A Life in Color

A Life in Color

Julie Staelin has always looked on the bright side

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Julie and Rick in the kitchen that Julie designed around the colorful runner rug acquired on one of their many overseas trips.
Julie and Rick in the kitchen that Julie designed around the colorful runner rug acquired on one of their many overseas trips.

The eight prints in the guest bedroom, wild and bold, tell you she’s still got it.

Julie Staelin, who has a degree in architecture from N.C. State, has a legion of satisfied clients, but if you’re looking for a microcosm of her life and her work, these transformed pieces of art will do nicely.

A couple of years ago, she was looking for a project, something she could handle. She dusted off the black-and-white sketches she had done in the mid-1990s and, as her husband, Rick, says, “just started coloring.” The results are striking – and very Julie.

“I remember, as a girl, I loved to color,” she says, standing in the sprawling home at the end of a one-lane gravel road in Duke Forest that she designed. “It’s just sort of in my genes, the love of color. And I was never afraid to use it.”

‘Always an Artist’

Rick and Julie met in 1961 at the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house at the University of Michigan. Julie was a member, and Rick worked there as the head busboy as he completed a graduate degree. It was love at first sight, for Rick at least, and the two soon started dating. They were married in Dexter, Mich., in 1963.

Since then they have traveled the world – more than 50 countries – raised two children and supported each other in their careers. Rick is a marketing professor and has spent the past 32 years at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

“My mom has always been an artist,” says their son, Adam. “At one point in time she had two or three looms in her study.” Julie favored unusual materials, like sisal, a kind of coarse cotton, and Spinnaker cloth, a nylon-like substance used in ship sails. Her designs, which can be found all over the Duke Forest home, are strikingly modern, even a little abstract. Julie was making a name for herself in the Pittsburgh art scene – a kite installation strung between two skyscrapers understandably got a lot of attention – when Rick got the job at Duke.

“That was a tough time for her, moving,” Adam says. But she knew it was a good opportunity for Rick and their family, which now included Adam and adopted daughter, Katie. “He always loved his job,” Adam says. “He’ll work until the day he dies. My mom’s always been very, very supportive of that.”

Rick, in turn, encouraged Julie as she transitioned from artist to architect.

She got an architecture degree from N.C. State but never bothered to get registered. She calls herself an architectural designer. Plain old architect was a little too confining for Julie the visionary. For the more than 75 Triangle-area clients who sought out Julie’s left-of-center approach to design and decorating, her body of work was all the credential she needed.

‘That Color? Really?’

It’s the husband’s job to be skeptical about such things. So it was that, eight years ago, when Kerry Burch said she was going to start working with Julie to pick colors for her Forest Hills home, Kerry’s other half said, “Do we really need that?”

“It was a bit of a hard sell for him,” Kerry says. Julie had come highly recommended by Scott Harmon of Center Studio Architecture. “I’ve got this great lady,” he had said. “You’ll love working with her.”

But even Kerry wasn’t so sure at first. “I think people can be taken aback by her because she can be so direct,” Kerry says. “I’d say something like, ‘What do you think of this countertop?’ And she’d be like, ‘No.’”

Not to mention the fact that Julie often proposed a mix of colors that many would think as too loud or too discordant or both. Then, Kerry went to the Duke Forest house. “It’s so comfortable, and it feels good, and there’s lots of color but nothing in your face,” Kerry says. “It’s modern and contemporary but also filled with her art work and these artifacts from her travels. There’s a unique sense of proportion and space. Everything just feels right. I was like, ‘Julie, I’ll let you do whatever you want with my house.’”

That she did, and everyone, including Kerry’s husband, is more than happy with the results. They were so wowed, in fact, that when it came time two years ago to do an addition, they called Julie again.

“He still would say things like, ‘That color? Really?’” Kerry says. “But then he’d say, ‘Did Julie say that’s the color?’ Then he’d say, ‘OK.’ People come in and say ‘Oh my God, who did this? Is she still available?’ I have to say, ‘No, I think we were her last project.’”

An Unfussy Coolness 

Julie uses the term “crapola” more than once to describe what she uses to decorate the Duke Forest house.

There’s the statue from Portugal, the woodcuts from Vietnam, the heirloom family china plate shipped from Scotland in 1830, the rug from Nepal, the paintings from Russia, the didgeridoo from Australia, the grandmother’s tablecloth converted into a bedspread and on and on. “We just put everything up,” she says with a laugh during a recent tour. “We’re not fussy.”

Seeing the world and holding on to little pieces of it seems like the life’s work of the entire Staelin clan. Adam was put on a plane to Germany by himself at age 9 and on a Greyhound bus to Wyoming at age 13. “They let me explore the world on my own,” Adam says. “I think it’s given me trust in my ability to solve problems and not be afraid of different things.”

Katie, who lives in Miami with her son, says, “I just remember my mom as always being extremely driven, but if my brother or I ever had any issues, she was there as well.”

Katie was married to NFL player Sam Gash for many years. One Thanksgiving, the Staelins went up to New England to spend the holiday there with Katie, her husband and some of his teammates. They sat down to eat, and the football players, naturally, had left the football game on the television. Julie got up and switched it off.

“These guys, their jaws dropped,” Rick says. “Sam caught all sorts of hell the next day.”

It’s a good example of the overall vibe Julie gives off. She’s just cool. “The first time she comes in, she’s wearing these Converse sneakers, skinny jeans, a beautiful sweater and awesome glasses,” Kerry says. “I’m like, ‘Julie, you’re amazing.’ I find her totally refreshing. She’s my mom’s age, but she’s the hippest, coolest lady. I just hope I can be as cool as she is.”

Recently, Kerry has been asking around for someone to help her with another design project. Scott told her, “We know some other people, but they’re not as fun as Julie.”

‘More in Love’

Rick arranged for me to meet him and Julie at Mad Hatter’s before they agreed to participate in this article. He’s sweetly protective of her these days. Julie still has her edge. “I’d still be working if I didn’t have Alzheimer’s,” she says bluntly at the outset of our conversation. “He told you I have Alzheimer’s, didn’t he?”

Yes, he had. She was diagnosed two years ago with the disease that also struck her mother and grandfather. It hasn’t been easy, though Julie says she is “enjoying life,” despite suffering from memory loss, and is not embarrassed that she has Alzheimer’s.

And here’s another bit of silver lining.

“My dad has been nothing less than a saint as he’s helped her through this time,” Adam says. “They’ve made a good team throughout the years. In the past couple of years, they’re more in love than they’ve ever been in their lives.”

Which brings us back to those prints. You can still see the darkness, the bleak charcoal gray. But, thanks to Julie, they are beautifully and defiantly bright.

In the end, color won. DM

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Amanda MacLaren
Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Ariz., she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for five years now. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Chubby’s.