or bad things like getting too stressed out.
It’s hard to believe how tired you’ll be. How much you’ll worry about them. That it takes planning and a lot of thought to help your kids build a good relationship with one another. It doesn’t always just happen. We gave a ton of thought toward trying to reduce competition, encourage each of them to try the things that their siblings were better at than they were, and helped them to appreciate one another’s accomplishments.
I hope they remember all the talking we did and the time we spent together reading, traveling, making dinners and eating together with so many friends and relations around the table. I hope they take away from their childhood home the desire to be generous and how to be a good host, and that they have learned the value of not just opening up your home but doing it with an abundance and graciousness that shows your guests that you care about them. Most importantly, I want them to know how to make their own home not just a place others want to be, but a place that they love to return to.
I hope they remember me as a mother as one who encouraged them to pursue their interests and did my best to provide the best opportunities for them to explore and engage themselves.