Many discover a love for interior design long before they discover that there is a job called “interior designer.” Not so with Summer Thornton. The Chicago-based designer knew what she wanted to do early on and started in the industry from a young age. After a few rocky career experiences, Thornton ended up in the office of designer Melanie Elston at age 25, but she knew it wouldn’t last long—even telling Elston in the initial job interview that she’d be opening up her own firm before long. Turned out it only took a year.
“I entered that experience knowing I had some work of my own on the side,” Thornton tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “That work picked up a little bit faster than I had anticipated.”
In the years since, Thornton built a bold and buzzy career. Her look is a colorful, vibrant flip on traditional that goes from proper to audacious in the blink of an eye (blue and white, meet leopard print and Lucite). Thornton’s approach—captured in her forthcoming book, Wonderland—is to start with a “dream, a fantasy or a story” and work from there. “Rather than looking at a room and saying,‘Okay, it’s a living room, we need a chair, a sofa and a rug,’ I’m one of those designers that starts backward,” she says. “Most designers will tell you they start with the rug. Sometimes we’ll finish a complete room and I’ll say, Oh! I forgot the rug—now what do we do? We need to find a rug that goes with the 5,000 different colors we’ve put in the room.”
For a designer that traffics in dreams, fantasies and vivid multicolor rooms, Thornton’s firm itself is surprisingly straightlaced. She and her husband Josh Thornton (he co-runs the firm) both studied business—their approach is one of precise documentation and repeatable processes. Of course, COVID-19 made that more difficult.
“We’ve always estimated shipping at six percent of a total project cost and recently we upped it to 10, because shipping costs are out of control right now,” says Thornton. “Companies had significant price increases, and it’s taken us a while, even on the design side, to catch up to and readjust to what those budgets should look like. We can’t look at a budget from 2018 anymore. That doesn’t have any relevance today.”
In this episode of the podcast, Thornton explains her unique “Five F” system for vetting potential clients, what she’s hoping to get out of publishing a design book, and why she’s taking a careful approach toward growing her firm in a time of booming demand.
Homepage photo: Summer Thornton | Courtesy of Summer Thornton Design