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With a Barrage of creativity, young designer Alysia Southern is rapidly building a brand
Don’t let a period of restless uncertainty get you down. It may be more helpful than you realize.
Such was the case for interior designer Alysia Southern, whose Barrage Designs — now barely two months old — opened in Westville this spring after she spent a long time trying to find her place.
Southern, 31, grew up in Cheshire (a “white-bread” upbringing, she says), and while she always loved the arts, never had much exposure beyond participating in some student theater at Cheshire High School. But she struck out on her own at age 16 to move to Manhattan, earning her GED along the way and landing a theater scholarship to Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. (where she also studied psychology and history). It was there where learning the basics of set design and costumes would ultimately prove useful.
“I was watching how an exterior, via a costume, can take someone to a different level, and how your external can create the internal,” Southern says. “That had a lot to do with my flair for the dramatic now, and my belief that you can change the way you’re living by redesigning the space you’re living in.
“That,” Southern adds, “is a powerful relationship.”
She ultimately spent just two years at Manhattanville before settling into work in the city, where in addition to getting started by working in design teams for restaurants and nightclubs, she also tried her hand at commercial and residential real estate, and even more briefly, in the recording industry (“I was searching for what I wanted to do,” she acknowledges).
Southern eventually left New York City and made her way back to Connecticut. In 2010, in New Haven, she found a renewed focus and started working independently as an interior designer, working with residential and small commercial clients, going so far as to price her services barely above cost to help get her name out there.
“It was like a revelation; everything I had done up to that moment was like a ten-year learning process,” Southern says. Not to mention that “Starting your own design firm in Manhattan with very little direction just isn’t feasible.”
Southern estimates she’s worked on more than 30 spaces in various capacities since she started designing, running the gamut from apartments to homes and retail spaces, which she says can pose the biggest challenges. She’s current re-designing Westville’s Simonae Boutique.
“Changing a 5,000 square-foot space, you’re not just deciding if you like gray curtains or white curtains, you’re getting into branding, marketing, merchandising and legalities with a retail space,” she explains.
Southern wants clients to be “as involved or uninvolved as they want,” but aims to seek out the feeling they want, using fabrics and color as a foundation to build on. Her own personal style illustrates a “flair for the dramatic,” she says, and Southern decided early on that she’d rather be recognized for having her own unique touch than a please-the-masses approach.
“It’s a question I spent a lot of time on during the development stages of my business,” she says. “I would want people to come to me specifically because they love what I do and they trust that I can transform a space. Without that, I think it’s just a job.
I wanted to design spaces that were absolutely magical and people would be attracted to that,” Southern adds.
It was while designing a space for Project Storefronts in Westville this spring that local designer Lesley Roy discovered Southern’s talents. Roy assumed a mentoring role by offering her own Whalley Avenue storefront to showcase Barrage Designs, which Southern uses to display the various elements of home décor she now sells to retail clients, including custom-made pillows with vintage fabrics, antiques and various other wares, repurposed and redesigned.
“Young entrepreneurs need a place to showcase their wares,” explains Roy. “Providing my storefront to Barrage Designs is my way of giving back by mentoring a young entrepreneur in the art of business.
“Alysia possesses a unique talent to beautifully stage the home décor items she creates with a crisp, inviting sense of style and panache,” adds Roy. “She can make a closet look cool.”
Hunting relics, antiques or simple discarded pieces and bringing them either back to life or breathing new life into them is something Southern has been used to for most her still-young career, whether she picks up her finds at estate sales, or from the guts of soon-to-be-closing warehouses.
“I’ve been decorating and designing on the fly since I moved into my first apartment,” she says. “When I was 16 and living alone I didn’t have much money, so I had to learn to get whatever I could find and put them together in some cohesive way.”
These transformed artifacts might be as mundane as an old lamp given a new custom-made shade, or a jewelry case repainted and re-purposed as a display case for the likes of sand art or accent pieces.
“There’s a call to designers right now to use the goods that are out there,” says Southern. “You want to reuse something so you’re not making new junk out of old junk, but making it more beautiful and more functional that it was originally.”
While returning home to Connecticut at first fraught with a sense that she had failed to “make it there” in New York, it soon became hard to overlook the positives, such as reconnecting with family and friends and having affordable space to live and work.
“It’s been another mark in a series of successes,” she says. “Being back here has allowed me to have 3,000 square feet for the amount that would get you a closet in Manhattan. I can drive to get new things and I have resources here I could never have found there.
“Coming back to the place you were born is powerful, too,” Southern adds. “Seeing it last through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl with a fake ID trying to get into bars, and then coming back and seeing it as a woman is transformative in a way.”
Southern acknowledges she probably won’t get “1,000 people from the streets of Westville pounding down the door for my pillows,” she does hope the storefront can work in tandem with her design business, acting as a gallery for potential clients to get a feel for her style.
Ultimately she’d like to see a design community flourish here to produce and provide unique objects.
“Interior beauty should not be exclusively for the rich,” she says. “I think luxury is a feeling that should be available for everyone.”