50 states project | Feb 6, 2020 |
How this California designer filters for candidates with character

The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers we admire, state by state. Today, we catch up with Los Angeles–based Brigette Romanek, a former handbag designer who, after designing for friends and family, launched the firm Hancock Design with Estee Stanley in 2016 and then her own firm, Romanek Design Studio, in 2018. In addition to telling us about the 1925 Spanish colonial house she designed for the CEO of creative management firm The Only Agency, she shares what it’s like working with famous clients, how being named to the AD100 changed her business, and why she makes a conscious effort to find inspiration in the little things.

You launched your firm fairly recently. Can you tell me when you fell in love with design and how you made that your real job?
I didn’t study design, but from the moment I was born, I had an innate love of design and composition—of what made me feel good, the kinds of environments that made me feel bad, and all these heightened feelings about my surroundings.

How did that manifest when you were a kid?
My grandmother worked at a factory that produced magazines, so she’d bring copies home when she ended her shift at midnight. They provided this opportunity to look out into the world and see that there’s more than one type of sofa, or a sofa doesn’t have to just be a piece of brown furniture. I didn’t really read the text, and it wasn’t like I understood there could be a career in any of this—I would just look at the images and say, “This is beautiful and makes me feel great,” or “That one I don’t like so much,” and analyze why. It was so much fun to look at those pages and think about what could be.

A few years ago, I moved into Hancock Park. I had taken some friends with me to see the house I wanted, and they all said, “Absolutely not. This house is horrible—it’s too old, it’s a mess.” But I could see what it should be in my mind, in my heart. And I said, “No, I'm taking it.” Within six weeks, I had completely transformed the house—no one could believe it! That’s also how I got my very first client: She came into the house, saw what I had done, and said, “Well, I’m working with someone, but I don’t really love how it’s going—can you help me?” And I shrugged and said, “OK, sure.” It never even occurred to me that I couldn’t.

When you were a little kid with big dreams, looking at magazines, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always been a creative soul. I sang for a while and then I designed handbags, which was amazing. They started as Christmas presents for friends, and then their friends liked them, so it kind of carried on. And then I was lucky to start getting phone calls from Barneys and Harvey Nichols. I was grateful and blown away, but it was not something I ever knew I was going to be as a professional.

When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I took a step back. At that point, the handbag business had become bigger than I ever imagined—it was quite overwhelming. We moved to London for a bit because my husband was working on a film there, and when we came back, I had all of these handbags in storage that I wanted to get rid of. I decided to have a sale in our new home, and that’s when all of these incredible women came in and said, “We love the bags, but love your house—could you help me?” And I said, “Let’s do it.”

I love that. In some ways, your design business mirrors the handbag business—in the sense that one person said, ‘I love that,’ and then it became a career.
Yes, it was very organic and pure of heart.

How this California designer filters for candidates with character
‘This is a happy house with super-cool homeowners,’ says Romanek. ‘The living room is fun, just like them!’ Bright splashes of color and playful touches, like layering a round rug on top of a square one, telegraph the clients’ fun-loving personalities. Douglas Friedman

So when you helped that first friend—was that a job, or was it more just helping a friend?
It started off as just helping my friend to do a few things because she and her husband were working with [another designer] and they didn’t like the direction. They were a little bit shy to hire someone else, so I was like, “No problem, I’ll help you.” They had a house in Malibu as well, and when they asked me to help with that one, I said, “If I do that, I should probably charge something.” So it grew from there.

How did you learn the business side of the design world?
By tripping and falling and getting up. That’s just the truth. The design business is such an interesting one in so many ways—one of them being that if you talk to 10 different designers, you ask them how they charge, you’ll get 10 different answers. I found what I thought was fair to my client and suited my firm, and so that’s how I came to where I am now, just figuring it all out as I go.

If I’m going to a house in Malibu, and it takes me three hours to get there and back, that’s part of my workday. And I can’t always do it, so I’ll need to hire someone to help me. And is that an assistant, or a fellow designer? And if it is a designer, what’s there for them to be paid? So [I made all these decisions] step by step, and [the business] just kept revealing itself to me, as to what it is and what it should be. And it continues to. I hope I never stop learning or I never just think I’ve nailed it all, because then there’s nowhere to go from there.

How big is your firm now? What does everybody do?
I started in June 2018 with two people. Since then, I’ve hired an additional six, so it’s nine of us now.

Who were those first hires? How did you decide what you needed to get started?
The first hire was an accountant, but in the office, the first hire was someone who does windows, and a draftsman. [Those hires] allowed me to have perspective on everything I was doing, and a fresh pair of eyes on the science of design. When I was first starting, [I’d say], “Oh, my gosh, that’s a pretty piece of furniture,” and then it gets to the house and you can’t quite angle it just so. [I learned] it’s important to look at it in a floor plan and have it laid out—that’s the professional way to do it.

From there, I hired my right hand, which has been a lifesaver, because she’s knowledgeable about design and she knows me very well. If I can’t be on-site and a piece of furniture is coming in, she is my voice and eyes—she’s able to say, “Brigette would want it this way,” which is absolutely invaluable.

Left: ‘This kitchen was a series of small rooms that we opened up and made brighter,’ says Romanek. Instead of traditional subway tile, she used an elongated tile in deep charcoal gray. ‘Design is in the details!’ Douglas Friedman | Right: Romanek linked the breakfast area to the adjoining kitchen by using the same elongated tiles, but in a shade of white. The marble table brings in both colors to cement the connection. Douglas Friedman

How did you find that person who had that mind meld and understood your vision so well?
I was actually shopping at the store she worked at, and I just thought she was impeccable. She didn’t know I was a designer. It wasn’t like she was trying to impress me in that way. She just cared about what she was doing, it was so evident. The detail she gave me on the piece of furniture I was looking to purchase—I hadn’t seen that. [Eventually, I went back and] I spoke to her [about a job] and she said, “I would love to come on board.” What we do is always a trial period, and at the end, we discuss and we make sure that we’re a good fit. So she’s been with me for the past year and three months.

How many projects are you working on at one time?
We have 16 right now. I take different projects for different reasons. There’s a house that we’re working on right now that I find absolutely incredible—a spectacular Old Hollywood home from the 1930s that’s only five rooms—and then there are homes that we do from the ground up. It really runs the gamut. Commercial projects, retail, all of it. I love all of it, and respond to all parts of design. When people ask, “Are you residential or commercial?” I’m like, “I’m both!”

What have been some of the biggest challenges since you started your firm?
Building a team. Having employees is one thing, but building a team is something else. I love the environment of a team because there’s a level and quality of work and caring, not just someone who’s here to punch the clock. Because I have such passion and respect for what we’re doing, I want to have like-minded people surround me in the firm.

We’re in the service industry, working in service of our clients, and 90 percent of our day is problem-solving. So you need to thrive in that environment. Having people who know what they’re doing, who stand beside you and have your back and you can trust and believe in is really key.

How this California designer filters for candidates with character
A vibrant Fornasetti cabinet takes center stage in a simple, clean dining room with Mario Bellini chairs around a B&B Italia table. ‘I love understated elegance and charm,’ says Romanek. ‘The guests and the food will be the stars in this room.’Douglas Friedman

What do you look for when you’re hiring? How do you know someone’s the right fit?
The thing is, everyone gives good interviews nowadays, and you can get them inside the firm, and kind of go, “What happened?” So I’ve really begun looking at character more than anything. Someone’s resume could read incredibly well, and then you get them through their trial period, and you’re kind of scratching your head, [thinking] that doesn’t seem like the person I read about. So really, it’s feeling out someone’s character, and [whether] they’ll be there when you really need them—will they stay on-site past 6 or 7 or whatever the case may be? [I’m looking for] someone who has heart and loves what they’re ​​​doing and is always curious. That has been the hardest part.

But I’m happy to say that when I started, it was just two people and me, and those people are still with me. And we have since added people who genuinely love design—[even] in its worst moments. I always say, “Look, we can have a party all day long. As long as you know what you’re here to do and you do it well, we can have the best time.”

What was it like to learn about the trade coming from outside of that world? How did you navigate that as you were starting your business?
I never thought for a second that I wouldn’t do this—in the sense that I didn’t know I would do it, but then once I got in it, it was like, “Oh, of course this is where I belong.” I’m so determined to get it figured out—and to speak to someone who might be more knowledgable about something [if I don’t know what to do]. I’m not hard-headed; I want the information, I want to get better, I want to grow. Yes, to sit in a class or to read about things [has] been very helpful, but, really, the on-the-job training has been the best lesson—and there have been some terrible lessons. I say to myself, “OK, not repeating that. Now I know better.”

Things happen, and when they do, I own it. I don’t try to make excuses. I own it, and then do whatever I need to do [to make it right]. Just the other day, I somehow unfortunately missed an email where a client wanted to change a fabric. So a bolt of fabric arrives, I’m raving about how beautiful the fabric is—because it was really beautiful—and then my client says, “This is not right.” And I 100 percent apologized profusely, but then on my drive, leaving the client’s house, it’s like, “OK, what happened here? I don’t want this to happen again, so how can I make sure it doesn’t?” I went home and typed up notes to share with the team. Not that the team had done it—I had!—but I said, “This is a way that we can do this better.”

My brother has this kids’ book [about making the most of mistakes], it’s called Beautiful Oops!, and that’s kind of what it turned out to be. The client was fine. I ended up paying for the new fabric to be expedited. So those things happen, and you have to be OK with that. You have to say, “OK, what will I do better now?” That’s the key.

When you look ahead, where do you see opportunity for your firm to grow? What are your hopes for the next two or five or 20 years?
My job is to help bring beauty into the world and into people’s hearts and souls. I want my client’s home to be their diary and love letter to themselves. I want to be seen as a designer who can help implement new ideas in design. So does that mean furniture design in the future? Maybe yes, but only if I’m bringing something that is unique.

I don’t want to do any of it just to do it. If I’m going to do a product of some sort, it has to be because I can’t find it or I haven’t seen anything like it. It has to have a point of view. I want this firm to be recognized as contributing to the community and doing something unique and special and worthy of my clients.

Where do you get inspired? What keeps you feeling optimistic and creative and ready for the next project?
Someone was just saying to me how they wanted to take a few days off to look at things in a new light. But for me, I’m just inspired by every single thing. It sounds corny, but it is genuinely the truth. I’m sitting with somebody in a restaurant and I’m listening, but there’s another part of me that’s [thinking], “Oh, is that wall green? Maybe if it were green, it would do this.”

I’m inspired by original minds, by artists who have a new take on things. I’m inspired by a design from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Just this morning, the leaves on my driveway were so humongous that they didn’t make any sense—they were so spectacular, in this crazy yellow color. I had brought some of the leaves in and was using them in a vase. I had a meeting with a client, and [realized yellow would be perfect] when we were choosing a color for chairs. I went into my office, grabbed the leaves, and we’re now trying to find a fabric that’s that color. So inspiration comes from everywhere, and you don’t know when it’s going to come. You’ve just got to stay open.

Left: ‘A running theme in my interiors is a mix—that way they don’t age quickly,’ says Romanek. ‘The design brief here was taken from the incredible photo.’ Douglas Friedman | Right: Romanek added custom outdoor upholstery to the already-landscaped exterior. Douglas Friedman

How do you stay open like that? I feel like sometimes between phones and deadlines, it’s easy to close yourself off.
It’s a conscious effort—remembering to be in the present, to take in what’s happening right now. Just the idea that I can see the color red, that’s incredible, the color green, that’s incredible. It sounds so corny, but all of this is a real gift, and I’m saying this because I have to remind myself, too.

Where are you and your team shopping—in person in the city, or online?
Los Angeles is fantastic in that there are so many places to go, but there are also many artists here that show pieces out of their homes or garages. You can find such unique work here in all different areas and mediums, so it’s been easy that way. And then online you have access to everything across the globe, so that’s also really helpful. And then making custom things as well—I have my guy who will make me a custom sofa that I think is right for this one client, or my person who will make furniture for me if I’m going to do something in an art deco mode. I’m constantly sourcing everywhere, all over the planet as much as I can, trying to discover things that haven’t been overused, or that are unique.

How do you describe your design style? What are people coming to you for?
Eclecticism. Here at the office, we call it liveable luxe. I want you to be able to have a room that you think is absolutely beautiful and takes your breath away. But I also want you to be able to use and enjoy it. You can have friends over and not feel like you have to look at the room from behind a velvet rope.

And it’s a real high-low mix. It all looks very expensive, but you’d be surprised at some of the [prices]—some pieces really aren’t [expensive], it really runs the gamut. And I love that because I have children and I want them to be able to enjoy every part of the house. I can find a $5 vase and put it on top of a Prouvé table, and the combination couldn't be more beautiful. It just needs to be harmonious.

You have cultivated some pretty big celebrity clients, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and Demi Moore. Does their fame change the project in any way?
Not really. I honestly view it as any client that allows me to come and do what I do. Besides, here in L.A., seeing a celebrity is just part of the culture. So sometimes it doesn't even register for me, it’s just about the work. And I’ve been really lucky that maybe one celebrity might have told someone else [about me]. That feels good, because I know they have access to lots of things, and have chosen to work with me.

How this California designer filters for candidates with character
The dressing room, once covered in dark wallpaper, got a bright, white update.Douglas Friedman

How do you channel your clients’ personalities into the project?
It really is learning to speak the language of your clients. And people are different, so you just have to be tuned in. You have to be present and keep asking questions. You have to not be scared of what you’re showing, and you can’t be ego-based in any way, shape or form. That’s how you dig out what’s really happening.

I [worked with] a gentleman who kept saying, “I want it warm.” So I kept showing fabrics that are technically warm colors, but it wasn’t what he was speaking about. Then he came into the office in a very chic furry Gooseberry sweater and suede shoes, and I suddenly realized that he meant texture. I showed him different textures, and [it worked].

Are there things, then, that you gravitate toward? Pieces or motifs or elements that really bring those feelings for you to the forefront?
I like big, comfy sofas. I like floor lamps, because they’re the warmest form of light. Overhead lighting is nice, but I have lots of funky floor lamps, because I think in the evening with a beautiful blanket and soft light and your book or glass of wine, there’s nothing better. And greenery—it’s always the last piece that I top a home off with.

How do you do the reveal? Are you doing installs over time, or do you want that wow moment for them when everything is done?
It depends on the client and what works best for them. The best thing usually is installing over a couple days, and then they have the big reveal. I hardly do [long, slow, piece-by-piece installations], because I did that when I first started, and it’s hard for the client to [envision] the end result, so they can be like, “I’m not sure.” And you find yourself saying, “But just wait!” It's crazy-making for them—and for the designer, because you know what it’s going to be. You’re like, “Oh, man, I wish they could understand.” And so I learned that it’s [usually] better to do the one big install. Unless it’s a [regular] client that trusts you a hundred percent.

How this California designer filters for candidates with character
A bathroom carved out of a former closet is sophisticated in smoky hues and mirrored finishes. ‘The design brief for this space was to be subtle but dimensional—moody, lasting elegance,’ says Romanek.Douglas Friedman

You were named to the AD100 in December 2018—six months after you started your own business. How did that feel, and how did that change the trajectory of your firm?
To be honest, it blew my mind, because of looking at that magazine from the time I was a kid, and it really being like the bible of interior design.

How did you find out?
Well, you get this letter, and it’s like “Congratulations.” It was absolutely nuts. I knew they had seen some of my work—some had been published [in print] or put online, but I was so honored. Really, all it’s done is made me want to do even better work—it’s [brought a new] level of inspiration and pressure in the best way possible.

I love that. Did it change who was calling or how you get new projects?
Projects come through so many different ways, whether it’s word of mouth or something they’ve seen online or in a magazine, or if they’ve gone to a space that I’ve worked on. But being part of that absolutely did elevate things in the sense that people and clients are listening a little bit more. They say, “OK, well if you think that’s the way to go, then let’s go ahead and do it that way.” So it’s been helpful. I keep thinking someone’s going to come from behind a curtain and say, “Just kidding!”

It’s been in print twice now—it’s definitely real! Tell me a little bit about what home means to you.
This sounds very L.A. of me, but I’m a Cancer, so I’m in a shell. I live in a shell, and that shell is very important to me. What home is for me: It’s the place where you can most be yourself. It’s your safety, it’s your diary, it’s your love letter, it’s your security. It’s your comfort, it’s beauty, it’s joy, it’s memories, it’s design, it’s warmth. Oh, my gosh, home is everything.

To learn more about Brigette Romanek, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

Homepage image: Mark Romanek

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