Michelle Wilkie on adventure, eating pets and keeping quiet.

Being associate director for the award winning global interior design firm TP Bennett is a big job but Michelle Wilkie demonstrates that it is possible to find a deeper satisfaction, balancing work and life.

When Michelle decided to take a 5 month break from her big smoke job, not even she knew what was around the corner let alone around the block but it turns out she is living proof that we should stop amplifying all those internal and external voices that set inhibiting limits - telling us what we cannot and should not do and instead listen harder for that one little voice saying "sod it, yes do it, you only live once for goodness sake".

Michelle Wilkie:TP Bennett Associate Director

The main reason you became an interior designer?

Built environments and the spaces we inhabit affect our lives; our productivity, happiness and wellbeing. Interior designers have the ability to adapt and transform space that can ultimately have a huge impact on how people feel – a concept I have always loved.

As a child I moved my bedroom around every week, drew floorplans, spent my pocket money at Ikea. I loved photography, art & design in all forms, so I knew from a young age I would be some kind of creative designer.

How long have you been a designer?

Nearly 10 years

Where did you study?

Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia

Favourite completed project?

Kraft and Cadbury’s HQ in Melbourne (or maybe it was the free Cadbury Favourites and the 10kg block of Toblerone I liked...) - some project snaps below

"...I realised these are all EXCUSES. There was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t do it."

Where did you travel to and how long were you traveling for?

Back to Australia for Christmas, then to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia, Miami – over 5 months.

What was the main reason for you to take a long holiday?

It’s always been my dream to take some time out and travel Central and south America. I used to envy my friends who did it, but always made up excuses why I couldn’t go (work, wrong time, money etc…) but I realised these are all EXCUSES. There was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t do it. So I decided to bite the bullet, use my savings and take 5 months off to live out my dream! Best decision EVER (moving to London is my second best decision).

So about the trip, what was the:

Hardest adjustments you had to make?

Living out of a bag… packing a life of clothes, toiletries, pills etc (for all seasons and temperatures) into one backpack. Which ended up being so heavy I never actually put on my back. Thankfully it was on wheels!

Realising you are on your own… has its ups and downs!

Not being able to shop and buy trinkets along the way due to space restrictions in your bag. I did go nuts in Guatemala and Peru though, rugs, hats, art, blankets and textiles – and shipped them all back home

Best moments?

Climbing to the top of Machu Picchu – the ruins slowly emerging from behind a veil of clouds as the sun shone through has to be one of my favourite moments in history.

Working with Plant Medicines and local Sharman’s in Peru – absolutely life changing experiences.

Peru - Cusco 

Peru - Cusco 

All the mountains & nature in Peru, and coming to the realisation that the beauty I see around me, is the beauty I see within me. The first time I felt completely at ease with myself and the world. TOTAL CONNECTION and gratitude for all that is.

Antigua in Guatemala  - stunning colonial town. Witnessing red hot molten lava pour down one of the volcanos that surround the beautiful city

1 month yoga/meditation retreat by Lake Atitlan, Guatemala… the last week done in silence, challenging but so rewarding

..."our drivers got pulled over by corrupt ’police’ cartel with machine guns and robbed them of all their money whilst we all sat in the van in fear for our lives."

Scariest part?

The 21 hour bus journey from Guatemala to Nicaragua…. It involved 4 border crossings, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador & Nicaragua… 12 of us crammed into a rusty old van, no air con, driving full speed into oncoming traffic (to avoid the huge potholes and disastrous road conditions) and then our drivers got pulled over by corrupt ’police’ cartel with machine guns and robbed them of all their money whilst we all sat in the van in fear for our lives.

Crossing the Mexican Border was a close second!

Favourite food experience?

Freshly prepared deep fried Guinea Pig

Eating deep fried Guinea pig in Peru – the local delicacy! Tastes a bit like Chicken + Rabbit

Street food in Guatemala – amazing corn, avocado treats for about the equivalent of 20p!

Hardest adjustment you are having to make on your return home?

I’ve actually loved coming back home. I enjoyed every moment of my travels, but by the end I was ready for my bed and a home cooked meal. I have, however, come home a brand new person. Michelle 2.0. Before I left for my trip, I was a little unsure of where I belonged in the world… in Melbourne where I was bought up & my family lives, or London – my vibrant, cosmopolitan home of greatness. Travel helped me realise that you take your home with you wherever you go… and if you feel at home within yourself, you can take yourself anywhere and be happy. For now London feels right though – and I’ve got lots going on here.

"Trust your gut instinct. Always."

I decided I didn’t want to come back and work 5 days a week, which would mean going back into my old routine… so I am lucky work is flexible, and I am working 4 days. On my days off I am studying a Diploma of Organic Skincare Formulation, and I am hoping to launch my skincare brand in the near future, which will be focused on a natural, holistic approach to healing Acne from the inside out. (in which I have a lot of knowledge from my own experience)

Are there any lessons you learned that are in your mind the most valuable?

Trust your gut instinct. Always. Try to see the connections between your mind and your heart. Do what you Love. Don’t lose hope. Believe – in yourself. Stay positive.

In your opinion did any part of the trip positively affect your ability as a designer?

Yes absolutely.  I have come back filled with new ideas… a lot of them inspired by the beautiful textiles in Peru, the crumbling concrete walls in Guatemala, the brightly coloured walls of Nicaragua, to the rainforests in Costa Rica. I have also come back with a new found passion and enthusiasm for design, of all kinds. I’ve also come back with a new outlook on life as a designer. Our industry is often fuelled by stress, deadlines, often over commitment and under resourced projects. Everyone seems to expect more for less…. But as designers, typically most of us love what we do, so we suck up the good with the bad. Since my return I’ve decided to not let stress dominate my life (like it used to)… I have discovered it’s much more productive to remain positive, to do things with a smile, and enjoy the creativity and the progressive side of the industry we work in. Life is too short to get stressed. Plus, it gives you wrinkles…

Travel taught me to slow down… both in my work and personal life. It taught me to cherish every moment, every experience, every bite!

I’m also studying to become a holistic life coach, and have strong interest in workplace wellbeing, nutrition, natural therapies – essentially work/life/balance. We spend about 1/3 of our life at work – and if we are exposed to unhealthy interior environments, naturally it will have a negative impact on our wellbeing. As workplace designers, it’s our job to ensure that we are pushing our clients to create and invest in the best workplace (which doesn’t always mean expensive, just well designed and considered), that focuses on their staff and wellbeing at the forefront. Happy / healthy staff = increased productivity.

Since returning, if you had to list 3 things you would most recommend that others do what would they be?   Could include location or experience specific things from this or previous trips or just things in life to take on board.

Travel - take time out, make time to explore the world. The time I spent in Central and South America has given me life experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. The world is a wonderful place – go out and see it! And take lots of beautiful pictures along the way to motivate others to do the same

"Take your shoes off every now and then and walk barefoot on the fresh grass, which will help to ground yourself on this magical earth. Trust me… you will notice the difference."

Do something that you love - Each day if you have to drag yourself out of bed, go to a job you don’t like… work with negative people… then do it all again the next day, maybe it’s time to reassess your working life choice.  Confucius said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” and I believe in this wholeheartedly.

Look after yourself  - what we put into our bodies affects our entire wellbeing – so cut back on sugar, dairy and processed foods, drink more (filtered) water, eat foods that nourish your mind and body. Get outside into nature more. Breathe in fresh air. Take your shoes off every now and then and walk barefoot on the fresh grass, which will help to ground yourself on this magical earth. Trust me… you will notice the difference

Some of Clear Skin Holistically's natural, chemical free homemade skincare range.

Some of Clear Skin Holistically's natural, chemical free homemade skincare range.

What is next on your to do list?

Launch my skincare brand Clear Skin Holistically - you can follow this journey on instagram @clearskinholistically

Complete my holistic life coaching course and look at ways of integrating with workplace design

Continue to Live the Dream… and hopefully inspire others to live theirs

We thank Michelle for the time she took to share this incredible journey with us and for allowing us to use her stunning photographs from the trip, a larger selection of which can be seen below.