The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Atlanta-based designer Justin Q. Williams of TradeMark Design Co.—and current contestant on HGTV’s Design Star: Next Gen—tells us about filming during COVID, how he gets his clients to open up, and the hack that helps him avoid saying no to work.
I’ve been waking up early on Wednesday mornings to watch the new episode of Design Star: Next Gen for the past few weeks. What’s the experience been for you as you watch the episodes when they air?
It has been a whirlwind, that’s for sure. My castmates and I have a group chat, and for all of us, it just brings back so many memories, good and bad, watching it.
You must be buried in emails and Instagram messages, too.
Yes. I try to be as engaged as possible on social media. I’ll choose certain days—typically Wednesday is that day—to go through all the messages and respond. Even if it’s just a minor thing, like, “I love your work on the show,” I’ll respond to make sure that I’m engaging with the audience, because that’s really important. You don’t want to follow somebody and take the effort to message, and [they] just read it and don’t message back.
Totally. Going back to the beginning—for you, is there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a designer?
People observe designers and maybe observe the lifestyle of designers, and they want to do that. They want to become that because it looks fun and easy. Well, for me, it was different—I started with this whole craze as a child. I loved architecture, I loved to draw houses. We’d be in church, and I’d be drawing houses on the back of a program, so my parents noticed that early on.
We were renovating our family home when I was 12 or 13. My dad came into my room—I remember it like it was yesterday—and asked, “Are you really serious about architecture?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “OK, well, I got you these programs, and I want you to teach yourself how to use them.” The programs were Chief Architect and AutoCAD.
No way. The real professional-grade stuff! And here I was as a kid, expressing my love of houses by building mansions on The Sims.
It’s funny that you say that, because a cousin of mine messaged me on Facebook when I was telling everyone about the show. She said, “Look at you. You went from building houses on The Sims to TV.” That was literally where it started.
So when I got these programs from my dad, I was really serious about it—I read, I Googled, and I taught myself how to use them. I had a cousin who was taking a drafting class, so he would teach me things. It came to the point when we were renovating the house, and my dad asked me to draw the existing house with the new addition of the patio, the decking and the hot tub. I drew it in 2D and 3D, and when the contractor came to the house, my dad gave him those plans. The contractor asked, “What architect did you use to draw these plans?” My dad said, “My son did these.” He goes, “The 12-year-old?” So that’s where it started.
That contractor, Mr. Robert Perry, he took me under his wing, and I would draw plans for his clients every summer throughout high school.
Yes. It got to a point where I didn’t want to draw anymore. I wanted to learn how he would erect these structures, so he allowed me to come onto the sites with him. It started with me handing him a hammer, to me hammering, to sawing. That’s how I started to become more hands-on with my work. Initially, when I first started [my own firm], I was doing all of my work.
Learning from the ground up?
Yeah. I would paint the walls, I would sand them, spackle, all of that stuff, and do all of that work myself because I knew how to do it. My start was a little different, to say the least.
How has that kind of hands-on knowledge shaped your work?
It definitely makes my contractors’ lives a little more difficult, because I know how it should be done and how it’s supposed to look, so I’m not an easy one to get over. The good news is that I’ve been able to weed out the bad contractors and the good ones.
When was the pivot into design for you?
I went to school in Florida, transferred back to Atlanta, and I got my first apartment. I decorated the place as I felt it should look, and I did a pretty good job. You know, you’re in college, you’re broke, you don’t really have anything to work with, but you just make the best of it, and I did. My friend’s aunt came over and was moving into this beautiful condo—like three bedrooms in Smyrna—and she said, “Hey, Justin. I know that you’re into interiors. Can you come decorate my space?” I went and talked to my parents first, because I had never done a real job before with a client. I was 18 or 19 at the time.
I decorated her space, and she came in and just started crying. It did look nice. I did the custom drapery, all of that. She ended up telling her sales agent in the building, and by the end of the year, I had done 10 units in that building. I had to then create a name for myself, because at this point, I was being referred to different people and I didn’t have a [business] name. It was just, “Yeah, Justin. The guy that decorates houses.”
What were you studying in college? Was it design-related?
No—I was studying business. At the time, I didn’t know that interior design was a real job. I think because I come from a family that’s a little more literal and less artsy. My parents were thinking, “Go to school for business, and you can do the design thing on the side.” That was the track they had set me on. The only reason that I didn’t want to do architecture is because a lot of math was involved, and I could not stand math. My cousin, who is now an architectural drafter, was in school at the time for architecture, and he was also telling me, “There’s a lot of math involved, so if you don’t enjoy math, then you’re not going to like this job,” so that deterred me.
So you talked to your parents. How did they help you figure out how to structure that early business?
I was nervous. It’s a big responsibility. Someone is forking over thousands of dollars for you to decorate their space, but my mom and dad, they were super supportive, as they have been throughout the trajectory of my career. They said, “Look, just do it. If you mess up, we’ve got your back.” That was literally all I needed. That gave me all of the confidence I needed to move forward in doing this space, and I’m really glad I did.
You got paid for those 10 units in that building?
Yes. From that point, I talked to [my parents] about pricing structure, and that’s when we started to do our research on how to charge. For me, starting out, the easiest way to charge was flat rate while I was building my portfolio.
You launched your business while you were going to college.
Yes. I was 19 when all of this happened.
How did running a business and going to business school parallel for the next few years? School had to feel so real and useful to you.
It was very real. I could take what I learned that day and apply it to what I was doing. At the time, I was working as a youth counselor at a church here in [the] Buckhead [neighborhood], and I was able to work my part-time job, go to school, and apply what I learned in school to my business.
It got to a point where my business started to take a lot of my time. I hated to quit the job that I was working at because I loved the kids, the staff and everyone there. I still keep in touch with them to this day. But I had to quit, because at that point, the business started to kind of take over my life. That happened when I was 21, and I’ve been [focused on] the business since.
Where did you look in the beginning to help you figure out how to create the structure you needed?
Definitely Google. I pulled so many templates, from questions that I should ask at the consultation to processes and how to shop. Google was my best friend. I did a lot of research, and that is so important. It’s easy to ask people what to do, but you have to think about it. They can tell you what they did, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you.
How much does your business today look like that business you dove into at 21?
Completely different. I think about that often because when I first started, it was flat rate, and it seemed very easy because a lot of what I did was retail shopping. I didn’t know until [later] that you are also supposed to make money on the pieces that you sell.
You were just shopping for people, charging a flat fee for your time, and doing all the design and install.
Yeah—I was doing things like installing chandeliers myself. I would get on 20-foot ladders to paint two-story walls myself. They would pay me, and I would charge them for the lighting install. I would charge all of that separately from the design fee.
I remember, in that particular building where I started in Smyrna, which is a suburb of Atlanta, there was this blogger and she was big-time then. There was no Instagram, it was just Twitter, and she had maybe 200,000 followers there, which was a lot then. She was one of the people who asked me to do her space—a two-story loft with 20-foot ceilings—and I painted one accent wall, which of course, was the biggest one in the apartment. I rented this ladder. I got my dad’s truck. My cousin helped me. [The blogger] tweeted that picture of me and my cousin up on the ladder [with a caption like] “Having my place done by Justin,” with my Twitter handle. That’s how I got a little bit more popular then, but that was a long time ago.
How many projects are you working on now?
Right now, I have eight open projects and eight waitlisted. Eight is my sweet spot, where I can make sure that everyone is being tended to properly. Also, I have Ashley, who’s a huge help to me as my project manager, so we’re able to dance really well with eight projects.
Is it just the two of you?
Yes. We subcontract for everything else. We also have floating interns, because I’ve found that a lot of people do want to work with us. A long time ago, my older cousin, a serial entrepreneur, told me, “Justin, you have to like the people you work with. If you don’t enjoy the people you work with, it’s not going to work.” I take heed of that because Ashley and I, we really enjoy each other. It’s like we can turn work on, or we can turn work off. We can talk to each other. It’s like a family, and that’s what I’m used to, because when I worked at the church, it operated as a family more than as employees, and it just made us work really well together. I take those same principles and apply them to my business now.
How do you decide what projects you say yes to?
Well, now I’m able to be a little bit more selective, which is nice. But the thing is, I’m really a softy and I don’t like to say no, but I know that sometimes it would better serve the client if they went elsewhere. What I try to do is give them a little bit of direction, and if I’m able to help them at least plan the space out, I try to do that, as well. It’s my hope to not just say no without giving them options.
Does “options” mean doing a little bit of work for them, or does it mean suggesting other designers?
Sometimes it’s suggesting other designers. Sometimes people just really, really want to work with us, so we’ll try to find a way that they can. Maybe that’s just me planning the space and them executing, or us just consulting on what they should do. That way, they can ask us questions about, “What should go here? What pieces should I get for this room?” or things like that. Most times, it is a concept, versus full service.
You have a fee structure where they can pay for that time, then?
Correct. That time would be an hourly charge, versus them retaining us for services.
And then you don’t do any of the procurement for them.
What makes that so important to keep as part of your business?
When I started, I yearned for clients. I really wanted clients, and now, people are knocking down the door to work with me. I don’t want to not be able to serve the public—I don’t want to let the public down.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.
It’s a lot of pressure, but I’ve found that even with us just consulting with people, they’re happy because I put just as much work into consults as my full-service clients.
Does it feel like you’re leaving money on the table?
Not necessarily, because typically when we consult, it’s because they’re not able to produce a full budget, you know? I don’t feel like I’m leaving money on the table, because really, the money’s not there.
How do you approach billing with your full-service projects?
It’s a retainer, and then we deduct our hourly billing from the retainer each month. And then markup on trade product.
Speaking of product, you’ve got some designs in the works.
I recently signed a contract with TOV Furniture—I’ll be designing for them with five other designers under the new collection. With COVID, the issue we’re running into is product availability. I’ve found that in talking to colleagues, it’s just universal right now. The good thing is that at least [in the future] I’ll be able to pull from my actual products.
Has furniture design always been on your radar?
It hasn’t, but I’ll tell you this. I’m very spiritual. Last January, I was sitting on the sofa, and I said, “God, I want something else. I want something more, but I still want it to be under the design umbrella.” It was just revealed to me that I should go into merchandising and product development, so I met with a sketch artist.
We went over what I had in my head, and she sketched it all out. I had those sketches printed on this large landscape paper, and I met with two furniture manufacturers, one here in Georgia and one in North Carolina. One quote came back for my starting lineup, which is six or seven pieces—and for those prototypes, it would have been $25,000 to $30,000. I think the other came back at $35,000 for the stuff I wanted.
That’s a big investment.
I was like, do I do this now? Do I fork over the money and shoot with these prototypes and then take the orders, or do I wait it out? This was the conversation I was having with myself.
Right before COVID.
I didn’t have anything lined up, and I just waited. I had those plans, I kept them, and I just waited, and this opportunity came up. TOV sent me a direct message.
Isn’t it funny how life unfolds sometimes?
They said, “Hey, we love your work. We love your style. You use our products. We’re looking for six African American designers to be part of this project. Would you like to be a part of this?” When I said yes, they were like, “Is there anyone that you think would be a great fit?” I pulled all of these names, and all of us are on board.
And those designs that you had drawn up a year ago, is that what you’re bringing to this collection?
Ironically, I had more drawn up recently, so now I’m trying to narrow it down. I’m sending them out to all of my family and friends, [asking], “Hey, guys, what do you think?”
Where does TV fit in?
I’ve always wanted to do television, because I’ve always wanted to get my message out to people, which was to help people live better. TV happened to fall in my lap. I had been trying over the course of maybe eight years. I’ve done the Zoom calls, I’ve done the Skype calls, all of that. I’ve done the in-person calls—in 2011, I actually tried out for Design Star, but I did not get a callback, and I was crushed.
How things have changed!
Last year, they emailed me and said, “Hey, we’d love for you to be a part of this project.” I’m thinking, “OK. What is it?” [They said], “It’s something with HGTV.” I’m like, Sure it is.
That could be a lot of different things.
Exactly. But they ended up telling me, “Hey, we’ve been following you for over a year, and we want you to be a part of the project. We want to hop on a call with you,” and so that’s what happened.
And then you went off and filmed the show this past fall. What was your takeaway from the experience?
I’ll tell you the truth, the filming experience was difficult. It was hard because you are so disconnected, and filming during COVID makes it even more difficult because you are triple times disconnected. That part was hard, and being away from my family, my friends and my dog, Sir Alon.
Is this like The Bachelor, where they take away your cell phone?
Thankfully, we were still able to have our cell phone, but every day for six weeks, it was literally [going the five minutes] from the hotel to the set, and that was your life. It was very difficult, because we filmed 12 to 13 hours a day and had COVID tests every two days, so the process was a lot. However, what I was able to take away from the show was really being able to identify my brand. You hear people say that all the time: “I’m a brand, I’m a brand, I’m a brand,” but what is your brand? I was really, truly able to identify my brand from the show.
That’s such a good takeaway. Where did you land?
I was able to identify my brand as Penthouse Panache—an elevated take on traditional design.
Oh, that’s sharp. I like that.
What I learned from the show was that when you have an elevator pitch, you should be able to say that phrase, whatever your brand is, and they should instantly be able to identify the brand in their head. When you think, “Penthouse Panache, an elevated take on transitional design,” I literally think of a penthouse that’s well decorated.
Do you think that will change your clients’ experience with your firm?
Absolutely. Because now, I’m able to say that not only with confidence, but knowing that I can produce that for you, so then you become a part of my brand. It’s almost like your initiation as a client.
But for me, it’s all about function first. We have very detailed questions in our questionnaire that we review at the point of consultation, because it’s really not about us. It’s easy to make a pretty room. I tell people that all the time. It is really easy to make a pretty room. You can follow a picture. You can follow people online and mimic what they do. It’s much more difficult to make a space that’s functional and pretty. I think that’s where a lot of interior designers struggle, because they just want to make it pretty, and that’s not our job. Our job is to really design and create a space that is functional for an individual or their family.
What kind of questions are you asking to really understand function?
One of our biggest is, “How often do you entertain? How [are you] using the space? Are the kids using the space?” Because then we need to get into performance fabrics. “Who lives in this house? How often do you cook?” If we’re working in the kitchen, we’re thinking about bar stools and the fabrics. “Where do you guys gather? Do we use the space to watch television? Do we use it to play games?” We think about all of those things, because although they may seem minor, when you think about the daily function of a family or an individual, they’re going to be using that space every day, and it should be comfortable and functional for them.
How do you get people to tell you what they really do and not what they aspire to do?
Because I’m not the one writing all of this down—it’s really more of a conversation. Ashley is there with me, writing all of this down, but she’s in the background. When people feel like they are being recorded, that’s when you get those [aspirational] answers [rather than realistic ones]. When it’s a conversation, they don’t think twice about it, so at the end, I have all the answers that I need.
It’s really casual, because I’m a super casual person. I mean, I’m pretty well put together, but the thing is, my shoes may come from Amazon. My jeans may come from H&M. I just put it together well, so I’m not coming to them in Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton. I think, automatically, my clients don’t feel pressured or intimidated. It’s just like you’re having a friend over—that’s how we operate. The whole Southern charm thing, I’ve got that down pat because that’s how I was raised.
Was that intentional or just innately who you are?
I think it’s just who I am. It’s no secret that we work in a very stuffy industry—it can be a bit snooty at times, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can still create beautiful spaces and elevate lifestyles, and work in multimillion-dollar homes, and just be a regular person. You don’t have to change who you are because of what you do.
You really showcase your personality and that sense of elevated relatability on social media, too.
I wanted people to know me. It was less of my work because, again, it’s easy to make a beautiful space, but what we do is so personal that I wanted people to feel like they knew who I was before they invited me into their home. It’s so funny because a lot of times, what I get is, "I feel like I know you. How’s Alon? How’s your mom and dad?" Because those are people I showcase on my page, because that’s who I am. I love my dog, I love my family and my friends, so people feel like they know who I am via social media, which is really what I had intended.
I want to go back to the TV thing for a second. Does being on TV change the kind of client work that comes in?
I think when you’re on television, people feel like they have access, so you start getting calls from everyone. What we did was put together an information sheet with all of our pricing and information about the process. Typically, we’re able to weed out the bad apples there, because when people see a certain number, they’re like, “Oh.” But other people see that same number and they’re like, “That’s fine.” I think it’s really important to just have kind of like that initial conversation via that information sheet.
Can you tell me a little bit about living and working in Atlanta?
Our city slogan is “Every Day Is an Opening Day,” because in Atlanta, when things turn 10 years old, they tear them down and build something brand new. Everything in the city is new, and that translates into new homes every single day. You have people who move into these spaces, and typically they’re very large—the average square footage of a house will maybe be 2,500 square feet. Here, even the townhomes are 3,000 square feet. But the thing is, people move into these sprawling places and they have absolutely no clue what to do with it, so they call someone like me.
Also, our design community is very, very small. As an African American designer, it’s even smaller. Everyone knows everyone, pretty much.
The good, close kind of small?
For me, it’s a close-knit kind of small. Everyone may not relate to that, but I think because of my personality—
You don’t strike me as the looking-sideways type.
No. I think about it this way. Literally every day, right now, as we’re speaking, there are hundreds and thousands of homes going up, which means that there are hundreds and thousands of opportunities for all of us. That’s the reason I don’t look sideways at anyone. I’m also willing to help anyone who asks me for help, or a resource, or a vendor. I don’t have a problem with that at all, because there’s room for everyone.
Have you always felt that way?
I have. The reason I feel that is because people helped me. There were two [local designers] in particular, Annette Joseph and Erika Ward—they helped me along the way, so if I had a question or needed guidance on something, they connected the dots for me. I want to pay that forward for people who are coming behind me, and I always urge others to do the same. If I’m helping you, I urge you to do the same to someone else once you’ve dug your anchor in. It’s just really important. I think it’s something people take for granted, and they shouldn’t.
Where do you see opportunity to grow? What comes next for you?
Manufacturing. I think that is the big thing for me. And, of course, television—it’s funny, I was actually being scouted by two different production companies that were in communication with HGTV. One flew down right before I got the call for Design Star, and they filmed Ashley and me on a few different projects because they wanted to put together a reel to market to HGTV. They were in contact with the exec at HGTV and the exec said, “Well, wait a minute … ”
“We know him.”
Right. Literally, the next week, I got the call for Design Star. But that production company says that they still want to shoot, and HGTV is saying, “We want you to come out to California,” so I really do think television is going to be another opportunity—and a way for me to carry a product line. This furniture deal with TOV is a great stepping stone. I just feel like it was meant to happen because of the way I literally had the plans, you know what I mean?
You were ready.
I was ready. I made the plans, and I’m a firm believer in if you take one step, God will take three. I took my step last year just to say that this is something that I really want to do, and I can see it, but I may not have all the answers. That is how I operate—I don’t operate in fear, but in faith. I don’t always have the answers—I just know what I want. I may not know how to get there, but I’ll figure it out.
Homepage image: Courtesy of TradeMark Design Co.