Design With Some Grit

Austin Interior Designer Amity Worrel Examines the Juxtaposition of Beauty and Ugliness and Its Role in Gritty Design


There’s nothing quite like New York City during the holidays — beautiful shop windows gleam and glisten as bundled passers-by elbow their way through the streets, barely taking in the sights. I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with my husband and two teenage kids in Manhattan. The trip ran the gamut from sheer joy and excitement to frustration and tedium. The highs included watching Hamilton on Broadway (with more than halfway decent seats, I may add) and laughing at the seals being fed at the Central Park Zoo. The lows encompassed waiting in an endless coat check line at the MoMA and getting stuck in the horrifying crowds packed between Saks Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center to get a glimpse of the holiday displays. (In hindsight, it was an incredibly misguided venture for the day after Christmas.) We had beautiful moments, and we had ugly moments. But it takes grit to make it in New York — even for a week of vacation. 


Beauty Needs Ugliness 


Our trip was filled with some beautiful sights. We had a posh stay at The Beekman, a stunning 19th-century Renaissance Revival building filled with a striking art collection inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allen Poe. We even had the chance to walk the Rockefeller Estate gardens in Westchester. In these moments, we felt like true New York elites. However, they were contrasted by schleps through the ugly side of the city, vomit on the subway, homelessness, and garbage day with walls of towering trash bags lining the sidewalks.

I’m entranced by these “ugly” vignettes of the city. I remember watching SNL as a kid back in the John Belushi days, seeing the opening credits of the “mean streets” of New York filled with graffiti on the walls and trash blowing in the wind. It was an exotic and romantic sight in my suburban teenage mind. I loved the idea of the city as a nitty gritty, rough-and-tumble place of incredible talents struggling to find their place. New York has the best of the best and the ugliest of the ugly, and they have no trouble living side by side.  

Central Park in the Winter
Looking Downtown from Central Park

My walks through the city on this trip got me thinking about the juxtaposition between beauty and ugliness and how one truly can’t exist without the other. Also, the fact that beauty is subjective and purely in the eye of the beholder. As an interior designer, it’s my job to understand what my clients find beautiful, not ascribe my value of beauty to them. Beauty and ugliness aren’t opposites but two sides of the same coin. What’s unattractive to some could be held in high regard to others. And the ever-shifting world of trends is constantly working to reshape our perception of beauty. 


Design Takes Grit

The Met Museum NYC
The Met Museum Exterior

At one point on the trip, I bragged to my husband that our kids had some grit — referring to their ability to navigate the subway, tolerate long lines without complaint, and walk for blocks and blocks in search of a decent pizza place only to wait in line again and eat it on the stinky sidewalk. However, is it really having grit when we’re living in a world of privilege, staying at fancy hotels and whisking off to The Met? Well, everything is relative, and I admire my kids’ ability to ride the highs and lows and tolerate the challenges that arise, even the short-lived ones. 

The Fearless Girl
The Fearless Girl on Wall Street – A Personification of Grit

Grit is an interesting concept that Americans hold in high regard. By definition, it’s the firmness of the mind or spirit, an unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. What sounds more American than that? There’s something looked down on when it comes to being too comfortable. It’s not enough to flourish. You have to persevere. You can’t have success without challenges, comfort without struggle, or beauty without ugliness. That goes for the streets of New York and possibly the interiors of our homes. 


Gritty Interior Design: The Balance of Beauty and Ugliness 

There’s a certain beauty to ugliness, whether it’s the audacious colors of 80s design, creepy crawly botanical and bug patterns, or something that’s “gone out of style” only to return again. Beauty and ugliness live side by side in harmony on the streets of New York, so how do they get along in our homes? Even the plushest of interiors have an element of grit among the comforts. 


Some gritty interiors pull directly from the 1970s and 80s style of New York itself. Plucked from the opening credits of SNL, industrial lofts with graffiti brick walls, concrete floors, and spartan furnishings give the impression of a squatting artist carving out just a bit of comfort with a bohemian rug flopped against the cold, hard surfaces. 

Gritty Design Greenwich Village Apt 2

Others might perceive grit as a little bit of edge, harking back to days of rebellion and punk rock. I once had a client ask me to frame a few pieces of their favorite artwork to finish off their penthouse at the Four Seasons Hotel. Imagine my surprise when I saw original concert posters from The Misfits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Ramones spread across his marble dining room table. Talk about juxtaposition! 

Gritty Design - Old Western

In the end, gritty design embraces modern life with all its challenges and contrasts. It has layers and character, whether that’s a Ramones poster hung above an antique bureau bought at Christie’s or walls you tagged yourself in a city loft. Gritty design is a lot like a day at The Met concluded with a dollar pizza on the street and a subway exchange to get home. 

 A bit of grit makes you appreciate the comforts. 

Austin Interior Designer