Growing up, Pam Newton had an early attraction to vintage works that left her with the feeling of having been somewhere before.
“I always feel like I came from the Thirties,” Newton said. Born in Newport, Rhode Island, she felt an instant connection to The Breakers (a late 1880s Vanderbilt manor) and other mansions. Her family later moved to Kansas City, and in childhood, Newton had a knack for redesigning her bedroom. Into adulthood, she was “constantly dabbling with change.”
Newton’s design business took shape a decade ago, but in November 2016, she received “a gift that came out of nowhere,” when Newton’s longtime friend Bob Martin called her and asked if Newton would design his all-new office at iWerx, a new business incubator in North Kansas City, on a fixed budget of $800.
Little did she know at the time that she would come to design the majority of the co-working space at iWerx, which opened in July 2016. “That,” she said of designing Martin’s office that draws upon “Mad Men” era inspiration, “was the catalyst for everything.”
Martin’s glass-front office attracted onlookers who asked about the design work. That led to iWerx’s business partners agreeing that Newton should incorporate her eye for design throughout the entire 33,000-square-foot space.
“It was all trust,” Newton said in an interview at iWerx. “No one ever sat down and said, ‘Show us your blueprint. Tell us what you think.’” Newton drew upon a Seattle coffeehouse and its comfortable feel for iWerx’s coffee bar and lounge area. Big spaces, she said, face the challenge of finding ease in comfortability so she drew upon rich tones and eye-catching decorative elements that would leave people feeling like they did not want to leave.
Newton found her own big spaces, so to speak, immediately after high school graduation, and for the next 25 years, her career path took on a series of twists and turns before she landed with design work. Just as iWerx’s 40 members are on the cusp of exciting growth, Newton’s business in the last year alone has taken a dramatic turn from solely residential work to professional co-working settings.
Self-taught Gypsy Soul
Following her graduation from Grandview High School in 1983, Newton said her “gypsy soul” led her to move to Phoenix, “to seek alternative grounds, to explore, to see if the grass was greener.” After a brief stint at an advertising agency, she returned to Kansas City, where she worked at Bernstein-Rein. All the while, the lure of venturing out on her own remained within Newton, as all three of her siblings also are entrepreneurs. So, she started a wedding-planning business on the side, remaining attracted to creative ventures.
Completely self-taught, with no formal education or training in design, Newton calls herself, “an accidental designer,” Newton draws upon her previous experiences in independent event planning and consulting, as well as catering in the hotel industry.
“I’ve always been fascinated with design. I just had this desire to get my hands on things and to make it right.”
The “turning point” Newton said, came in 2007 when she and her husband broke ground on their custom home in rural Liberty, Missouri. Pam and her husband custom designed their house, and she describes the intense, sometimes contentious, discussion process that ensued between herself and the custom designer.
“I wanted our home to feel like it had been there for years, even though it was new,” Newton said. Her home incorporates antique barn wood siding on the floors, church newels at the top of the stairway, custom-made kitchen floor tilework, and vintage lighting from Europe “that I got off a crate.” Newton’s persistency and vision paid off, as the designer won an award for best custom home in a certain price range, and the home was featured on tours.
It was then, Newton said, that a lightbulb truly went off: She saw a need for people to not have cookie-cutter houses and living spaces. Her design business, known as Uncommon Relics, began with friends and word-of-mouth referrals. (A website, www.uncommonrelics.com, is forthcoming.)
“The spin on my design is to be uncommon, instead of a cookie cutter,” Newton said The environmental aspect also is important with her reclaiming furniture and other pieces that might otherwise end up in landfills.
“The oddity of it is, the majority of it stays in my mind,” Newton said of her creative process. She gestured toward a space near the front-door entryway at iWerx. “I can look at this space, right here. Once I get one piece, I’ll go on a treasure hunt, and I’ll find that one piece that I think is going to work there, and in my mind, everything else falls into place.”
“The pieces just speak to me,” Newton said of her experiences, like walking into a barn filled to the ceiling with items. “I think God instilled this vision in me, and it sticks out like kryptonite.”
“That one piece,” she explained, could be anything. She pointed to a pair of early 1970s mustard-colored sofas positioned near the iWerx coffee bar. They previously belonged to one owner in Lawrence, and Newton purchased them off of Craigslist for $200. She had them professionally cleaned, and then paired them with new pillows and a new area rug to help incorporate a mix of vintage and modern elements. The area coffee table base came from a downtown antique mall, and Newton’s husband built its top. The surrounding walls are filled with the works of rotating artists; in July, Kansas City area artist Lynette Ubel’s paintings adorned the walls.
Also in the large opening space near the iWerx entry are barrel leather chairs from the 1960s that Newton picked up at an estate sale; nearby shelving holds a typewriter, a retro radio, a vintage skateboard, and much more. “When I find this stuff, I just have to have it,” she said.
“That’s what is cool about what I do, is the stories – that’s why I love it so much,” Newton said. “It goes back to feeling like I’ve been here before, that the pieces that I find all have a story. I think people feel that when it comes into a design element. I think people sense the story and the history behind each piece.”
Newton speaks to her customers first, gathering their own ideas and sources of inspiration. The aim of Uncommon Relics is approachability and affordability for everyone, Newton said.
“Nobody ever gets it until it comes together,” she said of her skeptics. “People just generally have to trust me, that I am going to pull off what is in my head and what I have conveyed to them.”
From there, she seeks out her “favorite haunts,” which range from everywhere from estate sales, curbside finds, and Craigslist to Liberty’s The Red Apron and Urban Mining in West Bottoms. Her ideal Sunday afternoon consists of coffee and a stroll through River Market Antiques, starting on the third floor and working her way down.
Her period influences include her all-time favorite of mid-century modern, alongside Bohemian, with the latter as a nod to her gypsy soul. “I think the two combined are clean and rich,” Newton said, pointing to architect Frank Lloyd Wright as a universal inspiration, alongside classic media inspirations from The Brat Pack and Audrey Hepburn.
When designing a space for customers, Newton is “100 percent alone” prior to the big reveal – but, she makes it clear that if someone doesn’t like her work upon the reveal, she’ll return to the drawing board.
Her first reveal for the space came in late 2016, for iWerx partner Bob Martin. It was the designing of a space that, in a short time, has helped change Newton’s business. Martin co-founded EnCorps 45, which supports the “what’s next movement” for professionals ages 45 and older, and he is the president of Martin Marketing.
Martin said he trusted Newton’s judgment and vision, in incorporating his set budget and natural pull toward mid-century modern. He is especially drawn to an expanded print of an original 5-by-7 inch black-and-white photograph of his grandfather, who also was an entrepreneur. Newton put it on a canvas transfer, and it now hangs above a side desk in Martin’s office.
“I know that with her eye – and what she does – that I am going to get incredible value,” Martin said.
The iWerx space at 1501 Burlington St., which was once a Kroger’s regional grocery distribution center, also features an event space. Near the event space is the “ladies lounge,” where bridal parties can prepare for the big day in a space that Newton decorated with special charms in mind.
The iWerx partners will continue to work with Newton because of the ever-changing nature of the space, Martin said. With the iWerx design work as ongoing, Newton also is preparing to design a 10,000-square-foot space across the street from iWerx. Again, she said she wants to create one-of-a-kind settings for entrepreneurial spaces rather than relying upon a cookie-cutter feeling that can often accompany such office furnishings. “And, my wheels are always spinning for the what-next,” she said.
Reflecting back on the origins of her design career that began 30 years ago, Newton said she would have been more forthright in trusting her gut and listening to what really made her heart sing – and today, she encourages others to do the same.
“Back then, I had no idea, and so I floundered and aimlessly wandered around looking for that thing, that one big thing. Thirty-five years, looking back, I would have given anything to have dove head first into architecture and design – things would have been different, I think.
“But, to that, I don’t believe that people always necessarily need a background in that education field. I think you can be self-taught and very successful. I think it’s all about your tenacity and personal drive. I think people can do anything.”
Words Adrianne DeWeese
Photos Patti Klinge