industry insider | Nov 16, 2023 |
Ashley Whittaker is leaving design behind

The cosmic wheel of the profession: For every new designer happily wrestling 120-pound armoires up three flights of stairs while dreaming of magazine covers, there is another designer two decades deep into the grind, half-buried in samples and client DMs, wondering if there’s something else out there. In 2005, Ashley Whittaker was the former. More recently, she’s been the latter—and, unlike many, she’s actually doing something about it. Last month, the celebrated Millbrook, New York–based designer announced that she was leaving decorating for good to pursue a career as a real estate agent with Compass.

“The design world has been good to me,” she posted to Instagram. “But now it’s time to dream again.” Some 4,500 likes and 650 comments later, it was official. Whittaker was moving on.

It’s worth pausing for a second to recognize how truly rare that is. Yes, design firms accordion up and down in size. Yes, many designers pursue other ventures for a time or put their careers on the backburner. But for a designer who had achieved liftoff—Whittaker fielded a busy office; her work regularly appears in glossy shelter magazines; and she just published her first book with Rizzoli in 2021—it’s quite rare to up and hard-quit the profession. What’s behind the decision?

Whittaker’s rationale is undramatic—and will strike many designers as extremely relatable. For a few years, she had been nursing a feeling that it might be time to quit traveling so much and spend more time with family, but the craziness of the Covid era turned a quiet hum into a loud siren. “I think after a while it just began to wear on me; it really became too much,” Whittaker tells Business of Home. “I have this life and family and home that I absolutely adore—but here I am packing up and going into the city three days a week for work.”

And though she says it wasn’t the main factor in her decision, she had also begun to feel a little exhausted by the online-ification of everything in the design industry, from shopping to media. Her career, starting at a point when an early boss, Markham Roberts, had her taking reference pictures of product with a film camera, and ending in a time when design careers are canceled over TikTok beef, feels like it perfectly encapsulates a time of great change—not all of it for the better.

“There’s a certain amount of oversaturation. With everything coming at you from every single angle, whether it’s TikTok, Pinterest or Instagram, there’s a lot of the same things going on everywhere,” says Whittaker. “I’m not finding it as interesting or exciting as I used to, when we really had to go out into the universe and find things. … In hindsight, everything being online started to kind of wear me down a bit.”

Given that Whittaker started winding down her firm because she wanted to, not because she had to, there was time to make a graceful exit. She has slowly been handing off jobs to a project manager at her company, Alexander Wilson, who is planning to start his own firm, and she says she was able to connect the remainder of her staff of seven to new jobs, some in the industry. Her regular vendors—especially those specializing in charming floral wallpaper—may be the ones who feel the sting of her exit the most.

As for her new profession, Whittaker says she’s already settling in, and is hoping to not only move units but also draw attention to the Hudson Valley. “[I want to give people] a glimpse into the life here and how beautiful it can be. It’s not just: This house is for sale, that house is for sale. It’s a whole lifestyle, and that world is for sale,” she says. “The more excitement I can bring around Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley and Millbrook in particular, the better for me, because selfishly, I love it. I really do.”

Of course, just as this may be the right time for Whittaker to get out of design, it’s a strange time to be getting started in real estate. The housing market is in a historic gridlock, with mortgage rates tapping 20-year highs. Meanwhile, a recent legal ruling on commission sharing is threatening to shake up the fundamental financial structure of the industry.

Despite these challenges, Whittaker is calmly optimistic that patience and effort will win out in the end. “The market is a little bit slow right now because of interest rates and lack of inventory, but I think it’s a very cyclical business—for every time there’s a slowdown, there’s growth immediately following,” she says. “It’s just part of the cycle—sometimes it’s making the best of it when it’s not a really busy time.”

Likewise, Whittaker seemed levelheaded about leaving the design profession behind—one does not get the sense she’ll be wistfully gliding through the halls of the D&D Building in her spare time. The one thing she will really miss? The camaraderie.

“People would ask me, ‘How many of your friends are interior designers?’” says Whittaker. “I’d laugh, because I only had interior designer friends.”

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