The interior design business is a multifaceted one, with no singular path to success. In the spirit of demystifying the industry, we’re speaking to some of the most influential designers, bloggers, and creatives in the field to get the lowdown on how they’re making it.
It all began when Shea McGee and her husband, Syd, bought their first home in Orange County, California, back in 2010. McGee started documenting her renovation on a then-little-known platform called Instagram: “I was really early—there were very few people posting about design. I can only remember maybe one or two people doing it at the time,” she recalls. “I was mostly taking cues from fashion bloggers.”
Fast-forward 10 years, and McGee and her husband now helm Studio McGee, a multifaceted, multiplatform design studio that currently employs more than 70 people. Though she sees herself as a designer first, blogger second, it’s her approachability—along with a carefully sharpened signature style—that has made her a household name in the interior design world. In an industry that can frequently be secretive about sharing tips and sources, McGee is a refreshingly open book.
Designer, blogger, shop owner, mother of two: McGee is the quintessential millennial design star. We spoke with her to learn how she made it, what her day-to-day is like, and—for any interested parties—what she looks for in a résumé.
Did you always want to be a designer?
Yes and no. I’ve always loved and appreciated design; my mom was the same way, and I think I just took cues from her. But I can’t draw! So when I went to college, I studied communications instead, which has ended up serving me well in business—but I couldn’t get rid of that itch to design. My dorm room, our first apartment…I did what I could. Then we bought our first home and started renovating it.
How did you turn that passion into a career?
I don’t have a degree, but I took a couple of years’ worth of interior design classes at a community college by our house, picking the ones I thought were going to help me build confidence and understand the more technical aspects of that world.
Eventually, we got to a time in our lives when we had to make lemonade out of lemons. Syd had been working with his brother and decided to leave, so we had this year of fumbling where I took up every design project I possibly could, which gave me a lot more content to work with. We ended up asking ourselves, why are we not doing this together? We sold our home in California, moved to Utah, and in 2013 announced Studio McGee.
What were the early days like?
I was a glorified assistant in a lot of ways. I would do a project because it gave me experience, and every time I completed one, the next person trusted me just a little bit more. When you haven’t built a name for yourself, you can’t go in and expect people to trust you—because why should they? I then started to gain recognition. I learned so much about reading people’s facial expressions to see what they were really feeling—it helped me to communicate.
How did you get your first paying clients?
It was a matter of telling people, “I’m going to try this out.” My friend asked me to help a friend of hers with a room. Not everyone does this, but I would take nonpaying clients just to say that I had clients. Our Modern Mountain Home project was the moment when I was like, I can do this! It was my first full home, the one that put us on the map. It’s still reshared to this day.
“When you haven’t built a name for yourself, you can’t go in and expect people to trust you—because why should they?”
What’s a typical day like?
I’m at work from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Most of that time is spent in meetings with our designers who manage communications on the projects, but my role is creative director, so I take a rolling chair and scoot from designer to designer. Our e-commerce business is a huge part of our company; I work on photo shoot concepts, new product development, marketing campaigns…anything that has a visual aspect. Photo shoots are my favorite days.
How do you juggle all that with being a parent?
If I leave work in the 2 to 3 p.m. range, I can be home with our family and go into mom mode. Syd and I call it “the dance”; schedules keep us sane. That said, I work late into the night after my kids go to sleep. I love what I do, but no one should think that running your own business means you have more time on your hands.
What advice would you give people in the industry about harnessing the power of social media?
Work hard to find your own aesthetic. I follow people who have 1,200 or 2,000 followers—they’re just getting started—but they have a really clear sense of their personal style. That’s fun to watch. No one else can do you.
Any tips pinpointing your personal style?
Come into your own by just doing it. With practice you get better at trusting that if you like something, you can make it look good.
“I love what I do, but no one should think that running your own business means you have more time on your hands.”
What do you look for when you’re hiring?
I look at a portfolio before I look at someone’s résumé. I want to see how they’re mixing patterns and furniture pieces; I want to see their sense of style and that they understand the Studio McGee vision. Then I go into their work experience and drawings to make sure they understand the technical side of things.
It’s not impossible to learn those things as you go. If someone comes in with really good style and they’re willing to put in the work to learn the programs, I don’t think a degree is necessary.
What would you tell someone who is trying to break into the design industry?
You’re not going to have hundreds of thousands of followers, a full client roster, and your pick of the litter of high-end homes with huge furniture budgets right away. Just get going; take baby steps.