50 states project | Aug 20, 2022 |
How a side hustle became a third of this New Mexico designer’s business

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, Santa Fe, New Mexico–based designer Erica Ortiz Berke of NeuBleu Interior Design tells us why she has mixed feelings about local showhouses, why she prefers custom upholstery and how a stint growing someone else’s business as a contract worker inspired her to launch a lucrative side hustle of her own.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
I think I was a sophomore in high school when I realized that you could be a designer as an actual profession, but I always had that natural inclination. When I was little, I used to redecorate the house when I was supposed to be home sick from school. At first, it really pissed off my mom—and then as I got older, I got better, and she was like, “Oh, that worked out better than the way I had it.” When I was in sixth grade, my parents let me pick all the finishes for the house they had built.

For the whole house?
Yes, for the whole house. It was really awesome—but I think I also realized I didn’t fit in the normal box. My dad is an engineer by trade, and my parents built their first house when my mom was pregnant with my sister. They realized quickly that they could really capitalize on that and change their socioeconomic standing—at that time, we lived in a trailer in northern New Mexico. Both of them had good jobs, and they would save up to build a new house every two to three years, then live in them so they didn’t have to pay the capital gains tax. We built eight houses in total, and it gave them a significant leg up.

But also, when I say that we built houses, that meant that I spent my summers hammering nails, mixing cement, building forms and digging footings. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the crew that came in.” It was, “Here you go, get to work.” When you get to see the beginning—from the planning stages to digging the footing—all the way to the end where you’re moving in, it’s so rewarding, and those experiences were such pivotal moments.

So you knew heading into college that this could be your career.
I wanted to do either interior design or graphic design. When I started looking at art colleges, my parents were kind of like, “You said you were going to be a pediatrician.” I was like, “Well, I think that ship has sailed.” I mean, I’m just not that smart in that way—I’m smart, but I’m not book smart. I want to be hands-on, not sit in an office all day.

With design, I think it’s in you or it’s not, you know what I mean? Even in high school, I used to move my bedroom around all the time and redecorate. When I would wrap my Christmas presents, they all had to be color coordinated with the Christmas card. Even today, when I do a presentation, the amount of time it takes to get the document looking the way I want is next-level.

How did design school shape you?
I ended up going to three different schools, all of which have since closed. I started at Brooks College in Long Beach, California, where I was a real big brat—I had to live in an apartment, not the dorms, and then I was so lonely. But also, the school only offered up to an associate’s degree. So I moved back to New Mexico, rented a little place of my own and went to this school for design in Albuquerque for about a year and a half. Honestly, it was just a terrible school, and I’m glad it’s not there anymore. The instructors were competitive with the students, and it was more book-based than application-based.

From there, I transferred to the Art Institute in Denver, which is also not there anymore because they got in trouble for how high their tuition was and some other stuff, but that was a really great program. That was the best move I ever made, because the instructors there all worked in the industry, were all super supportive, and it was more application-based, which was more in line with my personal learning style. I got my bachelor’s degree in December 2007, which was not a great year to graduate with an interior design degree.

Just in time for the recession.
I moved back to Santa Fe, because I knew that I had more connections here. I think I had a job in like three weeks—but as a landscape designer. I didn’t even care, I just wanted to do design. I did that for a year and a half.

How a side hustle became a third of this New Mexico designer’s business
A showhouse living room pairs equestrian elements with nods to local Santa Fe architectural vernacular
Kate Russell Photography

What was that role like?
It was a really high-end firm, but none of them knew how to use AutoCAD, so I did all of that. I have to tell you, I hate doing AutoCAD—now I send all of that stuff out—but at the time, I just wanted a job. I would put together their brochures in Adobe. They had done this million-dollar backyard, and I put together the whole manual for it—all the LED lights, the fountain, all these different things. It was not a fancy job—I was also getting coffee and organizing the supply closet—but sometimes I would get to go in the field with them to do site measures, which I loved. And sometimes we got to do really fun stuff, like picking pots and flowers and furniture for a house that was going to be in the local parade of homes, and then installing all of it.

When I left there, I went to work at this company called La Puerta. They make the most beautiful stuff. It’s outrageously expensive—you can easily spend $60,000 to $200,000 on a front door. The great thing about both of those jobs was that they taught me how to deal with the clientele that I have now. I also got one of my very first clients from working at La Puerta.

Were you actively looking to start your own firm?
I was there about a year and a half, and then they let me go because they got someone to do my job for less money. It was terrifying because I had just bought a house a year before, but it was honestly the best thing that ever happened to me. I started my business, but I was not swimming in money, so I did all kinds of stuff to make ends meet. I cleaned houses, and I used to watch my friend’s gallery for a couple days at a time so he could go meet with clients or do installs. I literally did whatever it took to make it happen.

How did you land that first client?
We had done a bunch of stuff for her at La Puerta, but their offerings are more for hard surfaces—her kitchen cabinetry and the millwork aspects of it. Even after they let me go, I helped her finish part of the project that I had started with them, which was a good move on my part because she hired me when she wanted to furnish it. She was one of those people who had a lot of money and really enjoyed the process. Every time we finished something, she would start redoing something else. For four years, her projects were almost half my income.

My other early client, who I still work with today, was my parents’ CPA when I was a little kid. I helped them with a beautiful cherry kitchen with black countertops—very Santa Fe. One of the subs I used on that job referred me to one of his clients, and it grew from there. Most of my business comes from referrals. Early on, I used to take out ads, and then I quickly realized that you spent a lot of money and you really didn’t get anything from it.

You did a local showhouse every year from 2014 to 2018. What role did that play in growing your business?
I have conflicting feelings about it. Our showhouse here did not have a major publication attached to it, so it was almost like a giant money pit. You get a lot of people coming through who could never afford a designer—and it’s not like in San Francisco, or Modernism Week in Palm Springs, where you’re getting media coverage for it. A designer friend of mine told me that she used to do the showhouse in D.C. and get so much work out of it pretty immediately. She was like, “I’d spend $100,000 on my room, but it didn’t matter because I’d make $1 million the next year in the work I got from it.” But that’s not happening here because our clients aren’t here for the showhouse—most of the wealthy people are only here one to three months a year. They haven’t done the showhouse since 2018—it was really time-consuming and expensive, but we weren’t getting a lot of business out of it.

Has the pandemic changed that any?
It’s changing a little bit now—I’ve had more clients getting rid of some of their other houses, and now this is their primary residence. But we can’t capture them in October, which is when they were doing the showhouse, because they’ve already left. They leave after the opera season ends at the end of August, and they don’t come back until maybe Christmas.

And nothing ever sells out of those rooms, either, the way it does in bigger markets. I still have the outdoor furniture that I custom-designed for the showhouse one year on my patio. That bed from 2014 is still my bed. I design stuff that I’m going to love because it’s going to end up in my home. I would consider doing a showhouse again, but I would rather do it in a much bigger market somewhere else.

Left: A stately kitchen dressed in indigoKate Russell Photography Kate Russell Photography | Right: A persimmon-hued power room has a cozy glowLee Klopfer Lee Klopfer

What does your business look like today?
It’s hard to find good employees here—we don’t have a lot of young, highly educated people who choose to stay in Santa Fe—and I’m overloaded right now. I have between 20 and 25 projects, and I work way too much. I have one administrative assistant, and I really need more help—I know I need a project manager and a design assistant. I’m also moving my office into a building at the end of this month, and I think that will help. Right now, I’m still using my home studio—it’s nice and big, but we are just buried in boxes and pillows and fabric samples.

I just keep telling my clients, “I’ll take your project, but you’re going to have to be really patient.” I have a client meeting tomorrow, and I don’t think the design on his house even starts until next year, but I pushed him out four weeks to have our first meeting because I had to get other work done. I can’t just be in meetings all day.

Who do you want to hire first?
Ultimately, the goal is to hire someone who can tackle drawings and maybe projects like a small bathroom, where I [outline] what I envision and then they can draw it up, do a first pass with two finish options, and then I will edit it. They’d have enough latitude where it’s creative and interesting, but I also need somebody who has the technical ability to calculate square footage or help put digital presentations together, and who can take on some of the ordering and following up. There are days where it’s 10 o’clock [in the morning], and my phone has already rung 40 times because I have plumbers trying to get into this house, and movers trying to pick this up, and this wasn’t confirmed, and this isn’t ready, and—I really need someone to take the reins on that.

Was that always the way the business has been, or is that an outgrowth of this crazy pandemic time?
The business has always been pretty robust, but I would say that in 2021, I had an 80 percent growth over the year before, which is pretty significant.

Is that about volume of work, or growth in budget size and the scope of the projects?
It’s kind of both. Also, I have a secret: I also sell cabinets as one of my hustles, because why not? As people were staying home and refurnishing, they were also doing huge remodels, and a lot of them were kitchens. Our custom cabinet-makers in town were taking a year, but I was able to tell builders, “Yeah, I can do your design, but just remember that I can also do just your cabinets if you can’t wait that long.” The ability for me to get stuff quickly gave me opportunities with people that maybe would not have normally purchased from me.

How does that part of the business work?
I’m a dealer for three separate lines of cabinets, but I don’t have a formal showroom. That means people aren’t paying for me to have a showroom, so they’re getting the cabinets at a little bit of a better price point. And then often I’m selling to someone who is a client of mine anyway, so I’ll do the design work, and then I get the cabinet sale instead of handing it off to another company.

If somebody comes to me just for cabinets—it’s kind of not fair, in a way, because they’re still going to get a kitchen that I designed, but I’m not going to do selects for their backsplash or countertops or anything like that. I’m just going to do the layout, and then my fee is basically built into the sale of the cabinets. It doesn’t include any project management—for that, they have to pay me by the hour.

When did that click for you as an opportunity?
I worked in a kitchen and bath showroom in Denver when I was in college, which was a good experience. Then, as I was still getting my business off the ground, I did a job with a cabinet-maker on a project who was impressed with me and asked if I would consider doing contract work for his business. I was doing cabinet designs and sales for him for about a year. Then I realized that I was spending about half of my time helping him build his business up—I had tripled his sales in six months—but the pay wasn’t equal to what my design business was bringing in. When I severed ties with him, it didn’t go well—he didn’t want to pay me my commission—and I just thought, “Well, there’s no reason I can’t sell cabinets.” He had literally never even looked at any of those orders, never met with any of those clients. If I did it for him, surely I could do it for me. So I did it. I picked up one line, and I only had the one line for a long time. It’s custom, really well made and has a lot of versatility. Then, over the years, I have picked up two other lines that are more value-engineered and budget-friendly, which has allowed me to get that person that’s spending $10,000 on a kitchen—but I can still make $5,000 on it, and I’ve given them a great product that I really feel confident in. With those lines, I’m able to service people who would honestly never be able to hire me otherwise, and that feels good.

What percentage of your business is that portion now?
Cabinetry is easily one-third of my income, another third is billable hours, and the last third is all of the furniture and everything else that I sell all year long.

How a side hustle became a third of this New Mexico designer’s business
A shapely desk takes center stage in an art-filled office
Kate Russel Photography

How do you approach billing for the design portion of your work?
Right now, I usually charge a flat fee for the design, then charge a 30 percent markup on everything that I sell—so everything from the plumbing fixtures down to the last piece of hardware and every single piece of tile. Everything is purchased through me.

Where do you shop?
I’ll work with almost any vendor, but what I find is that I can’t always find the piece that I have in my head, or the size is wrong, so I am often working with custom vendors. I have somebody in Utah who does a lot of custom dressers, and others in Dallas and Idaho. I still do use a lot of the lines that everyone else uses, and I’m not afraid to order from vendors on Etsy. I recently found a vendor from Turkey on Etsy that made me a table—it came in, and it’s beautiful. I’ll also find vendors when I travel internationally. I have a rug vendor and a lighting person in Morocco that I met while traveling, and now if I need to order certain stuff, I just email them, send them the dimensions, send them what I want, and then wire them the money, and then they send it back. I actually met them when I was there, so I feel comfortable.

Right, it’s not a stranger on the internet.
Exactly. I’m always trying to build up my vendor list and understand who has the capability to do what. For the most part, I’m getting things like side tables from the big vendors everyone uses, but I don’t get a lot of upholstery from them because, if you look at the price point of it, it doesn’t warrant me doing that over a custom. It just doesn’t.

Are clients excited about the idea of custom, too? Is that part of the appeal?
Probably for some clients. Others just see dollar signs and freak out. But I think it’s nice to know that you have a piece that’s not exactly the same as what’s in somebody else’s house. With clients, I start my conversations by explaining that we’re going to have the upholstery done custom because it’ll last forever, it’ll be built correctly, and so on and so forth. Sometimes, though, it’s more about whether or not it will fit in the space. There are a few things that happen here that are weird—if you have a historic-site house in downtown Santa Fe, you might have a $1.5 million house, but it might only be 1,100 square feet, and the doorways are 30 inches wide and might not be tall enough for a normal person to walk through. Getting furniture in is sometimes a challenge. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are these huge houses out in Las Campanas, near the golf course, that were built in the 1990s, and some of them have the most oddly shaped rooms. They were built when rounded adobe houses were really popular, and sometimes there’s not a straight wall in the house. In a space like that, I don’t often find that a standard sofa is going to work anyway.

How are you talking to clients about what their job should cost when you first meet them?
It’s really hard to get clients to tell you what they really want to spend. They’ll be like, “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it,” or just, “I don’t know.” I try to get a feel for what they’re willing to spend based on the pieces that they have and where they have shopped in the past. If you’re shopping at Williams-Sonoma, it’s not what I would give you, but it’s not necessarily inexpensive, either, so that’s a good gauge to go off of. If you’re shopping at Ikea, then maybe you are not my client, because I just don’t know how I can really satisfy you.

How a side hustle became a third of this New Mexico designer’s business
A poster bed anchors a showhouse bedroom that melds bright hues and rustic influencesKate Russell Photography

Can you tell me about the design scene in New Mexico?
New Mexico is awesome—it has four full seasons, so you even get the snow in the winter. You can really enjoy the outdoors about eight months out of the year, so for me, it’s about creating the outdoor-indoor conscious living and having environments outside that even on a winter day aren’t terribly cold. You can sit out at a fire pit, and it’s a little sheltered, and you can enjoy yourself.

You mentioned that more people are making Sante Fe their primary residence. Does that seem like a lasting change?
It’ll be interesting to see. I think this is always going to be a huge market for second and third homes because we’ve got a really great culinary scene and one of the top operas in the world. On top of that, Santa Fe is known for all of the artwork—we have the Spanish market, the folk art market, an Indian market and then all of the galleries. Because of that, I think the city will always be a playground for the wealthy. More and more people are choosing to live here full-time, but this is the caveat: We don’t have the best health care or hospitals because we can’t entice talent to stay. If you were a young doctor and you could also choose to go to Dallas, where the schools are great, you’re not going to pick Santa Fe over Dallas, you know?

A lot of the locals are hemming and hawing about being pushed out because they can’t afford to live here anymore, but it’s complicated, because we need it for gross receipts. We need people to keep buying artwork at the galleries to keep the gallery people in business, and we need them to eat at the restaurants that the locals aren’t going to. Obviously, my business needs it, too.

What is the biggest thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were launching your business?
When I got laid off from that job, I had a mortgage and I didn’t have any savings, and so learning the money aspect of it—how to manage my money and really just protecting myself—was a big learning curve for me. I had to realize that it’s a business. I used to feel guilty for billing clients, so I would wait months and months. But then you know what I would have to do? I’d have to give them a discount, because by then the bill had gotten so big that it would freak them out! So for me, that was a huge thing: realizing the value in myself and that design is a skill set that everyone doesn’t have, and it’s OK to charge for it. That I need to charge for it because this is how I make my money.

What does success look like to you today?
First and foremost, it would be to be happy, honestly, outside of money. The money is great, but money will come and go. It’s having a great husband and trying to focus on my relationship. My stability is my home life, and so success is more about finding balance.

To learn more about Erica Ortiz Berke, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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