In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small. This week, we spoke with Jerad Gardemal of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, design studio and showroom JF Gardemal Designs.
Gardemal’s passion for design is immediately striking—and infectious. “I love what I do,” he says repeatedly, “so my hobby is my job. It’s a lot of fun.” And after nearly 30 years in the industry, he’s still finding ways to make it fun and new, like finally going solo with his own firm and showroom in 2020. The style of residential projects is tough to pin down, veering from traditional to contemporary, eclectic to elegant—and the variety is evident in his showroom, too, where each room channels a different vibe.
Here, Gardemal chatted about the value of appointment-only hours, his love for lamps and why he has faith in the future of small business.
What was your career like before the shop?
When I first graduated from design school, I worked in commercial design for about two years. It was great in terms of technical skills and deadlines and working with contractors and architects. But then I had an opportunity to take a design assistantship with a large residential firm here in Baton Rouge, and I was with that firm for 25 years. I built up a terrific clientele. When the pandemic was in full swing, I decided it was time to go and do it on my own.
I wanted something smaller, where I could control people coming in and out. Interior design is a visual profession, so a lot of it is [about] judging your clients’ body language and facial expressions. Doing that on a one-to-one basis made it easier for people to be comfortable working during the pandemic.
Well, that was the model with which I had worked for the last 25 years. What is different from what I came from is that, while I am still retail and I have a fully functioning design studio, I am in a more commercial office area. I have my own receiving warehouse attached, and 3,000 square feet of showroom. And I’m by appointment, because you make appointments with everybody in your life—your lawyer, hairstylist, therapist, doctor. I can exclusively focus on the person who’s in front of me rather than having a lot of distractions, which is typical in a standard retail environment.
I know it varies within the showroom, but how would you describe the store’s aesthetic?
Even though I’m in a more commercial environment, I set it up by room. It’s vignettes. I lean more traditional—I love wood—but I also do a lot of contemporary art and accessories. And I love color, so though I may have neutral upholstery, I have every color pillow you can imagine. When you use it in doses, people aren’t as afraid. When people come into the showroom, they say it feels inviting, and that’s what I’m going for. I [previously] worked for a great firm, but it was very, very formal, and that’s not what I’m about. I love my pretty stuff, but I’m also a klutz, so I want to be able to clean it up. I want people to be comfortable. To me, that’s the real success of any space.
Since you’re appointment only, you don’t necessarily have foot traffic, but who are your customers?
My clients are usually 50-plus years old, and it’s an affluent clientele. I was raised in high-end essentially my whole working life, so that’s what I’m used to. It has been a constant stream of referrals. I built that referral business for 25 years, and it allows me to control my inventory and gear my buying to my typical clients. Foot traffic is such a roll of the dice. This way, I can vet my clients and not lose valuable time. All we have is eight hours a day.
What is your approach to sourcing? Have you had relationships with some of these vendors for a really long time?
I’ve had relationships with my upholstery companies for decades: Lillian August for Hickory White and Theodore Alexander. Then I have relationships with some great antique dealers on the coast who help me to source unusual pieces. When I was with my previous firm, we used to go to Europe, which I like for accessories because you don’t have to stock a container. Like a lot of designers, I know Chairish and 1stDibs are terrific resources for unusual pieces. I’ve never had an issue with any of the pieces I’ve ordered [from them]; they do such a great job making sure that their dealers are reputable. My paintings I source out of New York and Los Angeles.
I love finding a beautiful treasure every now and then. I was in Alexandria, Virginia, for a wedding in December 2022 with some time to kill and found the most breathtaking antique federal mirror, which you never see. I happened to be working on a [residential] job, and it didn’t matter to me if the client bought it or not. I said, “I’m buying it.” Never seen one like it. Those are the really special moments, and what makes design such a fun adventure.
What’s your own favorite category?
Well, my husband tells me that I buy every lamp that I ever see. I have a problem with lamps. I cannot stand overhead light. My grandparents taught my mother, “Turn the light off when you leave the room,” so every afternoon I’d come home and it was pitch-black. Now, when I come home, there are like seven lamps on, and with the new technology, it doesn’t use any energy. That, and artwork. I love artwork. I’ll shadow box just about anything.
Speaking of art, can you tell me more about finding fine art pieces in New York and L.A.?
I have a relationship with a dealer whose family has been in the business since 1915. She has four 20-foot-high warehouses outside of Manhattan that are just full with canvases. All originals. They deal with the type of pieces I sell—which retail for $5,000 to $15,000—up to brokering $30 million Picasso paintings. It’s something real, original, unusual. I hate cookie cutter. You only go through this life once. Why not make every project really special?
What category moves the fastest?
Really beautiful and comfortable swivel chairs, always. Most definitely lamps, and then decorative throw pillows.
Do you have an e-commerce program?
We don’t. That is one of the things we’re building toward. I mean, [we just marked] three years in September, and now that we have another full-time team member, we’re able to expand on this. That’s one of our goals for 2024. Another is to develop an accessory line. I know there are other people like me who have that eye for something unusual.
Do you see something missing that you want to create?
I think about accessories that you don’t see anymore, mostly because the craftsmanship isn’t there currently. Little objects are easy, but beautifully scaled accessories are really hard to find. And look, I love all of my vendors, but sometimes you just wish there was something a little different.
It’s like the French Market Collection. They do the most beautiful needlepoint pillows ever, and I sell the hell out of those things because people still love those fine textiles in our market. They might want just one on the bed or one on a lounge chair, but it looks like a little piece of art. Nobody has done them as well as this company has. I have such respect for them. I’m not looking to set the world on fire as much as create a source for like-minded designers.
What’s it like to operate in Baton Rouge?
There are a lot of affluent people here, but they would rather you not know that they have money. People here love to entertain at home, but they’re not ostentatious. Living in a college town and a capital city is great, but because we’re halfway between New Orleans and Lafayette, the cultural scene isn’t strong because you’re only an hour in either direction. It’s great in terms of ease of getting anywhere. I’ve done projects in Montana, Chicago, two apartments in New York, an apartment in Boston and homes in North Carolina. Physical location is less of an issue than your ability to do your job well. Would I be happy located anywhere else? I don’t know. I mean, I grew up here and life happens the way it’s supposed to. It has never been a hindrance, let’s put it that way.
Having launched your showroom so far into your career, how do you feel about the future of small and independent businesses?
Both of my paternal grandparents were small business owners, and that’s why I think I got the drive to do this, albeit later than a lot of people. After the pandemic, and after the rise and fall of these big-box stores, I see so much of the world going back to a specialty store approach. You see that with the upholstery companies; now people want custom. If you can make the custom experience something that people can afford, not only something they read about in Robb Report, they’re going to do it. There’s only so much gray and natural flax you can sell.
When people come in here, it is a boutique experience, like going into a small jewelry store. You have a relationship. And that’s never going to change, because the most important thing is connecting with your clients. You could do everything virtually, but they’ve got to know that someone is behind it and that somebody cares as much as they do. It’s why you see all these big-box companies trying to sell interior design services, because they know we’re onto something. But you can’t do it by just parking somebody behind a computer.
And you can’t automate it.
Right—it is a gift, it is an education and it is hard work. I tell people: I love what I do, but don’t for a moment think that this is going to be an easy job, because working with people isn’t easy. You have to have the temperament, and you have to be able to bend.
You’re never going to replace human connection. The design world, it’s very intimate. [Clients] are kind and gracious enough to let you in[to their homes], so it’s your job to take care of them the best way you can. You don’t like that? We’ll fix it. We’ll change it. I’ll sell it. Everything is set up to be so adversarial in this day and age. This should be fun! People come here because they can tune out the world. It’s like an adult Disneyland around here. They want to feel comforted. They want to feel engaged and cared for.
What’s your favorite day as a store owner?
When I reset the showroom floor, which is pretty much once a quarter. These 3,000 square feet are my own little laboratory. It’s an absolute blast because it gets me back to exactly what I love doing, which is putting spaces together. It’s like an installation day, but you don’t have the pressure of the drapery installer and the trim carpenter and clients all on you. It’s cleansing. The most fun. Even at the end of eight hours of doing that, I feel very energized.