50 states project | Jun 2, 2023 |
How this Massachusetts designer brought a contemporary look to a traditional market

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, Boston-based designer Sashya Thind Fernandes tells us how a business coach transformed her firm, why she decided to downsize after scaling up, and why she doesn’t think clients always really want transparency.

What are your early memories of being drawn to design?
I’m a third-generation designer. My grandmother is an interior designer and architect, and my mom is an architect and artist. My mom was 20 when she had me, so I was going to university with her, and after that I remember going to her studio after school, or to my grandmother’s studio when I was on vacation, and hanging out with them and their teams, or seeing my mom hunched over a drafting board. Hand renderings were a big part of the work then, so they used to do these beautiful pen-and-ink renderings and watercolors on vellum.

Our home [in Mumbai] was always designed. There was an affinity toward glass and stone and natural materials—a lot of texture and a lot of art. There were always paintings and canvases and oils lying around, and I remember that odor of the oil paintings and the turpentine. My mom was into nudes, so there were these nude paintings of beautiful women all over; my grandmother was into landscapes.

Did the field pique your interest from an early age?
I remember them working a lot—it was part of our everyday routine. Late into the evening, weekends, after school—there was a lot of that. So my early memory was actually the opposite: that I didn’t want to do that.

Design is a very all-encompassing kind of career. We give a lot of our personal time and mind space. We totally get immersed in it and we’re passionate about it, and I remember them being very passionate about it as well. I mean, it was different back then—I think there was a greater level of respect [than we have today because] there wasn’t the internet—but they had the same kinds of issues that we have even now: staffing issues, difficult contractors or clients. I remember them struggling through that, and even just struggling to get paid. So I thought to myself, “I don’t want to do that. This doesn’t seem like a good way to spend my time.” Even though creativity was definitely part of my being, I fought it for a long time.

Where did you want to focus that energy instead?
I was going to study psychology. My mom and grandmother did not pressure me at all—they were both like, “OK, whatever you want to do. You’re good at many things.” But my father sat me down and said, “Listen, take the entrance test [for architecture school] and see how it goes.”

At first, I was a little rebellious. I was actually already in another city just getting started on my psychology studies at another university. But he was like, “Just give it [a try].” And I went for the test—I thought, “Let’s see how this goes,” right? No harm. But it turns out I did very well, and that really confused me. I was like, “This seems to be in my blood. Am I really fighting this?” It felt right after that. And I thought to myself, “I’ll do it differently. I won’t let the same issues [I saw my mother and grandmother struggle with] happen to me.” Oh, my gosh, famous last words.

Was your father also in the field? Or what was it that he saw that made him want to pull you back toward design?
I don’t know, actually. He was an airline pilot, so not in design, but he was very good at understanding what everyone’s affinity was. He had that skill with all me and my siblings, all four of us. And in those days, we didn’t really have dialogues with our parents. We were like, “Yes, of course, we’ll do what you tell us to do.” So I think there was that too—but I honestly thought, “Let me just see how the test goes.” That was my own way of coming around to it.

What was your experience in architecture school like?
Architecture school was rigorous. I don’t think I slept a single night in those five years. But it taught you discipline; it taught you that you only got better if you practiced. And it taught you about the world outside that little bubble that you live in—that there’s so much to be considered, from the client’s mindset and the programming to the timing and the budget.

After that program, how did you imagine your career unfolding?
I thought, “I need to learn. I need to absorb. I need to apprentice. I need to work for people.” But I knew that after that learning period, I would have my own studio. That was very clear to me. And maybe it came so easily because I had seen both my mother and grandmother do it. And that’s exactly what I did.

How this Massachusetts designer brought a contemporary look to a traditional market
The designer created an oasis clad in white oak and soothing tones for a prefabricated cottage overlooking Long Island Sound Jared Kuzia

Did you ever have dreams of a multigenerational family business?
I did. [My mom and grandmother] both still have their firms back home in India. My grandmother is 87 and still practicing. My mom is 62 and still practicing. I knew that I would be in the same space. But when I got married, [my partner and I] had other plans. We decided to move out of India, and [my career] took its own journey.

You moved to England, right? And then to Boston. What were the jobs along the way there, and how did they shape your perspective?
When I moved to England, I realized that every country has their own system of licensing and building codes and materials and construction techniques. India is part of the Commonwealth, so I thought there must be some symbiosis, but it turns out that aside from being a very formal approach, nothing else was really similar. India’s like, “You’re on your own.” It’s got its own set of rules and regulations.

What do you mean by “you’re on your own”?
I mean, they have the codes, but I think you have the ability to break out of that a little bit more. There’s more experimentation. The labor costs are very low, and material costs are not terribly expensive, so you have more bandwidth to do custom work. There’s also skilled labor and a lot of artisans, so you have access to things that you would never imagine. And when you leave, you fall into this Home Depot kind of world. England had its own Home Depot kind of approach as well. There were standards that you started to fall into—like, they use this material [for this], and it’s used everywhere, and it’s very homogenous. Whereas in India, if you can dream it, you can design it, and you can build it.

That’s an interesting transition. What did it do for you to go to a place where you were more hemmed in, where there were more rules?
You just learn, right? I was 25 or 26, and I was raring to go. I was like, “OK, what’s next? What’s my next job? What am I going to do? What am I going to build?” I joined a company that did housing and development more than architecture. I learned a lot about the planning applications and the rigorous [process] that they have to follow, and why every curb cut has to be designed in that particular manner, and how different the density is—even that is such a big departure from India because of the sheer number of people. So it was different on many levels, and I was just in learning mode in England. We were there for two years, then we moved to Boston.

When I landed in Boston in 2007, I was hoping to study further. I wanted to do a master’s degree. But then the bottom fell out of the mortgage market and loans had come to a standstill for students. So it forced me to think differently. I found a job with this small boutique firm in Boston, a residential and commercial firm, [owned by] a Korean-American architect. She was one of the only architects in Boston at the time doing contemporary work. You could tell from her portfolio of work that there was an attention to detail, use of natural materials, a clear thought to sustainability. So I approached her, and she took me on as a junior designer. I was with her for five or six years after that.

How was that different from what you had done before?
[I had to learn] the building codes and the building materials and types again, for the third time. But the studio was amazing because there were four or five of us, and we really enjoyed the work—the camaraderie was amazing. Some days, we were there til two in the morning trying to get things out the door. The work was a combination of high-end residential and hospitality. We were working on cruise-ship interiors in Boston and academic institutional work as well. So there was a big opportunity to do work in every sector. We did restaurants, spas, gyms, institutional work, residential work. If you wanted to do it, [the firm principal] just gave you the bandwidth to do it. And we were all at that same age, 27, 28—really young in our careers, wanting to try everything. It was a great time, and then things slowed down and a couple of layoffs happened. She kept me on throughout that period, then I left in 2012.

What happened then?
I had a baby, and it got more challenging to balance [work and family]. The firm owner had come to depend on me quite a bit. I was trying to straddle being her right hand and being a mom for the first time. It was a struggle. I decided to leave and look for a part-time role at a larger firm so that I could continue my career but not be depended upon so much. So I took a step back and interviewed at a couple of places. It was a tough time. There were a lot of candidates, and they didn’t want young moms because they knew we had to leave at 5 o’clock to pick up our kids. So there were a lot of nos because I was also pregnant with my second one. As soon as they found out, they would rescind the offer.

I was angry, very angry, [about that] because I was like, “This can’t be real—it’s 2010.” I was quite upset with the whole situation. But I said, “Let me try freelancing,” and that worked. Small jobs started to come in, and soon I decided that I wanted to start my own firm. In that time, my previous boss had closed her firm and gone back to work for a large firm, and some of her clients who I’d worked with for years came to me. That helped me start my business and grow it.

How this Massachusetts designer brought a contemporary look to a traditional market
Natural materials mimic the landscape visible out the sliding doors, which open onto the harborJared Kuzia

What were some of those early jobs like? What was the firm’s focus in the beginning?
The focus was always contemporary work. But being in this New England market, it was difficult to find that kind of work. So you had to say yes to things that were portfolio builders and take every job that came your way. Most of my early work was kitchens and small bathroom renovations. But I had a couple of clients who really trusted me with whole homes, so that helped to kick things off. And then I had a couple of wellness clients, as well as gyms and spas. Skoah, which is a skin-care brand, was one of them—they opened two or three locations, and I worked on all of those. BodyScapes was a gym that did the same. They were loyal clients who stayed on. And then word-of-mouth [helped me gain projects] in the residential sector to grow the firm. That’s how it all started. I was able to balance things a little better and give time to the work, then I was also able to pick up my kids.

Have you been able to maintain that sense of balance?
Oh, no. You know, small businesses are like that—when it’s busy, it can get really busy. Early on I thought, “I want to grow my firm to be like eight people.” I tried it, but I realized I was managing a lot. I was taking on work that I didn’t quite enjoy. I was running around, so I was not in the studio, and not designing as much. I wasn’t giving 100 percent to clients because I was depending on staff to do so. That experience taught me a lot about what I was able to do and what I’m not able to do. By 2019, I had realized the downside of that and decided [having a big team] was not for me. I still wanted to design. I wanted to make every decision. Some designers are Type A personalities—I fall into that bucket. So it’s hard to give up complete control.

Do you have a team today, or is it just you?
It’s me and a couple of virtual freelancers. I outsource bookkeeping, virtual administration, some drafting, 3D renderings, accounting. I do all the time management and the design.

What was the breaking point that made you realize a big firm wasn’t what you wanted anymore?
I did it for two years, but I was just struggling to keep up. And things started falling [through the cracks]. Staffing is always a challenge because people come and go. I didn’t want to keep training and retraining, then they would learn and go somewhere else to make $5,000 more. It just was not the world that I know—when I worked for people, I used to work for three to five years. We used to give it a good chunk of time—we didn’t just skip jobs every six to 10 months. But I was seeing that, and I was really frustrated. So I worked with [business coach and BOH columnist] Sean Low, and told him, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not making any money because I’ve got high payroll.” So he just talked me through it. He’s very direct and was like, “I don’t think you are designed for this.” He just got through the bullshit and guided me through the whole thing. And at the end of it, I was doing bigger jobs, making more money and was less stressed. He helped me see through the weeds.

Was it shocking to get that feedback at first?
It was. When you think of a firm, you think of lots of people and big projects. But when somebody else shows you a different way of doing it—at first I didn’t believe him. I was like, “No way. How’s this going to work?” But I thought to myself, “I give clients advice, and I get frustrated when they don’t take it. I better take his advice.” I actually went to him to say, “Help me, or I’m quitting this career completely.” I was at that phase. I was burnt out. He helped me to see why I was stretching for no reason. And once I implemented his advice, it changed.

I talk to so many designers who are chasing an idea of success that they think they’re supposed to have. But when you finally figure out what makes you feel good in your business, that changes everything.
It does. I mean, there are still challenges, but at least you know the big picture, right? I think that really helped. So I scaled down immediately, then Covid happened. I mean, the timing was insane. I scaled down in October 2019. From October through December, I took it easy—it was the first time in a couple of years that I hadn’t had this massive team to manage. We were moving houses, and I decided to take a breather and be with the kids for a bit. And then in March 2020, just as I was reemerging, Covid happened.

Luckily, the work was there. In the fall of 2019, as I was finishing large projects, I just let them finish—I wasn’t taking on new work because I needed that time to be still and reevaluate. Sean had given me a lot of information. I had to think about how I was going to step into this [new phase] and what I was going to do differently. I had to sit with it and figure out what I needed moving forward—and [as I did that,] I started getting these large commissions. It’s funny how when you put it out there, it just happens, right? It was uncanny. In October, November and December, things started to come my way. And then Covid happened, and I was like, “How am I going to do these projects?” But we all learned. We learned and it was fine. I expected it to be quiet, but it was the busiest time.

Left: A modern kitchen in a Boston penthouse Michael J. Lee | Right: The skyscraper features sweeping views Michael J. Lee

Did you make other changes to your business when you scaled down?
Yes. Traditionally, people tell you that you can only make money when you have a large team, because you bill everybody at an hourly rate. Sean’s method was: You’re not going to do that because you’re not going to have a team. So how are you going to make a living that is going to be supportive of your lifestyle? He came up with a fixed-fee method. That worked for me because I do a lot of interior architecture. I’m not a traditional interior decorator in that sense because my projects tend to be more interior-architecture-based with furnishings. I work very closely with architects and homeowners when they’re building a home, for instance.

And you do both kinds of work for clients?
Not really. I mean, they will have an architect, but sometimes the architect is doing the floor plans and the architecture of the home, but they don’t get into finishes or details. Sometimes they want to, sometimes they don’t. So when they don’t, I am the person that they would call and say, “OK, we need five bathrooms done. We need the kitchens done. We need all these rooms furnished. I need all the lighting layouts, reflected ceiling plans, electrical, plumbing. I need site supervision, project management, procurement and installation.” So that becomes a pretty nice-size project. Because of that approach, a fixed-fee model seemed to work really well. So that was one of the key changes, because then it’s not dependent on how many hours you work, or how many people are on your team. You’re making a fixed fee that makes sense for you.

I like that a lot because one of my complaints to Sean when I first went to him was that gut feeling you have when you send out an invoice, and you’re dying until they pay that invoice. You’re shaving off hours and trying to make it look good, but you spend all this time thinking about it. And I was like, “I can’t do that. It just makes me nauseous.” And he’s like, “Just talk it through. They know what they’re going to spend. You know what you need to bill them at every deliverable.” And I am very data-driven. So I luckily had enough data to back me up to say, “OK, a project like this is probably gonna be 300 hours. What does that work out to?” That was one of the key strategies that changed.

Did the kind of projects you were looking for change as well?
They did. There was this shift to saying, “Do what you want to do, and don’t do what you don’t want to do.” You’re just one person now, you get to make that choice.

That’s so scary.
It is. But the size doesn’t matter as much as the people do, or the kind of project that it is. Number one is kind people. Number two, is this [project] worthy and fun to design? And number three, are they going to be able to pay the fees? So those are really the key questions when choosing a project. Of course, sometimes people fall away, because you never know until you start working with them how crazy they are.

What does a full plate look like for you these days?
For me right now, an average size job is a 6,000- to 8,000-square-foot home with finishes and furnishings—two or three of those a year, with maybe two or three smaller projects. Smaller projects are a kitchen renovation, two bathroom renovations, or two or three furnishing spaces. Those kind of interspersed with the larger projects is a good mix.

Is that also enough to create the engine for future work?
I think so. I’ve been promoting the work. I rebranded to describe my firm’s work as “warm minimalism” to really be clear about the aesthetic and the vision. That has helped to bring in the right fit.

How this Massachusetts designer brought a contemporary look to a traditional market
A waterfront home in Boston gets a refresh with a sleek contemporary kitchenJoyelle West

What is it like to be in a very stereotypically traditional place like Boston, and have something a little different to say?
Initially, I think I was reluctant to create a niche because you need to build a portfolio. But soon I realized, again with Sean’s help, that I didn’t need several projects to fill my plate. And I just needed to focus on the right kind of projects. So then the niche became more important than ever, because there are many designers in this area that do traditional very well, and if a client is looking for that, they are going to find one easily. But if you want to do something contemporary and minimalist and modernist, call me. So hopefully people who are looking for that kind of aesthetic will say, “OK, this is someone we should talk to.”

And have you found a steady appetite for that?
I believe so. I think it tends to be more of an international client who has either relocated to Boston from elsewhere, like Europe, or people who do have that sensibility, even locally. Whoever reaches out always mentions, “We couldn’t describe it and now we have words.”

That must be so amazing to hear.
It’s amazing because it’s a risk. It’s a huge risk to publicly advertise that, OK, this is my aesthetic and I stand by it. But this is what excites me. I need to really be honest with myself and with people that this is what I do best. I’m not trying to be this other person. I want to do more of this and I’m good at this. People will want me for that.

You are LEED accredited. How does that environmental consciousness show up in your work today?
We’re always advocates for sustainability: recycling, reusing and [building with] materials that are eco-friendly. We’re constantly presenting that to clients to say this is a great way to go. Ultimately, clients choose a path. I haven’t really dug my heels in about it. But I recently attended a conference where it was talked about by this Parsons School of Design researcher, Jonsara [Ruth].

She’s the design director and co-founder of the Healthy Materials Lab.
Yes. And I happened to be in the audience when she was presenting. The urgency with which she spoke, I was just like, “Why am I not taking this more seriously?” We’re aware of what is out there, and what is better and what is not good. We’re advising clients, but I think we have to just be more forceful about it and just say, “If it’s not sustainable, we’re not installing that.” I’m OK to stand by things that way.

Has that started to shift the recommendations you are making on projects?
Yeah. We’re slowly trying to fold that into decision-making. It depends on availability, though, and research. I have basic knowledge, but sourcing is one of those areas [where I want to expand]—how can we be sourcing better furniture, for instance? One thing I try to advocate for is not buying things that are short-term and temporary. Invest in things that you know will stand the test of time and maybe will need to just get re-covered or reupholstered. But that throwaway culture—we’re not doing that. Wayfair and some [other] unfortunate retailers have [that culture] because they’re priced in that way. You can afford to buy a nightstand for $300, then throw it out in three months and buy something else. We need to be investing in things that are well-made and hopefully will be around for 10 or 15 years in your home. I don’t want you to call me back.

Does that resonate with clients?
I think it does. People who want minimalism are also the ones who want to invest in pieces that are singular in terms of aesthetic form and function. If one piece can meet all those goals, they don’t need to be cluttering their home with 25 other things. So it’s about [having that] conversation.

How this Massachusetts designer brought a contemporary look to a traditional market
A soothing collection of natural materials ground the spaceJoyelle West

Are you also billing a markup or commission on product?
I am at the moment. I don’t mark up beyond retail cost, so products are priced at whatever the client would spend at the store. But we retain that trade discount toward our back end, and we do all the procurement and installation within that cost. We are fixed fee except for project management. We want to move away from that model, but I haven’t been able to convince people yet. We want to go to a complete fixed-fee model where there is no markup.

Is it just a client who wants that?
They would rather pay the markup. People don’t want to know what you’re making. They don’t like transparency as much as I thought.

I feel like that’s the opposite of what people usually ask for, isn’t it?
It’s interesting because when they ask for it, they [think they] want to know, but when you tell them, they don’t want that either. So it’s like, “OK, how do we navigate this?” Because I’m not in the business of selling furniture. I want to design a home, and I will source furniture that makes it beautiful and wonderful and functional for you. But I don’t want to gain from your spending on something that costs more than it should. That’s not my goal. But I do want to pay my bills, and I need to pay my assistant. [Markups are] the traditional way of doing things in this industry. So I’m trying to follow that. And I’ve tried the other approach, and it has not worked out yet. I presented it to two clients with massive budgets, too. They would save money had they done it, but they didn’t understand the concept. So they passed.

Were they scared of that flat-fee number?
It’s a big number upfront. One was a million-dollar furnishings budget, for instance. So I told them that I would probably make $300,000 on that if I was to do a flat fee with markup. But instead, I [offered the option] to charge $20,000 a month for 10 months. Just splitting it up into monthly incremental payments, which also covered project management and oversight, which is what’s typically covered by the markup. In that model, they ultimately would have saved $100,000—but they didn’t go for it because they couldn’t understand the monthly thing. That was wild to me. I was like, “Why would you not do that?” But it’s OK. It’s something that you have to test out and see.

Can you tell me about the design community in Boston?
Boston is very conservative. It is geared toward a traditional [demographic]. The Boston Design Center, for instance, is all traditional. We have maybe two or three vendors outside of the design center. There are a couple of vendors that we work with who tend to have some of the European name brands we look at. But I just came back from New York, and I was just thinking, “Oh, my gosh, Boston is miles away from where we need to be [in terms of design resources].” But luckily, New York is not too far.

There are a few [contemporary-leaning] resources, but it’s based on the number of people doing contemporary [design] and there aren’t many—like 10 percent, maybe. The design community itself is small. I have many dear friends who are interior designers. We talk often about what’s going on in our businesses, what’s working, what isn’t working. We share proposals, we tell each other how to construct a proposal. We share all that knowledge. We mentor younger people. So it’s a very open community.

How this Massachusetts designer brought a contemporary look to a traditional market
A serene setting is grounded by a graphic rugJared Kuzia

When you look at your business, what is one thing you know now that you wish you would have known when you founded your firm?
It’s hard to answer that because you have to go through it to come out on the other side. Someone can tell you, when you start your firm, “Do this, don’t do that,” but you have to really be ready to accept that. If it’s given to you at the right time, then you say, “OK, I’m going to do it this way.” My mom and grandmother were doing things a certain way. And I said, “OK, that’s not going to happen to me.” But I still had to learn all those lessons the hard way on my own: I didn’t get paid, or I wasn’t allowed to do a photo shoot, staffing was tough, clients were rude or whatever. All of that is part of the business. So I think the only thing I would say is to celebrate the fact that I don’t fit into the mold here.

To not be worried about it?
Yeah. I spent a long time trying to fit in, when in fact, I should have celebrated the difference. Being an immigrant in this industry—I’ve moved past it now, but it takes a while to do so. I’m not sure if it’s my own bias, but I think you have to prove yourself for a bit longer. I think it takes a little bit longer for people to take you seriously. A lot of this industry is people who think they have good taste who just get commissions because you know somebody. [Working in the industry as an immigrant is] just a different path. Proving myself has taken a little while. For people to say, “OK, I’m going to hire somebody who looks like her, and not [someone white],” it’s just different. I’m being totally honest and raw.

Do you see that changing?
I don’t know. I hope so. This whole BIPOC thing has become so trendy—it’s like a checkbox now. I understand that it takes a push to get there. But to get that awareness that there’s this huge community of people … I don’t know if it’s changing rapidly. We’re in a bubble here on the East Coast. But are there other Indian designers in Boston? I know one other person, Vani Sayeed. Are there other Black designers in Boston? There isn’t any diversity as such in our industry here. So it’s a little bit concerning because there’s definitely a Black community. But is there somebody who represents that [in the design profession]? And if not, what does that mean? And how do you start a business if your cohort isn’t exposed to that? Architecture and interior design [is largely] a luxury market, unfortunately. It’s not for everybody. [Breaking in takes] a lot of persistence.

People also have a bias. Sometimes people tell me, “You should get in front of people.” I hear that a lot, and I just nod. I think they expect me to not come across as coherent—they think, “Oh, you are Indian, so you speak a certain way. Or you don’t have that sensibility, or you may not be able to do what we want you to do.” But when you go beyond that and look at people’s work, that should speak for itself.

How did that shape the way you showed up in your business?
For a very long time, I didn’t have my name on my studio. My studio used to be called ID8 Design Studio. It was very generic because I wanted to be a large multidisciplinary firm, and because I wasn’t sure if people would know what to make of my name. It took time to build the confidence to say, “OK, this is who I am. This is me. Take it or leave it.” I went through the rebranding in 2019 and 2020. But if somebody told me just to name my firm my name in the beginning, I’d have said, “No, I’m not there yet.”

What does success look like for you today?
I want to be proud of the work that I’m putting out there, have happy clients and be a good mom. Those are my goals.

To learn more about Sashya Thind Fernandes, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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