When Philadelphia–based interior designer Lucy O’Brien visited friends’ homes while growing up, she found herself in awe of those with beautiful interiors—though the notion that a hired professional was behind them was not yet in her realm of imagination.
“I didn’t even know a designer was a thing, I just thought their moms were the most fashionable, artistic people in the world,” she tells host Kaitlin Petersen on the latest episode of the Trade Tales podcast.
As O’Brien entered college, the idea of a career dedicated to creating those spaces started to crystallize when she began studying architecture along with taking premed and nursing classes. But when the housing crash occurred in 2008, her interest in healthcare suddenly seemed like a much better pathway to postgrad employment, and her nursing coursework—which she’d intended as a backup plan of sorts—soon became her career priority.
Pretty soon, other life plans would knock that journey offtrack. After getting married, O’Brien and her husband moved into their first house, where her knack for transforming interiors quickly became clear. As she began to explore ways of turning her newfound passion into a business, she noticed that the designers she followed on social media were all readying themselves for the same upcoming industry event: High Point Market. Entirely on her own, she bought a plane ticket and followed suit.
That first trip to High Point was a monumental learning experience for O’Brien and gave her the push she needed to launch her own firm the following summer in 2018. Still, it wasn’t until 2020 that she says she finally began to hit her stride as the firm’s leader. Up until then, Tartan & Toile (named for two of O’Brien’s favorite patterns) had been taking nearly every project that came its way, including piecemeal rooms and sourcing assignments.
When O’Brien pictured her ideal portfolio, she imagined something different: full-service design projects, with a focus on historical properties—a passion of hers. Bringing the vision to life would require a full overhaul of her firm’s marketing materials and social media presence, new team members, stricter client screenings—and a major leap of faith.
“Once I finally put down boundaries of, ‘This is what I’m doing and it’s going to come, I just have to wait for it,’ that was really the turning point for me,” says O’Brien. “I feel like it’s a mindset thing—if you put it out there, they will come.”
In this conversation, she shares why she’s so straightforward with clients about her cost structure, the test she uses to identify her employees’ instincts and why she’s looking for inspiration outside of social media.
Homepage image: Lucy O’Brien | Courtesy of Lucy O’Brien