Lee Powers

Age: 33
School: Professor, Interior Design Department, the Art Institute of California, Orange County Campus

In 2006 I was working full-time doing architecture and teaching at night. And then a full-time teaching opportunity came to me, so I decided to pursue it. Now, seven years later, I’m still teaching. One of the primary reasons I got a Master’s was to teach later on, but I would have probably said later on in life, after having a full career in architecture. But the opportunity to teach full-time came up, thankfully, because of the economy. My husband’s an architect, so I think our family would have probably suffered greatly had we both still been in architecture.

As a teacher, I’m constantly giving students feedback and criticism, and the flip side is being able to prove that I can still design. The first competition was just a public restroom design. The other was an innovative teaching award, a submittal where I went into great lengths describing one of the studio approaches I have for one of my classes, Abstract Concept Designs. Entering the competitions felt like the right thing to do. To prove to them and to myself that I could do it.

I don’t know how stay-at-home moms do it. I’ll give them all the credit in the world. For my sanity I need to be out and interacting with adults every once in a while. Teaching allows me some flexibility, because I only teach three days a week. Being able to be home with our son is good, but he’s a handful. On the flip side, I end up teaching a lot of night classes, so my husband does have to leave work at 5 or 6 p.m. to pick up our son. We’re constantly balancing our schedules, and my schedule changes every quarter. Sometimes it gets a little difficult on his end. Thankfully he’s an associate principal, so he’s free to go in and out as he pleases. It would be more difficult if we were just starting out.

His is more the traditional architectural scenario. He works 40 hours, on salary. Granted, when there’s a deadline, he’s there all hours, and weekends too. But with the latest turn in the economy, it actually worked really well for us. Right when my son was born—he’s three—[the downtown] took place, so my husband was actually home with us more often. Then there was a period last year when it was really tight because everyone was running skeleton crews. Now they’re actually going back and starting to hire people. So he’s got people able to do work for him, and he’s not having to work as much as before.

It was hard in the beginning, when we first had our son, Evan, and my husband was starting to work more hours. We had to sit down to dedicate family time. Now I refuse to do work on the weekends at all. No grading, nothing. If we have to work late on a weeknight we’ll do that, just to make sure we have the weekends free.

As for redecorating our house, designing Christmas cards, or invitations to my son’s birthday party—everyone always thinks, "Oh, it’s great, you two are both designers, and it should come together." But it’s difficult. Colors are usually a little different. He likes things more muted; I like bright, bold colors. Every room is a compromise.

It’s hard to say [if I’ll go back to designing] since I didn’t imagine myself here in the first place. Right now I’m completely happy with teaching. When I used to work at an architecture firm, I was doing a lot of project managing and construction documents—not the most fun part of the design field. I hesitate to go back. My interests are more in doing competitions. I’ve always been a little more theory-based. I think that’s why I like teaching. I’m able to do new projects every quarter. The turnaround’s faster. Not like when I used to do institutional and residential projects, and it would take two or three years to get the whole thing built. It wasn’t as rewarding, I guess, to see something come to life. I think I’ll stay teaching as long as they’ll have me. —As told to Alex Hoyt