50 states project | Feb 12, 2023 |
How strangers asking for help inspired this Alaska designer to launch her firm

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, Anchorage, Alaska–based designer Kjerstin Boorstein tells us how her architect’s abrupt departure led her to start her own practice, how her vendor and shipping relationships have reduced damaged goods, and why she’s dreaming of expanding to Hawaii one day.

What was your path to starting your design business?
I started out as an elementary school teacher turned homeschooling mom. I grew up in Alaska and then after I met my husband spent 10 years in Atlanta, which is where we had our kids. But the whole time, we were trying to figure out how to get back to Alaska and build a house. We moved back here almost 13 years ago with that intention. I started reading every book I could on home design—everything from The Timeless Way of Building to design theory—and teaching myself SketchUp, which was still relatively new. I was playing around with it, trying to imagine how we would live in a house with our family of five, my husband working from home and homeschooling.

When we started building, just over 10 years ago, my architect took my drawing of my dream house and made it awesome. She did a SketchUp model, then gave it to me and moved to Australia in the middle of our build. I had this exterior with all the basics, but none of the interior details, and she was gone. I started trying to find somebody to help me, but I felt intimidated by all the big interior design businesses here in Alaska, [which are more focused on commercial work,] so I just started doing it myself. I drew all of my custom cabinetry, all the millwork, from the stair railings to the basement. I was working with my builder, and I would show up on the site and they’d be like, “What do you want to do with this?” And I would say, “Give me 24 hours, and I will come back with a drawing.” I’m homeschooling my kids, then doing these drawings and showing up the next day saying, “Here’s what I want.” And it worked great because I never changed my mind—I’d already fleshed it out on SketchUp and was good to go.

When did you start to think this was a business you should do for others?
Honestly, that took way longer than it should have. It was mostly people showing up at my house and being like, “Whoa, what is this? How did you do this?” And then they’d ask me to help them. Seriously, even strangers! One time, the census lady asked me for help with colors and paint.

That’s a wake-up call if I’ve ever heard one.
I know! And this was before I even had a business. I was always like, “Yeah, I could do that.” And then a neighbor who was building a house knocked on the door with her baby one day and was like, “Can you help me?” I did, but it took a long time, and I started feeling—honestly, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I feel like I was waiting for someone to give me permission.

I hear that a lot.
I don’t have an interior design degree. I looked online for years trying to figure out how I could squeeze that in and do it long distance, and there just weren’t really any programs available. And then during COVID, you could start a few of the legit design programs online, but you couldn’t finish them. That’s when I realized that it only mattered to me, really—it didn’t matter to the people asking me to help them. As long as I have the skills, my clients don’t care—they’re not asking me for that—so I had to let it go.

That’s an amazing emotional hurdle to get through.
And a lot of this business is interacting with people who have years of building experience. When I was building my house, I was often the only woman in the room telling a bunch of people what I wanted, and they all looked at me and said, “That’s not how we usually do it.” And I was like, “I don’t care how you usually do it. This is how I want it.” It was a lot of learning to stand up for myself—and in the end, everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s great. You did a good job.” But when you’re in the middle of it, you’re like, “Please, just trust me. It’s going to be good.”

What are the unique challenges of building a house in Alaska?
When I lived in Atlanta, we had a builder-grade house, but it was adorable—hardwood floors, all the trim. Then you get to Alaska and realize every single piece that shows up in your house has been shipped here—far. There are very few local building materials. So to take what would be a builder-grade house there and try to do the same thing here is going to cost almost twice as much. That was probably the biggest challenge: realizing just how expensive everything was going to be.

You talked about getting asked for help by the census taker, or by your neighbor. What did they see when they came into your home that was different than the rest of the marketplace? What surprised people or evoked that reaction?
For starters, my house is Falu red, like a traditional Scandinavian cottage. You walk up to it and it’s already different than what you’re used to seeing. It’s got a really steep pitched roof, which I wanted. I should tell you, Alaska primarily has two kinds of houses: About half of the market is split-level homes that were built in the 1970s and ’80s, all with the same shape and size; and the higher-end stuff has that—I hate to use this word, but the mini-McMansion thing where you’ve got lots going on with the roofline. So even before you get to my front door, it has a different look.

Then, when you open the door, it’s mostly white inside with colorful artwork, but lots of trim—moldings around the windows and wainscoting, which are things that people don’t generally spend money on here. There are more details, I think, and more personality.

Is that what you are seeking to deliver to the clients you’re working with now?
Yes, my favorite thing is making a home that reflects individual style, comfort and functionality. Northwest style can lean a little modern, but I’m more of a cozy cottage kind of person. I want people to come to my house and be like, “I totally want to curl up and hang out here.”

Not that sense of “can I put my glass on this table?”
Yes, exactly. “Am I allowed to sit on this?” That’s not me at all.

Left: The sauna on Boorstein’s property features the same distinctive Falu red exterior and pitched roof of the residence that initially set her work apart Solstice Cottage Design Co. | Right: Inside, custom-milled Alaska cedar paneling is paired with Grow House Grow tile Solstice Cottage Design Co.

How did new clients start coming in?
An acquaintance was building an addition to her house when her architect quit, so I was drawing things for her in SketchUp to help her out. She had a structural engineer but was trying to figure out window placements, and I was like, “Oh, I can do that unofficially.” But then she wanted to do more stuff, and in the process, she became my unofficial cheerleader. I was not sure I had room in my life to start a business, to be honest, and she was really encouraging. And then once I started looking into it, I realized it would be a lot easier if I was legit—if I had a business license, and all the trade resources and relationships. But I got a business license and then that night, I couldn’t sleep because I was like, “What did I just do?”

I worked on her house for a long time, but kept it quiet because I was trying to figure out how to fit it into my life. Then one of my daughter’s friends came over, and when her mom walked into my entryway, she was like, “Whoa. What is this?” I tried to downplay it, but my daughter said, “Well, my mom is an interior designer.” She hired me to do an Airbnb—she’d already done some work, and just wanted all the pretty things and furnishings. She’s also one of those people that tells everybody, so that’s how I got started. I officially launched my business in February 2021.

Has it been all word of mouth since then?
Yes. I haven’t had to turn anybody away yet—usually, it just kind of works out where I have two to three projects at a time. Just when I start to think, “I’m almost done with this client,” someone will call for something little, maybe a design consultation, and then it turns into another 10 hours or more. It has felt sort of steady.

I’d like bigger projects. But I’m still so new, so I’m still working on doing more things that are photo ready. I have a lot of DIY clients—I do the design work, and then they go off and do their thing, so I don’t really get a photo of [the finished product]. I’d like to move more toward managing the project to the end because I think it turns out better for them and for me.

How do you shop for your clients?
That is the hardest thing about doing design in Alaska. There are some local resources that I go to—a great tile shop that will ship samples to me, and my local flooring store. But even just opening trade accounts—they see my Alaska address, and I have to be like, “I have a freight forwarder! It’ll be OK, you don’t have to ship to Alaska.” Everything I purchase, I ship to Washington, and then I have a couple of different freight forwarders that will ship it, depending on what it is. Almost everything is available to me, it’s just that I have to do a little more work to actually get it here, and it costs more.

As an Alaskan for most of my life, I get it. I get why we have the furniture we have here, and why every house has the same trim from the 1970s. Even simple stuff: Everybody gets Pottery Barn catalogs, right? Well, if you want something from Pottery Barn or RH, you’d have to figure out how to ship it here, because they won’t. You’re like, “Oh, I love that dresser.” “Well, sorry, we don’t ship to Alaska.”

I went to High Point for the first time last spring, and I felt like my eyes were opened. I was like, “All of this is available?” I was just blown away. I’ve been in this little Alaska bubble for so long, but now I get how these designers are making all these beautiful rooms. But that’s not happening here. The resources for homeowners are very limited. What I’m excited about now is that I can offer higher quality than Pottery Barn and help people furnish a room that will last a lifetime.

That’s a powerful idea to think about.
Alaskans are very used to furniture that will not last a lifetime.

What is the freight-forwarding process like?
When I order from the furniture company, they ship it to my address at the docks in Washington. I get a notice that it’s arrived, and the [receiver] inspects it and takes photos. It’s not a full receiver, in that they don’t open packages, which is kind of weird—basically, they transfer possession of it. Then they tell me when they’re going to put it on the boat, and it’s usually here in less than a week. Like, if it went on the boat on Saturday, I can pick it up by Wednesday.

I feel like one thing I’m hearing a lot is how prevalent damages are right now. How does that work for you?
So far, so good—I’m going to knock on wood here. Because they’re not opening it in Washington for me, I have to trust both my vendor and my freight forwarder to handle items with care. I bought upholstery recently, and I talked to this small line with Southern roots that I met when I went to High Point—I spoke to them on the phone when I was ordering it about how they were going to be packaging it, and explaining that it’s got to be good because I can’t send it back. I feel like when you have relationships with people at every step of the way—the vendor, the freight forwarders in Washington and here in Alaska—I can call and be like, “Hey, my stuff’s there. Can you take care of it, please?” They’re like, “Yeah, we got it.”

Have the relationships you made in High Point changed your business?
Oh, absolutely, and I’m really looking forward to going back and spending more time. It’s obviously kind of a big trip from here—it’s two flights to get to Raleigh-Durham, or three to get to Greensboro, and then a bus. It takes me a good 12 hours. I left here after midnight and didn’t get into Greensboro until 10 p.m. local time. It’s kind of a weird day.

But I went on the beginners tour, and we got to meet a lot of our tour leader’s favorite vendors. Since then, I’ve felt really comfortable calling people up and saying, “Hey, I met you at High Point.” And it’s easy when you’re the person from Alaska, because there are very few of us, so they’re all like, “I remember you.” That is a bonus for me. And those relationships have been hugely important with moving forward and feeling comfortable spending money and trusting that the things I’m ordering are going to be quality, and that they’re going to get here in good shape.

While researching this column, I have noticed there aren’t many Alaskan firms with a residential focus.
When I Googled “interior designers in Anchorage” while working on my own home more than a decade ago, they were all at the big firms and basically doing commercial design. So that was my whole thing: I want to be approachable, which is why I don’t really turn anybody away. I think that’s kind of my personality anyway, trying to be welcoming. I know I was intimidated—I didn’t feel fancy enough to call an interior designer, you know? But in retrospect, I wish I’d understood then that if I had bought nice furniture 10 years ago, I would still have that furniture, versus switching things out now. I think that’s one thing I’d like to do more of, especially on social media, is try to help people understand that if you invest a little more now, then you’re not going to be doing it again in five or seven or 10 years.

And it was Market that helped you see that differently?
High Point definitely changed things for me. They took us to a bunch of great vendors on the tour, and just really welcomed us and made it fun. I made friends on that tour—I have a little text group of design friends that I check in with, which I did not have before I went on that trip.

That makes a world of difference to feel a little less alone in it, I would imagine.
Just last night, I was scrolling through Instagram, and all these design pictures were making me so anxious. There are so many amazing people out there doing amazing things, and it’s easy to just be like, “Oh, little me and my project…” It was so nice to meet other people who are getting started.

One thing I haven’t mentioned to you yet is my age. Before the tour, I was feeling like—I don’t want to say that I felt too old to start a business, but kind of. I turned 50 last year, and that seemed like a really big thing—like, what am I doing? But now I’m just like, whatever. I am who I am. And I’m still doing my thing.

I think it’s amazing. It’s inspiring.
I think my kids are mildly inspired by it, too, so that’s something.

I love that they get to see you chase your passion and turn it into a business. I saw my mom do that when I was a kid, and I think it really rubbed off on me.
It’s also scary. One thing that has been especially intimidating is just to put my name out there and be like, “Hi, I’m a new designer.” Anchorage is a fairly large city, but it’s like a small town here, so they’re like, “Who are you, and where did you come from?” I’m an introvert by nature, so I really have to muster up the courage to walk into a showroom and say, “Hi, I’d love to work with you.” For the most part, everybody has been really nice.

How strangers asking for help inspired this Alaska designer to launch her firm
Kravet fabrics on the custom bedding and window treatments pair seamlessly with a client’s artworkSolstice Cottage Design Co.

How have you approached billing for your work?
I’ve mostly been doing a flat fee and tracking my time as I figure it out. I feel like I have a good sense of how long it [usually] takes to do things. And if I do a flat fee and I say it’s going to take me X number of hours to do something, I try to get it done in that amount of time. I think I need to leave myself a little more wiggle room, but for the most part, I’ve been OK with it. I did do an hourly job once, and I don’t think I want to do that again. Personally, as someone who built a house, it’s important to know what things are going to cost ahead of time, and not constantly get bills. So I see it from that angle as a client. Like, you tell me it’s going to cost X number of dollars? Great. I’m all in on that. Let’s get it done. But if I keep getting bills for 10 months because you’re still working on it… Look, it takes a very long time to build a house here, and you just get tired of it at the end.

I’d like to move more toward project management [and seeing designs through from start to finish,] and I think that part does have to be hourly, but the design work can be flat fee. That’s a different level of client than I’ve had so far, but I’ll get there.

I started out from the perspective of sourcing mostly building materials and hard finishes—coordinating the flooring, tile and countertops—and I thought that was going to be my thing. Once I went to High Point, I really wanted to do more furniture and fabric. I’m a former quilter, and I’m too busy to do that anymore, but I love pattern and color. As much as I love doing the building, I would love to be there from reviewing house plans until the curtains go up. That’s my dream project, where I’m holding your hand from the beginning to the end. And then at the end, you’re like, “This is exactly what I want.”

How does the housing market and the higher cost of building in Alaska impact the investment that your clients are able or willing to make?
Hugely. There are different levels of income, obviously, but I think your general homeowner doesn’t want to spend a bunch of money to furnish their house when they’ve just purchased one. I think that’s probably a problem everywhere. Here’s what I’ve found: People want help when they’re doing a remodel because they’re afraid to buy the wrong tile or countertop or whatever. When I show them fabric, they [often] realize they can do more. Sometimes it’s about opening their eyes to what’s available and pushing them forward a little bit. But it’s hard in Alaska. I mean, a friend of mine told me she’s going to Costco to buy a sofa. Furnishings and window coverings just aren’t a priority here, so it is going to be the unicorn client who comes to me and is like, “I want to do it all, and I want to do it your style, and I’ve got the money to do it.”

Do you see a path to finding that client? Do they exist?
There are still new builds happening in Anchorage, and I guess it’s about getting in at the beginning and helping them select their hard surfaces, and then helping them understand how much it will cost to actually furnish your new home. That’s my dream client [but I’m exploring a number of options to grow my business]. I’m thinking about offering floor plan reviews. I’m very good at visualizing a space and how families will use it. Alaskans have so much outdoor gear in the house, and I think there are a lot of builders who are missing [that context].

I actually did a review on a builder’s floor plan, and we changed a lot—the entire kitchen; I added a pantry; I changed the bathroom to add a water closet; we added a fireplace. The house is so much more livable for the client, and so much more beautiful too. I really enjoyed that process—saying, “You know what? We should move this wall and get you a pantry and add a door here and add a water closet,” which is something she wanted. The builder was willing and able, you just have to ask for it. I’m not sure people know that when they’re buying a house, that they can ask for those things. Even if it’s not a full custom-build, you can change the builder’s plan if you ask.

How does it feel to show people that they can want something different?
It’s exciting. One of the custom furniture orders I got a couple of weeks ago, I talked her into a green fabric sofa. And she was like, “I would have never thought to get a green sofa.” And I was like, “Well, color is more timeless than a neutral. Neutrals come and go, but if you love green, you’re gonna want this for 10 or more years.” And we got it in performance fabric because she’s got a dog and a kid, and she’s so excited about it.

The home is everything. You want to come home, relax, be happy, feel like your space makes you smile, and when it doesn’t, because it’s boring or cluttered or dysfunctional, it’s not working for you. All those things affect people, and not everybody thinks about it like designers do. We know that. But when you talk, you have to kind of get clients thinking about it. And then they’re like, “I see what you’re saying. Yeah, I would be more happy if I could figure out where to put my boots when I came in the door and hang my coat, and there’s a place for my keys.”

What does success mean to you?
I want my clients to be really happy. That makes me happy, when they’re so thrilled with everything. I’m a budget-conscious person by nature, so I take all of that very seriously, especially having gone through the custom-build process myself. I love when I can get clients something they want in their budget, and they’re just thrilled. That’s why a steady stream of clients would be nice, and [connecting with] that dream client would be cool. And ultimately, I would love to expand to Hawaii.

The other hardest place on Earth to be an interior designer?
I know, but I already have these Alaska skills, and they’re transferable. Plus, we can get direct flights to most islands—it’s kind of Alaska’s favorite place to vacation.

What is the biggest thing you know now that you wish you had known as you were starting your business?
I think it’s a self-confidence thing. That I could own it. That I could call myself an interior designer. I think I was afraid to say that in the beginning. I’d say I was a consultant. I fully respect people who have gone to school for interior design, and as a person who has an education degree, I understand that’s something you should be proud of. And I think I got stuck there, thinking I needed a degree to be legit. It took a lot of people literally coming to my door and being wowed for me to be like, “Oh, not everybody can do this?”

To learn more about Kjerstin Boorstein, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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