Design Of The Times

As the pandemic crisis continues to evolve, every day seems to bring a new set of confusing, even conflicting, rules. In the face of this changing landscape, the design community has proven to be remarkably adept at acclimating and altering business practices to ensure maximum productivity in uncertain times. Here is the latest installment in our series relating the ways enterprising industry professionals have managed to handle an exceptionally difficult situation calmly and competently. They’ve created business plans agile enough to keep their companies solidly grounded, even on ever-shifting sands.

Mary Fran Brassard, Founder, Principal Designer | Brassard Design Interiors in Rumson, NJ | 732-741-3773 |

My shift to more consultation work started prior to Covid, so the slow down at the beginning of the sheltering-in-place order was helpful to me with time to focus on learning the technology. This has also helped me to transition into working remotely with clients new and existing. I actually acquired a new client in New Hampshire for a rather large decorating makeover and we will be doing it all remotely! Locally, I’ve helped several people with exterior paint colors, tile selection and lighting fixtures. I’m looking forward to being able to work in person with my local clients but in the meantime, Zoom meetings, videos and emailing has kept their projects moving and my business booming! I keep reading that the design sector is going to be one of the first ones coming back strongly since people have been looking at their homes and realizing they need updating. Hoping the prediction is right for all of us in the design world!

Kelli Chitty, Owner | Interiors by Kelli in Sea Girt, NJ | 732-859-9042 |

When the shut-down order came, we were in the middle of a whole-house project at the beach.  We had placed the majority of our orders right before the mandate, so in the ensuing weeks, we did a lot of follow-up and tracking to determine when manufacturers would start opening up and shipping again.  We’re lucky that this home is not my client’s primary residence, so we’ve been able to meet our contractors, receivers, and deliveries in an empty house in a very safe manner.

On our other in-process projects, all communication has been via email or phone – no in-person meetings.  We have mailed samples where feasible or dropped them off on clients’ porches.  We continued placing orders and working with our workrooms and vendors, but delayed installations.  We’re just now scheduling installation of these projects.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well all of my vendors adapted to work at home and, besides the shutdown of manufacturing, have seen very little disruption otherwise.

Dan D’Agostino, Founder | Plan Architecture in Little Falls and Ridgewood, NJ | 937-837-8399 |

Our office, which consists of 12 full-time architects, designers and administrators had been set up for remote access for awhile.  Though acquiring new business has been challenging given that we can’t physically visit sites, we’ve been creatively using Zoom and FaceTime, doing some “exterior measurements” with clients and filling in the blanks where needed.  It’s been fun and, at times, taxing.  Thankfully, we seem to be just as effective if not more.

We have found many silver linings in this situation. We are certainly a lot more accessible to our clients, and it seems that our clients are spending more time thinking about their projects and having more time to correspond with us, which makes the projects better. We are going to be using virtual meetings more often.  A majority of our client meetings typically occur during evenings, which is sometimes difficult to manage in our personal lives working all day and night.  We will likely be using a virtual platform for evening meetings going forward.  Further, we’ve done a lot more paperless work such as digital sketching, which is efficient and better for the environment.  Our travel time is significantly reduced.  And, we are doing screen shares and “live” designing and modeling.

Sandra Funk, CEO & Principal Designer | House of Funk in Montclair, NJ | 973-200-3566 |

I’m thrilled to be focused on the group going through the Interior Design Standard — our digital business program for interior designers — that launched right in the middle of all of this. Can you imagine the strength and entrepreneurial gusto of this group of designers? It’s incredible to be able to share in their business transformations.

We’ve continued working on projects in the design phase, as we collect all necessary information to complete our designs early in our process. We have had projects in the construction phase on hold with the pandemic, as was necessary. With caution, we are getting back to build or renovation job sites to continue work.

Our business has always worked as digitally as possible, as well as offering online design for years, so the transition to work from home and online client communication has been seamless. We are now dropping off samples and conducting meetings over Zoom whenever possible.

As we send our support and prayers to those on the front lines and those battling this virus, we’ve found enumerable silver linings. We’re running a leaner, cleaner, more efficient business out of sheer necessity. We are laser focused on servicing both our design and business clients. And, we are refining and redefining our brand to better reflect our true passion, our mission and our values. It’s been a hugely reflective time, and damn if I’m going to come out of this doing anything that doesn’t totally light me up.

Leigh Genkinger, Owner | Orderleigh Home in Little Silver, NJ | 201-406-5919 |

With the shelter-in-place order, we needed to shift quickly to be able to fulfill our clients’ needs while staying socially distant. We began virtual consultations & organizing sessions – shipping supplies to our clients, providing detailed design sketches, and FaceTime organizing sessions. This allowed clients to implement their new functional systems on their own. Additionally, we assembled home schooling command centers for parents needing a place to store all the supplies required for remote learning at home. As with any challenging situation, there is always something to be learned from it. There is definitely a need for virtual services as we move forward – whether it’s for someone who just needs a little bit of help or clients who live outside our service area.

Yelena Gerts, ASID WCAA, Owner & Principal Designer | House of Style & Design in Holmdel, NJ | 917-584-7559 |

I feel that every challenge creates opportunities when you have the right mindset. Sometimes you can even come out stronger. The first week I was shocked and scared like everyone else. But I tried not to get distracted by everything happening around us, using the first few weeks of the shutdown tackling the list of things I was too busy to do otherwise: work on my website, improve marketing materials, incorporate a new tracking system and streamline my business processes in a more organized manner for myself and for my clients. I also hired a business coach to create a strong business strategy for the years to come.

Two construction jobs that were previously in-process were able to continue, and another, a pied-à-terre, kept me very busy. Maintaining genuine, personal connections with clients, tradespeople, industry reps and more was very important. This was done through small gestures of appreciation, like dropping off flowers or an apple pie to local clients. Or by phoning others to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ Staying active on social media and sharing photos of inspiration were also key.

Yes, scheduling installations with the trades that are short-staffed or unwilling to visit home sites has been challenging. But it also created an opportunity to find new tradespeople along the way. Going forward, the pandemic will change the way people design and decorate. The demand for home offices, for instance is a hot category. So is outdoor furniture as people want to enjoy their time outdoors. I’m working on several outdoor spaces right now, from small balconies to larger backyard settings.

Tess Giuliani, Owner | Tess Giuliani Designs in Ridgewood, NJ | 201-614-5550 |

Every aspect of the design process has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The natural progression of person-to-person meetings, designing, resourcing, getting prices and site visiting has come to an abrupt halt. Fortunately, many of my clients are repeat clients, so they and I have faith that their projects will still happen but when in the future, we can’t say – and they are understanding.

I’ve found that I’m now dedicating more time to speaking with clients on the phone – a communication skill that seems to have been lost since the advent of texting. Why? Because we now have the time. Take a daily schedule and eliminate commuting, deadlines, carpooling kids to school and activities, any kind of in-store shopping other than a trip to the grocery store, hair and nail appointments, socializing with family and friends, etc. and you get a whole lot of time. Most of my clients, including myself, didn’t realize how hectic life was until it wasn’t. Now we think, so this is what life is like – off the freeway. All my clients have said, ‘I like this feeling.’ Plus, they are reading print magazines and loving them. (Hello Design NJ!) Emails, texts, photos, etc. are necessary parts of the communicating process, but I find that speaking on the phone gives clients a sense of calm and importance because I’m giving them my undivided attention.

The design world is inherently hectic, full of details and deadlines. I’d like to think that I will try to maintain a less stressful business life going forward, but I don’t know if that’s realistic. What I can do is implement the good choices (my silver linings) that I have added to my life from the first day of quarantine – morning exercise, gratitude for all the wonderfulness in my life, a two-mile walk each evening and a few words in my daily journal. These should be a good antidote when the new normal starts to feel like déjà vu.

Cindy Johnson, Owner | Elephant In The Room Design in Princeton, NJ | 609-454-3378 |

This is certainly a difficult situation in which we find ourselves.  Many are suffering physically, financially and emotionally, but we will persevere and get through this situation together – yet apart.  Due to the pandemic, my small business, like so many others, was forced to close until further notice. While this is a very stressful situation, I’ve found that I’ve been able to continue interacting with my clients via Zoom.

In addition, I’ve instituted a special program that may bring my clients some measure of control and distraction while providing some much deserved assistance to our selfless front-line medical workers. I’m offering hourly virtual “in-home” interior design services via FaceTime or Zoom. 30% of the proceeds from these meetings will go to provide meals for medical staff workers at Hunterdon Healthcare.

Going forward, I will continue to do interior design consultation via Zoom, even when I can reopen my showroom. I will be running my showroom solo for the foreseeable future, so video consultations will enable me to be more accessible to clients. I’ve also decided to expand my custom retail offerings and I will be offering some home accessories – and, of course, face masks – in my original textile designs.  They will be available in store and online.

Julia Kleyman, Designer | Ulrich Inc. in Ridgewood, NJ | 201-445-1260 |

When the shelter-in-place mandate was first implemented, I lost momentum with a number of prospective clients. I had a couple of house visits lined up to take initial measurements and these appointments got canceled right away. My other meetings for design and budget presentations were canceled as well. These have not been rescheduled yet, but I am hopeful that they will once we officially re-open.

In the meantime, I’ve focused on my current clients’ projects. One of my clients moved her family to Hilton Head, SC. Her kitchen had already been designed and we worked on details over the phone. Under usual circumstances I would go to the job site to discuss and review those issues. Instead, I emailed her Photoshop and hand sketches, and we’ve resolved a number of issues.

There has been some good news. I was honored to have my kitchen project featured on the cover of Bergen magazine’s April 2020 issue and sharing this news with my clients, my team and the world was great! Social media is extremely important, and it’s always difficult to find time to do it. Staying home allowed me to focus on my social media platforms and on submitting this kitchen and other projects to design competitions.

In addition, one of my ongoing projects in the mountains of New Jersey features fantastic views of a lake, forest, and the NYC skyline. Everything surrounding this house is about tranquility, peace, and well-being. From the very beginning, the client insisted on translating the above feelings into ecofriendly home interior elements. This downtime has allowed me to do more research on ecofriendly furniture, paint, and bird-strike-safe glass to name a few.

Finally, time at home has allowed me the opportunity to take multiple classes and attend professional webinars online, and to listen to podcasts. The “Master Class” series was on my bucket list and I’ve finally had time to share these lectures with my daughter. I will definitely make an effort to better integrate these classes into my regular schedule.

Adina Kornbluth, Owner | AK Design Studios in Monsey, NY | 845-216-0756 |

During this crazy upheaval I struggled, as did many designers, with the balance of dealing with a life-and-death reality vs. our business, which deals with space and life improvement, or “first-world problems.” We were all anxious about the disease itself and on a lesser, but certainly valid, scale, the economic repercussions. I found it insensitive in those early, terrible weeks to act as if life was business as usual. It wasn’t. Especially for those of us in the Tri-State Area, where the illness and mortality rate was so high.

In the past few weeks I’ve reached out to my client base AND my vendors with sensitivity and caring. Everyone was stressed! I also needed to manage my clients’ expectations – waits for samples were much longer and nothing ran smoothly. Communication was key, and I found myself picking up the phone as opposed to relying on email or texting. I feel that offering a calm and caring voice has been much more effective than email in Covid times.

Personally, I have used the extra time to revamp the systems of my business and hone my 3D rendering skills. I’ve also attended online CEU courses. I have bi-weekly Zoom calls with several designers across the country. We offer each other guidance for navigating these difficult times. Community is key!

Most importantly though, I have stolen a few precious moments here and there to lie on my hammock and dream about the future of my business. That has been invaluable, as I’m really giving a lot of thought to the direction I want my business to take and how I’m going to get there, instead of just running harried and hectic through each day. If I dream it, I can make it happen!

Nancy Mikulich, Owner & Principal Designer | Oasis Home Designs & NLM Design Interiors in Asbury Park, NJ | 732-775-5151 |

Once I took a step back and tried to look for the silver lining, I realized that my business — a brick-and-mortar studio and design practice — was gifted with the opportunity of time. Time to revamp the studio and revisit businesses practices. I painted, refinished floors and did a serious clearing out of the design resource library. I also took the time to enhance my skillsets and learn new software.

Using Facetime and Zoom enabled us to keep conversations going with clients, reviewing, reconsidering or adapting pre-Covid designs into more refined design solutions tailored to their needs in a post-Covid world.

The virtual design component is now essential to incorporate into the design practice; one that enables us to operate more streamlined and safely. Now we are ready to move forward with a fresh space and mindset.

Sheila Rich, CID, IIDA  | Sheila Rich Interiors LLC Monmouth Beach, NJ | 732-870-3012 | 

I used the extra time to check in with clients, past and present, by email or phone to see how they were doing. Most of my projects span a year, so it was nice to reconnect with old friends. New construction projects continued, but I halted new orders for furniture and furnishings because of so many unknowns about when — and if — factories would reopen as well as the availability of products. My clients were on board and it gave them peace of mind. Contractor meetings at construction sites with masks and gloves helped meet deadlines. It felt hopeful and somewhat normal. In general, people are thinking ahead in a positive way. Several used this opportunity to contact me for the first time.

Turning this crisis into an opportunity to use the time wisely and see things differently helped me think outside of my normal business-as-usual routine. I took a lot of CEUs and walked every day. Exercising my brain and body helped me keep a positive attitude and energized the creative process.

For me, the best way to connect with clients has always been face-to-face. To keep things moving forward, Zoom became the next best thing for going over layouts, electrical plans and floor plans. Going forward, I will be taking Zoom out of my toolbox more often, especially with out-of-state clients.

Now that people have spent so much more time at home — 24/7 for most — they’re gaining valuable insights into the importance of home. This has generated creative conversations about what changes they’d like to make. Well-appointed home offices and outdoor spaces have become more valuable than ever, and there’s more recognition that an efficient, pleasant, orderly home has a positive impact on both mental and physical health.

Kelli Suozzo and Jenny Glassberg, Owners | nest in Red Bank, NJ | 732-747-4704 |

When our physical storefront was forced to close in March, Instagram became an important vehicle for us.  As customers started quarantining at home, they became increasingly aware of how their space affects their moods.  When clients (and their spaces) needed a pick-me-up, we began styling and designing via Instagram with video tours of the store and local, contact-free delivery.  As we had recently opened our doors in November, it was important for us to stay connected with our customers even though they couldn’t actually come into the store.

We started to see steady sales ranging from candles and vases to mirrors, sofas and beds, and it quickly became obvious that it was time to fast track our e-commerce. Our website was near completion and it was always in our two-year plan to launch online sales.  We quickly transitioned our employees into new roles from home, collecting product shots, drafting copy and uploading data.

We took advantage of what could be ‘downtime’ to pivot and take our business in a direction to not only meet the needs of our customers, but to establish a channel that will have legs well beyond the quarantine.  While we can’t wait to re-open our doors and see our customers’ faces, we are confident that this time was put to good use to enrich the nest experience and position ourselves for future success.