weekly feature | May 11, 2016 |
Five designers named equity partners at David Kleinberg Design Associates
Boh staff

By Katy B. Olson

The idea came to interior designer David Kleinberg rather unremarkably. Stepping off the elevator into his office one day, he recalls, “I overheard people engaged with each other, sharing. And it just occurred to me: ‘Oh, my God—these people really enjoy working with each other! They’re very collaborative and supportive. It’s not just me who has a relationship with them, but they have a relationship with each other, and that’s perhaps even more meaningful.’” That single intuitive thought has led to the latest chapter in the David Kleinberg Design Associates story: The firm’s five longtime principal designers have just been named equity partners in the business, in an innovative move that’s rare in the interior design realm. 

Calling the plan an “incentivized business scenario where my own talented group [can] stay together,” Kleinberg says his significant 16-year tenure at Parish-Hadley informed the decision to grant his senior designers—Scott Sloat, Lance Scott, Sean Matijevich, Christina Maroni and Matthew Bemis—equity partnership in the business. (While DKDA’s terms haven’t been disclosed, a traditional equity partnership guarantees partners partial ownership in the business.)

“We tried to do a similar thing years ago at Parish-Hadley; maybe we weren’t as forward-thinking in those days. But the memory of the experience of working with a group of colleagues that I enjoyed working with and who enjoyed working together in this environment [remains]. Watching as each one went off, inevitably to start their own businesses, there was always something in the back of my head, saying, ‘Could there have been an environment created to keep everybody here?’”  

Kleinberg is working to establish that environment now. Aside from the accounting and financials, which are currently being worked out, the process began as a straightforward one. “I sat [the five designers] all down and said, ‘I hope I’m not the only one whose thinking about your future. I’m the old guy at the table, and this is what I’m thinking.’ That’s how it came about. Parish-Hadley was a bit old-school, where you didn’t talk about things with your parents: money, success, their will. And therefore, things weren’t planned as well as they might’ve been. I’m trying to be more new-school. What’s happening when I kick the bucket?” he jokes.

The designers recall being simultaneously “stunned and honored” at that table, says Matijevich, who has been at the firm for 13 years (tenures range from five to 14 years among the principal designers). “It’s a tight group. In the creative world, I don’t think you’d find a scenario where so many creative personalities can put aside ego and come together to produce something that’s really worthwhile. It’s a great environment and I wouldn’t leave it.” Matijevich and Scott, who has been with the firm for 10 years, both refer to the team as a family.

While their ownership is new, the designers say Kleinberg’s focus on collaboration has long been a hallmark of the day-to-day. “One of the terrific things about our office is that among the five of us are a vast array of styles. As we pop from desk to desk, you see what one of your colleagues is doing and it puts you onto a new vendor or new artist,” says Matijevich.

What will change now that the designers are partners? “From the get-go, David’s always let us have a relationship with the client and really put ourselves out there,” says Scott. “Even more so now, he wants us to say, ‘I…’ instead of ‘David and I….’ He wants us to take ownership over all our work. ‘These are your clients, your future clients, and their children may be your clients. Really cultivate a relationship with them.’ He’s given us the OK to make these relationships happen.” That trust is unusual, he says, in a world with “a lot of egos, [where] a lot of people say, ‘These are my clients and you work for me.’”

For Kleinberg’s part, he will remain “intensely” involved in the daily operations of the firm, both “now and for the foreseeable future. I didn’t do this as an exit strategy for today, I did it as a plan for the future—mine and the future of the senior designers who have been in my office. In 10 years, should I want to participate less, take August off, travel—there’s a very easy way of making that happen. But for the day-to day now, nothing’s changed with my involvement.”

Sean Low, founder and president of the consultancy The Business of Being Creative, says that true equitable partnerships are unusual, if not unheard of, among interior design firms. “Why is it rare? Most of them are based off the power of the named designer. The ego is a real deal, because at a certain point, [many] want to be able to stand on their own. And [if] you want to stand on your own, it’s important that you eventually have your own name.”

But there are benefits, too: “You get to jump into a speeding car, and keep it going. It’s a flywheel—incredibly hard to get started. Once you get the momentum going, a flywheel is what circles and provides energy once there’s no energy to be had. They get to work on major projects all the time; if they jumped off that train, they’ll have to work somewhere else,” explains Low. “As owners, they get to stay on this speeding train. That’s an awesome thing; they get to do awesome work. And they get to do it for a lifetime.”

Kleinberg’s move aims to both unite the team and preserve a legacy. But it also brings to mind a name handed down to Kleinberg over the years he worked for a firm without his own moniker on the door. Margaret Russell, editor in chief of Architectural Digest, reflects: “David has been included in the AD100 since 2012. He was mentored by Albert Hadley, who set a high standard for professionalism and whose influence likely prompted David’s decision to name his principal designers as equity partners. One of the great designers of our time, David is also running a successful business and is a smart strategist—this move enables him to support and incentivize his key design talents while inspiring their loyalty and dedication.”

Kleinberg reflects, “I was so lucky, having worked for Albert Hadley for so many years. He was an incredibly generous man and always forthright in promoting all of us who worked for Parish-Hadley. At my going-away party, I said, ‘I just hope I’m as generous and supportive as a boss as he was.’ That’s really want I want to live up to.”

Scott concurs. “I feel fortunate to be a part of this legacy, of this moment. We’re now like the grandchildren of Parish-Hadley.”

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.