I was honored to write the below feature for the Designer Highlights section of the Laurel & Wolf exclusive Designer Community yesterday. This was a piece that had been forming in my head and brewing in my heart for quite some time, so when I was presented with this opportunity, it was the perfect way to finally get it out on paper (or iPad). I'm so happy to reach not only my amazingly supportive readers with this information, but also all of the designers across the country who are part of the Laurel & Wolf Community. Because, let's face it. It's a jungle out there! It's hard to make it work, especially on your own. I'm happy to give any advice that I can, and I will gladly accept advice from you as well! So, how do you make it work? ~L.S.
Transitioning From a Firm to Your Own Design Business
Posted on July 14, 2015
Laurel & Wolf Designer Lindsay Saccullo went from working at a top NYC firm (AD100 Cullman & Kravis) to starting out on her own. She shared her firsthand experience with us on what she learned from working with a big firm and how she is applying that knowledge to her new initiative.
It’s rainy NYC mornings like these that I miss the camaraderie of my old colleagues at Cullman & Kravis, Inc. Right about now, we would probably be waiting on our Burger Heaven breakfast delivery order, happily chattering about the latest pop culture gossip (which I no longer know anything about!) – while rigorously checking our email, scheming, and following up with clients and vendors of course!
I am now stationed solo at a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, trying to squeeze in some work between walking the dog, taking my daughter to daycare, and moving our street-parked car for alternate side parking. As a new small business owner of Lindsay Saccullo Interiors LLC and mom of a toddler girl, I never know what each day will bring. It’s exciting, and terrifying and frustrating and exhilarating.
I am honored to have been able to spend almost five amazing years at a top AD100 residential design firm in Manhattan. Taking a leap of faith, I started as an intern at age 27 (I had previous stints in law school, fashion design, and at Brunschwig & Fils, Inc. as a sales associate while completing my interior design certificate at Parsons). I worked my way up over the years to Assistant Project Manager, then Project Manager.
I feel so lucky to have been “classically trained” by Ellie and the senior designers at C&K. It really is a special place. The firm was started in the 80s by Ellie Cullman and her best friend, the late Hedi Kravis. These besties became a “power couple” in the design industry. Upon Hedi’s untimely death, Ellie carried on and has crafted the firm into what it is today – a force to be reckoned with. Comprised of all female designers, Cullman & Kravis takes the design world by storm, project and project again. Talk about girl power!
The firm’s range is so diverse – largely due to Ellie’s unmatched expertise in the areas of art history, antiques and period design, just to name a few categories. Mixed with a young and fresh take on traditional design that includes comfortable seating arrangements and fabrics that read cozy over formal, Cullman & Kravis designs are the epitome of timeless and inviting elegance.
More importantly, Ellie’s warm personality and kind treatment of her employees coupled with her long-lasting vendor relationships sets the highest of examples to be followed. This vibe fosters a fun and creative environment to not only design and project manage but LEARN. And learn did I ever, making many a mistake along the way.
As many designers who have worked at larger (or smaller!) firms know, interior design is realistically 25% design and 75% project management. That means the “fun” part – the glamorous shopping, sourcing, and traveling to fancy places with fancy people – the stuff you see on TV definitely does exist – but it’s not as much at the forefront as it may appear.
A huge part of success – and I mean HUGE – is organization, relationships and follow up, follow up, follow up. I quickly learned this as a young assistant designer, coming in as a newbie at the end of a large installation of a home in Palm Beach, FL. You can never do enough checking and double checking and cross-checking. Did the upholsterer receive the contrast welt for that tight- back Bridgewater sofa that was shipped to them over four months ago? Was everything from the gigantic storage facility actually put on the truck to be shipped? I gave the movers a detailed, color-coded spreadsheet with images and dimensions of each item, but did they actually consult it before loading the truck?! Did I triple check my measurements of that custom, hand-loomed area rug and will it fit in the room, even though I drew it into the floor plan just shy of fifteen times? Was that extremely precious antique crystal chandelier packed appropriately for shipment, or is it going to arrive in shattered pieces?
OK, this makes me sound a little neurotic. And yes, yes I am! But this was one of those rare times where I feel that my neurosis was validated. Not only was it warranted, but it actually made me better and more efficient at my job. I used to joke that I was a professional Vendor Stalker. Making sure that everyone else was doing their job was a huge part of my job.
When I think back on my time at C&K, which was not too long ago, I remember these moments of neurosis with fondness. I was surrounded by talented, creative and supportive colleagues. C&K is a team. There is no competition between designers. Someone is always there for you to help you out. Most of the clients are truly lovely, understanding, classy individuals. I believe this solid client base (many of them repeat clients, the biggest complement) is largely in part because lovely people such as Ellie and the girls at C&K attract lovely people. I continue to apply this method while working on growing my business today.
C&K was a place where I spent some very formative years, not only on the career front but also on the personal front. I was surrounded and supported by these lovely ladies as I passed through important life-cycle events, such as getting married, and four years later, the birth of my daughter. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about my time there, because it is always with me. When I’m sketching up a floor plan, doing space-planning, choosing fabrics and paint colors, browsing vintage and antique items, I smile as I think to myself, “what would Ellie and the girls think of this?” I apply these governing principals to my design life daily. It makes the transition to this new phase of my career that much easier.
After almost half a decade, about a year after the birth of my daughter, I grappled with the very hard decision of leaving C&K and taking some time off. I knew I was going to miss my colleagues, having some type of creative project to work on, and the promise of a weekly paycheck. But my gut was telling me to take some time off and see where it would take me. Lindsay Saccullo Interiors LLC came about organically, while on holiday vacation with my family. After much urging by my family and friends to just go for it, I decided to officially start on this new journey of momtrepreneurship.
If nothing else, it would be a project to work on while I basically stayed at home in Brooklyn with my daughter and dog, in the attempt to be a more present mother. My plan was for the business to grow slowly, and perhaps become busier as my daughter grew into school age. I didn’t want to be vulnerable! So if I set myself up to expect a slow growth, it wouldn’t be as much of an emotional roller coaster (not true! still an emotional roller coaster).
It turns out I had so much fun designing my own website using Squarespace and starting my blog, le petit a.p.t.; living large, in the small. It was like a digital art project. I started writing to create content and realized that I had a voice, one that people liked to hear. I wanted to bring high-end style design to the enthusiast with a smaller budget, and even less square footage.
In many ways, it has been a rude awakening. Coming from a highly respected firm where vendors would drop everything to make you happy, the work was a steady flow and I never had to worry that my check wouldn’t clear, here I was – starting from scratch, a small fish in a big sea. I’ve been “business expensing” things to um, well, me. I’ve had to learn to deal with rejection and loss, which has been so humbling. I’ve taken my previously pretty private life and put it out there in the open, and realized that it’s not so scary to share after all. I’ve had to do a lot of self-promotion, which at first felt extremely uncomfortable. But now I’m loving the spotlight! Just kidding. But you know what I mean.
I’m currently reading the book “Daring Greatly – How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead” by Brene Brown, and I truly feel that I’m living it. Putting myself out there is throwing myself into vulnerability, and I feel that I’ve grown exponentially in these past months because of it. I’ve found my voice, and I like what I like, regardless of whether it falls into a category. If I had to categorize my design style, I would say its transitional, with a mix of mid-century mod meets art deco meets bohemian eclecticism. But my base is and always will be, the gorgeous, classic detailed interiors of C&K.
Below, ten of my all time favorite C&K Spaces, in no particular order.