Photo by OCLS Photographer Amanda Murphy
I was doing a lot of projects, schools for the Department of Defense. And so, I helped design five schools in Germany. And this is all for like Air Force Bases, Army Bases. Those were the most rewarding because I understand the families moving there, what it means for those kids to go to school. Some of these students won’t see their parents for, you know, months at a time. So it’s like having that support and knowing a sense of place and community that’s very rewarding. Excerpt from an Oral History Interview with Mandy Wannen, President of Kaleidoscope Interior Design, May 19, 2023.
Mandy Wannen is the Founder and President of Kaleidoscope Interior Design, LLC. Her award-winning interior design has enlightened the lives of students in the United States and abroad. Her brilliant Education Design work in Florida can be seen at Bella Citta Elementary School, Canoe Creek K-8 School, Goddard School for Early Childhood Development, Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy – Tiger Athletic Complex, Idylwild Elementary School, Lake Buena Vista High School, Lyman High School, Metcalfe Elementary, Rosemont Community Center, South Lake Elementary School, UCF Student Union Expansion, Washington Elementary School and the Orlando Public Library. As a Designer who started her own business with her family first focus at heart, she brings forth the creative energy leading organizations in Orlando. Her community spirit jumpstarted her to pro bono work in interior design, making a difference in the lives of others in Central Florida. Her design is user-centered with “a strong sense of empathy.” She is passionate about the future and thrives on honoring a sense of place. She loves historical buildings. She is working now on Howard Middle School, built in 1926, and once known as Orlando High School, and also worked on historic Princeton Elementary School. She is currently the Vice President of the College Park Historical Society. In this interview, Mandy Wannen expresses her thanks to the City of Orlando and Orange County for the Women Business Enterprise Program and the Local Developing Business Program which helped her launch Kaleidoscope Interior Design. Learn more about Educational Design in The City Beautiful and beyond in this interview with Mandy Wannen.
This is Mandy Wannen… and I was born in Brooksville, Florida.
So, you’re a Floridian.
Yes, I’m a Floridian.
And Brooksville… that’s where they have the State Environmental Camp for kids. That’s fantastic. Is that where you grew up?
I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Dunedin, Largo, I also lived in Hawaii and Alaska. My dad was in the Coast Guard so we moved around a bit.
Wonderful. So it sounds like you were in touch with the outdoors.
Oh, yes, absolutely… I love camping. That’s where I go to recharge and rest. And my kids love camping and I try to camp at least once a month.
I was going to ask what your parents do for a living. So your dad was in the Coast Guard and your mom?
My mom worked at a bank. She worked at many banks because we were moving around a bit. But now she works at a Country Club doing reservations and answering the phone. And my dad is retired.
What position did your dad have in the Coast Guard, what did he do?
He was a Navigator for the C130 airplanes. And what that means is he did a lot of like search and rescue, a lot of our cargo drops to like Puerto Rico and other places. When we lived in Hawaii he would, you know, be gone for a couple weeks going everywhere: Fiji, Japan, basically everywhere from Hawaii. From here he did a lot of communications after hurricanes. After Hurricane Andrew he ran the communication trucks. You know did a lot of that support. And for Desert Storm, he did a lot of supply runs to the troops. So C130’s are the big cargo planes. He worked on that.
So very important work.
I think so, yes.
Yes, very important work.
So it sounds like you went to different schools. Did you go to public schools?
So I went to a base school in Hawaii. And then the remainder were in public schools. But, yes, I was in four different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and two different high schools. We moved around.
What would you do for fun in the summer?
In the summer we did a lot of camping. When we lived in Alaska we did a lot of hiking, fishing. When we were in Hawaii we had a lot of family members come to visit us in the summer. Our house was basically an Airbnb. We always had the grandparents or uncles, or somebody there. So we ran around in the backyard a lot. Did our playsets, rode bikes. You know, that kind of stuff.
So when did you first discover design? Did you have an art class or art teacher or art camp?
Sure. So that’s a good question. I was always involved in art even in elementary school. And I was recognized a lot as like Artist of the Month. My artwork was put up at City Hall, things like that. But I wouldn’t necessarily, like me parents never recognized that as a career. You know that’s good, but they wanted me to focus on math and science, but my brain just didn’t work that way. It was more about the art. So in high school is when I discovered drafting classes. And I did three years of drafting. I was basically the only female in that class. But we learned how to put together a model of a corner of a house. We did architectural plans. So it was like very much an introduction to architecture and drafting. And from there I went to tour some art and design schools. The moment I walked into an art college it was like this is what I want to do. The school I went to had fashion design, graphic design, but I knew I wanted to do interior design.
And, I’m sorry, I did skip over, I thought I was going to do architecture so I went to school, I did two years of architecture. Just still was not feeling that it was the right path. And when I went to the art college and saw interior design I said this is the right path. A lot of my architectural classes were able to transfer so it wasn’t too big of a challenge for me. But I knew I wanted to do something in the built environment basically.
And you’ve thrived.
Oh, yeah, I definitely enjoy it because I enjoy people. I enjoy the psychology of spaces. It’s not just about the pretty things in a room. It’s about how it functions. How people interact with it. I really enjoy public environments. And I really enjoy schools. And I think it’s because of how many schools I went to and what it means to walk into a space, having that sense of place. Because as a child that is what you interact with eight hours of your day is the school. So I think that’s where it all kinds of ties together. I think that’s why I’ve really gravitated towards that type of work.
You know in looking online about you, I also saw that you have won awards. You and your husband have won some design awards. I thought that was really impressive. What was that like? What was it like to work with your husband on a project? And then you won. You were very successful.
So that was definitely before kids when we were dorks and we used to do a lot of things together. When I met Tom we met at our architecture firm and we were both, we were working and we were both in college. So we both had the same goals and ideas. We definitely worked well together obviously through work and then, you know, through life. And so when we started our careers early we still wanted to keep designing. Because when you’re new in your career you kind of just do what other people need you to do which is not a bad thing. But the creativity, we wanted to do a little bit more with our creativity. So we started finding design competitions that we were interested in. And the design competitions were always about like a modular classroom or it was a modular home. Things that were community based. So the one that I think you may have looked up was the health center. So we wanted to design in this imaginary world, because it wasn’t a real project, but it was a real need though. So that’s why we picked the design competitions to work together. Again, this is well before kids. So we would spend nights and weekends doing that.
So a health center for homeless people, right?
We’re going to talk more about what you do today, but can you tell me a little bit more about that because I think that’s still something that is a need.
So when we were working on that competition together I was doing a lot of pro bono work for the Coalition for the Homeless, particularly the Women’s Center that was on 50 and Magnolia. It’s not there anymore. It’s the storage units. That building was donated to the City for one dollar. The building was in very bad shape. A lot of water leaking, mold. These families were going in there in emergency situations and trying to get on their feet. And they were tiny little basically apartment rooms with group restrooms. Every time I went in there I just thought that these people deserved more. You know, what can we do. But I understand the funding was going to the services and not necessarily the space and the environment. So I was bringing together my resources like flooring installers, furniture dealerships, even interior design friends, we would go in there and paint and renovate and do all that.
Health Center for the Homeless
So this design competition came up for the health center for the homeless and it was just a natural kind of connection. And I’m like I see these people they need help. And these are circumstances that have nothing to do with them personally how they got there, but there’s a need for help. So that’s where I kind of, we need to design this and figure it out.
Community Health Centers of Orange County
Later in my career after that, I ended up working for the Community Health Centers of Orange County and it just kind of everything – that’s a real life project – that has everything we were doing with the design: a dental suite, a pediatrician office, the WIC support was there. I mean, everything. It’s weird how things connect in this community. So hopefully I answered that question, but I don’t know.
Yes. And it seems like something that would be very rewarding, that you would immediately see the results and be happy that you had invested your talent and your time in that.
Absolutely, yes. Yeah, very rewarding. I think a lot of projects, public projects, it doesn’t matter what it is. It’s always going to be rewarding because you’re interacting with the public. I mean you see people coming and you see their faces and you see how it’s impacting people’s lives and even the staff. It’s always rewarding, definitely.
You are very connected to your community in many different ways. That’s really wonderful.
I try to be. Yeah.
I want to talk about Kaleidoscope Interior Design, because you’re an entrepreneur. You’re a female entrepreneur and you have this successful business. So can you tell me a little bit about the genesis. How did this start and where did you get the idea and “I’m going to do this”.
Well, it was really scary to get the idea I’m going to do this, but I had to do it because my kids were little and I was not picking them up on time. I was putting them in aftercare. I wasn’t able to do their field trips. And I just said, “Nope, I really want to be there for them.” My family comes first. And it was really scary.
Women’s Business Enterprise Program
But, what I have to say is I owe most of my success because of programs through Orange County and City of Orlando. They have supported me like no other. I did the paperwork to do the WBE, the Women’s Business Enterprise. And especially Orange County, there are so many programs and support. City of Orlando, when I signed up for that, I was able to go to their Creation Center at the Fashion Square Mall. They helped me with classes on social media. What you should do to represent yourself in a website. Anything you need, Orange County and City of Orlando is there to help you. Especially the WBE program. I love them. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. That’s all I have to say. They’ve been so helpful.
Local Development Business Program
Even the LDB Program through OCPS, the Local Developing Business, they have people on staff that want to help me connect with other people. I mean, the program is incredible. So I have to thank my success to that right there. And the people that are on those minority programs, they’re angels. They work really hard. They deserve the thanks for that.
That’s an excellent testimonial.
90% of my work, well, I have to say now it’s probably more of the relationships that I’ve built with architects. But at the beginning, the first two to three years was all through connections with the WBE program, absolutely.
Probably also your community based work to give yourself credit.
Yes. But they definitely helped me. They knew when I said, “I want to do-” when I sat down with the folks and I said, “I would like to do community centers and neighborhood centers, libraries. They made the connections for me. When I say made the connections, they would say, “Oh, here’s a list of the people who signed up for this RFQ.” And it would be that I could look at the firms and they were really encouraging me to reach out to these people. And I am so thankful to them. Because I wouldn’t even know how to navigate that on my own.
We’re thankful because of the work you’ve accomplished in our area. It’s brilliant.
So what is it like to be an artist and an entrepreneur? Do you thrive on the creativity of both?
Oh, absolutely. Yes. Absolutely. I want to say I thrive more because it’s my own now. You know when I was working for somebody else you know I was still having that creative outlet but it just feels different now that it’s my own. I think I work even harder than I did when I was employed by somebody else, but it’s so much more rewarding because it’s like I’m doing all aspects of it from the proposals all the way to the CA closeout to going back a year later and seeing how it’s holding up. Because it’s my own, I feel like it’s a lot more rewarding. And the creativity comes a lot easier and faster because I know that I need to make this decision. I need to make the right decision. I have to help people.
Also, too, I think having my own business has allowed me to do a little bit more. Right now, I’m currently doing two pro bono projects because I want to help. I know there are two Catholic schools that are trying to get off the ground and get into this community and they need all the resources that they have. So I’m not going to charge them. You know I’m going to help them navigate through it and do it pro bono and it is going to be just as rewarding as if it was a paid job.
I happen to love your website. Before I met you I looked at your website kaleidoscopeinterior.com and it so inspiring! So on your website it says Kaleidoscope Interior Design is “passionate about interior architecture and its outcomes with the public.” And it also mentions “personal and intimate” but also “public and social spaces”. So I wonder is it difficult to do that? Because to me that’s what people want. You know that’s what you want in a library that’s what you want in public spaces. You want that harmony. You want it to be public but you want people to have their own space which is needed. So is it hard to do that? Is that something that with your architectural background and your design it comes naturally?
It’s not, I wouldn’t say hard. It’s about taking the time to observe, ask questions, and see what the needs are. Because honestly, if anyone comes into a space and is like this is how you need to do it, I’m the expert. They’re not the right people for the project. I’m sorry. For me personally, I like to get to know the organization. I like to get to know the space. I like to get to know the users that are coming in. I do a lot of observing, seeing how people come in and interact. Even if it is a renovation, how are they using it now? What could be improved? And I think that’s what helps with the visioning of it. Once you have that visioning and goals, your outcomes can’t help but to be successful because you’ve already outlined that. And if you continue to remind yourself, it should never be about what’s on trend now or picking something because you like it – no. That’s not going to be successful. It’s about the users.
Empathy for Others
So, I think, having a strong sense of empathy for others, you’re always going to do well. If it’s about yourself, you never going to make it, personally. I mean, I know that some people do, but it’s not the way I want to do it. Yeah, that’s why I write those little verbiage, because I think that when you look at people in general and society from old to young having spaces that meets everyone’s needs intergenerationally, culturally, some people need some respite, some people need some interaction. Having an environment that meets all that, that’s a success right there.
And we’re so thankful that you do that and that you have that eye, and value, and commitment. It’s very important.
I don’t know if you know the Library is celebrating 100 Years?
Yes, it’s so exciting. I’ve been seeing all the posts. I follow you guys on Instagram. And I get the emails. I get your digital flipbook newsletter which I do read all the time. So, yes!
Well, we appreciate your support!
You also were the Interior Designer for the fourth floor of the Orlando Public Library. So would you tell us about that experience, about your vision and what it was like?
Sure. Yes, so it was not for Kaleidoscope, I was working for a different firm, but I was working with Rhodes+Brito Architects and I had been working with them for many, many years. So to make a long story kind of short, before I was working with this other firm, I was working with HKS Architects who renovated the first floor and did a lot of the design. So I was involved with the Library before even the fourth floor and this building has always inspired me. It’s just so cool!
My kids went to Trinity Lutheran School just down the street and we would walk the little kids over and do field trips. I love this Library! I just love it so much!
So now fourth floor comes along working with Rhodes+Brito and hearing what Mary Anne had for the vision of the computer lab and everything. At the time there was a need to really organize how to keep some of that furniture anchored in there. Not physically anchored, but visually anchored. So that’s where the whole idea of the bars and the banding and the carpet came from was to kind of organize that. On this floor there is a really nice view of the street here, but the windows are a little bit compressed. So that was where the idea of maybe doing that counter would be a nice visual access to that.
Also, when you come off the elevator, you didn’t want to just see right into people’s computer screens so that idea of like anchoring the trophy case came about. And then, the study rooms, that was a big important element. So I really like to do a lot of branding and environmental graphics so that’s why there’s like the letters of STUDY, just these little notions. The orange came about because it’s a completely different color and it wasn’t picked up at all yet in this library. Because in this library there were a lot of like deep blues, purples, reds. So the orange was like, okay, this is the fourth floor. So that is where we picked that up and you’ll see that in the carpet banding.
Interface Floor Carpets
My experience working with the Library was the need of easy maintenance. Something that could be lifelong materials. I know you you guys have a good relationship with Interface Floor Carpets. One of the cool things that I learned when I started this project was this carpet was actually moved, I think, from the third floor up in the back and it was just hot watered extracted and it looks beautiful. And that’s why when I came up I was like, “Whoa! It still looks so good!” Because that carpet has been down for years and years and years.
Upgrading the Lighting and Materials
Anyway, going back to your question about the experience with the Library, the public library, I just, I love everything you do here, so I was willing to help and I was excited to help! And the idea of upgrading the environment through lighting and materials all of that was very really cool and interesting. And it was really more of a camera study in 3D to see what you feel when you come off that lobby. Because that was what we really wanted to achieve when you came off that elevator door what do you see?
And it makes such a difference in people’s experience, the library customer experience.
Yeah, because even like when you go to the Melrose Center floor, that’s a different experience. And you get up here and I like that you know you’re still here, but it’s a new space.
And people really enjoy the study rooms. They’re so popular and they serve such a wide variety of people.
And I have to tell you a cool story. So I’m working for the Flagler County Library System and they talked about this building as a model of what they want to get to. Everybody loves this Library! Across the state. So I hope you guys know that this is probably the best Library in Florida.
That’s very nice to hear, that’s great to hear.
I wonder if you have much opportunity to see the public, or students enjoying your spaces after you’ve done the design? Do you get immediate feedback from them or are you able to watch?
So sometimes we don’t get immediate feedback. But I do try to go back to projects a few years later because I learn a lot from seeing how things are holding up. It’s so interesting because especially with teachers and students they’re going to make their space what they need it go be and they’re the most creative interior designers out there. Because you think you have this plan and this vision and you go back and they’re doing it in a different way than you could even imagine. That’s what I enjoy seeing. You know, how they molded and created their own spaces within basically it’s microenvironment within the big environment.
That’s really cool. So I do like to try to go back and see projects. I also really enjoy seeing projects that even other people have done. If it’s a public space, even if it’s other architects or interior designers, I’m always that nosy one, Can I go see that when it’s getting close? Can I go see?
Orange County Fire Training Facility
I just had lunch with another architect two weeks ago that’s doing the Orange County Fire Training Facility and I cannot wait to see that. It wasn’t my design. But I want to see what this building is going to become because again it’s a public environment for the county and I would love to see it. So he said, “Yeah.” I can see it when it’s almost complete. I’m that nosy interior designer that goes around, wants to know what’s happening. So, yes, even if it’s not my own space I go and visit other people’s spaces, too.
So you enjoy the creativity and some of the buildings will set standards won’t they?
Yes, yes, they will. Definitely.
I looked at a list of some of your projects and you have worked with so many schools. How rewarding and meaningful that must be for you to have made such an impact in our area on so many schools. Are you surprised at what you’ve accomplished?
I guess. I enjoy it so it’s not hard. You know what I’m saying. It’s not hard work. Because I’m excited about every project. Some of my really rewarding projects which are not on the website because it was from a different company, was I was doing a lot of projects, schools for the Department of Defense. And so I helped design five schools in Germany. And this is all for like Air Force Bases, Army Bases. Those were the most rewarding because I understand the families moving there, what it means for those kids to go to school. Some of these students won’t see their parents for, you know, months at a time. So it’s like having that support and knowing a sense of place and community that’s very rewarding. So I think I take those elements into the district schools. I love working on K-12 projects. It’s not hard. It’s just fun!
So we’re probably not able to see pictures of some of those defense schools that you worked on but I guess I’m wondering are they as vibrant and inspiring as some of these. Do they have that sense of bringing that life and that color?
Yes, I can share some pictures… But, yes, they are. The nice thing about the Department of Defense is that they do it completely different than the district schools. Because they don’t have to worry so much about security and hurting the building, because they’re already on a secured base. So you get a lot more natural daylight. You get a lot more indoor outdoor movement. So that to me makes me happy. I wish we could do a lot more about that at our district schools but in today’s society it’s just not possible, unfortunately. All the sad things that happen right now. So, I think, in a way they’re more successful, but that’s just because of the nature, they’re on a base.
But, yes, I try to take those elements, the brightness and everything to every project. So whether you have a small renovated school or a brand new multimillion dollar facility, I try to make every space special and unique to that building and to those students and to that community. I try to make it – I’m not going to be that designer that’s going to just keep cranking out the same. It’s going to be different every time. That’s my goal.
And what a difference you’ve made in the lives of students and especially the students that are in the military schools on the bases because that can be a difficult experience. They get an excellent education, but it might not be a heartwarming experience.
Yes. So honestly once I did one of those I was like I have to keep going with this. I don’t know why, I was just drawn in and it took me a while to realize why. And it’s so funny because it’s so obvious to everyone else, they’re like, well, because you moved around. Yes, but after I kind of saw the students and the parents, you know, it’s mostly like the mothers. There’s female people in the service, too. Or like the dads bringing their kids and they can see it’s going to be okay. Even though we’ve had to relocate and leave all of our family behind. It’s going to be okay because look at this wonderful place for my children. That’s where I’m like ding!
So you’re helping them on many different levels because you’re helping the parents who have a dedicated profession for our country and the peace of the world and they don’t have that added tension of worrying about their child in school.
I know your website Kaleidoscope Interior Design “industry futurist” and the “accommodation of current and future technology” so that’s all very future oriented. But you are also on the Board of the College Park Historical Society. Have you worked on an interior design that involves an historical building?
Yes. So my first one was Princeton Elementary School. I helped with that and I’m currently working on Howard MIddle School which is on the National Historical Registry. I love historical buildings. So, yes. Anytime there is an opportunity to combine both, the historical and doing education or public spaces, I’m jumping on it.
The City of Orlando had a project, unfortunately I did not get to work on it, but I toured it. It is Grand Avenue Community Center. Have you been there?
Well, I was their liaison for many years so I put their archives online: Grand Avenue School. I’ve been there many times, but I haven’t seen it since it’s been remodeled.
It’s the sister school to Princeton Elementary and then they added the Pottery Studio that used to be right around the corner moved over. And now they have a gymnasium. The Parramore kids are part of that after school program. Fantastic! So again any way to have adaptive reuse, I’m always going to be for that. You know, I think it’s more sustainable. I think it is recognizable as a community beacon. I feel very sad when these smaller community schools are being closed because, you know, the county, OCPS can’t keep up with the maintenance any more. And I get that. But we’re losing those memories and connections of – I used to go to the Kaley School or I used to – It’s like that’s where if it’s not going to be a school, we need to celebrate it into something else. We need to invest back to those buildings because that’s where Orlando history – I’m more about a sense of place. So I know history can become many different things through archives through audio recordings in Orlando Memory. But I’m more like the physical aspect and I want to keep those buildings. Yes.
Do you have a favorite Orlando building or a favorite interior feature, there may be several, that you admire?
Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a couple buildings I’ve been keeping my eye on because I’m like, oh, I hope they stay. One of them was the Fairchild Chapel, unfortunately you know that got taken down at Lake Ivanhoe. But I loved that building I loved seeing it from the highway. I loved seeing it from the lakeside. I loved that building. And I feel really bad. I know that the sign was historical so they did take that and I think it’s in a warehouse somewhere, but we’re not enjoying it. So the historical aspect is saved, but we’re not enjoying the building so that kind of makes me sad.
Orlando Utilities Building on Lake Ivanhoe
I also like the old OUC building on Lake Ivanhoe. And I know that the Orlando Ballet was in there for a small time. I went in there to see a performance and that was really, really cool to see like a small performance in there. But then there’s other buildings, oh, I wish they would have saved it. Like the old community center where Orlando Ballet is now, that was a really cool space.
Orlando Public Library
But, yeah, as far as interior environments, I definitely think the Library here is one of the top spaces. Because I love going into your lobby and I love seeing all this cast in place concrete. It’s just so unique that like even your waffle slabs. I know you’ve seen it a million times, but how the ceiling pops into that. The only other place again that I know of that architecture is at UCF. There’s no waffle slabs around that are exposed like this, it’s cool.
Well, thank you. What should we look for next from Kaleidoscope Interior Design? You mentioned Howard Middle School is that what we should be looking for or is there something else? Or can’t you say?
I can say. I’m working on a Community Center for the City of Mount Dora. And it’s going to be really cool. Because it’s going to have your typical components of banquet space, gymnasium, administration offices, teen center. But they – I’ll kind of allude to it because I don’t know if it’s quite official. We’re designing Phase One, but they’re already talking about Phase Two. And it’s going to be with a community partner that they have that’s going to be this really cool like stem – tech lab, 3-D printing. The teenagers in that area are not going to just come for play and physical activity. They’re going to come for mental activity, too. Which I again am putting that futuristic part into it.
An Intergenerational Building
And it is an intergenerational building. Everything that we’re doing in there, picking even furniture that will be cool for younger kids but the older people can be able to get up and down. It’s going to be on these beams so that can be easily cleaned underneath. It’s going to be a really nice space. There’s going to be a childwatch area for the little ones. A lot of services will come there… so it’s going to be really, really cool for the City of Mount Dora. I’m excited that.
The Flagler Library
I’m also excited about the Flagler Library. They’re doing something very similar. So what I’m seeing in the future is public spaces aren’t just going to be one single thing anymore. It’s going to have multiple staff. So this Flagler Library, I keep saying it’s a library, but it’s going to be a banquet hall. It’s going to have health services associated with it. It’s going to have a micro mini market so community people can come and sell their gardening elements. They have a whole big outdoor covered porch so they can have like Sunday Farmer’s Market there. It’s a community center. It’s not just one single element. I’m very excited about that.
There’s so much creativity in these projects isn’t there?
Well we very much appreciate you sharing your valuable time with us and thank you so much. It’s a joy to see your work in our community, in our Library, and all you are doing to make life brilliant for others in our public spaces. Thank you so much.
Yes, thank you for having me.
Interview: Mandy Wannen
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: May 19, 2023
Place: Orlando Public Library
Oral History Interview with Interior Designer Mandy Wannen, President of Kaleidoscope Interior Design. (41:43)