100 Dallas Creatives: No. 4 Lisa Robison, Designer with Purpose

Helping families Dwell With Dignity.
Helping families Dwell With Dignity.
courtesy Lisa Robison

Most of us wouldn't think that there is a lot of art to working in the nonprofit world, and that's probably a pretty fair assessment. Many agencies that work with struggling families are so focused on providing basic assistance like food and shelter that sometimes life's finer details aren't always considered.

Lisa Robison, a local designer and founder of nonprofit Dwell With Dignity, found a creative way to use her own talents to make the lives of families in need a little brighter. Her organization brings together artists, interior designers and the community to provide design services to families transitioning into permanent housing. We sat down with Robison to talk about how she got the idea for Dwell With Dignity, the logistics of creating art and designing on a budget, and what that all means for the families her organization works with.

How did you first get the idea for Dwell With Dignity? I'm a designer by trade, and I had taken off about 10 years of doing professional interior design work to raise my kids. I absolutely had to do something creative, and I had worked on my own projects over that time, just nothing professional. My son was going into kindergarten, and it was time for me to figure out what I was going to do. I love interior design and the creative aspects of it, and I knew I wanted to do that, but not necessarily with the privileged clientele that I had been used to.

I thought that I wasn't ready to make that kind of time commitment, which is kind of a joke because I started Dwell With Dignity and it's been this all-consuming project. It sounds kind of corny, but I picked up this book by Oprah Winfrey, and she said that you have to find what it is that you're passionate about, what you're talented at, and figure out how you can give that back to your community. It got me thinking about design and how important it is to have your environment reflect who you are. It's the people who can least afford good design who can benefit the most from it. I started putting together a plan to do design for families that were struggling. Then my birthday came around, my husband kept asking me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said that I wanted the nest egg to start a nonprofit.

How do you find the families that your organization works with? We team up with local agencies who are already helping these families get access to services. They have the resources to help them get back on their feet, and they identify a mother with children who has the grit and determination to move forward. That's how it's worked from the very beginning, and it's been very successful.

Why is design so important to families who are trying to get back on their feet? There are so many things. In the very beginning, it's hope. We want to provide an environment that inspires hope. It makes them feel confident. It makes them feel like they have accomplished something. I always tell my families when they move in that they're getting this gift because they've been taking all the right steps to change their family's future. Even just the physical benefits are tremendous. When you're a kid that is sleeping on a mattress with Mom or brothers and sisters, it doesn't inspire hope. It also doesn't give you a good night's sleep.

There are very real physical things like that. When you don't have anywhere to do your homework as a child and you're sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor doing a paper, it doesn't inspire good academics. We find that our families start to thrive in their lives once they move into their homes. We have mothers whose confidence grows so much that they start to seek out better jobs and work to make their neighborhoods better. We had one mom who started a tenant's association because her house was so beautiful and they started going to advice for her about things. They went to her so they could have a voice.

We're building better lives for our families. If you don't have any furniture in your home, do you have birthday parties? Do you have holiday celebrations? A friend told me once that she hated her birthday growing up because she knew that nothing special was going to happen. She said that she just didn't make friends because she didn't want people to see how she lived. So she wasn't just missing out on having playdates, she didn't have any friends. Just think about how important a home is to your psychology and how it feels to start and end your day in the place that you call home. When you live in poverty, you're often rent-chasing and moving from place to place. When we provide a home, they're in a place where Mom now has a job and can pay the bills. And that means that they stay put.

I would imagine that it's interesting to transition from working with privileged clientele to working on a non-profit basis. Do you have to get really creative to make it all come together? That's really what makes it so fun. As an interior designer, you go through showrooms and pick your fabrics and you're inspired by what you see and what your budget is. With Dwell With Dignity, we're inspired by the donations we get. Or even an idea for a piece of art that we can create, and that becomes the start for the design for our projects. We do a lot of refurbishing of furniture. Every project is a completely new and fresh approach, because it has to be. The design community has really embraced us, and we have this wonderful art studio that we can work in. The studio engages our community in art and restoration projects that are so fulfilling for them. Not only are they working creatively on something, they can see the difference it makes.

How does the art studio engage the community in working with Dwell With Dignity? New Life Hardwoods is a donor of ours, and they have a building in the Design District and they donate 1500 square feet of studio space to Dwell With Dignity. Every Wednesday night and on Saturdays, we are open to the public for the community to help us create art and restore furniture. Kim Turner and I do much of the design work, but we also invite interior designers to work on projects.

The designer is the one who oftentimes comes up with the project or art ideas, but we also have a project manager that comes up with lots of ideas. Volunteers and artists also come in with ideas, and artists sometimes want to be commissioned to do a project for the home. There's so many ways that we get the community involved to create art for the project. For most people, the things that you value in your home the most are pieces of art or furniture or things that have had people's hands on them. They're created by people. We strive to make sure that each one of our projects have a lot of that in it. You walk in and feel how authentic these homes are.

100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan 29. Fashion Forward Charles Smith II 28. Dedicated Artist Carolyn Sortor 27. Political Cyber Banksy Wylie H Dallas 26. Dance Preserver Lisa Mesa Rogers 25. Rob 'Ain't No Creative Like A Bow-Tie-Wearing Creative' Shearer 24. Scholar of the Stage Susan Sargeant 23. Photographer of Record Justin Terveen 22. Music Man Jeffrey Liles 21. Keeper of the Safe Room Lauren Gray 20. Playwright Jonathan Norton, Man of Many Words 19. Filmmaker and Funniest Comic in Texas Linda Stogner 18. Gallerist Jordan Roth, the Art Scene Cheerleader 17. Artful Advocate Vicki Meek 16. Ballet Queen Katie Puder 15. Carlos Alejandro Guajardo-Molina, the Book Guy 14. Janeil Engelstad, an Artist with Purpose 13. Will Power, Playwright and Mentor 12. Gallerists Gina & Dustin Orlando, Boundary Pushers 11. Moody Fuqua, Music Community Organizer 10. Joshua Peugh, Choreographer to Watch 9. Allison Davidson, Advocate for Art Accessibility 8. Ben Fountain, Man of Letters 7. Fashion Maven Julie McCullough 6. Contemporary Curator and Artist Danielle Avram Morgan 5. Irreverent Art World Organizer Kevin Ruben Jacobs

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