Some designers follow a straight career path, from rearranging their childhood bedroom to starting their own firm. Alison Giese’s journey took her through two separate careers (medical sales and law school) and to another continent before she landed on what she was looking for. When her husband’s career took the young couple to Brazil, Giese found herself isolated in a new country, looking for a new direction. Through the then-burgeoning world of interior design blogs, she found it.
“There was so much information out there, and I just absorbed it all and I thought, Oh, my goodness, this is really what people do for a living—it’s a profession, it’s not just fluffing pillows,” she tells Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of Trade Tales. “I dug in and learned as much as I could. Brazil’s an incredible place for design. I was exposed to this tropical-but-midcentury and classic [aesthetic], but then there’s the historic Portuguese influence there, as well. I soaked that all up, dabbled where I could and thought about how I could make it happen on my own.”
When Giese returned to the States and settled for a time in Washington, D.C., she got started in earnest. Her first project, like many designers, was her own home. Less typical was where that project took her: Photos from the shoot wound up quickly getting published in Better Homes & Gardens, and she began receiving inquiries.
Giese has since relocated to San Antonio and is rebuilding her client base there. But interestingly, a nontraditional approach to growing her business made the transition much easier. Rather than hire in-person employees to staff an in-person office, she hires remote contractors (some as far afield as Guam) to tackle work on an as-needed basis as it rolls in. It’s a strategy, says the designer, that allows her to grow on pace with demand—and preserve a healthy work-life balance.
“There’s something to be said about if there’s people waiting for you at an office, maybe it doesn’t feel as comfortable running and doing something for the kids that day,” she says. “Some of my resistance in hiring has been: I still want the flexibility to do what I need to do with my family. It feels more comfortable to have contract employees that I can schedule a meeting time with.”
A UNIQUE PARTNERSHIP
It started as a COVID problem: Giese had ongoing projects in the D.C. area but couldn’t leave San Antonio to work on them due to travel restrictions. Through her network, she connected with a local designer who was looking for work, and they tag-teamed on Giese’s projects. That relationship has blossomed into something more fluid, a kind of informal partnership where the two will share work as it comes in without being beholden to each other for payroll or co-branding. “It’s been a really great experience, one more designers should be open to. We all think we have to be the superstars—we see ‘projects in New York and California’ and firms that are seemingly doing it all. But I don’t have those projects all the time, to need to keep someone on staff all the time,” she says. “This relationship is so great. We cross-promote, we help each other out, she gains experience, I gain experience. You have two businesses that can help each other out, but I don’t feel like I’m cutting her short if I don’t have the work for her.”
MOOD BOARDS FOR THE WIN
A few years back, Giese started posting flat lays to Instagram as a creative exercise (and to break up the room shots on her grid). More often than not, they were mood boards for projects that didn’t exist, designed to feed the social media beast. But over time, they’ve become one of her signatures, and she finds that clients specifically seek her out and reference her flat lays in meetings. “I’ve had [another designer] say to me, ‘What are you getting out of that? That’s time-consuming, and sure, you get some likes and clicks out of it—but businesses-wise, what are you getting out of it?’ And I’ve always said, ‘It’s going to take time, but I know it will come full circle.’ And it has.”
Like many designers, Giese spun up a virtual offering as a reaction to COVID. But even though restrictions have lifted, she sees a value to keeping the service going—especially to reach design-savvy clients who just need a little help along the way. “As the design industry has gotten more accessible, [especially with] reverse Google image searches, it's harder and harder to provide a design that feels like only I could do it,” she says. “People are really savvy; if they have any interest in decorating and design, they’re usually pretty capable of it. I’m happy to help those people if we can.”
Homepage image: Alison Giese | Courtesy of Angela Newton Roy Photography