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. Have any questions for your favorite designers? Submit them via our Instagram for a chance to have your queries featured in our Ask a Designer series. First, we spoke to Justina Blakeney. Next up: Shea McGee.
Shea McGee is one of the OG design influencers. It all began when she and her husband, Syd, bought their first home in Orange County, California, back in 2010, and she started documenting her renovation on a then-little-known platform called Instagram.
“I was really early on Instagram—there were very few people posting about design. I can only remember maybe one or two people doing it at the time,” recalls McGee. “I was mostly taking cues from fashion bloggers on how to do Instagram.”
Fast-forward nine years later, and McGee and her husband now helm Studio McGee, a multifaceted, multiplatform design studio that currently employs 76 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 quite secretive about sharing tips and sources, McGee is a refreshingly open book.
“When I started, designers weren’t sharing,” she says. “Once I started sharing, I realized that I was building a community and establishing myself as a designer who was also a source of information. That’s where the blog really came into play: It was a place for the information I was sharing to live longer.”
Designer, blogger, shop owner, and mother of two: McGee is the quintessential millennial design star. We spoke with her to learn about how she’s making it, what her day-to-day looks like, and—for any interested parties—what she looks for in a résumé.
Did you always know you were going 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, in Orange County, and we started renovating it. I couldn’t get enough of researching [design].
How did you get into interior design?
I signed up for a couple of classes at a community college by our house. I don’t have my degree, but I took a couple of years of interior design classes, picking the ones I thought were going to help me build my confidence and understanding of the more technical aspects of the design world. While I was doing that, I was renovating my house and posting pictures on Instagram.
Eventually, we got to a time in our lives when we had to make lemonade. 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, we announced Studio McGee.
What were the early days like?
I learned so much. I learned about reading people’s facial expressions to see what they were really feeling—it helped me learn how to communicate with people.
In the early days, when you haven’t built a name for yourself, you can’t go in and expect people to trust you—because why should they trust you? I was almost like a glorified assistant in a lot of ways. I would do [a project] because it gave me experience, and every time I completed a project, the next person trusted me just a little bit more. I started to gain a name for myself.
How did you get your first paying clients?
It was a matter of telling people, “I think I’m going to try this out.” Within a little bit of time, my friend asked me to help a friend of hers with a room…not everyone feels this way, but I would take nonpaying clients just to say that I had a client, and worked my way up to paying clients. It was definitely word of mouth in the beginning.
Do you have any advice on transitioning from a corporate job to working for yourself?
It’s easy to say “I’ll do that when…,” but just start doing it. Offer to do it for friends to start practicing and get that first client—which will usually get you that second client. But don’t wait.
Did you have a moment where you felt like you had “made it”?
Our Modern Mountain Home project. It was my first full home project, the one that put us on the map. It’s still reshared to this day! It was my first really big project that showed that I wasn’t just decorating small spaces, that I could design a beautiful home. For me, it was the moment when was like, “I can do this.”
What’s a typical day for you?
I go to work from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Most of that day is meetings. I meet with all 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, going through each project. Our e-commerce business is a huge side of our company, and I work on photo shoot concepts, new product development, marketing campaigns…anything that has a visual aspect, I’m involved with. Photo shoots are my favorite days.
How do you juggle a full-time job with being a parent?
I have found that not working a 9-to-5 is a better fit for me. If I get out 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.
How would you define your signature style?
It’s definitely evolved, but there are some things that have stayed true. I’ve always loved natural linens, wild fresh greenery, natural light, and white walls. I’ve loved woven textures and leather accents. And while I’ve always loved streamlined classics as the foundation for a space, it’s fun to play with trendier things as accents.
Do you have any tips for people trying to pinpoint their personal style?
When you’re first starting, it’s hard to trust yourself, because you don’t know if it’s going to look good. You have to come into your own by just doing it. When you continue to practice, you get better at trusting that if you like something, you can make it look good.
What has your relationship with social media been like? Do you think your career would be where it is today without it?
No, not at all. It’s responsible for a huge part of our business.
The thing that has stayed consistent is that I’ve always wanted to tell a story, to show the behind the scenes, to tell why I’m doing something, to show the process and the results. That was then, and that’s still the case now. But it’s become a lot more polished and a lot more planned. It’s more coordinated. Also, now that we have DMs, we try to respond to as many as possible, and that’s a different dynamic.
What advice would you give people in the industry about harnessing the power of social media?
Really 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.
What do you look for when you’re hiring? What’s the best way for someone to pitch themselves?
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.
Is having a design degree necessary?
Yes and no. Having a degree sets you up to really understand the technical aspects of what you do, but it’s not impossible to learn those things. You need to know CAD or Revit or some kind of program that helps you communicate with builders—these are things you can learn, but school doesn’t teach style. 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 should someone look for in an interior design program?
I think it depends on what the end goal is. You need to know if you’re doing it to go work for a firm—if so, I’d work on honing drawing skills and understanding sources, so you can pull together a space. Or if you’re looking to work for yourself, I would make sure that the schools have business classes.
What would you tell someone trying to break into the design industry now?
You just need to start doing it. 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. You work your way up to that. Just get going so you can take baby steps to where you want to go.