APIECE APART WOMAN
Jen Turner is a lot of things: architect, designer, mother…an excellent storyteller, a straight-talker (with a great laugh), and renegade airport food smuggler (when we visit her at home in East Austin, she brings out a snack plate of smoked salmon, cheddar cheese, and farmer’s market nettles she just casually toted back from a recent Portland trip). Jen spent 15 years in New York before moving back to her home state, and launching into a major home renovation project — converting a former community center built in the 1920s into a house. The return to Austin also sparked a new business, The Mighty Union, a hospitality development group where she is co-creative partner with her husband. Below, a conversation on change, non-linear paths, and learning when to accept Good Enough.
Jen wears LA ROSA DRESS in small chevron
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What is the current story you are telling yourself (or about yourself)?
I heard something recently that really rang true for me: “You really did pick the right life." I’ve had big changes and lots of them over the past three years: got divorced, sold the house I renovated and loved, moved from NYC, my home for 15 years, back to Austin, renovated a historic building, got married, had a baby, started a new business and slightly shifted my career path. I think on paper that might read: Crazy? Or, more hopefully, One Who Likes Change. However when things are right they fall into place, at a pace beyond your control and you roll with it as best you can … because this is the life that you picked.
Can you tell us more about your upbringing and childhood: where did you grow up, what were you into as an adolescent, and what’s led you to where you are today?
I grew up in a succession of small towns-soon-to-be-suburbs-of-Houston: Conroe, Katy, Sugar Land. Each was 'where the sidewalk ended' and on the edge of hinterland in which to roam and explore. In Katy, we only had to cross the bayou to find miles of empty fields with dewberries to pick and us kids in the neighborhood made entire dirt bike courses to ride and forts made of cast off construction materials. I used to ride horses in Sugar Land and my lift to high school always took the short cut over the dirt levee. I witnessed places changing from from one way of living to another. It was mostly freeing and creative. And I feel that’s always informed the kind of places I wanted to live going forward.
When I came along my parents were really young and we were poor as field mice. My father was/is a real estate developer and my mom (one of the hardest working career people I know) was at home with my sisters and me — cooking from scratch, sewing like a tailor, DIY-ing house projects. They were ambitious and self-made. And these two aspects are practically in my genes. The amalgam of all of these things is what I am today.
What does it mean to you to have a self-made career and to work independently? How have you made it work?
Straight out of architecture school, I worked in a traditional architecture studio for over a decade which was an amazing experience and education. But I almost always had independent work on the side varying between exhibit design, architecture, furniture and even conceptual art projects. When I went out on my own I think I had one architecture commission? Initially I worked from home which often meant I cooked gourmet meals on a Tuesday. That wasn’t such a great period. I think it was the one time I could really say, I was depressed. But things picked up, I got a studio, got some editorial work, focused a lot on my furniture and I got my architecture license. I’m pretty certain doing such diverse things wasn’t great from a business perspective but it gave me the chance to learn a lot about myself, my process, how I design, how I make decisions — which isn't always discernible under someone else’s shingle. And all of that has allowed me to take on this new role which truly meshes my interests and lifestyle. I get to get my hands dirty in all aspects: the architecture, the interiors, the landscape, the menu writing, the graphics, the whole vibe. And each project is so different because it’s in a different location. I always cringed when asked the inevitable cocktail-party architecture questions: “What’s your style? what do you specialize in?” I’m lucky to be involved in the best part, for me, of the architectural process: the design.
Do you have trouble turning off work?
Yes and no. Yes, because my husband and I are partners in our company we often discuss work at any time of day. As well our office is in the building we live in. No, because now that I have a child that dictates when I start and stop work for which I’m glad. When I’m at work I’m more concentrated, efficient. I’m no good working via my phone, I refuse to bring my computer into our living spaces and I’m too tired at night to catch up after the babe goes down. There was an article in the NYT a while back titled, "Good Enough Is The New Great." And at this point in my life I’m (mostly) OK with that.
Can you share a favorite quotation, lyric, or line from a book that has stuck with you?
“Old age ain't no place for sissies” — Bette Davis. It’s not your typical uplifting quote but somehow I find humor and strength in it. And really, you can replace 'Old Age' with any noun relevant for you.
What is something you are currently struggling with?
Finding compassion for others and myself, regaining a social life, and traveling that doesn’t involve work, i.e. a vacation. Though I can’t complain because we work in fantastic places and I get to go there with my husband and my child. But we’ve said this fall we’re finally taking that trip to Oaxaca.
What is something that you currently feel confident about?
What’s the best $100 you’ve spent?
Is it OK if that amount was only a portion of the entire cost? Because making the decision to go with a home birth led me to the magical woman who was my mid-wife. Through that connection I made a new fast friend and it also opened me up to an entire community of amazing women, an approach to parenting, a wealth of resources and knowledge about health and so much more.
What do you make for dinner by yourself?
Happily, I’ve not had dinner alone at home by myself since I was pregnant two plus years ago. But I look forward to the random day that I do… I’d like to imagine that I would have the time to bake bread. I would then slather a thick slice of it with something rich, like beef liver pate, and make some sort of vegetable side or salad. Add a negroni or an IPA.
What do you make when you are entertaining?
For better or worse, I am known to never repeat a dish. In fact my friend Nils and I had a supper club going in NYC for a bit, whereby ‘supper club’ I mean we invited who wanted, different every time, we picked the food region, and we cooked all the dishes. I tend to build a menu from my most recent cookbook purchase/ restaurant meal/ chef crush and what’s available at the farms/butcher. I love making new things. It’s how I learned and continue to learn to cook.
However there is one thing I have made for friends and still do: Chad Robertson’s grilled flat bread.
Please recommend something to us.
The Calypso music of Blind Blake. Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, perfect for a late afternoon cocktail hour.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I was visiting from college, driving somewhere with my mom when I said to her, ‘Mom, when I was 18 I thought I knew everything and now that I’m 21 I realize I knew nothing and still know nothing.’ I think there’s always something bigger, more that I need to learn about life, myself and that’s what I’m always thinking about...
Photography by ALYSON FOX | Story by LEIGH PATTERSON | Styling by ALEXA HOTZ