How 21 People Got Their Jobs in Interior Design
Real advice from industry interior designers, artists, editors, buyers, and more!
Published Jul 29, 2016 10:00 AM
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What’s that? You want a career in the interior design industry? You’ve come to the right place. We spoke with 21 kick-ass women and men (some leaders, others who are just getting their start!) in the design world to get all of their valuable, inspiring advice on how to break into—and succeed!—in the industry. Wisdom = Imparted.
FOUNDER OF SARAH WITTENBRAKER INTERIORS
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Start now. Whatever that means for you at the time: ask questions from those you admire, look for a design internship, decorate your own house and photograph it, build a website… Get an understanding for what a design job REALLY entails. Yes, it’s amazing to conceptualize fabulous designs for wonderful clients, but for that to happen, it’s the same grind as any business: marketing, sales, bookkeeping, taxes, etc. Our business just comes wrapped in gorgeous textiles!
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? My dad taught us to do what’s right, not what’s easy, and to run our businesses with integrity. It matters.
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? I was always honest about what I was creating, still am. I can remember my first interview with Steve Hanson, creator and founder of BR Guest Hospitality. I was sitting in front of a hospitality icon and thinking to myself, what can I offer this man that he hasn’t already seen or heard? He asked me to go out and sit in a few of his restaurants and take notes on what I would do with each space. In typical fashion I just spoke my mind. I told him he could have it one of three ways…. he looked at me with a tilt of his head as if asking me to explain. I said “1. sugar coated to make you feel good, 2. kind of nice, but still get some design ideas in there to make improvements or 3. brutal honesty”. He smirked and asked for option 3, the rest is history. We worked together at BRG for nine years and we are still working together.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? Failure is a funny thing. People are so scared of putting themselves on the line because they might fail. I was always taught that you have failed if you have never tried. There is a quote that I live by Theodore Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena”. This is the best career and life advice I have ever received.
Tour her home and restaurant on domino!
INTERIOR DESIGNER AND TV PERSONALITY
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Always remember that you’ve got to pay your dues. It takes a while to fully learn the ropes. When you’re starting out, no task should be beneath you. I often see young girls with no experience who come in wanting to work yet they think they know it all. I’ve been in the business for a while now and I still don’t know it all! So just be open, be humble, learn from your mistakes and use any constructive feedback you receive to help you perform your very best.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? Find a mentor. Having someone who can help guide you and support you through the early stages of your career is invaluable.
PRINCIPAL INTERIOR DESIGNER OF COREY DAMEN JENKINS & ASSOCIATES
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? My parents say that I was always keenly interested in design, colors, textures, and fashion from when I was four years old. I was fascinated by architecture and would sketch the most otherworldly homes you can imagine. In fact, I remember getting into trouble while in school because I would rather draw furniture than pay attention during class. Whenever my parents remodeled our home I had very specific opinions. To this day my mom still has amateur floor plans and color boards I designed as teenager. So pursuing a career as an interior designer was a natural evolution for me.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? A certain legendary designer told me once that it’s not my job to help my clients “save” money—but rather, to help them spend their money wisely. The outcome is the same—but having this attitude definitely changes your approach!
OWNER AND DESIGNER AT STUDIO DUFFY
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? I put in my time! I’ve worked on all spectrums in the industry which allowed me really good knowledge to be able to start my own company at 25. I knew I wanted my own studio from a really young age so worked throughout college and beyond taking as many opportunities with companies I respected and knew I could learn a lot from. I made sure every job I had that I soaked up everything and appreciated every opportunity. It really helped me working in different outlets of interiors to give me confidence to start my own business.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY?Jump in, put yourself out there and get at it! It’s such a hands on and visual industry that you need to be out there making something. Whether it’s online visuals or tangible goods or art. Anything that can show a potential school, employer or client what you’re about and what you can do. It’s so easy and you get to make the rules of what it is you want to put out there. It’s a good exercise to stay creative and help figure out your own style and place even if you’re new to the industry.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?Smile. It’s amazing where a good attitude can take you.
DIRECTOR OF DIGITAL CONTENT AT DOMINO.COM
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Educate yourself. Follow bloggers, interior designers, monitor trends, and really come to your next role with a knowledge base that will help you do the best work possible. There is a lot of information out there, if you’re able to cull it into what is most beneficial to you in the role you want, you’re starting off on a great foot.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? No lateral moves! Upward only.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved to draw, paint, and work with my hands. I studied painting, but then became interested in textiles towards the end of my time at Rhode Island School of Design. Looking for a job, I quickly realized that I loved home. Creating environments and objects that people use every day is inspiring to me. I knew I had made the right decision choosing home when I began at my first job out of school with Anthropologie.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Spend the time getting to know the company you’re applying to work at. Tailor your portfolio for those meetings. It’s extra work but putting in the extra effort, and sometimes even doing a new project to showcase how your talents could translate to their aesthetic, helps them connect the dots. Especially when it’s visual work – you can’t assume that someone hiring will know you understand the aesthetic unless you show them.
I’d also say, don’t be discouraged if the first job you get isn’t your dream job. There’s something to be learned from all experiences, and while you might not immediately realize how you can apply it in the future, it will still be helpful. Learn as much as you can from those who work in the same company as you – even, and maybe especially, if they work in different department from you but your jobs interact with one another. Understanding what a buyer does, or how a planner thinks, etc. can help you greatly down the road.
CEO OF ROBIN WILSON HOME
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? My grandfather and great grandfather owned small rental cottages in Texas and they used to take me along when they collected rents or refurbished after tenants moved out. One time my grandfather asked me what color to paint the cottages, and at six years old, I said ‘Easter egg colors’ – and the pastels became the color of the shutters and trim for several of the homes. It really was exciting to see a 3-D version, instead of a coloring book!
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? Instead of the traditional route of design school, I graduated with a Masters in Real Estate Finance from NYU. My professor told me to consider being a project manager for high net worth clients who had multiple homes. I did it, and learned both construction and design at the same time. Given my travels and a good eye, clients began to ask me to do everything – from the foundation to the furniture. My unique perspective allows me to advise clients to ensure a return on investment if they are a developer or home flipper – and also to find the best design options for a client during a renovation.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? The best advice I received was to remember that you are in the design “business” – and the ABCs are the most important tools to a successful business: a great Attorney (great contracts), Bookkeeper (manage taxes & bills), and Cash Flow ($$$). Without those elements, your business will not survive the long-term, no matter how much networking you do. The key is to have a sound foundation so that you can be creative!
OWNER OF EDDIE LEE INC.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? A wise friend asked me to think back to what made me happy before I thought about having a career. Thinking back I realized I loved pouring through shelter magazines and drawing imaginary house plans and furniture layouts. So I moved to NYC after school to be where I thought the best designers in the industry were.
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? I got my first job in the industry the cliché way of being in the right place at the right time. I met Rob Southern at a friend’s birthday party in NYC. He was the Senior Designer at Greg Jordan and they were about to install their biggest project to date, a 10,000 square foot ski house in Colorado. I mentioned I was taking interior design classes at Parsons and was looking for an internship, he set up a meeting with Greg the next day, and my interview was to fly to Vail for a week to help with the install! Greg and Rob wanted to see how I held up under pressure and if I could manage contractors and movers and do all the things people don’t think about when they imagine working in design. I must have passed the test as I was hired the next week!
STYLE EDITOR AT DOMINO MAGAZINE
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? My best friend growing up had the chicest house and her mom was an interior designer – which I thought sounded like the most sophisticated job for a grown up. Her mom was so lovely and cool, and I was mesmerized by her work and vision. She once took a sledgehammer to their living room wall while her husband was out and said “It needed glass doors here”. She was right. I remember being bored of how most people decorated their homes and distinctly remember the day when I came over to play and she had painted their dining room matte black with a gold splattered ceiling. I was probably 10 at the time, but I told myself then that I would be a designer and make beautiful spaces like her.
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? I went to interior design school but quickly realized that I didn’t actually want a typical design career at a big architectural firm. My dream in life was to work at Martha Stewart, so I moved to New York after school and began assisting a group prop, food, and floral stylists on The Martha Stewart Show. I completely fell in love with styling and building sets and creating fantasy worlds. It’s like speed decorating where you have a new project everyday, and I love that.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Make a list of the people you admire in the field you’re interested in and start reaching out. And don’t ever ever give up! I emailed my hero when I was in college and asked him to meet me. He agreed and that meeting changed the course of my entire life.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? Be good to people.
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? I hadn’t planned on being an interiors photographer, and kinda of fell into it. I think it is so interesting to be welcomed into a person’s home or restaurant, art studio and be able to tell their story through their space and aesthetic. You can learn so much about people by what they surround themselves with and how they present that through the design of their spaces. It’s almost like shooting a portrait of them without them even having to be in the shot.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? I think you will know if you have an eye for design and photography. If you have that passion nothing will stop you from pursuing that dream. I came from the smallest town in rural Arizona and I do have to pinch myself often In order to believe the opportunities I have been given, living in the greatest city in the world and getting to do what I love.
HGTV HOST & INTERIOR DESIGNER
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? Actually a panic attack was my revelation. I was in residential property management, had a very, very stressful period. My boss told me to take a “break” and redecorate the model. That same model ended up winning an award for best apartment model in Chicago that year. That is when I figured, there may be something to this…
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? Price yourself according to what you are worth, and what your market can handle from the beginning. A basement bottom design rate slaps your business as well as your colleagues in the face. Furthermore a low to free design rate is hard to bounce back from!
CEO OF VANESSA DELEON ASSOCIATES
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? In my teens I worked in my family’s furniture store. I was not fond of the retail side of the furniture business but was in charge and loved merchandising and accessorizing the different furniture displays in our showroom.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Have patience; when you have patience it prepares you for delayed gratification, which may be more rewarding than rushing, enjoy the moment. More importantly stick with my triple “D” model, Drive, Dedication, and Discipline.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? Don’t give up! When one door closes, enter through the window.
DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS OF CULTIVER
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Start out with a clear vision of what style is to you and stick with it, let the overwhelming source of images out there inspire you, not change what you think you should be doing. The best work comes from an authentic place that’s not trying to be something else. Also start from the bottom, do work for free, offer yourself to people who inspire you and learn from them, don’t try to replicate others, just be you!
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? If you love it and believe you can do it, it will work out. Also treat everyone you work with, with respect, you never know where they will pop up again along the line, being polite and friendly will get you everywhere! People will choose a team of creatives they get on with over who is supposedly the best in the biz.
SENIOR SITE MERCHANDISER & BUYER AT DOMINO.COM
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? So I’m not sure how many people can still say this, but I got my first ‘design’ job off of Craigslist. I was right out of college and working part time for a fashion event planning company. I saw an ad for a home accents buying position at an online company I’d never heard of called CSN Stores and thought my economics degree would give me an edge on more seasoned buyers applying. The hiring manager decided to give me a shot, hired me and three months later that company no one had heard of rebranded to Wayfair and become the powerhouse it is today. I ended up staying for three amazing years and getting invaluable experience on how to run a business. All because of a search for “buyer” on Craigslist job board.
JUNIOR DESIGNER AT LILLY BUNN INC.
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? While in design school, I came across Lilly’s work online and in several printed publications. I fell in love with her portfolio, and reached out to her in an email to tell her that if she ever had any availability, I would love to be a part of her team. I ultimately took another job and had practically forgotten about the email altogether when I received a call from Lilly one afternoon – I all but fell out of my chair! I had sent my resume to countless design firms with little to no response, so to hear from the principal designer herself was a dream come true. I am very lucky in the sense that Lilly is incredibly personable and was willing to see me as more than a name on an email.
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT HOW YOU GOT YOUR JOB IN DESIGN? Being a creative with a formal business education has been hugely beneficial for me. After graduating from The University of Georgia, I began my career as an accountant managing multi-million dollar construction budgets for an internationally known design-build firm. In 2006, while still working in a corporate setting, I bravely started Erika Ward Interiors to satisfy my creative side and brought my business acumen and professionalism to the residential market. During this time, I also took evening class in interior design at a local university. After three years of performing this balancing act I decided to fully commit to building Erika Ward Interiors and never looked back. It wasn’t the traditional route, but I would follow the same path all over again.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY?
- Create an informal board of advisors who love you and support your journey.
- Connect with other locals in your field and figure out how you can contribute to their success. Most people are surprised when you ask them, “How can I help you?” Any assignment you receive from them will help you to learn the ropes faster and gain resources in an incredible amount of time.
- Work hard and do what you say you will do. Your word is your bond.
- Pray everyday, several times a day. This helps you stay connected to your purpose, stay grateful, remain humble, and provides you with the strength you need to handle life’s toughest issues.
PRINCIPAL DESIGNER & DIRECTOR AT LARK & LINEN INC.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? I was lucky wherein my future career was literally never a question in my mind. I was that child that was constantly arranging (and rearranging) her bedroom. My mom was always incredibly encouraging and, as early as I can remember, we’d often spend weekends at the paint or fabric store trying to bring my visions to life.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY? Start a blog! There is nothing that has helped me hone in on my brand, stay on top of trends, collaborate with the most talented people around, and keep my finger on the pulse quite like working on my blog, Lark & Linen.
EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT OF DOMINO.COM
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? I did not seek out a career in home decor or interior design. Rather, I was looking for an innovative technology start up with a strong team and a great growth trajectory. Domino met those criteria, and I joined. After that, I’ve come to really appreciate quality home decor and design, and developed a strong knowledge of the space. I was happy to completely redecorate my home with inspiration and products gathered entirely from domino.com and domino magazine.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? The best career advice I ever received was to work harder – and smarter – than anyone else, and to always defer credit to teammates on a job well done.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN DESIGN? First of all, I grew up in Atlanta, surrounded by full-blown traditional Decorating with a capital D. It’s hard not to be affected by that aesthetic. On top of that, my mother is an interior designer, and before starting her business she managed the Scalamandre showroom in Atlanta for several years. I grew up surrounded by art and design, and my mom was kind enough to engage my interest, bringing me on frequent trips to ADAC (the design center in Atlanta) and imparting whatever knowledge she had of furniture, fabrics, etc.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? When I was an intern, I had the chance to speak with designer Vicente Wolf. His one piece of advice, and now mine, too (even though I didn’t quite follow it), is this: When you’re starting out, go work for someone whose sense of style and taste you hate. It might sound weird, but it will force you to define your own sense of style and will ensure your look is fully your own, not a knock-off of some other designer.