New Looks for New Lives

A Q&A with the team behind Dwell With Dignity, which designs apartments for families in need.


Anyone who’s ever gone on a cleaning spree, refreshed a home with paint, or stayed in a room with an ocean view can tell you: Your surroundings have a huge impact on your mood. Imagine, then, the good that springs from Dwell with Dignity, a Dallas-based nonprofit which designs and furnishes inviting, welcoming transitional apartments for families and single parents in need.

“If a child is sleeping on a mattress on a concrete floor, with maybe just a blanket, does that child feel valued? Does he feel safe, and loved?” asks founder Lisa Robison. “A warm bed cocoons them in a safety net,” she says.

But Dwell With Dignity goes well beyond providing the basics. Working with hordes of local and national donors and volunteers, the organization outfits the families with everything from handpainted beds dressed with Peacock Alley linens to freshly upholstered chairs and even pantries full of nutritious food, all in hopes of bettering the recipients’ chances for long-term success.

We recently chatted with Robison and her longtime co-director Kim Turner, who collaborated on a November 18 Curator’s Collection for Joss & Main, about how they pull off such an impressive–and inspiring–feat. Here’s what they had to say.

Why do you think design is so impactful on the recipients of your services?
Lisa Robison:
I think it’s really the psychology of design. When you’re surrounded with beauty, it’s inspiring. It makes such a strong impact on your outlook on life. That’s especially true for children–when a child has a home they’re proud of, it increases their self-confidence, and that gives them strength in other areas. Often they can have a friend over for the first time. I think that’s why we have such huge support from the design community. Designers think about the relationship between environment and well-being every day–they understand it at their core. And they get to use their talents in a really good way.

Q: What’s your average recipient like?
We don’t choose the individual families; instead we carefully select service agencies that connect us with families that are about to move into transitional apartments. Those agencies meet certain standards; we require that there’s drug testing, a program of recovery and restitution, and the parent has to have a job or be looking for a job. We’re looking to give a boost to families that are working to improve their situations.
Kim Turner:
The majority are single moms. But all recipients of Dwell with Dignity homes have children in the household, simply because we feel that children are the ones that benefit the most from what we do. If, heaven forbid, the parent falters in their journey at some point, at least the children will have had the experience of living in a comfortable, cared-about home. We want to change their standard of living. We want them to know what’s possible for themselves.

Q: What’s the timeline for your typical makeover?
We typically do one apartment a month, and it takes us every bit of that month to get ready. We take measurements, we do furniture plans, and we have an inventory system–we really are very well organized and keep it very professional.
As far as the install, we usually have to be in and out in two or three days. So it’s very important that we prepare, because that doesn’t leave much time for changes.

Q: Where do you get most of the furniture for your apartments?
KT: Because I’ve practiced design in addition to helping run Dwell With Dignity all these years, I have so many connections in the design community here in Dallas–through showrooms, the American Society of Interior Designers–and we have reached out that way. There is so much waste in the design community–pillows a client didn’t like, samples that can’t be sold, extra reams of fabric, extra drapery panels, or pieces that wouldn’t work for a space but can’t be returned. Then there are the designers who call us when they’re about to do an installation and suddenly have a whole houseful of furniture to give away. We’re very fortunate to have a warehouse space that’s been donated, and a local mover that donates their services for pickups, so we have a way to transport and store all this stuff. We shop what we have in the warehouse first, and then we fill in the design from there.

What have become some of your go-to tricks for finding pieces on a budget?
KT: We really like to mix it up. We host Wednesday night worknights, where volunteers come in to help refurbish furniture and create art for Dwell with Dignity apartments. We do a lot of painting: We’ll take a ‘70s dresser or sideboard and lacquer it in a really cool blue or green or something fresh. We have volunteers who sew, and a professional workroom that helps us out a lot.
Our volunteers are incredible–we have some who come in and want to help, but they’ve never even picked up a paintbrush before, so we put them to work doing something as simple as cutting and washing the fabric so we can sew it into drapes. What makes Dwell with Dignity unique is there’s a genuineness to the work. The volunteers truly care about the families, and it shows in what we’re able to create on a shoestring.

What are some of the biggest and most common design challenges?
Upholstery, definitely. By the time we get someone’s sofa, it’s often stained and torn, and we’re not currently equipped or funded to reupholster large pieces.
We have a rule that we will not put an item in a home for a family that we wouldn’t want in our own home–no items with tears, no stains. We have mastered light upholstery, though, and we redo a lot of seat cushions on Wednesday nights!
LR: Walls are another challenge. The agencies often don’t want us to paint, or we don’t have time to paint. To account for boring white walls, we often use big hollow-core doors and we create art on those, such as a chevron pattern or even chalkboard paint, and hang it on the walls. We also bring in color through textiles and draperies, and a lot of time the fabrics end up being start of our design process.

Q: Ever do anything other than apartments?
LR: Twice a year we do a community project. The agencies that we work with usually have public spaces, so those are projects we like to take on; it’s a way for us to touch more people. Community rooms and lobbies are places where we might use something a little more upscale, like a piece of donated contemporary art that we wouldn’t typically put in a transitional apartment.
We’ve also been doing more projects recently where our dwellers are in their own homes rather than in transitional apartments. The agencies nominate a family that has gone through their program but didn’t get to have a Dwell With Dignity apartment. Unlike the transitional homes, where we don’t meet the residents until two weeks after they’ve moved in, here we meet them prior to designing their apartment, similar to a regular design client, and talk to them about their style. Afterward, we get to take them through the finished project. It’s so amazing to see and hear their reactions.

Q: Tell us about our annual thrift studio–we hear it’s a deal-hunter’s dream.
Occasionally we acquire some very high-end furnishings from designers — items that might have shown up with nearly-invisible damage, or that a client just didn’t like — that don’t make sense for our Dwell With Dignity apartments. We resell them at a biannual fundraiser called Thrift Studio, and it’s a popup thrift store unlike anything you’ve ever seen–incredible furniture, lighting, and decor, with amazing prices. It helps us raise funds to cover our operating expenses.

Q: What’s next for Dwell With Dignity? Will you expand?
LR: We’re definitely looking at growing–we’ve had so much interest in other cities. What we’re working on now is funding our operations so we’re prepared to grow and do this in the right way. Our plans are to grow nationally and form branches around the country, so we’re putting together that franchise book, and a chapter plan that will lay out how things can work. We get lots of positive feedback from people all across the country, but what it’s really going to take is finding that special person who can fully do what we do in a new chapter, and when that happens we want to be ready to move forward with integrity.