Meet The Silver Women: Q&A with Ayse Birsel
Describe yourself in 3 words.
Design the Life you Love
Tell us your story.
I grew up in Izmir, Turkey, in a family of lawyers. When I was 15, I fell in love with the human scale of design and I have been a designer ever since. I’m still a designer, but also an author, a teacher, a businesswoman, a thought leader, and a mom.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment to date?
Being a hard-working mom.
What do you like the most about yourself?
I like being a strong, independent woman. When I was around 12, my great uncle advised me to never depend on a man and I took that to heart. Coming from a patriarchal society, this really defined me.
What are your greatest passions?
My family and my work. Doing the work I love in order to take care of the people I love.
Which women inspired you as a young girl?
My paternal grandmother, who was calm, strong, comfortable in her skin, and made me feel loved. My aunt, who taught me the power of being independent, is my role model. She is a strong, professional, successful woman. When I was about 20 and feeling guilty about leaving my family and country to establish myself in NY, she told me I am free to live my life and to have no guilt.
Which women inspire you now?
I love women who are generous; they inspire me. Andi Owen, the CEO of Herman Miller, said it best at a town hall meeting I attended: “As a woman leader, you should use one hand to push yourself up and the other to pull other women up.”
Alan Mulally, the former CEO of the Ford Motor Company, was told every day by his mother, over and over again, like a mantra:
The purpose of life is to love and be loved, in that order.
To serve is to live.
It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.
Have you had female mentors?
My teacher at Pratt Institute, where I did my masters, Rowena Reed Kostellow, was a strong female mentor. She was 80+, still teaching, beloved and feared by her students, elegant, strong, independent, and loving. She was my first friend in New York and taught me how to be a New Yorker.
My friend Leah Caplan, a strong woman herself, is my doula, bringing out my creative work, helping me stay the course, and believing in me even when the going gets hard.
Christine Downton, who was a financial trailblazer and now dedicates herself to literacy and empowerment in South Africa.
Christine Fournier, who was an extraordinary lawyer and one of the most original people I know.
And I can’t help but mention my mentor, Marshall Goldsmith, world-renowned business educator and executive coach, who helps women rise and who embodies generosity and a “feet forward” attitude.
Do you mentor other women?
I want to be visible to other women, especially young women, so that they can say, “If she can do it, so can I. I, too, can have my own business, I can design, I can write books, I can have kids and work, I can teach, I can be a thought leader, I can be ambitious, I can show up and express my opinions, I can stand on my own two feet, and I can live my life the way I want it, thank you very much.
THOUGHTS ON AGING
What do you like most about getting older?
My capacity for learning and becoming a better person.
Do you think older women are valued and celebrated?
People who don’t value women don’t value them at any age. People who do value women value and celebrate them at any age.
Which women do you admire for aging with grace and integrity?
I have women friends who are ageless, who were graceful and lived with integrity 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, who are graceful, strong, kind and generous 20, 30, 40, 50 years later. They were beautiful then, and they’re beautiful now. They were comfortable and confident in who they were then, and now.
What advice do you have for today’s young women?
Design the life you love. Give yourself permission to live an original life, a life that resembles you and is based on your values–things that really matter to you.
What is your perfect day?
A long summer day spent with family by the Aegean Sea. The rest of the year, I stop and acknowledge the good moments, something I’ve learned from my friend Simone Rothman, another one of my inspirations.
BEAUTY RELATED QUESTIONS
Who is your beauty inspiration?
My friend Jocelyne Beaudoin, a “Silver Woman” herself. My sister-in-law, Gulse Birsel. My friend in Istanbul, Ela Cindoruk. My mother, Ozgul Birsel. They all have an incredible sense of style and they do it out of respect for themselves and others.
How long does it take you to get ready in the morning?
About 15 minutes. Five minutes to shower, five minutes to dress, five minutes for makeup.
Do you enjoy wearing makeup?
Yes, especially red lipstick and black eyeliner.
As you get older, do you wear more or less makeup?
More makeup—and I think I will keep on wearing more until I look like a china doll!
A FEW OF MY FAVORITES
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 3
Wayne Shorter’s Adam’s Apple
Anything that my daughter sings or plays.
When I listen to them, I feel that my soul is whole.
“Purple Hibiscus,” “Half of a Yellow Sun,” “Americanah,” and “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” by Homer
“My Name Is Red,” “Museum of Innocence,” and “A Strangeness In My Mind” by Orhan Pamuk
“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Safak
“Three Rooms in Manhattan” by Georges Simenon
“The Hare With Amber Eyes” by Edmund De Waal
Reading is my favorite activity after design. These books reside inside me; they’ve marked me.
Turkish, Japanese, and anything my husband makes. But if there were only one food I could not live without, like most Aegeans, it’s feta cheese
Place in the world:
Cesme, Turkey. New York. Cesme is where I grew up. New York is where I became my own person.
Isamu Noguchi. His work is timelessly beautiful, always.
Thiouraye. This is the scent that the boubous of women and men in Dakar, Senegal, are imbued with. You can smell it even in New York, when someone in a traditional boubou from Senegal walks by you.
Jasmine. It reminds me of my paternal grandmother, Zerrin Birsel.
Burnt by the Sun
My Fair Lady
The Lives of Others
Raise the Red Lantern
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Wings of Desire
These are films that made me think long after I finished watching them.
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