Meet Amy Lenahan from Design i Interiors, Chicago

I first heard about the talented Interior Stylist Amy Lenahan via Janel at Apartment Therapy Chicago (thanks Janel!) and after viewing Amy's online portfolio, I knew that I had to meet her and introduce her work to decor8 readers. In this interview, Amy tells us how she got started in design, her pricing, common design mistakes, and offers some great design tips. I know the interview is a little long, but I went light on the posts today so you could spend time reading this - I think it contains a lot of good things that many of you will be interested in. So, are you ready to meet her?

Amy Lenahan

decor8: Hi Amy! I'm so happy that you're here to talk about design today. Can you please tell us about design i and how your business came about?

amy: Thanks, Holly. I?m happy to be here talking to you, too! My Chicago-based business is called design i and offers what I call a ?fresh, accessible and affordable approach to interior design.? I?ve been doing this officially for about a year now. My first job was a high school Spanish teacher. Upon moving to Chicago in 2000, I took a job in sales and marketing with a major pharmaceutical company. I then moved into a role at a great nonprofit, but quickly realized that quenching my thirst for all things creative in my available free time wasn?t going to be enough. At this point, I had already been solicited by friends to fix up their places, which made me think: what if I quit my job and made THIS my business?

For me, that business was going to be as much about satisfying my need for a creative outlet as it was going to address the needs of what I saw as an underserved group. I saw two problems with the existing model of interior design: 1) lack of transparency in pricing and 2) lack of flexibility in where designers shop. As it stands, most designers shop for their clients at trade-only showrooms and earn their money through commission on what they buy. There are definitely those who don?t use this model, but by and large, this is the way it works. In my preliminary market research and in discussions with friends, I discovered this was what scared people about using the services of a designer. They worried they might be convinced to buy something they didn?t need so the designer would make more on commission or that their project would snowball into something they couldn?t afford.

I wanted to approach this from a different angle and to offer these people an alternative. What if I could create straightforward design packages with a reasonable flat fee so that my clients would know exactly what my services would cost them? I wanted them to have a concrete number from the start. Then I thought, what about all of those people who don?t want to shop solely at trade-only shops? It seemed like a conflict of interest to me: if I get you a more expensive sofa, I make more money. That would make me suspicious, and knew it wasn?t how I wanted to be perceived by my clients. Plus, I knew there was so much great design out there that it would be restricting to be confined to those showrooms.

So, I did just that. I developed a model that is very streamlined and straightforward: you have three options ? a consultation, a ?spruce up? or a full-blown makeover. I put prices right on the site so potential clients know what they need to budget for their plan. I wanted to be as upfront as possible so there weren?t looming concerns. When you hire me and we figure out what your budget is for the project and I shop for you where it makes sense for you, not what?s advantageous for me.

I think that?s why design i has really caught on - which makes me delighted! I like to describe my clients as savvy ? they are savvy enough to know that they can get a great sofa for $1500 (and not $7500) and they get just as much of a kick as I do in mixing an IKEA table with a Noguchi lamp and family antiques to create a wonderful and unique look. That?s why I am thrilled to be interviewed by you today! I really wish there were more options out there for people who are looking for this kind of help.

Client Living Room - Before


decor8: Great, thanks for all those juicy details. We have the exact same business model, as I rarely shop in trade only showrooms and give clients the same three pricing/design options as you do. I find it's easier for clients, I'm more approachable, and people enjoy the process a lot more. I notice that you title yourself an Interior Stylist, can you tell readers what the difference is between styling and interior design?

amy: Interior design is often interchangeable with interior architecture. Someone formally trained as an interior designer would not only be able to decorate, but would be able to draft plans to sculpt and manipulate any nonstructural part of a building?s interior. A stylist, or decorator, focuses on the decorative elements such as furnishings, fabrics and finishes. The ?fun? stuff, as I like to think!

decor8: Thanks for that, well put. When did you know that you wanted to be a stylist?

amy: It?s really been an evolution for me. I am an only child and as a result, I had an extremely active imagination and creative streak. I also had a penchant for organization. These tendencies led me to get into my bed at night and think up ways that I could rearrange my room, my parents? house and any homes we had visited. Occasionally, on weekends, I would get up before my parents and reorganize their kitchen. I changed the layout of my bedroom almost seasonally.

I also learned at an early age how to put together a well-styled look on a budget. In high school, I won ?best-dressed;? not because my family spent tons of money on my wardrobe, but because my mom was a killer bargain shopper. Over time, I developed an eye for quality and learned how to mix those pieces with lesser quality ones to come up with a great look.

Putting this all together into a business didn?t really click until about two years ago. My husband and I had recently bought our first place about a year before that and did a lot of cosmetic work on it. Many of my friends were amazed at the transformation and were shocked to find out how little we had spent in fixing it up. Some of them started to ask for my help to do the same in their places. It was a total ?V8? moment for me. You mean I could do THIS and actually make a living doing it?

Client Bathroom - Before


decor8: How would you characterize your personal style, including your preferred color scheme?

amy: My personal style is pretty tailored and classic with a punch of something fun. I?m a big fan of having some good basic pieces and mixing them with interesting accessories. I?m not much of a fad-follower and I don?t think I have a preferred color scheme. I like so many combinations that it would be hard to choose a favorite. I think I could definitively say, though, that red is my favorite accent color.

decor8: How would you describe your personal interior design style?

amy: I think it?s a lot like my personal style ? good, basic, clean-lined anchoring pieces mixed with fun interchangeable accessories to show some personality. I love when a space truly reflects its owner. It seems to be the clich?d response that every designer gives, but there?s a reason for that. In my mind, individuality is more beautiful than picture-perfect. I believe that I should walk into your home and get a sense of who you are. It bums me out when I go into the home of someone I think is really interesting or funny and their place looks cookie-cutter. I think too often we shoot for pretty or to ?wow? and in the process lose the personality.

decor8: Can you describe the initial design consultation with a client?

amy: My design consultation is the first of my three packages. Consultations are two hours long and run the gamut from paint color recommendations to what to do in every nook and cranny of a 2000+ sq. ft. condo! It really depends on what the client?s goals are and how quickly they can digest the information. Consultations are so much fun, but are probably the most challenging of the packages from my perspective. Because of the time constraints, I do a good amount of prep work so that I come to the meeting ready to hit the ground running. Before the consult, I send my clients a detailed questionnaire that asks them a ton of questions to try to uncover everything from how they live in the space to how it makes them feel, how they want it to feel, what they do in their leisure time, etc. Then, after the on-site meeting, I send a detailed summary of what we discussed and any applicable information like suggestions on where to shop for the items, who I recommend to perform any additional services needed, etc. It?s a whirlwind!

decor8: On your second visit, do you use design boards or is there another method that you find helpful to convey the end result to the client?

amy: My second and third packages are multi-stage, so there are several meetings for those. The first meeting is similar to that of the consultation except that I am developing a definitive plan for the client. I do use design boards for the follow-up meetings and use them in conjunction with a walk through of the space to point out what will be used where. I find that a lot of people aren?t great visualizers (which is likely why they are seeking help in the first place), so it is key to do anything possible to show them what the space will look like once finished.

decor8: Most people are scared when it comes to using their favorite colors. Say they love green, but don't know if they should buy green furniture, just add green pillows, a green rug, or paint the walls green. How can we best incorporate our favorite color into the home?

amy: I think it?s hard to say exactly just where that favorite color should appear. I think the answer to uncover is whether that favorite color is someone?s ?favorite color of the moment? or has been his or her favorite color for some time. If it is a current favorite, it will make more sense to use that color on pieces that can be changed down the road ? pillow covers, rugs, wall colors (just as you mentioned). If it?s a really strong color, I wouldn?t consider using it on big anchoring pieces unless you know you will be happy with it for some time ? or ? you have the budget to change it if you tire of it.

decor8: If this isn't too forward, what are your rates? Do you ever travel outside of Chicago for clients?

amy: design i is all about being upfront with rates, so I?m happy to share! The two-hour consultation I described is $300. The next step up is to finish out a room building upon what you already have. This is $650/room. The final package is a full room makeover where we start from scratch. This is $950/room. As for travel, one client flew me to D.C. to do a project which turned out great. I?m not sure I?d want to do a remote job again, though. The couple was wonderful (they are friends which made it much easier) and they were excellent at implementing my suggestions. This was important because after the initial weekend, we had to do everything via email. It?s really hard to coach people through a project when you are looking at everything through 2D photographs.

decor8: Yes, and not only that, but you don't have access to stores in their area like you do there in Chicago. I'm sure you know most of the store owners and they're quick to accomodate you. You lose a lot of that when you're consulting purely online. Although, I do take online consults and find that because I'm so hooked into the online shopping community, that I can easily work with online vendors just as well as I can with brick and mortar stores.

Okay, so back to the consult. Let's say you've visited the client twice and explained to them your plan of action. Of course, they'll want to know where you found the items, how much they will cost, who will order/deliver/install them, etc. Some clients are comfortable taking the resource sheet from me and going from there due to budget constraits. Others are willing to spend the extra money so I can help them from start to finish. For your clients that require additional assistance, what's the next step?

amy: When I am satisfied with the final design plan, I write a very detailed report of exactly what we are doing in the space and list each item needed, where to buy it and how much it will cost. You can opt to buy these things yourself, or, for an additional charge, I act as your project manager. If I?m the project manager, I coordinate any necessary service providers and purchase and arrange these things for you. I find that it is a 50/50 split between customers who want to execute the plan themselves and those who want me to do it. It seems to come down to how pressed for time they are. My clients really like having this option; it?s another way that they feel in charge of the project and what they spend.

decor8: What is the first thing you notice upon entering a space?

amy: The first thing I notice is the overall feeling I get in the space. I also read what it says about the owners and who they are, or at least who they?d like to be. I always feel honored to be welcomed into someone?s home. It?s such a treat to get a glimpse of a very personal part of someone?s life and even more so when you are asked to improve that space.

decor8: What are the most common design mistakes you see when you enter a clients space?

amy: Hmmm.. the biggies: Bad overhead lighting (use dimmers or accent lights instead), Pictures that are hung too high (I tell my clients to study design magazines or catalogs until this becomes more second-nature), Issues with scale, and too much of one particular style period (mixing gives such richness and depth to a space).

decor8: I know you have your own business, but would you ever consider working for a firm or partnering with someone?

amy: Being my own boss is the absolute greatest feeling. I?ve been really lucky in that I?ve always had a lot of autonomy in my jobs. At this point, it would be really hard for me to switch and work for someone else, but you never know. As for growing design i, I?ve only ever considered partnering with one friend who worked with me in sales. He has incredible style and has designed his home in keeping with my philosophy and design i?s ideals. He?s also a complete riot, which may make it tough to get any work done.

decor8: I know you mentioned earlier that you don't focus on trends, but I'm sure you feel the need to keep up to speed with what's going on in the industry. How do you do that?

amy: I get so many shelter magazines that I swear I?ve gotten dirty looks from my postal carrier. I also attend a lot of in-town design events and seminars.

decor8: What would be your recommendation for "what to do first" in a design project?

amy: My first step would be to do an honest budget assessment. You can?t make any decisions until you know how much you are willing to spend. Then, I?d determine what kind of change you want to make. After that, I?d prioritize the list based on budget and figure out which items will give you the most bang for your buck. Then, and this requires discipline, I?d resist the urge to go out and buy it all at once. It isn?t as instantly gratifying as a grand shopping spree, but I think a look that is slowly acquired tends to have much more depth. Plus, you never know when you?ll be traveling and you find that perfect something...

decor8: What advice do you have for readers with a new apartment/home to decorate and perhaps a limited budget?

amy: Aside from Oprah and Bill Gates, I think we?re all on a limited budget. There is always something bigger and better that we could be buying, at ALL levels. That said, I think a paint change can give you huge impact for little money (especially if you can do the painting yourself). Changes in lighting can be incredibly dramatic. My husband and I swapped out each and every light fixture in our home. I also think well-placed window treatments give a polished look. I notice that a lot of people hang their drapes so they go over their windows rather than mounting the hardware outside the frame to give the illusion of a larger window. Finally, I?d have fun with accessories. This is where I think it?s hard to tell whether you?ve spent a lot or a little ? so find fun low-cost options.

decor8: For renters who want to add color to their space but are limited in making structural/cosmetic changes (paint, flooring, etc), how do you suggest they do that in an apartment with white walls and beige carpeting, for instance?

amy: That?s a great question and I think a situation that every renter has faced. I love to paint large artist?s canvases bold solid colors (or whatever color you want to introduce) and hang them to cover a large portion of the wall. You could do the same and cover them with fabric for more texture. For the floor, you can add an interesting area rug, although I have to say I?m not completely jazzed about the rug over the carpet idea. But, sometimes you have to work with what you have! As always, well-placed accessories (pillows, lamps, vases, etc.) can help add pizzazz.

decor8: How do promote your business?

amy: This is a completely word-of-mouth industry. All of my clients have come to me in this way ? they are either friends or friends of friends, etc. I think all small business owners start like this ? they tell all of their friends and then have them share the news with their contacts, etc. I feel really lucky to have such a wonderful network and people who are willing to share my information with their friends. The biggest compliment (and boost to my business) is when I gain a new client through a recommendation.

Getting editorial coverage is also excellent (thank you, decor8!). People are so much more trusting of someone?s opinion than they are of direct advertising (which I don?t do). When you are a one-woman show and don?t have an unlimited budget, you have to do a lot of your own PR. Thankfully, I have friends in the industry who have been very willing to share their expertise.

decor8: Where do you find inspiration? Other designers? Places? Magazines?

amy: I am inspired most by the way that everyday people find creative solutions to common problems. So, I really like to read articles about these kinds of people and how they do it. I think Domino is doing a great job in showcasing these types of stories. I also really like Better Homes and Gardens for this reason. I think BHG is a completely underrated magazine.

I also love to shop the local design shops in Chicago. They often carry multiple product lines, so they have less of a showroom feel. The shop owners are usually quite creative, so the stores are styled really well. It?s kind of like visiting someone?s really cool apartment and snagging their ideas!

Client Office - Before


decor8: Do you read design blogs, and as an Interior Stylist, do you find them helpful and if so, why?

amy: I do! I read yours as well as a few others since I find blogs extremely helpful for discovering new places or products that I can use for clients. I keep many binders full of web addresses, images, etc. so that when I have a client who wants a particular item, I know where to look. They definitely save me a lot of time scouting. I?ve started a blog on my own site that showcases local Chicago design stores where you can find great-looking affordable pieces. I also include basic design tips and misc. things that I think would be of interest to my clients. I want my clients (or anyone, for that matter) to be able to use the blog as a resource so that they can become better and more confident in decorating their own homes. It may sound crazy from a business perspective since I?m ?giving away? my knowledge, but I guess that?s the former teacher in me ? give your students the tools they need so they can succeed on their own.

decor8: Do you attend conferences? shows? Which ones?

amy: I am really selective about what conferences and shows I attend. A lot of them are great for networking, but light on content. The Merchandise Mart here in Chicago hosts the huge conferences which are a fantastic way to see a lot at one time. In all, I prefer one-night seminars with a great speaker. My favorite thus far was the Architecture & Design Society?s lecture with Barbara Barry. She was fantastic and I learned a LOT ? all in about an hour.

decor8: Who are some of your favorite designers?

amy: Speaking of Barbara Barry...definitely a favorite. She?s so incredibly elegant and so is all of her design. I also love hometown favorite Nate Berkus (how can you not?) Nate is doing a wonderful job helping to convince Americans to take the time to beautify their homes. I also really love Philippe Starck, Denyse Schmidt and Angela Adams. Jamie Drake?s use of color is so daring and confident. He definitely inspires me.

decor8: Any design books you call favorites?

amy: I really like Clodagh?s book: Total Design, as it is a unique, holistic approach to design. Philippe Starck?s books are great and remind me not to take myself too seriously. I love how his design adds a touch of whimsy to any project. The Herbert Ypma ?HIP? series is wonderful eye candy. If I could, I?d visit each of the places he showcases in his books.

decor8: I love the HIP books! Herbert Ypma has a few more set to release in October, HIP Hotels Paris, New York, and the third, London. Now for a twist, if money were no obstacle, where would live and why?

amy: I spend way more time thinking about this than I should. I love living in new places, so I?m always planning my next steps. If money were no obstacle, though, I think I?d spend half the year in Paris and the other half in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It would be the perfect mix of urban and rural. I like the extremes ? not a huge fan of the in-between.

decor8: Tell us the best way to spend a Saturday in Chicago..

amy: Chicago is such an incredible and often underrated city. In terms of great architecture, there really is no better place. My husband and I have always tried to live here like we are tourists, which I recommend doing wherever you live. So, if you are visiting and on a tour, we?re probably the ones raising our hands when they ask: anyone from Chicago?

If you were here for just one weekend, I?d be sure to check out Millennium Park, and would take a tour so you can appreciate the architecture and the well-thought out design of the park. If you?re lucky, Hubbard Street Dance will be performing and you can catch them at the Harris Theater. If HSD is gone, I?d catch a play at Steppenwolf, and would make a reservation at Alinea (start saving your pennies). Talk about great design, it?s a 24-course meal where each course is photo-worthy. Theater on the Lake (summer only) followed by dinner at the North Pond Cafe (best nonskyscraper view of the city) would be another wonderful option. The rest of the time, I?d take as many architecture tours as I could and would try to schedule a sail on Lake Michigan.

decor8: And finally, since Elle Decor does it, I'll ask you, what are ten things that you can't live without?

amy: In no particular order, 1. My oasis of a king-sized bed. 2. Air conditioning. I am probably one of few people in Chicago who doesn?t mind the cold weather. It?s the hot stuff that gets to me! 3. Whoopie pies. There?s this bakery in Chicago that has ridiculously good icky-sticky old-fashioned sweets. The whoopie pie must weigh three pounds. I went on the Atkins diet about two years ago in a pathetic attempt to lose a few pounds before a trip to the beach. The day before I started the diet, I got one of these whoopie pies and ate THE WHOLE THING in my car so no one would see. Secret?s out. 4. Naps. 5. The moment when I come home from being out and I open my door and my dog goes crazy with joy and excitement. It is the absolute greatest feeling to be loved like that! 6. The moment when my husband comes home from work every day and I go crazy with joy and excitement! It is the absolute greatest feeling to love like that. 7. My Honda Element. It?s a great mix of funky and practical. 8. Fall.
9. Unlimited access to great books. 10. The music of Martin Sexton.

Thank you so much for spending time with us today Amy - great answers, very insightful and thorough. Nice to meet you!

(images from design i)