Changing careers and locations is becoming the norm, when the guaranteed job for life is a thing of the past and increasingly the aim for many of us — or at least the dream — is to combine personal passions with earning a living.
Someone who seems to have achieved it is designer Helen James, creator of the enticing ‘Considered’ range of home wares and food products for Dunnes while being a prolific blogger, a judge on RTE’s Home of the Year, and raising three children, all of which she’s achieved after moving to New York not once, but twice. So is she one of those Titan women who is able to have and do it all?
She’s unassuming, accessible, and totally open about the challenges of juggling home and work, and admits to being as fearful as the rest of us when making change.
“We have a perception that people in the public eye are fearless but that’s not the case,” James explains. “I went to New York and back with no job and was full of fear but tried not to let it rule me. When I haven’t known what to do next, I’ve always done something like starting my blog or going back to New York. I’m a huge believer in the power of taking action.”
And James has been doing just that since 1993 when she first left Ireland for New York, not long out of college where she had studied textile design. The next 10 years were spent working for Donna Karan and rearing two children, but in 2002 she decided to move back home.
“After 9/11 it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted a home in the country to grow vegetables, although Ireland then was a tough place to be. The jobs that were in New York didn’t exist here.”
So James spent the next few years designing and making fashion items, enjoying success until the crash devastated her business in 2008.
“I was pregnant with my third child at the time,” she says, “so it was natural to take a break and decide what to do next.”
It led to an impulse decision to book a flight to New York to explore work possibilities and brought the next big change.
“A friend of mine was working for Donna Karan Home and when she heard I was making the trip, she asked me to do some work while I was there.”
It led to more work and her second move to New York that lasted two years. “It really wasn’t feasible with three children in Brooklyn who were used to living in the country, so we came home.”
That was to an Ireland with no sign of economic recovery, but a chance meeting with another mother at football who happened to be a designer for Avoca led to her next job.
“It was magic at Avoca,” James recalls. “I got to work at their mill on the actual looms making blankets and rugs.”
Then Dunnes came calling with an opportunity to create a new brand of home wares and a chance to combine her two passions — textiles and food.
Three years later the Considered range has developed around what’s needed in the various stages of preparing a meal and entertaining: Notebooks for shopping lists, copy books for recipes, linen bags for shopping, kitchen textiles, then bowls and spatulas for food preparation, and oven to tableware, napkins, and even thank you cards.
Candles are also included with the aim of dispelling cooking smells or creating an inviting aroma, labelled with names like Basil & Fennel and Root Ginger. They’re all made in Ireland, as are her food products, including the artisan style Roast Raspberry Jam which she suggests using to sandwich together a Victoria sponge.
Not surprisingly the bright lights of television lured her into a stint as one of three judges in RTÉ’s Home of the Year, but she readily admits needing to call a halt to a gruelling schedule of filming that kept her away from her children.
“Something had to give,” she says, “Sometimes the most important word is no. We have such high expectations of ourselves and push ourselves too hard.”
But often as soon as we let one thing go it creates space for something else to come in, so it seems we can expect a book from Helen James in 2016.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved