The 50 States Project is a series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Little Rock, Arkansas–based designer Jonathan Parkey tells us about his journey from event planning to interior design, why he opened a design shop in the middle of COVID, and how he purchased his entire retail inventory sight unseen.
What were your early memories of being drawn to design?
I have always been creative. I was a theater kid growing up. My aunt is the same—she has one of those creative brains that can whip up or stitch anything together. Do you remember those old Klutz kits? They had those books, like how to make friendship bracelets? My aunt bought me one for costumes. [The projects in it were things like] cutting your head out of this cardboard thing and putting a shirt over it so it looks like you’re holding your own head. It seems so stupid, that memory, but I will never forget that book.
There’s something in there about the power of transformation, right?
Yes—it’s taking something and [asking] “How does it make you feel?” or “How does it make someone else feel?” Transforming a person’s [space] or transforming into a character is all sort of wrapped up in the same bow in some ways.
Was being creative always going to be part of your career?
I grew up in Arkansas, and then went to the University of Michigan and graduated from their musical theater department. I immediately moved to New York and started auditioning and had a little off-Broadway show. At the same time, I was speaking with other Michigan alumni about how to break into the fashion industry and what kinds of jobs were even possible if you weren’t a fashion designer. I’m a little boy from Arkansas, and I thought fashion was always my passion and where I would end up. So I was asking, “How do you do that? How do I become a part of that?”
I was working in a restaurant and had been auditioning for about two years when a friend that was the studio manager for Proenza Schouler was like, “Hey, listen, I don’t know if this interests you, but I’m about to be promoted. Do you want my job?” I had a career in fashion for the next eight years. [By the end] I was on the road as the global wholesale director for a small luxury womenswear brand called Rosetta Getty. Then I met my husband, who was living in Little Rock, which was a good excuse to move back to Arkansas in 2016, though I kept my job in New York for a couple years.
What, ultimately, made you want to pivot?
When I decided that I wanted to put down roots here in Arkansas, the thing that made the most sense was, How do I tap back into that same creative energy and bring my experience—not only the sales and business side of fashion, but also the creativity and the parties that I’ve thrown—to Little Rock? I started in 2018 with design for events: parties and weddings. That morphed into interior design, and then my store opened in October 2020. The creativity part of it all is what has continued to push me along.
Did you have a sense of how the business might evolve or grow?
I did not know how it was all going to come together. I had a few people in my corner saying, “You’ll be great at this. This is going to be so awesome.” But I was leaving a very nice six-figure job to go, “OK, let’s see what this looks like.”
What did those early jobs look like?
I had a client who really trusted me. It was her son’s rehearsal dinner, and they wanted to throw a huge party—it was a wedding budget for anybody else, but for the rehearsal dinner. She was one of the first people that really was like, “I want what you have to offer.” Since then, I have done her Christmas setup—I don’t do Christmas for anybody else—and now I’m working on their lake house, and I’ve done work with their kids. It’s fun to see how those relationships evolve, especially when someone trusts you to get the job done and make sure that all the details are there.
Was making this shift into event-planning a natural thing for you?
In some ways, it was very easy. But I’m not a really great self-promoter, so that was the difficult part of it all. I always look back, and I’m like, “That’s why I failed as an actor.” It wasn’t the talent; it was because I am not a good self-promoter. It is really just getting out there and being like, “I can do this for you, and you need me in your corner.” That’s challenging for me, and that’s why my retail space has become so important. It has been a great advertisement for what I do so that I don’t have to say it out loud. It keeps me from having to really chase down business or prove to people what I can do—it’s there for people to discover on their own.
How similar do you find events and interiors?
There are certainly unique challenges to event design around trying not to get too bogged down in small details—knowing that once the lights are low, and everyone has a drink in their hands, a lot goes away. In that way, it’s different than being in a home. It’s also different in that events are so short-lived. But it’s still the same in the sense that you want to walk into a space that you’ve paid for and get that feeling of, “This is exactly what I wanted this to be.”
What was your very first interior design project once you had launched your business?
My very first design project was with a friend. Her daughter was two at the time and she had another baby on the way. They have two bedrooms at the top of the stairs, and she wanted to coordinate them—to have a little girl’s room and a little boy’s room that spoke the same language.
Were you surprised by anything about the way the business side of it worked?
The timeline and time management of all that has been the most challenging and eye-opening thing. I think the main thing I needed to adjust to is that it’s a marathon to get these homes done. And now, with lead times being crazy and all that, it’s understanding your client and what they need right now, and trying to ride that wave of, “OK, it’s going to be a yearlong project, but how can we make you feel sustained today?”
How do you help clients solve their “right now” problems?
I’ve started shopping more locally. When I opened my design store in October of 2020, lead times were still pretty good. I tried to fulfill projects with some of the upholstery lines and other lines that I carried and believed in. I’ve gotten to that point now that I’m like, “Well, if there’s something here that’s pretty close, let’s present some of that stuff.” I’m a people-pleaser, and I don’t want clients feeling as though the job has fallen silent or anything. If I can sprinkle in some things—even if I’m finding them locally—that they’re able to feel like, “OK, at least I have a place to sit now.” We can still wait on the big things, or we can still wait on the custom X, Y and Z, but at least I have some momentum getting to the end game.
Are you going to replace those items when other stuff comes in, or is it about making some selections that are just available now?
I think it’s about making some selections that are just available now and allowing the custom pieces to really shine. I’ve also been reliant on local workrooms for a lot of that. I have in the past been able to order a custom ottoman with bullion fringe from one of my vendors. Now I’m just specifying it in the exact height and width that I want and having them made locally—which is a lot quicker than waiting a year for some of this upholstery to come in. I’m able to rely on certain local workrooms more heavily as well.
You opened a retail store in October 2020. Why in the midst of COVID-19?
I felt like it was the smartest thing for my business to grow in the most organic way and for the store to become my calling card. It’s not a huge retail space, so it was never about becoming a furniture store or a massive retailer. It was really a cabinet of curiosities for people to come in and see and experience.
I sure am glad that I did it when I did because otherwise I probably would still be waiting on my initial furniture order. The last year has definitely presented a lot of challenges with shipping, and it’s made me go back to what I wanted to be from the beginning: the unique and vintage finds, or the great little things that you didn’t know you needed for entertaining. We are going back to that this year, trying to retool the store and realizing that, “I’m not going to pump out eight sofas a month.” I don’t have the resources to order a year in advance right now. So it’s really about going back to the roots of, “Alright, this is what we love, and this is why we do what we do.”
I’m right in the middle of one of the historic districts here in Little Rock called the Heights neighborhood. My space is around 2,000 square feet. It’s not huge, and my client business has grown so much this year that I’m probably about to shrink the retail a little bit further, so I have more work room and project space to lay everything out and have the resources better organized. Again, just trying to curate something that feels special and that can be changed.
I love that you talked about going back to what your original idea for the store had been. At some point, did you feel the pressure to carry upholstery lines and do the traditional furniture store thing?
I think so. When I opened the store, it was so much about the calling card piece of it all, [where people could] walk in and see the inner workings of my brain, and we achieved that right from the get-go. Then it was throwing things out there to see, “Are people going to bite on the furniture piece of all of this?” I was very specific in the upholstery lines that I carried, and I didn’t want anything that anyone else had in town. We have beautiful furniture stores and design showrooms here in Little Rock, and I wanted to be very specific about not stepping on anyone’s toes and offering something different. I’ve had a lot of success with designers coming in specifically for those brands and ordering for their clients. I cast a wide net to see what was gonna stick and what was going to make sense. What I’m realizing is that people want personality, and they want to see what I do.
How did you connect with your vendors initially?
Believe it or not, I have not traveled to High Point yet. We were supposed to go, and I’ve been lucky that all of my reps have come here to see me. But that’s also been a unique challenge. Opening a store during COVID-19, I placed my entire $100,000 store order online—all sight unseen. At that point, I didn’t even have the full line of samples. I saw things online and had them send me fabric samples, and then I placed everything online.
You did what?
I know. We did the entire store order online. I had been working on it for weeks, and I had printouts on our kitchen table because I didn’t have my retail space yet. I had a printout of each piece of furniture, and then I would add the swatches and do a whole storyboard for the store. For the longest time, everything [on the table] was very neutral and sellable. Then my loan came through and I was like, “OK, we gotta place this furniture order.” But I just couldn’t pull the trigger.
I stayed up one night, and when my husband woke up the next morning, everything had completely changed. It was one of those moments of trusting your creativity instead of buying things to sell. Before, it said nothing about who I was or what I loved, or even what I liked. So I scrapped it all and went back to the drawing board. I probably have the most color on any floor room or showroom here in Little Rock.
What did your husband say when he woke up and saw this entirely new vision on the table?
I think it was the first time that he saw what keeps me up at night. It was the first time he said:, “Oh, I get it now. This is you, and this is what was supposed to happen.”
So you buy everything sight unseen, which I’m still not over. What were the good surprises, and what were the bad surprises?
They were all kinds of good surprises. The best thing that I learned was that I’m never going to buy a white sofa. There are other places to buy your white sofa here in town, and I don’t need that at my store. I have this beautiful green velvet sofa that’s trimmed out in navy velvet, and it’s a petite sectional. I bought it because everyone in Little Rock thinks they need a huge sectional. I was like, “Look how dainty and cute a sectional can be. It doesn’t have to be massive.” So I literally bought it just to show that I can do a sectional. It’s still sitting on the floor, but it’s the one thing that everyone comments on and loves. I’ve sold it as a sofa, probably four times over. It [reinforced] trusting your gut on going big or going home. But hopefully traveling will be less crazy this April, because I’m planning to be at High Point starting this year.
How are you thinking about shopping for the store moving forward?
I want to continue carrying my upholstery lines that I love and having enough variety to make sure clients feel comfortable experiencing the way things feel and sit. It’s not about getting rid of any of that, but it is back to finding more unique, vintage curiosities to bring in and worrying less about what’s going to sell in the sense of a major retailer. I’m not everyone’s gift store, and I don’t have to be that.
We originally opened the store with some really great vintage pieces that we found in COVID-19 time. Now that things are lifting somewhat, I feel more comfortable getting out and really exploring and going to Round Top [Antiques Fair in Texas] and doing all the things to make sure that Little Rock has another source for unique and quality vintage.
Is this all just you, or what kind of team do you have helping you make this happen?
It is all just me.
Are you tired?
Yeah, I’m tired, and finding creativity is hard to come by. I opened the store with a young person that helped me run the retail side of things, but have realized that my client business is continuing to grow and my retail business is becoming less and less important as a result. So I shifted and hired an intern out of the University of Central Arkansas design department who had reached out to me. He was with me for the last six months. The challenge that anyone my size and scale faces right now is how to transition someone from part time to full time. How do you provide insurance? How do you do all those things? My business isn’t quite there yet. Unfortunately, he had to take a full-time position just a few weeks ago, but I think he’ll be back. I just need to get three more clients, and then he’s back, his insurance is paid and we’re rockin’.
My husband is a huge, huge help and resource when I can’t get to the store or anything else. That’s its own set of challenges, but we love doing it together. It makes it more fun. He loves the retail side, and he loves being at the store and finding unique things. We really like hunting for things together, and although I’m driving it, he is a big help.
We’ve talked a lot about growth and what growth looks like for you and maybe scaling back on retail to focus on design. How many projects are you working on right now? Where do you want to be, or what is the sweet spot?
I probably have 12 to 15 projects right now that I’m working on. I think what I’m learning in my business is that initially I was taking on every project because I thought I needed to say yes to everybody. Now, I’m being slightly more selective. I have enough work, and I think people can experience my work on a larger scale. It’s knowing the right client for me. The client that’s like, “I trust you. I’m here for you—not for you to create something that we saw somewhere else.” I think that is the whole point of having your own store. I want people to come in because they want what I have to offer, not just because I can execute something that they saw somewhere else. I don’t have to say yes to redesigning your bookshelves.
How are you deciding what you say yes to? Is there a specific thing that makes you think, “Oh, this is it?”
It’s about personality for me right now. It’s about project size and determining that I have the time to allot to make sure that I can execute. But it really is a lot about taking that first meeting and figuring out, “OK, is this going to be someone that I want to have a cocktail with once a week for the next year?” And being okay with saying “no.” Also that they’re aware of the challenges that we’re still facing, and I think we’ll continue to face for the next two years.
What does that first meeting look like for you, and do you charge for it?
I do not charge for it. That first meeting looks a lot like, “Let’s have a conversation.” I want to know what your goals are, I want to know how you want to feel in the home, I want to know what your hang-ups are, I want to know rough budget expectations—that doesn’t have to be completely nailed down, but now that things cost more, I have to make sure: “Are you OK with what it takes?”
How have you approached billing for the job once you sign a client?
It really depends on the project, the personalities, and all the things involved. I bill in three ways, which in five years I will turn back and go, “What the hell was I thinking?” I’ll do either a full project scope and scale, especially for repeat clients that I know are very hands-off. I present it all, and they might want to make a couple of tweaks, but it’s ultimately like, “Yeah, sounds good. Let’s go for it!”
Then it’s just executing. I will charge them to do their entire home at one big cost: Half of it is up front, and half of it is when we finish. For longer, new construction projects that are taking forever, I will do a retainer for clients because I know that this is going to be a drawn-out process, and if they want me involved on bi-monthly walkthroughs, I need to be available for that. With these longer projects, I know that there’s going to be two weeks at the end that I’m there every day, so it’s a lot of work on the front end and it’s management throughout.
Of course, I bill by the hour for other projects. That is one of those things that I really tried to think through within our first meeting. I’m very upfront with my clients in that way of saying, “This is what I am per hour, but I work with clients in very different ways. Let’s have a conversation about what you’re expecting, and then I will make a proposal to you on how I think that needs to be built out that will benefit both of us.”
You said there’s a chance you’ll look back in five years and think, “Why was I doing that?” Is there one model that seems to work the most seamlessly for you, or are you still appreciating the advantages of all three approaches?
I’ll tell you what I’m not good at: billing. The monthly invoices and tracking my time, I’ve not been good at that. The general monthly retainer that I can bill out on the first of the month or the project scope, those are the ones that feel most comfortable to me, because I don’t have to keep up with it in so many ways.
So many designers are people-pleasers, and I feel like when that is your worldview, you look at that hourly time billing and start axing things off the list so that the client feels better about the invoice. Is that you?
Completely. But also, I have “design ADHD” in the sense that I’ll spend an hour working on a lighting schedule for somebody, but in the middle of all that, I’ll find the light that I really want for another project. So it’s jumping back and forth, and then I’m like, “Well, who am I billing for this hour?” I spent five to 10 minutes for that other client because I found this other thing, and I went down this or that rabbit hole. I’ve not gotten good at billing. That’s just not been my strength. To your point, I am constantly like, “Are they going to come back to me and question my hours?” It is just a creative process that takes a lot of time.
Has anyone pushed back on hours?
No one has ever questioned a bill that I’ve ever sent, so it is completely in my head—it’s that people-pleasing aspect. If I had someone at the store who was helping me keep track of hours and invoicing and everything like that, I think that would become a different story. That’s definitely my biggest challenge right now—being able to bill properly and invoice correctly.
Where are your new clients coming from these days? How are people discovering you?
A lot of it’s still referral, which is awesome. I’m working with more and more contractors in the area that are starting to refer me as well. I love working with the great contractors here in Little Rock, but it’s very much word of mouth still. I had quite a few projects published in the local Arkansas magazines in the past year, and it brings in new work. It also brings in a lot of people to the store to see what I have going on.
Then I have probably five or six projects that are just waiting on the dining table that haven’t been shot yet. For me, growth is trying to tackle more regional publications that are a little larger in reach. I’m hoping that with some of these projects wrapping up soon, we can have more reach.
What is the biggest thing you know now that you wish you had known when you launched your design business?
I think the biggest thing for me is—as cheesy as this is—stay true to who you are, and stay in your lane. Not that I haven’t done that, but that’s just something I’m constantly saying to myself. Sometimes you start to have that little bit of doubt of like, “Oh, are they gonna like this? Are they gonna like me?” Trust in the process, and trust that what you have to offer creatively is going to be well received. The right clients are going to come your way. I wish I would have trusted myself more deeply when I first launched.
What does success look like for you?
Contentment with the amount of projects, the quality of projects, personal life and work-life balance. I don’t think there’s a price tag on that. I also worked on a couple of projects for my parents, and there’s something really lovely about being able to give back to family and friends in that way. It’s really about the contentment in the creative process, because that’s really what drives me and will always drive my life—creativity in one form or another.