When The Going Gets Tough – They Get Creative

New Jersey design professionals share the impact — and bounce-back — from the current Covid climate

The design industry is tactile, sensory and built on home as sanctuary. So how has the New Jersey design community adapted to a remote working environment, away from their teams, showrooms and clients? Turns out they’ve tackled it in true Jersey style — with grit, resiliency and a move forward attitude. What has helped them weather the storm? The client relationships they forged through the years and continue to nurture; the connection to their communities; and the services they take great pride in, among other factors.

Feedback from designers and retailers keep pouring in. One common response? There is a whole lot of Zoom going on! Virtual decorating discussions reviewing fabrics, layouts and design proposals are becoming a matter of course; or just a means of checking in on clients with a simple, “How are you doing?” They mailed sample materials, wallpaper and fabrics for client review; even held socially distant exchanges from a client’s front porch. And like many of us, they are searching — and discovering — the silver lining in atypical times: the chance for a reset, an opportunity to expand skillsets and improve methods of conducting business. Design NJ checked in to see how they are doing. Here is the first-round of responses:

Andrea Britt Pietragallo, Principal | Britt Design Studio Ridgewood, NJ | www.brittdesignstudio.com

Now, more than ever, people realize what works in their home and what doesn’t.  In quarantine, we have found ourselves nesting as a culture — so at BDS we tried to come up with a solution and just launched a new website with a new virtual design option: the Britt Box!  Adding an e-design service to our offerings seemed like a natural way to help people in this time of uncertainty.

The Britt Box was crafted specifically to give clients our signature style, no matter where they are! They will have our resources at their fingertips as they create their dream space at a pace that feels right for them. The Britt Box has quickly become a fan favorite and something that will likely stay as an offering as we gently “open back up.” Full-service design is always our love and priority, but perhaps this is a new way of doing business and giving more people our signature Britt style. That’s a win-win for everyone! Prior to this shutdown, we already had practices in place like client portals and design software so we can truly work anywhere. Now we know we could never work without them.

This time away from the studio has also helped us realize what a beautiful business we have built and how proud I personally am of it. I miss going into our studio and the energy that a team creates. But it has given us time to reinvigorate our structure and offerings as well as focus on our new website and blog.

Alma Russo, Associate Member ASID, IDS Affiliate Member Principal | AR Interiors, LLC Holmdel, NJ | 732-740-5885

We’ve put further emphasis on our mission statement, which is to never forget that this is a service industry. It’s always been the foundation of our business; developing and fostering personal relationships to come up with the best design. Checking in on clients and keeping them up to date with whatever ETA’s we receive from vendors is essential. In the grand scheme of things, it may only be a sofa or a cocktail table, but at that moment it is disappointing for them to experience delays. You have to have an understanding and empathy for that.

Utilizing Zoom, where we share virtual selections and mood boards with clients, has been great. However, it doesn’t replace that touch and feel aspect, which is imperative to design. Time typically spent visiting showrooms, job sites and negotiating travel and logistics have led to extra moments where we can really focus on a project’s minutia, review it and make it even better. We were fortunate to gain 3 new clients over quarantine. I attribute it to people being in their homes and noticing things they don’t like, want to change or renovate. I’m optimistic that our industry will do well.

Bruce Heyman, Owner | Metropolitan Window Fashions at Fabricland Green Brook & Paramus, NJ | 908-755-4700, ext. 102 | www.windowfashions.com

Fabricland has been crazy. The day we shut the doors and furloughed most of our 40 employees two months ago, the phones started ringing off the hook for fabric face masks. We created a kit that includes 1.25 yards of quilters cotton, 1 yard of flannel and 10 yards of elastic along with a pattern and instructions. We sell below our cost at $15 and it makes 25 masks. We have shipped over 500 kits, donated over 1,000 masks and offered free masks to our customers sheltering at home, which received a warm response.  It is just me and my two sons, Nate and Ben, here Monday through Friday. With fabric masks still in high demand, it is still busy!

For those customers not ready to have us in their homes we are mailing samples and meeting with them via Zoom for virtual decorating consultations for custom draperies, shades, blinds and shutters. Metropolitan is not an on-line merchant; we thrive on establishing relationships with our clients. And Fabricland has always had a strong connection to the community. The outpouring of thanks from our customers during the crisis has reminded us of the important role our fabric business plays in the community – always supporting local schools, churches, girl scouts and other non-profits.

Caitlin Rutkay, CID Owner | C.R. Interior Designs Lebanon, NJ | 973-715-1909 | www.caitlinrutkay.com

I have remained busy during quarantine. Primarily it’s work I signed before the quarantine, but it’s been easier than I thought to navigate. I am used to schlepping samples to my clients…There have been a few socially distant meetings, but I have relied mostly on getting my clients their samples via UPS or dropping off a tote bag to the door. Zoom and FaceTime don’t work when you are trying to see nuances of color and texture. One client invited me to the front porch for a chance to review tile samples. It worked!

My feeling is that people now more than ever have been forced to confront what works and what does not about their homes. They may also be finally ready to own the fact that they have never invested in pieces they love or are of a quality they want to enjoy. This situation, while it may be a temporary setback for retail, could be the designer’s hour to shine.

Cindy Dzurita, Principal | CD Interiors Manalapan, NJ | 732-761-1097 | www.cdinterior.com

For the projects we were in the middle of, I followed up on all pending orders and gave a tentative deliverable, even though we all knew that was subject to change. For projects that hadn’t started yet, I used this opportunity to create layouts and make product selections, such as sending fabrics and wallpaper choices. It was all about keeping my clients — and myself —engaged. Despite the elongated timelines due to the shutdown, my clients know they’ll still be able to achieve their goals.

I’ve really been able to focus on the nuts and bolts of CD Interiors, which I unfortunately, hadn’t been able to do for quite a while. With the additional time on my hands, I took stock in all aspects of the business and noticed many areas of opportunity, whether that was streamlining processes or re-organizing the office. The slower pace has also allowed me to do things in my own home; projects that have been on the back burner for a while, which has been gratifying to see come to fruition. I can honestly say though, I am more than ready to get back to work with a more efficient CD Interiors!

Diane Belforti, Vice President Marketing | Better Housekeeping Shop Red Bank, NJ | 732-741-4310 | www.betterhousekeepingshop.com

Thankfully, home appliance businesses were allowed to remain open during this period due to appliances being essential for the public. Even though we were allowed to remain open, like many other retailers, we experienced a plunge in business. Our main concern was ensuring that our team, who is like family to us, would remain working, but safely, as there were — and still are — so many unknowns about the virus. We quickly got supplies to ensure the safety of our employees and assure our customers that we were following CDC guidelines, both in our showroom, and in customers homes.

Prior to Covid, we had a robust website with thousands of products. This enabled us to walk customers through product information over the phone without them actually having to be in the showroom. We were creative with share screen technology and also provided virtual tours of our showroom, enabling people to feel as if they were actually shopping with our team in our retail location. The trust that we have built up in the community as an established business really paid off, as customers trusted us to guide them in their selection without actually touching and seeing the appliances they were purchasing in person.

We always knew that our team members were stellar, but they really shined during this difficult time. Everyone did their part to keep us moving forward. We also got so many very touching messages of appreciation from customers. Customers went out of their way to let us know how thankful they were for our services. For sure, the retail experience will change and should change going forward for anyone in the retail sector. Our team will be focused on continuing to provide remote shopping experiences, guided by our team of experts. We think that customers will expect that after Covid and we’re ready to provide that.

Ginny Padula, Owner | Town & Country Kitchen and Bath Red Bank, NJ | 732-345-1441 | www.tckbdesigns.com

We created beautiful presentations for our clients to be shipped or dropped off, usually including a little something extra like a candle or cookbook, wrapped beautifully in tissue paper with our signature sticker. Our clients truly appreciated the extra effort and of course they loved the bonus gift! We were also able to have Zoom meetings and phone conversations with clients to keep projects moving forward. Our clients were patient with this new way of working, so that helped. We also initiated a weekly recap email for our clients to keep them informed of both their project updates and our work situation. Plus, a little personal conversation, sending well wishes for them and their families from all of us at T&C. Through all this, constant communication has been key for us and we will continue to do better at this and find ways to better serve our clients. The team is now back in the office, trying to get some sort of normal going!

Judy King and “office colleague” Ziggy

Judy King, Principal | Judy King Interiors, LLC Princeton, NJ | 609-2790440 | www.judykinginteriors.com

We’ve be surprisingly busy. I think the advantage of being a small design firm doing high-end residences throughout the east coast has its rewards. Previously completed projects needed updating. Clients are changing it up! The kids are all home from college or in the work force coming back from NY. Make that living room, (we never go in to), a home office with a lounge, was the thought process for one particular client.

For clients needing to spruce things up, we provided 15% discounts via Instagram on all accessories: throws, pillows, candles and more from our suppliers. A popular initiative that has been extended through the month of May.

The silver lining? Being able to do extensive research for the perfect mirror, console or lighting for a client and not feeling rushed. Knowing that everyone is in the same boat has brought a certain sense of relief for designers with less pressure on lead times. Just taking the time to slow down, enjoy the outdoors and feel inspired by nature is another positive outcome. So is the extra time available to walk my dog, Ziggy, 3 times a day!

Karen Wolf, Creative Principal | Karen B Wolf Interiors Short Hills, NJ | 973-220-2171 | www.kbwinteriors.com

Initially, almost all of my projects were put on hold, except for those that involved in-progress construction. After a few weeks, we were gradually able to push most of those on-hold projects forward with modified budgets.

I’ve actually received a few new leads from families that are moving out of the city and are seeking more space and resort-style homes. Because they cannot travel at this time, they’ve decided to invest more into their homes, which has been great for business. Aside from these clients, we’ve seen an increase in requests for outdoor projects, home offices, kid/teen rooms, and all of those finishing touches, such as art and lighting design/installs, that people did not have time to source, or even think too much about, prior to the shelter-in-place order.

Right now, our team is working remotely, dropping off and shipping product samples to clients…sometimes we even box up materials and wrap them, like gifts. Clients always appreciate this kind of presentation! We’re also holding meetings outside, and have, of course, been utilizing Zoom more than ever…sharing mood boards, proposals, marked-up flat-lays and more electronically. I have also been offering complimentary e-design services through Zoom and Instagram Live, our Design Pop Trend Series, which is available to anybody (existing clients, design enthusiasts, etc.) who wants to join!

Silver linings? Absolutely! This challenging time has encouraged me to put myself out there more than ever before. It’s inspired me to engage with my community and share my knowledge with the design community as a home trends and design thought leader. We have also mastered digital technology, which in the future can help move the design process along more efficiently, as both designers and end users are now much more comfortable with this digital platform.

Lori Levine, Principal | Lori Levine Interiors Basking Ridge, NJ | 908-604-9099 | www.lorilevineinteriors.com

Fabric reps have been great about doing Zoom meetings with me so that they can show their new lines. I’ve really been able to “beef” up my fabric sample room as I usually source through the D & D, which has been closed.

Now that I’m familiar with Zoom, I was able to do a presentation with new clients: two sisters who have retained me to work on their beach house property. One sister lives in New York State, the other in Pennsylvania. I’m in Basking Ridge and the house is in Loveladies. We are all basically 100 miles apart. So, we met in the middle on a Zoom meeting and I was able to present! Since the presentation worked out so well, I plan on using Zoom going forward.

Lynn Masiello, CKBD, CAPS Principal | LM Interior Design, LLC Verona, NJ | 973-857-1561 | www.lminteriordesignllc.com

The shelter-in-place order has forced most of us to spend more time inside of our homes.  If you love your home, perhaps you didn’t feel trapped or uncomfortable. However, if being home has forced you to look upon your personal space with a more critical eye, then this is the time to start planning for home improvements. A few things that come to mind for my own home are new paint colors, improved lighting, new kitchen cabinet hardware and an extra bathroom!  I encourage homeowners to start planning now, so that when they are ready to embark upon improvements to their home, they will be confident that we planned their project together in a relaxed and responsible manner. Just because we cannot work together today does not preclude a future project together!

Sarah Brady, Founder | Creative Director, Salt Design Co. Fair Haven, NJ | 732-268-7865 | www.thesaltyhome.com

Even though the store temporarily closed on March 13, we have been able to keep up on the design side, though timelines and lead times have certainly been affected. Jobsite visits are more complicated, but construction has continued, so we have been forced to get creative!

We have implemented virtual design meetings and site visits. We’ve also procured samples, labeled them, and dropped them off for our clients to view in the safety of their own homes. We have also spent more time developing design presentations and renderings to help our clients visualize the finished product since we are often trying to design from afar.

The virtual design meetings have been effective and efficient, especially for clients located in Manhattan or in other states. We have also begun using Slack for internal communication and now find it key to our operations! It keeps conversations and information centrally organized.

Terri Fiori, Allied Member ASID, CAPS Principal | Fiori Interior Design Wyckoff, NJ | 201-848-9797 | www.fioriinteriordesign.com

Though accomplishing tasks and receiving deliveries just seem to take longer, constant communication with clients is easing that struggle. We are leaving design boards that are numbered by product per room at our clients’ homes and then holding Zoom calls with them to review so that they have the samples in hand.

One silver lining for sure is that we use an online project management system that has been a lifesaver between my staff and myself being able to communicate and follow through on projects. We are working on  implementing more of these programs so that we have everything in the Cloud and will eliminate even more paperwork in the future. I feel that by implementing these new procedures it will make us even more streamlined. We’ve always offered virtual 3D design as an option, but now we are making it a standard — as part of the process.

Amy Smiley, Vice President of Marketing | 84 Lumber Company | 724-228-8820 | www.84lumber.com

The last few months have been very challenging for all of us! 84 Lumber was fortunate to have been deemed essential, so we hustled to get new safety procedures into place at all of our stores. Our New Jersey associates have worked very hard to safely serve our customers through contact-free delivery, virtual consultations and so much more.

We, of course, never expected the need to come up with creative ways to get our customers their building materials, but I’m impressed with the teamwork and camaraderie that I’ve seen in order to get us where we needed to be during this pandemic.

As you know, it’s a huge transition to abruptly begin working from home or changing workflows! Our colleagues at team headquarters have been conducting weekly training sessions to help all 84 Lumber associates feel more comfortable and confident. These virtual trainings have been everything from work from home productivity tips, to running effective virtual meetings, to keeping the team’s morale high.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from “stay home, stay safe,” it’s the importance of home. We are in the business of building homes, so this has been a very humbling time for our industry. I think I can speak on behalf of our entire team when I say this year has made us extremely proud of the work we do.