“I want to give purpose to pain.”

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Interior designer Ruthie Lindsey is like a kindred spirit, who seeks to prove that life experiences cannot define who you are, but can only create the person you will come to be. After surviving a life-threatening car accident, Ruthie has overcome pain with her own sense of drive and purpose in order to seek life’s most beautiful qualities. As a result, she has founded her own business, Ruthie Lindsey Designs, and now has one of the most famous houses in the music biz via Taylor Swift’s album cover photos for RED. SHK got the latest deets on Ruthie’s latest plans and aspirations. — MEGHAN FARNSWORTH

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SHK: TELL US ABOUT YOUR BEGINNINGS. WE’VE HEARD THAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH SOME PRETTY TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES. RUTHIE LINDSEY:

When I was a senior in high school, I pulled my car out in front of an ambulance. He hit my car door going 65 mph. I broke a bunch of ribs and and the top two vertebrae on my neck, C1 and C2. Then I punctured a lung, my lungs collapsed and my spleen ruptured. The doctors said I had a five percent chance to live and a one percent chance to walk. If the ambulance driver hadn’t saved me, I wouldn’t be alive now. That whole thing was a wild. I was on life support… It was crazy. Back then, though, they used wire for spinal cord fusions, and years later, I started having this really intense chronic pain. It took doctors about four years to realize that one of the wires used for my spinal fusion had broken and pierced my brain stem. I’m the only one in the world who has experienced this! If they didn’t get the wire out, the doctors knew I wouldn’t be walking eventually. The surgery itself was super high-risk because even that could cause paralysis. But they were able to get the wire out and used titanium screws to put the vertebrae back together as well as bone from my hip. Mayo Clinic did it, and they sought me out because they usually get excited about people being “the one and only of things.” So, that’s just a very overarching snippet of everything that happened. It’s been hard and crazy. Having chronic pain is very difficult, but also, I wouldn’t change what happened because the entire experience has helped create the person that I am. It’s helped me to see the pain in other people and enter into it in a way that I wasn’t able to before. My favorite quote is “The deeper sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain.” I feel that very deeply. I feel like I get to experience joy on a really deep level. I want to give purpose to pain. I feel like there can be redeeming parts of it by being able to offer hope and joy and focusing on beauty in the midst of pain. That’s a really long answer to your question.

NO WAY! IT’S A REALLY GREAT ANSWER. WHERE DID YOU FIND THIS QUOTE?

I read it somewhere. I don’t even remember how long ago I found it, but I know that I found it after the surgery to remove the wire from my spine. I just remember the quote really resonating with me deeply. I’m not positive, but maybe I saw the quote on the side notes. All I remember is just writing it down and being like, “That’s it. That. is. it.” I think the philosopher who said it lived during the 17th Century, so this quote has probably been around forever. But when I discovered it, the words just hit really deeply for me. This past year and a half has been such a crazy transitional year because I’ve had a brand-new start to everything. I was single for the first time in ten years. I started my interior decorating business, and I weened myself off of narcotic pain medication. A year and a half ago, I was living with my brother for two months because I was so sick. I was so sick that I had to continue going to the emergency room, and my pain was just overwhelming me. I had gone about 20 days without sleep, and I just hit this massive wall. I realized, “What I’m doing is not working. I want to do something different.” So that’s when I started weening myself off all the pain killers I was taking, and that process took me about four months. Then, a month and a half after that, I found myself single again. And so I feel like I’ve lived 20 years in only a year and a half because everything in my life has changed so drastically, but I’ve also seen so many beautiful, amazing and gorgeous things happen despite all of that. I know that this sounds cheese-y, but I call all of this “Beauty out of brokenness.” I’ve had the chance to watch these incredible opportunities and experiences happen. I’ve met some amazing people, visited new places and worked for some amazing companies. If it weren’t for the accident, I would have never started a business and had these amazing experiences. I did it because I needed to and not because I thought I could or because I thought I was good enough. Now, my business has taken on its own life, and I’m so thankful for it. It’s one of those things where you just don’t have a choice. I mean, I don’t wish heartache or chronic pain on anyone. But for me, I wouldn’t change any of it because I know that it has brought me to where I am now and it’s a part of my story. I don’t let those things define me, like getting divorced. Whenever I heard the word “divorce” as a kid or even a young-20-something, I would just have these negative connotations. So when I got divorced, it broke my heart to say that word “divorced.” However, that and chronic pain do not define me. Those experiences are just a part of my story.

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WOW. SO YOUR DESIGN COMPANY, RUTHIE LINDSEY DESIGNS, WAS BORNE OUT OF THESE EXPERIENCES?

I didn’t know I was creative until a few years ago. I found out about the wire in my neck, and two weeks later, my dad passed away. He was actually on his way to visit me in order to tell me that he could sell our farm in Louisiana if we needed so we could pay for my surgery. Becasue the wire in my neck was considered a pre-existing injury, my insurance wouldn’t cover the procedure. However, my dad fell and passed away. (Actually, my godfather ended up setting up this medical fund in my father’s memory.) Something was borne, though, out of that entire experience. After all, I knew that I was going to be staying inside my house for a long time, and if the surgery didn’t go well, I would be in my house even longer. So, I used my home as an outlet for focusing on beautiful things. I always loved beauty, but I didn’t think that I could create it. I started decorating my home, and then I had a dear friend take photographs of what I’d done. Then the photos ended up on all of these design blogs, and people thought that interior decorating was what I did professionally. It was all of these people speaking into my life — complimenting and encouraging me and even asking me for help. I thought, “I don’t do this! I don’t even know what I’m doing!” Aside from that, the interior decorating was a way to bring beautiful things into my life because everything around me was just falling apart. I was broken and sad. I was suffering. My soul needed beauty around me, so the interior decorating started just as an outlet. And in some round-about way, all these amazing things started happening, like the Taylor Swift thing — where they shot the album art for RED at my house. People thought that’s what I actually did for a living! The decorating came out of necessity and trusting other people’s words, and some really beautiful things have come out of the whole process. One time, I posted a picture of flowers at my house because I love flowers so much, but I’m not a professional florist. And people saw the flowers on Instagram, and I immediately got so many responses like, “Could I hire you to come do flowers for this event I’m hosting?” After that, I would have these backyard parties where I would set everything up for them. I guess people also thought that’s what I did and started hiring me. So my business has just been this type of ripple effect where I haven’t done any marketing, and I probably one of the least business-minded people ever. But I’ve just been posting things as I go throughout the whole the process, like things that I’m creating or amazing experiences I’ve had, and everything after just fell into place.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN THE BUSINESS THEN?

I started everything in April 2013, and things just took off over the summer. My business has been around for less than a year.

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WHEN DID TAYLOR SWIFT COME TO YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER TO SHOOT THE COVER ART FOR HER ALBUM RED?

She did that about a year and a half ago. Yeah! Her coming to my house was such a random thing. I guess I got on some imaginary list for “people you need to call when you want to make a video or have a photo shoot” or something. [Laughs] Unfortunately, I know nothing of country music, but my ex is an amazing drummer. He got to work with tons of great musicians in Nashville and all over. His music, though, was not country, so that’s not a world in which I’m familiar! [Laughs] But this past year has been great because I’ve had the chance to get to know some awesome, really cool people.

HOW DID SHE FIND OUT ABOUT YOU?

Randomly enough, while my ex and I were still living in my old home, my ex reached out to a real estate agent in order to get her opinion on the house, especially since we were considering moving to a bigger house more suitable for a family. We told her that we were in no hurry to leave because we loved the place, but we just wanted to keep our options open. So she came over and really loved the house. Then a month after that, the girl who ended up shooting the Taylor Swift album cover RED, who is now a really dear friend I get to work with, told the real estate agent, “Hey, we’ve been looking for a home in which to shoot this album art, and we haven’t been able to find one all over Nashville” (which is crazy to me). I don’t know what it was about my home, but the photographer asked the real estate agent, “Are there any homes that you think would be a good fit for this photo shoot?” The only place she could think of was our home, so the real estate agent gave my number to the photographer as well as the guy who scouts out photoshoots. They came over, loved my house, took photos of it and sent the photos to the record label. After that, the label asked if they could rent my house for the day! It was hilarious. There were bodyguards all over, as well as all of these amazing people. The experience was super humbling, and the entire time I was asking myself, “What is going on?! Why are you all sitting in my living room?! What is happening?!” But Taylor was so precious and so sweet.

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ARE YOU BESTIES WITH TAYLOR SWIFT NOW?

No! [Laughs] I mean, I met her that one time, and she was so nice. But I’ve never seen her since then. Our house is all over billboards, which is crazy. I’ll go into airports, and there will be a picture of Taylor sitting with a notebook in my living room… Actually, what’s funny is my ex was playing with a band that was on-tour with Goyte. In Australia, he happened to be playing at the same show that Taylor Swift was. Then they met at the after-party and got to talk. Taylor was like, “Oh yeah! We shot at your house!” Anyway, she’s so darling and precious, but I haven’t spoken to or seen her.

THAT’S SO RAD. ON YOUR WEBSITE, YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOU ALSO DO WARDROBE STYLING AND JEWELRY. TELL US MORE.

That was another thing like my interior decorating — I started doing it, and people just happened to like it. After my dad passed away, I was out shopping for things to put into my home. I was at these antique stores and flea market, where I would find these really cool vintage jewelry pieces. One day, I wanted to wear a hair piece, so I made something with feathers and a vintage brooch. I had seen things out there before, but I didn’t really like them that much. Then I thought to myself, “I could do that. I could make something cuter.” So I just made myself something, and then folks started asking for it. Because this all happened around the same time my dad passed away and when the wire was still in my brain stem, creating wearable pieces was just another outlet for me to focus on beautiful things. I would never call myself a jewelry designer. I just posted photos of what I had created, and then my pieces ended up in some boutiques. That was all really fun getting to have what I created be featured at Catbird because that’s one of my favorite stores ever. I wear their pieces like everyday. I haven’t made anything like that in awhile. If someone asked me to create a specific piece, I could, but I would never call myself a jewelry designer.

nashville-ruthie-lindsey-designs-shk-interior-decorating-taylor-swift SO YOU JUST MIX AND PLAY WITH VINTAGE PIECES?

Yeah! What I’m about to tell you is really funny. Because I have a back neck and back, it’s difficult for me to carry a purse. Because of that, I designed a fanny pack, which is so funny because fanny packs aren’t really cool or anything like that. I mean, it’s a fanny pack. I just did it in my aesthetic — really simple and leather — and put it on my belt. Then people started asking for it. I thought, “It’s a fanny pack though! It was borne out of need.” And I feel that’s been the theme of this year — that, because I have chronic pain, I’ve made many things out of necessity, and in return, there have been many opportunities coming out of that situation. Right now, my friend, who has this beautiful shop, is going to sell my designs in her store, and I’m so honored that she wants to do that and work with me. I never just go up to people and act like I’m a designer. I just created things out of necessity for myself. The whole process has been so humbling, and I wake up everyday thinking, “Wow. I get to do this?” I’m so thankful that I get to do these things.

YOU LIVE IN NASHVILLE. IS THAT YOUR HOMETOWN?

No, I’m from South Louisiana. My family all still lives there. I moved here right out of college for a job. I came here for spring break with my best friend, and I was planning on moving to Austin, Texas. However, I ended-up being randomly offered a position. I don’t think anything just happens by chance, but I met this lady, who wanted me to work with her youth group. I was like, “I’ll try it for a summer,” so I came to Nashville and fell in love with it. I’ve never left since.

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WHAT WERE YOU PURSUING IN COLLEGE AT THE TIME, AND WHAT WERE YOUR INTENTIONS CAREER-WISE?

I studied Child Development. I was a terrible student. I didn’t even take any art classes, and it’s amazing to me that I’ve now realized just how creative I really am. At that time, I had such a close-minded view of what creativity really was. Even though I’m obsessed with music, I didn’t create it. I love art, but I didn’t make anything in that frame of mind. So when people asked, “Are you creative?” I promptly respond with a no. In realizing that, I never took any arts-related classes. Obviously, school was pretty difficult for me because it didn’t come naturally, and I had to work really hard. People would say to me, “Oh, I’m awful at math, but I’m really good at English,” but then I would think to myself, “Am I good at any of this? I’m good at the playground! That’s what I’m good at!” [Laughs] I knew that I was good with people, so I took mostly social work classes. But now I don’t do anything like that!

AFTER YOUR ACCIDENT IN HIGH SCHOOL, HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO RECOVER BEFORE YOU WENT TO COLLEGE?

My accident happened on November 2nd of that year, and I had Thanksgiving and Christmas to recover. I was on life support, and I was in the hospital for almost a month. I just recovered really quickly. You know, I had youth and good health on my side. I went back to school after Christmas. (I had to wear a huge neck brace though.) I cheered at our last basketball game, and I graduated on time. It was pretty miraculous how quickly I recovered. Even though I have one scar on my neck, most of the other ones I have are hidden by my clothes, so you can’t really tell that I was in such a horrible accident. Once my neck brace was gone, I kinda just forgot that it ever happened. I mean, I would get sore every once and awhile when I danced too much, but I really didn’t have a constant reminder of what had happened to me. I was so young then. I used to say to people, “Yeah, the wreck was harder on my family than it was on me.” However, I’m dealing with the repercussions now.

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WHAT CAME FIRST — THE BLOG OR YOUR DESIGN WORK?

I actually didn’t know what I was doing. I just needed to get something out there in order to start a business. I’m working on a website now that is more representative of the work I do. I don’t have the time, or necessarily, the desire to be a blogger because it takes a lot of work. I’ve watched my friends who are bloggers, and it’s literally a full-time job. That’s not as much of my passion. I love storytelling, so that aspect of me probably comes out in my Instagram posts, which can be pretty lengthy. [Laughs] I love telling stories, and I love hearing people’s stories. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a blogger. Instead, I’m more of a storyteller. Right now, my friend and I are building a website, and it will mostly be photographs representative of the work I can offer with a link to my story and blog posts. Since I’ve started my business, I haven’t even uploaded 90 percent of the jobs I’ve done. And I’m probably one of the least tech-savvy humans to ever exist, so… Thankfully, I have this dear friend named Austin. One Sunday, I was saying to him that I needed to get a website up, and then he responded, “Well, it’s 4:08pm right now. I have to leave by 4:30, but I’ll have a website built before I leave.” And he did! He is one of the most brilliant human beings I’ve ever met! He started this company called WELD. I’m actually going to be decorating their location in Nashville. It’s this beautiful collaborative space for creatives.

WHAT’S YOUR DAILY LIFE LIKE? HOW MANY PROJECTS DO YOU TRY AND TAKE ON?

Oh sister… It’s crazy. [Laughs] Many things I’m doing now still feel so new, so I’m learning what’s too much for me to take on and finally deciding what jobs I want to take on, which is such a luxury. (I know that sounds ridiculous, but I just started to pick and choose which jobs I want to pursue.) After all, each project is very time consuming. As I’m building my business, I’m learning so many new things, especially that my deepest, greatest passion lies with the connection I have with people by getting to hear their stories. Because I’m so busy now, I’m learning to value my time as well as be responsible with it. And since meeting and connecting with people is so live-giving to me, I wanted to honor that aspect in my life. So I’m trying to figure out how to do the work in the best possible way that I can while also being able to see my closest friends. Sometimes, I really struggle with myself because I get these messages everyday, where people are looking to meet with me, and I wish that I had time to meet with everyone. I really don’t know how to balance all of that — meeting and working with everyone as well as my social life. When I receive these messages, I feel so honored that these people want to work with me. I wished that I could meet with everyone and trying to figure out a balance weighs heavily on me. Even though, designing a pretty space is awesome, people are way more important to me. But to get back to your original question, I have several homes I’m decorating at this point. What has happened so far in my business is that the people who don’t necessarily know me are lending me the biggest jobs and opportunities I’ve ever had. However, because I tell them that I’m still learning and that I’ve never decorated a space like this before, they are gracious enough to work with me. I’ve probably taken on more than I can, but I’ve been honest with everyone, “I’m going to work my ass off until it’s done really well, but I don’t know how long that will take.” I had an opportunity that came to me this week that is a really beautiful and exciting thing! But realistically, I knew that I couldn’t start on something like that for at least three months, so I told these prospective clients this. I was so blessed to hear them say, “That’s perfect.”

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WHEN CLIENTS GIVE YOU AN IDEA OF WHAT THEY WOULD LIKE THEIR HOMES TO FEEL LIKE, HOW DO YOU BEGIN ACQUIRING PIECES, AND HOW LONG DOES THAT ALL TAKE YOU?

It all differs. For me, I want the home to represent the personality of that person. I guess I have a “general style,” but I think it’s kinda funny to say that because the last three homes I’ve lived in have all felt very different from one another (which has all been within the year). But I’ve also changed a lot within the year! My home is representative of where I am right now, and I want to offer the same type of thing for other people. I know that how this whole thing got started for me, which was that I needed my space to feel really good. I wanted to walk through my front door and feel a sense of relief that my home is my respite, my sweet space, which feels beautiful to me and welcoming to other people. Most pieces I have are very sentimental, so each one has a story. I also want to be able give that to whomever I’m working for at the moment but be representative of them. Because of that, so much of what I do is really relational. I want the space to represent who they are while also still appearing beautiful. The first part of the process is relational, and then I will see their needs. As much as possible, I like to work with whatever pieces they already own. I like to give my clients a vision, which might be rearranging what they already have and throwing paint on the wall or the idea might be a total overhaul like, “This is terrible! Let’s start fresh.” Honestly, every experience has been completely different from one another.

AS YOU ARE SEARCHING FOR FURNITURE OR OTHER PIECES TO BE FEATURED IN THE HOME, WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST CRAZY FIND?

I was in South Louisiana, which is really into French-style antiques and not so much Mid-Century, like Nashville or many other places. What’s awesome about that is you can find really rad stuff for cheap. I once found this amazing telephone chair with a light connected to it, which is from the Mid-Century era, and it’s one of the raddest pieces I’ve ever found. I got it for like 90 dollars. In my new home, I don’t have a lot of room, so there’s not space for it. However, I am not selling this! I could make really good money off of it, but this is the raddest piece ever. I cannot let this thing go! It’s so awesome! Every time people see it, they’re like, “I haven’t seen one like this before.” Then I say, “I haven’t either!” I love digging for awesome pieces. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time now to go out to these remote places and dig because it all takes a lot of time. Another rad piece I have is this gorgeous mounted ram head, which is at my house, and I got it for super cheap at this warehouse in Louisiana.

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WHOA. A RAM HEAD?!

Yeah, you know, a ram head! I think it’s from Alaska or something crazy like that. This guy paid a ton of money to go on this hunting trip, and I got what he caught for next to nothing. It’s so awesome. Instead of a television, I use the ram head as the centerpiece in my living room. I mean, I’ve watched enough TV in my day while I was recovering, so I’m good. I’d rather have a pretty ram head.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE CRAZIEST REQUEST YOU’VE HAD FROM A CLIENT?

Because everything is still so new to me, I feel shocked and scared for each job. Right now, I feel like I’m on this crazy learning curve. Most of the work is not difficult; it’s just something I’ve never done before. I think, “I’m just going to say yes. Even though I’ve never done it before, I will try so hard and do my best!” I feel that way with every new job I receive, but so far, people have just wanted to work with me. I have never had to figure out a proposal before. Recently, I received this amazing opportunity to work for someone that I’ve respected and loved forever, so they want a proposal. It’s mostly just, “How much will this all cost?” But I’ve never done a proposal before! I was really hones with them and said that I had never done a proposal before, but I’m going to try really hard. So, even though the request for each job are not particularly difficult, it’s just all so new. I haven’t had anything super berserk yet.

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ON YOUR BLOG, YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOU RECENTLY VISITED PORTLAND AND WENT TO A NUDE SPA AS THE ONLY ONE WEARING A BATHING SUIT. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? DID YOU GET ANY WEIRD REACTIONS?

It was funny. Actually, that day was supposed to be my ninth wedding anniversary, and I was working out of Portland and Seattle. Since we were about to finish up our work, I was going to be heading back to Nashville. Then I thought, “You know, I don’t want to be in Nashville on that day. I’m going to stay in Portland, and I’ll meet some people, stay with them and have adventures out there.” I did that and met some of the sweetest, coolest and most precious girls ever, and one of those friends took time off of work on what was supposed to be my anniversary in order to just spend time with me. That friend is British, and the thought never crossed her mind that the spa we were going to was a nudie one. She was just like, “Hey, I wanna take you to the nudie spa. It will be relaxing.” (Because she had went through a divorce before, she was really empathetic to my situation.) I said,”That sound awesome. I would love to go to sit in a spa, a sauna and a hot tub and be relaxing in Portland. Yes!” So we get to the spa, and the dressing room was boy-girl. (I mean, I’m Southern.) Everyone in there was all nude. I was like, “Oh my gosh…” Needless to say, I was the only person there in a swimsuit, and I don’t have any judgement towards people who want to be nude. I just didn’t want to be nude! It was just a funny story and lots of fun too. My friend and I just giggled the whole time. I love adventure. I love stories. And that’s why I decided to stay in Portland because this year for me has been about stepping outside of my comfort zone, meeting new people and having adventures. Because of that, I’m now about to go out to the West Coast for the rest of the month and work with this company called, Makers Workshop. It’s just inspiring, where we meet makers who create incredible American-made products. The company is a place where they can tell their story and their process.

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WHAT RUTHIE BELIEVES SHOULD BE…

SEEN: Yes, I loved the film Avatar, but the reason I did was because, every time the characters  would introduce themselves to their own people, they would say, “I see you.” And I really empathize with that because I long to truly see people — see people, still love them, want to enter-in and hear their stories.

HEARD: Hear people. If you only see a person, you aren’t truly getting the entire picture. I know what a gift it is when someone truly sees me and speaks those things that they see. I try to do that also even when it’s a stranger. I’ve learned that no one really gets weirded out by compliments, so if I see something that’s awesome about a person, I tell them. After all, we all long to be seen. We all long to be heard.

KNOWN: I know for me that I long to be truly known, and in order to do that, you have to be a bit vulnerable, which is scary. It’s scary to be vulnerable, and it’s scary to open your heart to the world. But it’s so life-giving when people let you in and let them know you, and you do the same for those same people. I feel like it’s the most redemptive quality in humans. There’s something so healing and beautiful about that. My friend, Sionnie, is one of my closest girlfriends in the world, and she truly sees, hears and knows me. And throughout it all, she still loves me. I will cherish something like that forever, and I want to be able to give that to others as well.

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