Just months before Janae Branning was about to graduate from Wellington High School in May 1997, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. But an unplanned visit to Cowley changed everything. “I was really lost as a teenager,” said Branning, a 1999 graduate of Cowley. “I always had a creative imagination, and I pushed myself the hardest when art was involved. “Some of my friends were going to go to Cowley for a recruiting or parents day, so my mother and I went as well. I took a few of my drawings and a couple of small clay sculptures. I met Doug Hunter that day, and he changed my life.”
Hunter, a long-time art instructor at Cowley who died in 2001, offered Branning a scholarship, which she gratefully accepted. It was the beginning of a magical experience for Branning, who went on to Wichita State University and the Art Institute of Colorado. She has been an interior designer in Denver and, most recently, for a firm in Key Largo, Fla. “I had a good time at Cowley,” Branning said. “Looking back, it is the time of my life that I started to develop as an individual. I started Cowley as a shy and timid individual unsure about my direction and capabilities. I started defining my own style as an artist while I was there.
The instructor that influenced me the most, not only at Cowley, but also throughout my education, was Doug Hunter. He opened the door for me. “I think about him often and I am sure that I am not alone. His door was always open, and his critic style was so soft and reassuring one might confuse it with being too easy-going. But that was not the case with Doug. It was an awesome experience to create a piece of work that moved him, and that happened only when the artist that created it was passionate about it. I loved showing my work to Doug. He projected a confidence in what I created, and that support is instrumental to a beginning artist.
I didn’t leave Cowley with a plan, but I left with confidence in myself, which is worth far more then an educational experience.” Branning was reared in Wellington. As a child, she always was creating and exploring new things. Her family participated in 4-H, which allowed her many hands-on experiences. “I had always been interested in interior design,” she said. “I would say my parents influenced me in my early childhood. They had remodeled their home themselves and my mother has had an interior/exterior painting company for about 20 years. They gave me freedom as a child and a teenager to be creative. They would often come home to a house that was completely rearranged.”
After earning an associate’s degree from Cowley, Branning felt lost again. “I was actually working as a pharmacy technician when I graduated, which was the furthest thing from my career or degree,” Branning said. “I got a job in Wichita at a dermatology clinic. It was a secure and safe job, but I was not fulfilled. I felt like something was missing.” She enrolled part-time at WSU and continued taking drawing and sculpture classes. While in Wichita, Branning was surrounded by “incredibly dedicated artists,” which proved to be major influences on her career.
“My best friend, Elizabeth Rowley, was a second-generation painter, and looking back, she was a huge influence on my decision to continue on to the Art Institute,” Branning said. “It is a very frustrating situation to study art in the Midwest. You dedicate yourself and pour your heart and soul into a piece of work, but the reality of actually making a profit or even a living off it is a real fear, unless you’re painting water-colored sunflowers. The other option is to move to the market or a metropolis, so that was my next step.”
In November 2000, Branning flew to Denver to interview for a spot at the Art Institute. By January 2001, she was living and attending school in Denver. She said her experience at AIC was “amazing.” “I was able to transfer almost all of my credits from Cowley and WSU, which was a tremendous help,” she said. “The program at AIC is very fast-paced and difficult. It takes a lot of drive and dedication. The program is arranged on 11-week quarters, and the average student takes about 16 credits a quarter. Because I had my general education credits out of the way, I was able to concentrate on my major of interior design.”
Branning was literally completing five design projects each quarter. “The fast pace and large workload definitely prepared me for the real world,” she said. “The skills I obtained throughout my six years of education have really molded me into a rounded professional. I have the capability of wearing many hats.” After completing her degree at AIC in March 2003, Branning landed a job at a software company in Denver called Impact Ideal Solution. The company produces product management software for interior designers and architects. Branning was the manufacture production specialist on the dot.com side of the product. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the company lost its funding, and Branning and all of the other employees were laid off.
Branning’s unemployment was short-lived as her boss, Steven Love, called the next day and asked her to work for him at his showroom in the design center. “I started at the showroom doing any odd job they could find to fill my day,” Branning said. “Eventually, I formed a friendship with Steven, and he became my mentor. I earned Steven’s trust and made myself valuable through dedication to his company. He moved to Palm Springs and put me in charge of visual merchandising for the showroom. It was a great experience and opportunity.”
During her time at the showroom, Branning and Love dabbled in interior design projects. Their project for the Buell Mansion in Cherry Creek, Colo., a Denver suburb, was published in Colorado Homes and Lifestyles magazine. Still, Branning wasn’t satisfied with her career. “Working at the showroom was great, but I still had a feeling that something was missing,” she said. “One of my peers from AIC had started a design firm on his own and had established a few clients. He made a decision to move to Hollywood and asked me to take over one of his residential projects, and I agreed.”
Branning started her own company called Datum Design. She maintained her duties and full-time job at the showroom, and worked on her own as well. “I really had a full plate and it was great,” Branning said. “I had the pleasure of working on three residential projects on my own before I left Denver last September.” From Denver, Branning moved to Miami, Fla., took a couple of months off to adjust to the culture, and now has a job as a designer for Inge Designs in Key Largo. “Since I have been working at Inge Designs, my career has definitely taken an upward direction,” she said. “I work in such an awesome atmosphere. It is a private resort community for the elite. I get to create interiors that are geared toward relaxation and pure luxury. It is amazing. There is no limit to the kinds of things we do. It is absolutely awesome.”
Branning said there were many things she’d like to do in her career, but she’s learned a lot about herself since leaving Cowley. “I think the real goal is always listening to what your heart tells you,” Branning said. “It was scary leaving my home and moving to Denver and now Miami, but it’s letting that drive within steer you through the fear.” Branning said taking chances enabled her to get to where she is today. “It would have been easy and safe to stay in Kansas and work in a safe nine-to-five job, but I would be miserable,” she said. “I would be asking myself ‘what if?’
My ultimate career and personal goal is to always find the answer to ‘what if.’ ” Branning also took time to explain in greater detail her profession. “I think that the interior design profession is misunderstood by the general public,” Branning said. “An overwhelming amount of television shows like Trading Spaces and While You Were Out pollute what interior design really means. It is a complex profession like that of an architect. It is much more than selecting a color of paint or wallpaper border. It is an art form in itself.” Branning offered advice to people thinking about hiring an interior designer. “I would strongly urge them to visit the ASID.org website for accurate qualifications and information about what the title interior designer dictates,” she said. “Licensing is required by most states, which usually indicates that a designer has passed the bar exam of design called the NCIDQ, and is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers. If one is interested in obtaining an education in interior design, it is also important to do so from a FIDER accredited institute like AIC.” Branning also encouraged continued support for all art programs, not only at Cowley, but also throughout the nation. “It is so important,” she said, “and it really does change lives.”