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, Brookline, Massachusetts–based designer Cecilia Casagrande tells us why she always invests in photography, how one project has had nine lives in print, and why she has opted for a personalized process that keeps clients in the mix throughout the design phase.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
It took me a long time to get here. I grew up in the 1980s, and as a teenager, I got the impression that decorators were all like the one my mother hired—she put up mirrors and heavy drapery, complained a lot, and was so superficial that my mom said, “I could do this myself.” Even though I loved the idea, I thought being a designer was cheesy. My dad was in the hotel business, and I thought, This is how I’ll do it—I’ll be a hotel designer. One summer while I was in college, I worked at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, helping with the renovation of several floors of rooms, and it was fun. I was managing the subs and the checklist of everything that was getting done. But I still couldn’t get over the fact that, in my own head, design wasn’t an “intelligent” career.
Instead, I worked in France for a year, came back and worked at a student travel company, and then got a master’s degree in public health and social work. Between the three years getting my degree, doing internships and jobs in different areas of public health and social work, I spent about a decade in that world. My last job was at the Department of Public Health for Massachusetts.
What reignited your interest in design?
The whole time I was working in public health, I was renovating. First was my condo—I renovated it, and made enough money when I sold it to buy a house in a Boston neighborhood. The house needed a lot of work and I did it myself—I was the contractor and the designer because we didn’t have enough money to hire anybody. Then I flipped after four years to move to Brookline, which is when I realized I might be good at this. But that’s when I took 10 years off to raise my babies.
It wasn’t until I hired a designer to help me with my kitchen that it actually clicked. It opened my eyes completely to what this job can be. I said, “I can’t go get another master’s, I have two already.” But the designer I was working with said, “You don’t need to. Just take a few classes—you’ll be really good at this.” I went all in and took an online Revit course—twice, back to back—although it turns out you don’t really need Revit. I also took an online design course from England. I registered for a resale certificate with the state of Massachusetts in the summer of 2015 and decided to just try to go for it. I’ve been going for it ever since.
Where did your early projects come from?
I started reaching out to realtors. I’d email or call to say, “Here I am,” and shared photos of my house. I got one job that way, through a realtor in Lexington. Then my house got published, and clients came from that. Different parts of my house have now been published eight times, and it’s getting published again this fall.
How did that happen?
First, the kitchen was in Boston Home. Then the whole thing was in Livingetc. Next, my master bathroom was in The Boston Globe. Then The Boston Globe’s magazine published my basement. Then the whole thing went up online on Lonny—they paid for a photo shoot, and since then, those photos have been used over and over again. I also paid the photographer to come back and shoot more of the other rooms. That same project went into Lonny’s book. Then House & Home ran my bathroom. Then House Beautiful reached out to put the whole house online. They also recently called to say they want to use my house again for a book on color. Isn’t that just crazy? So that book will be the ninth time some part of my house has been published.
It was so smart to hire the same photographer to come back and keep shooting—it seems like those extra photos have paid for themselves.
I always try to invest in photography when the projects are good. Now, I hire an amazing stylist, too, but in the beginning, when I barely could afford the photography, I would study up. I have so many design books—from Emily Henderson to Kelly Wearstler to Farrow & Ball—and I studied the photos to see how they did it.
But I’m lucky: The people that hire me want to finish, which I sometimes think can be the hardest part for designers who need to get photos. You have to make sure the project is finished—and I mean finished.
How do you make sure those are the kinds of clients that are coming your way?
I don’t always get it. I don’t. I’ve had so many clients over the years who maybe haven’t completely finished, but they have finished one room—and I’ll go back and just photograph the one room. Clients seem to want what they see on my website, where there are so many layers. That’s why they’re drawn to me in the first place—all that color and richness. I don’t have a single photo in there with white drapes—not one!—so the white drape people aren’t coming to me.
I may not get that many clients, because the white drapes are very safe, and a lot of people here in New England like the safe route. But the clients I do get are so complex, inspiring and intellectually stimulating. They are fascinating, every single one of them. Most of them have graduate degrees. Most of the women have extremely successful careers, and half are the breadwinners. I have a rocket scientist, a movie producer, two New York Times bestselling authors, successful lawyers and doctors. And one woman I’m working with now said to me, “When I saw your website, those were rooms I could picture myself living in.” Now I’m redoing her whole house. It’s all about the layers upon layers—we’re putting trim on window treatments in every room, and it’s just so much fun.
How do you decide what projects you want to take on?
I connect with the people who say, “I love all the color you use,” or, “I love seeing pattern,” or “I’m really excited about wallpaper.” That’s a good sign.
I recently heard from one client who told me that one designer they interviewed said, “I need to control the envelope,” and they only do gut rehabs. I’ve been the second call with that same designer a few times. That designer needs to be in complete control. But I told that client, “You know what? I need my clients to be completely happy. If you only want to do a couple of rooms, and we’re completely redoing a couple of rooms, and you’re really psyched to do it all, I’m here for you.” If I can get a beautiful photo, and then get it into an article in a magazine, that’s a bonus. If not, that’s OK.
What’s the full project load for you at the moment?
I currently have eight projects that have been going for a while—anywhere from six months to a year—and I just got four more clients, so now I have 12 projects. It feels like a lot.
What does your team look like?
I have a junior designer who has been an independent contractor, and I’ve just hired her to come on full-time in the fall. I’m figuring all that out now.
How has bringing on part-time help changed your day-to-day experience?
It’s so much better. First of all, I did not like working by myself at all. I love having someone to bounce things off of. She networked with me—she found me and said, “I love your work, can we have coffee?” I hired her after that coffee because I just knew it was a good fit—she has been so incredibly helpful, and I’m able to just have 12 pretty full clients because of her.
What does she take on?
She’s been a design assistant while she is part-time, and she has just been doing a little bit of everything—starting with helping me measure, because measuring a house by yourself is really daunting. I also have her meet the clients right away, and she’s there in those early meetings listening with me. That way, as we’re designing or pulling out fabrics, I can say, “What do you think? Do you think they’d like this?” She also draws up the floor plans, and she’s really good at SketchUp and Photoshop, so she’s been helping with drawings. She’s in the showrooms with me, picking up all the fabrics and placing orders. And she loves construction, so she’s helping with the project management of a major bathroom and renovation project. She’ll go over there to meet the tile people and make sure our plan is laid out. She’s in on every project and knows what’s going on, so it sometimes feels like we can be in two places at one time, which is incredibly helpful. And when she comes on full-time, she’s going from design assistant to junior designer.
Tell me a little bit about the design scene in Massachusetts.
Our climate is very specific: It is gray and branchy when you look out the window a good portion of the year, and there are no green leaves to be seen. I tell people to remember that when they’re thinking about doing all gray inside. Do you really want that when it’s all gray outside so much of the year? I talk about that when I do outdoor paint colors, too. We’re not going to do gray or white on your house because it’s so gray outside all year round and the type of winter light is not great for a white house. It looks better with some color.
Another unique thing about designing here is that the architecture is all very old. We have a lot of historical homes—a lot of Victorians with beautiful moldings that need to be replicated, very high ceilings, and ceiling medallions. And with all of these really beautiful, old houses, I try to renovate them while keeping the integrity of the home. People are drawn to me for the same reasons they love these homes—I really show off the old bones of the houses and keep the quirkiness.
What does that look like in practice?
Just acknowledging that they don’t need to be perfect. They’re old! It’s OK if this molding isn’t completely perfect. I keep reminding my clients that this is what makes our houses special—it’s that they aren’t perfect like a new build. When we do decide to renovate and update them, we’re going to do the best they can to keep all that rich, beautiful flavor. As I’ve built my business, it’s all been houses from the 1800s. I don’t ever get called in for new builds. Clients with houses that are brand new don’t call me, because the people that are buying the brand new don’t want quirky.
What is your design process, and how have you approached billing for your work?
I still bill hourly. I’m not that good at telling how long people are going to take to make decisions, or how much hand-holding they’re going to need in order to estimate how much that I would need to charge in fees for the project. And on my end, I’m not formulaic either—I don’t have one way that I do things. I don’t just say, “Here are the designs I think you should do.” I’ll spend a lot of time going through rounds of choices with my clients to really make sure we nail this, and that it is 100 percent them.
Those rounds of choices—is that rounds of completed rooms, or rounds of material options?
I spend a lot of time bringing over fabrics and going through them, asking, “What do you think of this?” I’m trying to get to know them up front to make sure we nail it—and then when we do nail it, they always feel like they were part of the process. I also say that in the beginning: “This is a process. I’ve shown you all these wonderful things, and we have figured out what style of sofa you like—I have found out that you don’t like a thin arm, and you want a thick arm that goes all the way up.” It’s unbelievable how many people actually do have an opinion of exactly how their sofa should be. And I take the time I need to help them figure all of that out. It’s more organic and personal—but it’s also why I have to charge by the hour.
I would imagine some clients welcome that approach.
Not one person has asked for it any other way. Now, they have asked, “How long do you think it’ll take?”
Do you have a range you can give them?
I try. But more than that, I explain that I’m so fair—and I’m pretty efficient, too. I feel like I give that impression right away. I’ll say, “I’m not trying to take my sweet time—I’m so busy, I have many other clients, and I want to get there pretty quickly, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take us. It could be anywhere from 10 to 15 hours for a room, but it could also be more.”
How do you know when it’s time to raise your rate?
I just did it again in January, and it’s a combination of more demand and getting published left and right. I feel more qualified and I have more experience. I’m getting that feedback from vendors, too, because they are giving me better wholesale pricing. I’m feeling like I’m now up a level. All I’ve ever wanted was to be on the same level as some of the designers that I regard highly here in Boston—just to be on the same playing field. I feel like I’m very different aesthetically, and I’m not trying to get anybody’s client. I just want to be with the group, and I feel like I’m getting there.
You mentioned wholesale pricing. How are you billing for products?
I don’t charge a full markup. I split my discount, and I don’t mark up fabric.
Not really. It’s too expensive. I’d rather clients just get it done and do it all, you know? I’m not trying to gouge anyone or make money on everything. So if I mark up the labor part of a window treatment, for example, I won’t mark up the fabric.
How do you decide where you will or won’t mark up?
I’m just trying to be very fair. Or—fair isn’t the right word. I just feel like if I charge for sourcing all of the fabrics and the time it takes to order it, that’s fine. I don’t need to make a profit on everything. I want to be able to provide good service and good prices, as well as make some money, but I’m not trying to go crazy here. I leave the markup for places where I get good wholesale pricing, and I’ll make a really good markup there. If I sell a couple of rugs, I’m doing great.
How do you talk about it with clients?
When clients ask, “How do you do markup?” I say, “I pass on a discount when I can.” And if it’s a full retail item in your order—let’s say we’re buying something from Anthropologie—I’m just giving my discount. I’m not bothering with a markup, and I’m using their credit card, too. For big-box anything, I’ll just charge for ordering.
How are clients finding you these days?
It’s a mix of referrals, social media, local realtors, and people I know, because I’ve been in Boston a long time. One of my new clients saw my spread in House Beautiful and called me. And then Google. I’ve asked every one of my clients to give me a Google review, and I now have 26 or 27 five-star reviews—which is a lot, it turns out.
When you look ahead, what does the future of your firm look like?
I’m doing a lot of design-build work with my contractor/carpenter, whom I’ve worked with for a long time. We’ve worked on quite a few kitchens, bathrooms and built-ins together, and now we’re doing this great project that includes two bathrooms, an entire primary suite and the laundry room—all of the construction and design. I recently said, “Let’s you and I start this as a new part of our business.” And my employee loves the construction part, too, so I think that the design-build portion is the future. I’d still do projects that are just design, where we’re hiring separate, bigger construction companies. And if the clients have their own contractor they want to work with, great—I’m still happy to do all the design work and work with their contractor most of the time. But if someone comes to me and says, “I want to redo a bathroom, add some built-ins and put in new cabinets,” it can be hard to get a big contractor to do it. For that, I would have my design-build business.
What does success look like to you?
I feel like I’ve almost reached it. Success is a business where people are calling me for really good projects—projects like the full-house renovation I’m doing now with a high-end contractor I’ve admired. Success is prospective clients coming to me and saying, “I have a referral.” And I’ve just been published in House Beautiful—a magazine I grew up reading. I mean, I used it as a reference to design my whole house, and now I’m in it.
To learn more about Cecilia Casagrande, visit her website or find her on Instagram.