Want to be a decorator?

Every month I get several emails from other creative people (mostly women but not all!) who want to change to or start a career in interiors and want my advice. Usually they just don't know the first place to start but they've stumbled onto my blog and see me making my own way the best I can. I'm glad that that is inspiring to people (though frankly I don't feel worthy of the admiration expressed!) and I always try to write back as soon as possible. After all, I also approached people when I was still trying to figure out if I could take this leap, and very rarely got any kind of response. I've found that many times I'm writing the same advice and basic tips to get started. So I'm compiling my most basic suggestions in this post.

The first thing I say is that I'm still new to this too (about two years of work have gone into this business), so I don't know everything. But I do have my own experiences and wish-I-hads that I can share.

Interior design and decorating can be ultra competitive and I suspect that is why most of these "how the heck do I get started?!" emails go unanswered. There is also the question of education, certification, and membership that creates uncomfortable barriers that seem to stall conversation. For the record, I do not have a degree in design, but I have studied on my own and learned as I've gone (as many other successful decorators with more experience than I have done as well). But there is a time and place for education. I knew school wasn't right for me and I'm comfortable with that for now - it's a personal choice and I think each person interested in design needs to weight the pros and cons of further education for themselves. As far as "giving information to the competition," I don't think we necessarily ARE competition. There is a right decorator for every client, and your own unique skills and style will fit YOUR potential clients just like my unique skills and style fit MY clients.

Anyway, here are five things you can do if you're interested in becoming a decorator and don't plan on getting a design degree (at least not right away) and are starting from scratch:

1. Decorate! Practice your skills on your own home, and on friends' and families' homes. Nothing teaches quicker than learning first hand the questions to ask, how to manage clients and projects, to take proper measurements, the durability and use of different fabrics, and space planning. Utilize free resources like blogs, magazines and books (from the library is free!), and pinterest to study different ways to mixing fabrics and patterns, layout solutions to weird rooms, the styles you like, and the resources you can count on to find pieces you want to use. Practice, practice, practice!

2. Start a blog. If you're planning on doing any kind of online networking (which even local businesses can benefit from), you should have a blog. If you're not super tech savvy, get someone to help you but try to design it in line with your branding (until you have a business, this can align with your personal style). Start blogging about design trends, ideas you have, and projects you've tackled. Take before and after pictures (people looooove those, see more below). Network and publicize your blog on twitter (follow your favorite designers and bloggers and talk to them!), facebook (starting a business "page" when you're ready), and go to local blogger meet-ups (or national conferences if you have the dough).

3. Document your work. So you're working on a friend's living room for free (or cheap, or dinners out) and it's going really well. You want to photograph the space for your blog with the best camera you can afford. Learn to use the camera and get a tripod to take really good shots. When you're starting out, a project you can photograph is worth more than what you might get paid. Even taking pictures of your own home by styling a table different ways (free!) and documenting can be a great blog post that shows what you can do. Happen to get a really amazing project with a good budget and you feel that it's some of your best work? Bring in a pro to shoot (ask around for someone who does interiors, magazine shoots, or lifestyle shoots - NOT real estate photography, and probably not a strictly wedding photographer). You'll want to collect the best images of your best work for your portfolio to bring in actual paying clients someday.

4. Work. For someone else, I mean. That can even mean volunteering or interning part time for a designer, helping on a photo shoot, job shadowing, etc. Or if you can find someone with a job opening (I know it's tough these days) who will take someone without a degree or Auto-CAD skills, take it if it's financially feasible. Even a small amount of experience working with someone who is established will teach you tons about project management, sourcing, billing, and of course designing. And hey, if you teach yourself Auto-CAD (the software tool used to create floor plans, etc), you'll be even better off. And someone like me might need to hire you (because I don't know how to use it!).

5. Register. When you're ready, register your business (even as a sole proprietor works, but ask your accountant and attorney what kind of business structure is best for you). Registering your business, getting business cards, and having a business bank account and credit card means that you can have access to to-the-trade supplies at your local Design Center and trade discounts at most major retail stores (like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn). Get familiar with these resources (some require that you're already registered as a design professional at other places, so try some of the retail stores first - you'll need business cards to do that), because you want to be able to bring the best products available to your clients. You may not get clients with the kind of budget for custom work right away, but you'll have more access to fabrics for even throw pillows. And don't forget the credit card - some places require that to get the trade discount the purchase has to be in the designer's name and payment, not the client (of course, you bill the client for that, so you're not actually paying for the furniture).


So those are my top suggestions for anyone starting at square one and wants to own their own decorating company. It's a lot of work - I've been about two years in the making of this company and I'm still figuring it out. But I know a heck of a lot more than I did when I first started. And you will too! Just hang in there.

Image is from my portfolio, shot by Sawaya Photography.