Karen Booker: Dancing to her own beat
A rebel at heart, Karen Booker has never been one to make the most politically correct decisions. She has always danced to her own beat, and this has led her to an illustrious career as an interior designer.
"I remember from way back, I was always the one to tear up my mother's lace skirts and I was always redecorating the house and so on. In my teenage years when everybody was looking at Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines, I was looking at House Beautiful and things to do with the house," said the bubbly Booker, whose personality was just as colourful as the sunshiny top and hot pink pants and stilettos she wore during an All Woman visit to her Haining Road studio recently.
Booker was born to parents with more traditional occupations. Her mother is a teacher and her father, now deceased, was an accountant. They both expected their only daughter to get a regular government or corporate job after completing her studies at Immaculate Conception High School, but that did not factor well into her plans for the future at all.
"I remember when I told my mother that I wanted to do interior design she said, 'but there are no black decorators, you are going to dead fi hungry'," Booker recounted.
Her family's relocation to the United States shortly after she finished high school did not squelch Booker's dreams at all. If nothing else, it provided even more opportunities for them to become reality. Upon settling in her new environment, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where she completed a first degree.
"You have to follow your heart and you have to follow your dreams," she said.
Although earning a steady salary as a rookie designer was a pipe dream at best, Booker persisted and took on a number of free gigs, just to build her name in the industry. She was eventually hired by a small interior design firm where she blossomed as she honed her skills. Her big break came when she joined the staff at Bloomingdale's as the director of interior design. She stayed there for six years before she moved on.
"It was extremely exciting at that point, because it allowed me to do things that I couldn't do in a small firm or by myself, so the exposure was tremendous. We did like show houses and I had a lot of firsts there," she said.
After 17 years of living in the US, Booker started paying short visits to Jamaica and the more she came, the more she considered the idea of starting her own business here. She decided to enter the Home and Garden Expo at the National Arena in 2008, just to get a feel of the demand for interior designers here. Incidentally, she secured a client at the event and that first job was her foray into the local interior designing world.
Although her mind was now made up that she would relocate to Jamaica, Booker went back to the US to formulate a plan to get more exposure. When CVM Television launched their television programme The Anchor, she signed up as a contestant and came fifth overall in the competition, which was geared towards identifying a suitable candidate to become one of the television station's anchors.
Although Booker did not win the competition, she was asked by someone at the media house to come back and host a 10-minute interior design show. She gained a lot of exposure from the show and was emboldened to go after bigger gigs. One of the jobs she bid on was to redesign the Runaway Bay HEART Hotel, now the Cardiff.
Booker said her mother still wasn't pleased, but started to mellow once she started to see that her daughter was becoming a huge success in her chosen career path. Apart from making her mark on local television and contributing to the transformation of several dynamic residential and commercial spaces in the US and Jamaica, she was also featured in a number of magazines, including the Distinction Magazine, the New York Times and the Long Island Newsday. She had also made appearances on News 12 and Channel 9.
"But when she (her mother) realised that coming here was becoming a little bit permanent, as opposed to me just visiting, then she said, 'there she goes again, she lick her head again'," Booker said, laughing.
So as to appease her parents, the interior designer also obtained a master's degree in business administration from New York University, which really came in handy when she opened her own full-service interior design studio in Jamaica in 2012.
She is also the host of DeZign Diva, a weekly interior decorating segment on Television Jamaica. She said there are plans to have a 30-minute show in the coming months and the possible offering of workshops geared towards those who want to undertake their own projects. "I get maybe two or three calls a month about whether I am going to open a school and if I teach or so on, so I might do some workshops. The interest is definitely here; there is a niche market," she said.
Relocating to Jamaica has meant that she had to leave her family, including four of her five children back in the US. But she said she is able to do so now, because they are all grown.
"Going to school part time, working and then raising them was a juggle," she said.
Booker is happy that she had followed her dreams and is now reaping the rewards. She said there were a lot of trial and errors, and crucial to her development, also, was starting small.
"I worked for free just to hone my skills and I did a lot of that for a while until my career started to bloom and blossom," she said.