The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Little Rock, Arkansas–based designer Kevin Walsh of Bear Hill Interiors tells us how a retail shop launched his design business, why the client relationship never ends, and how he refined his approach to successful sourcing.
Did you always know you were going to be a designer?
When I was younger, I knew there were designers, but I didn’t know it was an option for me to be one. When I was in my mid-20s or early 30s, I got super interested in tinkering with things around the house. I bought a spec house, remodeled two or three different projects and got into it that way. Soon, I was doing it for other people.
Where were you working before you founded your firm?
I had an established career as a hairstylist and owned a salon. Before that, I was in banking. But when I turned 35, I decided that design was my job path. I partially sold my business and started the showroom.
Between the banking, the entrepreneurship of owning your own business, and the creativity of the salon work, it sort of sounds like you had the perfect foundation for running a design firm.
It sounds perfect on paper. You wear lots of different hats and there are different challenges every day—in that regard, I feel like I had that down. Doing hair, each client’s wants and needs are different, which is the same [as design].
Are there similarities in the creative entrepreneurship element, too?
Yes—to a degree. It’s a completely different deal because there are so many more layers to this. And it’s amplified because I have a showroom and a design studio, so I really have two businesses operating under one umbrella.
Which one came first, showroom or studio?
We opened the showroom in 2000 and did design work out of there for 17 or 18 years. That was retail-driven, with another designer and me working out of that showroom. But over the years, as the firm was getting larger and we had more employees, we were running out of space. The problem was that we owned the building that we were in, so we were like, “Now what?” Fortunately, the building next door became available, so three years ago, we took over that space and turned it into a design studio.
So you launched the retail store and design services simultaneously.
Absolutely. The design business was the focus, but we thought the retail end was going to be a little bit heavier. The business model ended up being a little different than what we expected—it’s more of a boutique showroom, and it’s not as heavily trafficked as some places might be, due at least partially to the location. But it’s definitely a destination for people who are invested in design and want something that’s a little bit unusual or unique. We have a wide variety of things, from vintage lighting to antiques, original artwork, custom pillows. We’re selling to people who are super interested in interior design; a lot of our clients are interior designers buying things for their clients.
At the outset, how did you get source for the shop?
I sort of blindly started going to market. I went to High Point Market and walked through showrooms and the IHFC Building, looking at things. I also went to the New York gifts show and did the same thing there, making lists of, “OK, so we want these items in the store.”
From there, we started collecting vendors. We also started talking about what upholstery lines we wanted to carry, what kind of vintage items, and where would we source those? I might go to an estate sale and pick up some things. I do a lot of flea-marketing on the weekend and go to the antique shops. When I travel, I’m always looking for something that I think someone else might want to buy.
Is there just a sixth sense that makes you successful at it? How are you weighing, “I like this, this will sell,” or, “I like this, but this won’t sell,” for example?
That’s really tricky. I usually try to buy things that I love, and that way, if it’s here forever and I have to look at it every day for the rest of my life, I’m all right with that. Typically, though, the things that you buy and you’re like, “No one’s probably ever going to buy this, because it’s stupid-expensive,” or it’s so over-the-top, or whatever—those are the things that make your shop look the best and end up selling. The weird things that you buy, thinking, “Oh, this is inexpensive and everybody’s going to want one,” all of that stuff that you’re not that invested in is what doesn’t move. At the beginning, you’re trying to guess what your consumer wants, thinking, “People buy this, but I don’t want one for me.” Then, I just decided that my consumer needed to be me.
Oh, I love that.
If I love it and I can make someone else passionate about what I’m passionate about, I just do better in that regard. Most of the time, that works. And also, whenever I’m shopping for projects, the first place I go shopping is in my showroom, because we have a wide variety.
What is the design community like in Little Rock?
There are little pockets of design throughout the state, but Little Rock is probably the mecca of design in Arkansas. There are some really talented designers in northwest Arkansas, too, but it’s three hours away, so I don’t really know about how all of that works there. Here, we have a pretty tight-knit design community. We’re in an area called the Riverdale Design District, where there’s probably 50 shops—fabric stores, interior designers with little boutiques, and then a couple of small retail spaces in this area.
We’re in the heart of the city, right by the Arkansas River. Up the hill from us are two little historic areas—one called Hillcrest and one called The Heights, and they both have the same mix of vintage buildings and small boutique shops. Then, there’s the big-box stores out in West Little Rock.
Did launching the retail piece feel essential to you when you were establishing your business?
Absolutely, 100 percent.
Would you do it the same way today?
That’s a great question. I don’t know that we would even have a business if we hadn’t launched with the retail side. That was what really gave us the push—people could come in and actually see a vision. I think they still do that. I feel like that was a major part of our success.
How do you divide your time between the two businesses?
That’s the real challenge. I have a full-time office manager and a full-time showroom manager. I have constant contact with the showroom manager throughout the day. In between working with clients, I schedule showroom time to go over there to refresh the front room. We also do big floor changes—usually over the weekend—where we move rooms around, reaccessorize, hang new art.
Sometimes we just close the showroom for two or three days on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and are back open on Monday. In normal times, I do a lot of the buying for the showroom all at one time when I go to markets. I do the New York gifts show and buy all the gifts through Christmas. Then I go to High Point and buy all of the one-of-a-kinds and look at all the new upholstery lines. With COVID, it’s been a whole different deal. A lot of my vendors are doing online ordering, so we’ve had to figure that out.
How big are your teams, besides the office and showroom manager?
There are six full-time employees between the two businesses. We also work with a receiver in town, so everything that we’re buying for clients’ projects typically goes there.
How many clients are you working with at the moment?
Too many. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’ve got about 20 projects going right now.
How hands-on are you with each?
100-percent hands-on. They all have allotted time [in my schedule], it just depends on how much they want to be involved with the process. I have a lake house I’m working on in Hot Springs that we’re installing this week where the client has only received images of everything. She did not come for one meeting. I just would send her images and say, “This is what we’ve selected,” we’d send her an estimate, and she approved it. I’m currently working on [another project like that] where I selected everything for the client’s house, taking into account all of the furnishings that are moving here from California. Those kinds of projects move really quickly. The clients don’t want to be involved, they just want you to pick everything.
But I’ve also been working on a different project for two and a half years where the client has been involved in every selection. We have a weekly meeting—she comes at 9:30 a.m. and leaves at 2:30 p.m., and in that time we work on everything from tile selections, plumbing selections and furniture to carpet and curtains—everything. She’s involved in the entire project, which is 8,000 square feet.
For the client who comes in every week versus the one who just wants to look at a list, see how much it costs and say yes, how much do you have to adjust your process and the way you work to accommodate client needs?
My fee structure determines a little bit about that. We charge an hourly fee to do design work. Usually, I start with tear sheets of what they already own and what I want to use. Then we start figuring out what we need to do. COVID has made my [process] a little bit different. Now, what we do first is order all upholstery—which is not normally how I would do that. Then, I go backwards from there. It’s super weird—I don’t encourage this for people doing design work, but that’s how we’re doing it now because it takes about four months to get upholstery.
Does it feel backwards to do it that way?
You just have to prioritize what needs to happen first. You need to order whatever is going to take [the longest], and that currently is upholstery. It takes forever because most of the factories are working with a third of the staff.
How do you decide what you say yes to, what projects you take on?
That’s changed a lot through the years. Now, most of my projects are either people I know or have been referred to—for 95 percent, I’d say, they’ve seen my work or they’ve been in their friend’s house or one of their friends has recommended me. That’s a huge, big, big, big part of it. I’m looking at all of my boards right now, and I think all of these people are either referrals or [were already] familiar with my work.
Do you have a specific aesthetic you’re known for?
My work is all across the board, because different people want different things. I think that you could look at my portfolio and say, “He likes this” or “He likes that.” But if you looked at it as a whole, you’d be like, “That doesn’t look exactly like this.” I don’t reuse the same paint colors, and I very rarely use the same fabrics or wallcoverings on projects.
It’s dead to you once you’ve used it somewhere?
Yeah, pretty much. I really don’t want to use something I’ve used at someone else’s house, because I just feel like that’s not very fair to the first person. I’ve had a couple people in the past come in and go, “I want the light that so-and-so has,” and I’m like, Ughhh. I try really, really hard to find them something else. Every once in a while, it does happen, but it’s not because I want it to.
What, to you, is the secret to a successful client relationship?
Open communication, being completely transparent. You can go through my records at any time. I am an open book. Anything you want to see or talk about, I’m willing to do that, but I’m also completely direct. I like to try to be in charge of the project if that’s possible, and I don’t mean that in a pushy way. I just mean, “That’s what I’m being hired to do, so I kind of like to do what I’m being hired to do.” I never want someone to micromanage me. I’m good. I can manage myself and your project.
You asked me about taking on projects. I have a sixth sense with that, where sometimes I meet with people and I’m just like, Yeah, this isn’t going to work. It’s just something in your gut. You need to listen to that and go, Hmm, this just doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a good fit. Sometimes, if it sounds too good to be true, then it might really be too good to be true.
What’s an example of that?
Usually, when people start throwing out things like how big their project or their budget is, it’s like, There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here. The people that do have those great projects usually don’t come in telling you how great it is—they’re just like, “Yeah, we have this project, can you get to it?” You’re like, “Oh, this is amazing and they want to do all this amazing stuff,” but they don’t usually just throw all that at you in the beginning.
Are there things in your contract that have helped you set the tone?
You’re going to die when I tell you this: I don’t do a contract.
Wait, what? Tell me more.
I know. I have friends that do it, and I have talked to people that do it, but I just don’t.
I don’t want to be under contract. I want to be able to walk away, and I want my client to walk away if they’re not happy. So what we do is, you get a monthly bill and you pay that monthly bill, and we get along great. We also do estimates on everything and you approve your estimates, and then we order for your project and you give us a deposit of 50 percent, which covers the cost of whatever we’re ordering. And then, whenever it’s here and ready, we install it at the house. I’ve never had a problem with this. I know that people do. I don’t know if that’s because of where I am, who I am, or if I have just been super lucky—I don’t know, but I don’t do any of that, because that’s just how we run our business, and, again, I’ve never had one issue.
So often when I have these conversations, people talk about using their contract to outline the rules of the road. “You can’t text me on weekends,” or “There’s X number of revisions.” How do you navigate some of those personality or workflow peculiarities?
I have total control of my phone, so people can text me whenever they want, and if I decide that I want to answer it, I do, and if I decide I don’t, I don’t. That’s sort of that. I’m really confident in that area. I don’t have a lot of issue with that, and a lot of my clients have become my friends, so, yes, they do text me and it’s not always about work. Sometimes, it’s about, “Hey, look at this place. We need to go here for drinks sometime,” or whatever it may be.
I discuss all this with people in the beginning. I want them to know exactly how we charge, what the fee structure is, what happens if something’s damaged. When you say, “Yes, I like this,” and you sign on the dotted line and send me back that approval, then it’s yours. It’s not mine anymore. It’s yours, and if you decide you don’t like it—I haven’t had this happen a lot, but if it did, I’d be like, “Great, we can put it on consignment next door, and if it sells, we will give you your money back.” But I haven’t had any issues with any of this.
When you are looking at the entirety of your business, what’s the biggest challenge right now?
Time management is the hardest. So many things happen that aren’t planned every day. Your computer doesn’t work. You’ve got a problem with the fabric, or a wallpaper comes in that’s not printed right. There’s a leak at a house. I’ve had clients that were in the middle of the construction and their house caught fire. So, there’s a million little things like that.
Another big part of it is there’s so many unknown factors. Like delays—I can sell you anything you want, but I don’t know when I’m going to get it, is sort of where we are right now. People are like, “Oh, I love this bed,” and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s just sold out.”
Are clients open to that, or are they really resistant to those lead times?
It depends on the client and the project. I was talking to one of my clients about this earlier, and she’s one of those people that likes to check things off her list. Her home is lovely, but if I told her she had to wait six months for something, she would tell me to find something else instead. Other people, and I’m one of them—if I want something, I’ll wait six months for it, because I know I’m going to love it, and I’d rather have the thing I want than something that I might not love as much.
On the design side, do you have a support staff to help with ordering?
I had an assistant for nine years—he worked for me when I had the hair salon. He just retired in December, so that’s been a little bit of a challenge. I had someone in the interim that unfortunately did not work out. But, as of yesterday, I have a new person that I’m training to do that position.
A huge part of this business is data entry. There’s so much data because every fabric has a purchase order, an estimate, a cutting for approval. There are lots of layers: You get the memo. You show the client. The client approves it. Then it comes here. Then it goes to the workroom. You’re touching one thing so many times, and that’s just one little piece of the puzzle, and there’s lots of little parts to all these puzzles. That’s a full-time job for somebody to just sit at the computer and enter things all day long.
What systems do you use to keep that really buttoned up?
All of our data entry is done through QuickBooks, and everything else is [systems] we’ve formulated. So, whenever they enter the estimates in the computer and I send those to clients, they go into a file that sits on my desk waiting for confirmation. Once the confirmation comes in, it goes into a packet. The packet goes to the bookkeeper, and then the purchase order is created. That’s sent out, and then that goes into a different packet.
Literally a paper trail.
Exactly. We have a paper trail of everything—I have one in my office, and there’s one next door in the showroom. We also have all of that in the computer and back up our cloud. That’s super boring, but it’s true. We back up every day, because you don’t want to lose any of that info, and that’s why we have the double layer and keep one in both places. If something ever did happen, we have all that info as a hard copy and in our computer system, connected to a network that’s outside our offices.
What’s the biggest thing you wish you had known when you started the business?
Oh, my gosh, I was so blind. There are so many things that I’ve learned. The thing I would tell you is, Don’t sweat the small stuff. That is probably the biggest thing. People are like, “Oh, you’re not upset about that?” I’m like, “You know what, that’s just every day. There’s something every single day, and you just have to get past it and figure it out.” You become a problem solver. It’s like, How do we fix this? You just learn that you can either get upset about it, which is a total waste of time and energy, or you can fix it.
That’s probably our biggest challenge, that there are lots of things that are out of your control every day. And then, every once in a while—I hate to say this—but every once in a while, you get a sour-grapes client, and you just kind of have to deal with that, too. I’ve never had anybody that was mean or ugly or rude, but sometimes you just feel like you’re on the struggle bus with them all the time. For me, it’s usually because they don’t get it—they don’t understand it, but they want to, and they’re scared to make a decision. They also, a lot of times, want to be in the safety zone, which I hate. I get where they are, because it’s a big expense, but I do feel like you want it to be interesting.
How do you tap into what they look like or what their home should look like?
You figure that out just by being around them. A wardrobe tells you a lot about a person. I’m usually going to their house, so I get to see what they have and where they are, and then I give options. I’ll be like, “Hey, we could do this, or maybe we should think about that,” and usually people are pretty open to that process. I also try to back that up with all of the things I have pulled to go with that, so they’re getting a whole visual of what that room is going to look like—it’s not just, “Here, we’re going to paint your room orange.” That helps because they can see what I’m doing. Seeing that vision is super challenging for a lot of people.
I have people who want to see all the fabrics and I have people who want to see three fabrics. They’re like, “Give me three options—I hired you for a reason,” or they’re interested and they’re like, “Let’s look.” There might be something in there that inspires them and they’re like, “Let’s start with that.”
So, you’ll take your clients shopping. You’re open to that.
Totally. I wouldn’t take every person shopping, because that would way overwhelm some of my clients. But I don’t have a problem with my clients coming shopping at all, nope, sure don’t. I’ll tell them if I like it or don’t like it or if it’ll work or whatever. Now, if they start getting wrapped up and unfocused, that can become an issue, but most of my clients are not that way. I work with a lot of people who either have been or are professionals, so they value my time and the process. We have a set of plans with us and I already have a scheme for furnishings and things like that, so I’m going to be like, “We’re looking for dining chairs,” or “We’re looking for curtain fabric,” or whatever.
I’m not going out with them to go look at china, typically—not that I haven’t, but that would be a special case. That becomes a whole different deal because, some of them, you just get really close to and they want me to help them with their whole lives.
When a house is done, how do you extricate yourself from that relationship?
You don’t. You stay in touch with them. It may be a Christmas card. It could be flowers on their birthday, or whatever. A lot of those people, they trickle back—the dog chews on the breakfast room chair or the kid spills orange juice on the sofa or they take a magic marker to the curtains, all of that. Mostly, we come back and do some tweaking—or with the project I was telling you about earlier, I have clients that I’ve been working with for 21 years who are moving out of a house, and we’re getting ready to completely redo the whole house. I’ve been working with her the whole time. She just does little bits here and there, and she’s constantly working on something. But now, she’s like, “OK, it’s time. It’s got to all be painted and the floors have to be sanded, and new countertops have to come in,” so she’s actually moving out.
Is there anything interesting happening in the local housing market right now? Anything different in the types of clients you’re seeing, in how people are feeling about their homes?
Well, everybody’s doing something to their house, and I mean everybody, every single person. The first three months of COVID, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to drive me insane.” Normally, you’re working on projects, and every once in a while, somebody would go, “I need this or that.” But [now] they’re all at home too much, so they’re like, “Oh, well, Fido chewed up this rug,” and normally, they wouldn’t even notice. But everybody’s trapped at home, so there’s a lot of those kinds of things, and that was a lot. I took on three big projects in addition to the projects we already had, because I had three clients that bought lake houses during COVID because they were so bored at home, they decided they wanted a second home an hour away so they could still feel like they were vacationing or going somewhere or being outside.
I took those on, so that was sort of a doozy and I won’t be doing that again. But they’re all people that I could not say no to, because they’ve been really great clients through the years and it’s just one of those things.
It’s kind of hard to tell that kind of client, “Well, you might need to wait a few months.”
You really don’t get to do that. You just go, “We absolutely are 100 percent invested and we can’t wait to get started,” so we just squeeze them in, and when I say squeeze, that means you work on the weekend. I will say this: It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does happen, you just suck it up and you do it, and ultimately you benefit from it. I’m not sure the person that’s had to do all the data entry would feel the same way, but ...
Yeah, that’s a hard job to compress. It just takes the time it takes.
It does, and you know, I’ve had to go back to sitting back there and do it [with our new employee] in the last few days, and it makes me appreciate what they do even more. It takes forever.
What does success look like for you, or where do you see opportunities to grow? What comes next?
Success looks just like what I’m doing right now to me. I’m busy. I’m happy. I love what I do. I feel I’m super blessed, because I have a job that I absolutely love. Even on the days where it’s like, “Agh!” I can go home and look at fabric swatches for hours or look at lighting. I just am obsessed with what I do, and I don’t have to be busier. As long as I create projects and have people that I love to work with, that’s what I’m looking for. Financially, we’re great. That doesn’t drive me like it does a lot of people, either. I have a nest egg and all of that, and these two buildings that we have purchased, so I feel really good about that. In all of those regards, I’m good. The main thing is I just want to be happy, and I want my clients to be happy with the projects when I finish. And I want to be off of dry January so I can have a glass of wine.
Homepage image: Kevin Walsh | Courtesy of Bear Hill Interiors