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, Charleston, West Virginia–based designer Pat Bibbee tells us about her complicated feelings regarding her home state, the business motto she puts on needlepoint pillows for clients, and which design ability she believes can’t be taught.
Take me back to the beginning. When did you realize design was a career?
Well, my very beginning was my grandmother’s china cabinet. As a child, I would spend hours rearranging all the dishes and glasses in it. She was a housewares buyer at Joseph Horne’s department store in Pittsburgh, and she had beautiful things.
I hate to tell you this, but I just turned 80, which is hard to conceive—I don’t feel it, which is good. Back when I was younger, I didn’t even know there was a career in interior design. But I’ve always liked it, and I would go to all my aunts’ houses and they would say, “I don’t know what to do with the furniture,” and my mother or grandmother would say, “Take Pat over, she knows how to fix it.” I was always on the decorating committee—in high school, I was the person who decided how to decorate the gym. I went off to college to study English and did the same thing—decorated everybody’s dorm room—then got married and decorated everybody’s apartments where we lived in Cincinnati. I took some design classes there and was teaching school.
Then we moved to West Virginia in 1978, and I couldn’t get a teaching job. I had too much experience—like, five years, and they didn’t want to pay me for it. I was in the [women’s community service organization] Junior League there, and the president of the local chapter had a high school friend whose father owned a furniture store in Charleston, West Virginia, and she was planning to open up a small design boutique [as a companion to her father’s store]. I started working for her and running that little boutique, which gave me a lot of practical knowledge. That’s when I started going to High Point Market.
A few years later, her husband became ill, and she decided to close the office. I had to make the big decision: what to do next. My husband’s good friend was an insurance salesman, and he said, “You are the best salesperson, take this insurance test.” So I took this test to sell insurance and got a phone call from the national person, who said, “You scored higher on this test than anyone we’ve ever had. You have got to start selling insurance.” And I said to myself, “Do I really want to sell insurance? No.” So I decided to go out on my own in interior design.
What did the firm look like in the early days?
At the store, I’d worked with a salesman who was retiring from [the iconic French furnishings brand] Brunschwig & Fils—he was so charming, always wore suits, and was so complimentary to me. He came to my house, and I [told him] I was going to look for space somewhere. He said, “Pat, this is my last day. I’m going to give you advice from 45 years of being a road salesman: You have a lot of talent—but don’t leave your home. Stay in your home, because you have a lovely home and it showcases what you do. That way, you can pick and choose. You don’t have to be open on Saturday. You don’t have to have people just parading through all the time.” So that’s what I did. And I’ve had my business out of my home ever since.
That was amazing advice for you, then.
I took it. The first couple days or weeks were kind of scary. But the clients I had from my other job at the design boutique stayed with me. They came, and it just grew. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve had wonderful clients. We do projects all over the country. We laugh about it, because I’ll be working on a project in Florida and a friend of my client will come by and say, “Well, where’s your designer from?” And they’ll say, “West Virginia.” People always say, “West Virginia?” But I always like to say, there are sophisticated people in every little hamlet across this country. I mean, I go to all the markets, I go to New York, and my goal was always to bring the best to the people who live here.
Does your work still take you across the country?
I’m doing a $9 million apartment in New York right now—that client lived here briefly, but I’ve done projects for them as they’ve moved all around. I’ve done work for the Rockefellers because they lived in West Virginia, and I worked on their house in D.C. I really want to tell people that you can have a wonderful, localized business that can really take you all over the country, if you have good rapport with your clients—because your clients aren’t static, they move around. And my firm has been fortunate enough that as clients move around, they often take us with them.
When you went out on your own, did the business model shift?
You have to adjust your model for your locality. For example, I started out years ago, and I’m still this way pretty much: I don’t charge for time. We tell clients right away that we charge by what they purchase from us. Especially now, with online shopping and everything, I’m pretty upfront about it. I simply say that we can’t compete with the online pricing, but what you really want is what’s in my head, and there isn’t really any price I can put on that. In order for me to do the best job I can do for you, I have to know you well, and I don’t want you worrying about being charged for the time we spent chatting and talking about your life. Every interior designer has to be a therapist, you know?
Because you’re solving a lot of problems through design.
Exactly. Now, I have shifted that model a little lately. Even at this age, I’m trying to decide how much to charge. We cannot get prices like you could get in New York. I mean, it’s impossible. If you would say to people here, “We’re charging $200 an hour,” you wouldn’t have one client.
I feel like when I talk to people about pricing, they’re always deciding, “Do I charge for my time, or do I charge a flat fee for the design?” But you’re usually telling clients, “No, it’s all baked into the product.”
And I just tell them right upfront: We can’t compete with the internet, which is selling 1,000 things. We’re selling you one at a time, but I’m choosing that one thing at a time.
There’s something about the way that you talk about it—it makes it all about trust, right?
Oh, it’s so funny you say that, because the big joke with all my clients—I’ve needlepointed pillows for clients, and every pillow says the same thing: “Trust me.” I say it a thousand times a week. It’s kind of like the old insurance salesperson in me. I’ll say, “Look, you have to give up a little bit of control. I’m not going to take you down the wrong path. I know what you want, and I’m going to get you there, but you’ve got to trust me. This is a collaborative process, but it’s also a growing process. And the end result needs to be more than what you expected.” That’s what I say.
What does your team look like today?
One of my best friends started with me, but she moved after a time when her husband was transferred. Now, I have three on my team: Leslie, Mary and Melanie. Melanie is in five days a week and the other two come in three days, and then they all come in for extra time if we need them. And then we have a maintenance man, Mick, who comes every day and unpacks for us, delivers stuff, that kind of thing.
What is everybody’s role?
It is a collaborative effort when we’re working on projects, and we’ll all throw things out. I don’t do much ordering anymore—my team does all the ordering, and they have for a while. Every once in a while they’ll pull things out, and I’ll say, “Oh, I’m not sure.” And then I say, “Remember, my name is still on it, so I have to like it.” You know? But it’s a very collaborative effort. And we’ve all worked a long time together, and it’s worked out great.
Does having a team feel essential to the success of the business?
I wouldn’t like doing it alone. I’m a people person, and I get energy from people. The team isn’t here on Fridays, so I can work a little bit by myself, but then I try to schedule to go out to the client’s house—I’m fine doing that on my own. But being in the office by myself and having to do that all day is not a job I would like. I like the companionship, and I like the sociability, and I get energy from that.
Is there anything about your role that you’ve held on to as your firm has evolved?
I still do the initial concept. An intern once told me, “What I’ve learned is I could never be you. I can’t walk into a room and just be able to see that concept.” And I can—I walk into a room and can see it right away. I feel grateful for that ability.
During one of my first projects, I remember realizing that being able to visualize is a gift that not everybody has. If you can visualize your whole life, you just assume that everybody can do that. So I’ll get people who say, “I don’t know what to do.” And I say, “I already see it. I already have it done. Now, just trust me, and we’ll get to the end.” I remember reading an article years and years ago, an interview with Sister Parish, where she said that after being in the business for all those years, she was more convinced than ever that you either have a designer’s eye or you don’t, and that is something that can’t be taught. You can learn the skills of the profession. But if you don’t have the eye, you can’t be taught that.
How many projects are you working on at a given time?
Here’s where you’re going to just die and think that I’m really a lunatic, but I’m very Irish and I’m too superstitious. I never count my projects. People ask me that all the time: “How many projects do you have?” I don’t know. I’m not gonna count them. A lot.
I often hear designers talk about reaching a level in their business where they don’t want to take on the little projects anymore. Is that true for you?
Well, they don’t live in West Virginia. You have to be willing to take on people’s dust ruffles as well as their whole home, because the client who starts with the dust ruffle can end up buying a house in Vero Beach, Florida. I mean, it usually turns out for the best, you know? That’s been my experience.
How hands-on are you with the client who just wants the dust ruffle? Are they still interacting with you as the principal?
Yes. Maybe a year and a half ago, I was talking to a young woman who was worried about whether or not they had enough budget. I went over to her house, and she said, “Well, we’re just trying to decide what fabric,” or something like that. And I looked at the living room and said, “Well, before we decide on a fabric, we have to move all this furniture. This room arrangement does not work.” Her husband came, and I had Leslie and Mary there, and I said, “We’ve got to start moving this furniture.” After we moved it, it looked, truthfully, 1,000 times better. And now she is such a true believer.
In that way, I’m very hands-on. And I always tell them first thing, you’ve got to start with the right room arrangement. Don’t even think of fabrics or paint color until we get the room the way it works. Function has to come first. There has to be a table to put your drink down on, there has to be a lamp to turn on if you want to read the book. You must be able to stay in the conversation.
How do you decide what you say yes to?
Well, I don’t actually say no. If we get with somebody and it’s just too hard, maybe I drag my feet a little bit. But I haven’t had that experience much because when you work out of your home, you’re not really [easy to find by] the general public. All of my jobs are basically referrals, so it’s people who have seen what I do, and you either like that or you don’t. Immediately, the people who are coming to me are positive about what I do. I think it’s one of the advantages of working out of your home.
Right, there’s not a shingle for somebody to drive by and say, “I’ll give her a call.”
It’s already like a filter, you know? And I had a very wonderful family that has always been supportive. My children were used to people coming in and out of the house, and my husband was very good about all that too. I mean, I had friends who couldn’t even run a vacuum when their husband was at home—I never had that.
My husband has Alzheimer’s now, which has been very tragic. When he was going through all this testing at Cleveland Clinic nine years ago, I went through it all too because I thought my children deserved to know if they were going to have two parents with this disease. Fortunately, I had no markers for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s—the doctor said, “I just want to tell you, your brain is like a 27-year-old’s.” So far, I’m still useful that way, which is good. I have a good memory. That’s one thing I would tell anybody going into this profession: You’d better have a good memory. If I’ve been in your house one time, I can remember for the next 25 years.
I’m thinking about the client whose room you fixed. Are you ever worried that the client doesn’t have the budget to do the work?
At the beginning, we ask what their goals are, and I do ask about their budget. I always say, “It doesn’t mean that I am going to spend every penny that you have, but in order to stretch your budget, we have to have a parameter.” If someone says, “I want to do my whole living room for $10,000,” then we say, “Well, that’s not realistic.” In the old days, I was kind of timid about that. Then I realized that unless I knew what they had to spend, I really couldn’t manage the project. So you have to have the courage to say, “How much are you going to spend?”
Does talking about money get more comfortable the more you do it?
I think it gets more comfortable. It also gets easier in the sense that all my clients are referrals. The real estate people are my friends, and if somebody moves to town, they’ll just say, “They have plenty of money. Don’t worry about that.”
Can you tell me a little bit about the design scene in West Virginia?
If you can do business in West Virginia, you can do it anywhere, because you’re always struggling a little bit here due to the socioeconomic level. We certainly have people who are well-to-do, but not like in a larger metropolitan area like Atlanta. But we’re fortunate to have people who can spend some money on their homes right now.
Not to get political, but West Virginia is an energy state—our economy depends on natural gas and coal. A lot of our clients are and were big coal people, so when that isn’t doing so well, they’re not doing so well either. We still have some people moving to the state—but if the [Mountain Valley] Pipeline could get started again, it would be booming again, because we have so much gas. I guess the takeaway is that where you do your business matters, as well as the socioeconomic conditions of your clients.
You mentioned that markets were a big part of your sourcing strategy. Where do you shop?
We go to High Point, the gift show in Atlanta and ADAC [Atlanta Decorative Arts Center]. I haven’t gone to New York quite as much lately, but my son and my grandchildren live in New Jersey, so I try to get up there to shop too. I stock a lot of lamps, accessories and art—my garage has become my warehouse, so I haven’t been able to park in it for 20 years. My husband was such a good sport about it.
When you look at your business, what is the biggest challenge that you see right now?
I’m always worried about the next client. I’ll lie in bed at night and think about it. Even though we have plenty of them, I have never stopped worrying about that.
So that doesn’t go away?
I wish I could tell you that it does, but it doesn’t. Tonight, I have to go to this cocktail club thing, and I’m kind of tired—but I’m the rainmaker for the firm, so I have to go because that’s where I get business. I’m always out there. And you have to have that kind of personality if you’re going to have a solo interior design business. You have to be social.
You are quietly marketing your business and yourself all the time.
All the time. It’s not just a vocation, but it’s my avocation. I’ve loved it my whole life. I want everyone’s surroundings to be better. I want everyone to live a sophisticated, lovely life. I want everyone to have that opportunity.
You are candid with your clients about not competing with the internet. But how has it changed the way you work?
It’s really been helpful. In the old days, when you’d go to High Point—every time I would leave, I’d think, “Oh, my God, I hope I got everything done,” because if you didn’t see it or find it, you were dead. Now, you can look it up. That part of it has been a huge help in my mind.
Has it changed the way clients approach design?
It has, and that’s a tricky path to maneuver. You can go into somebody’s house, and it looks like they’ve been on steroids with HomeGoods—you have to be careful with that. It’s also a much more sophisticated consumer now because of the internet—there are interior designers who used to not tell the client the manufacturer’s name because they were afraid they’d get online, but it’s almost impossible to keep that from clients today. That’s why you just have to stay pretty honest and say, “We can’t compete with the prices you see on the internet, but the people on the internet are not telling you what pieces to buy, and they’re not telling you where to put them.” It doesn’t always work, but it works pretty well. And for the people who want to buy stuff, I say, “Look, we don’t expect you to buy everything from us, but we expect you to buy a lot from us in order to maintain this relationship.”
What is the biggest thing you wish you had known when you started your business?
I had a great job offer down in Vero Beach, Florida—40 years ago now—from a great interior designer who’s long since gone. He said, “Pat, you’re going to waste your talent in West Virginia.” Now, I’ve had a great life in West Virginia—amazing friends, a wonderful business—but sometimes there’s a part of me that thinks I could have had a place in the Hamptons if I had gone and worked in Florida. I mean, in all honesty, if I had worked in a more prosperous place, I probably would have done better financially. I’ve had a great life here. But it’s the truth.
Is it about wealth, or is it just the quantity of wealthy people?
It’s the quantity. For example, one friend of mine working in Florida won’t take a job unless it’s $50,000 upfront. I can’t do that here.
When you look at your business, what does success look like for you?
I think I’ve had a really successful business. I’ve had a lot of accolades. I’ve loved what I’ve done every day. I’ve met wonderful people. It’s enabled me to travel all across the country. I’ve been in some publications. I’ve had a great life with it. So I can’t really complain, and I really am thankful. And I say to my daughter, who’s a great artist, “How fortunate are you if you have a talent that you love, and you can make money on it? How lucky are we?” I mean, I would have been a terrible secretary. I would have been awful.