50 states project | May 17, 2024 |
Why this Maine designer wishes she had stopped sharing her discount sooner

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, Yarmouth, Maine–based designer Emily Ennis Mattei of E4 Interior Design tells us how she went from the great outdoors to the great indoors, why working with her husband has been a huge win and how a coaching program has helped her stay accountable as she grows the firm.

You had a career in outdoor education before pivoting to design. What was your path to the interiors industry?
When I was 12 years old, I went to sleepaway camp on Cape Cod, and all I wanted was for my mom to redo my room. I remember coming home from camp and being like, “Oh, my God, this is the best thing ever.” My mom’s not a designer, but I come from a long line of fine artists in all different mediums—my grandfather drew houses in classic black-and-white ink; one of my cousins is a well-known watercolor artist; my mother does a lot of mixed-media collage—so art has always been a thread through my life.

I was studying psychology and studio art in college when I went on an Outward Bound expedition. When I came back, I changed my major to include education, studio art and psychology together—I created my own major. After graduation, I went to work in the outdoor education industry for 10 years, the majority of it with Outward Bound. I was working with [many] kids who didn’t have opportunities to do [outdoorsy] things [I had grown up with]: I taught them how to swim in Boston Harbor, how to live on a boat, how to sleep under the stars.

That’s amazing. What made you want to make a change?
I started to realize that lifestyle was not something I wanted forever. When you’re living out of a wet backpack for two weeks at a time, it’s really hard to have relationships. So I tried to break into the Boston design scene. I must have sent out 100 resumes, but I had no experience. I was like, “I’m a quick learner”—all the stuff that you say when you’re trying to get into an industry—but it didn’t land with anyone. In 2005, I decided to go back to [school for] design. The summer before I started graduate school, I worked on a fishing charter boat in Nantucket, hooking and filleting fish for five groups a day. In the evenings and whenever I could find the time, I had started working for an interior designer I met out there. And the next summer, after I had some graduate program stuff [under my belt], I worked on the fishing boat again and was drafting for her at night. I remember driving out to a beautiful home on the water [she was working on] and talking to her about her business, and it just hit me: This is what I want to do.

Do you mean residential design?
Graduate school was focused on commercial design. Our studio projects were hotels and hospitals, or educational [institutions]—you know, how many different ways can you make Herman Miller furniture look really cool in an open setting? There wasn’t much on residential design. But on Nantucket, I got the bug.

I went to Boston Architectural College, which made sense for the line of work that I did prior, because it was all about learning through experience, which is exactly what I’d been teaching. The first year of graduate school was full-on classes all the time, but after that, the majority of the program is learning while doing.

I started in 2005 and graduated four and a half years later. And in that time, I had a bunch of different jobs. But by 2008, there were not a lot of interior design jobs to be had. I worked for a health care design firm that cleaned house while I was working there—they went from a staff of 30 to a staff of seven.

Why this Maine designer wishes she had stopped sharing her discount sooner
Richly veined stone brings a sense of movement to a crisp white kitchenAaron Thompson

Where did you see yourself fitting into the industry?
By the time I got laid off in 2008, my then-boyfriend, now husband and business partner, Anthony, had already decided that we were going to move to Maine. I wasn’t the type of person that was just going to jump ship and not have the next thing lined up—so while I had already planned to move to Maine, I didn’t want to plan without a job. Then I got laid off, and I was like, “Well, I was going to leave anyway.” I was able to find a job up here with a high-end residential interior designer who had some awesome luck and made it through the recession really well, and I worked for her for six years before starting E4.

What made you decide that was the moment to start your firm?
We got married, bought a house and had our first kid—I started thinking about it while I was on maternity leave. But I also attribute a lot of it to the life coaching program that I did: I got rid of an old story about not being good enough and I was like, “Heck yeah, I can do this!”

The [designer] I was working with at the time told me that she wanted to open up another office and have me run the main office, and she was going to go and travel. And I just had the courage at that point in my life to look at her and say, “That’s not what I want. I want to run my own thing and be able to chart my own path.” So I did—and I’m not sure I looked up for the first three years.

Why this Maine designer wishes she had stopped sharing her discount sooner
The great room of a Kennebunkport farmhouse features space for the whole family to unwindJonathan Reece

How long did it take before you kind of looked around and were like, “OK, this is gonna work”?
I had a 2-year-old when I started the business—he’ll be 12 next week—and we set up an office in our unfinished basement. I eventually traded with a builder friend of mine to do the work: I designed his house and he did what became my office. It was a head-down grind. We would drop our son off at his day care program, and I would grind. I would pick him up, we would do all the family things, and then I’d go back downstairs and work after he went to bed.

Those late nights were often when I’d do the billing—but I was too tardy on that side of things. A few years in, my husband finally said, “Emily, you can’t bill people three months after you’ve done the work.” So even though he was working full-time, he started doing invoices on the side to make sure they got out. He did that for about a year, and then he joined the business as a full-time employee five years ago.

How did that change the firm’s trajectory?
We’re definitely not billing three months after the work! He is the one who keeps the business side in line. He’s also doing all the procurement and tracking, and making sure that everything shows up.

Was the idea to increase the amount of work that you could take because you didn’t have to do the procurement?
We were busy enough at the time—I was still in the phase when I wasn’t saying no to projects, so I constantly felt like I was underwater. When Anthony joined the business, I was able to focus more on layering all of the furnishings, lighting and accessories, because I knew that I could hand that off to him to price out and put in a proposal. Before, I was doing those things at 11 o’clock at night in the basement, so everything just took longer. And I wasn’t able to take on all the work that I wanted to, because our projects were taking too long.

People always say, “Oh, I could never work with my partner.” But he’s the person I trust the most. No one has skin in the game like your partner. As a business owner, providing for your family is daunting, but it’s also the way we want to live. Like today—we’re going to work this morning and afternoon, and then the two of us are going in different directions to our kids’ events. He’s coaching both of their lacrosse teams right now. When they get off the bus in the afternoon, we’re here for them. We both have that ability to stop and be with the boys, and that’s a priority.

Why this Maine designer wishes she had stopped sharing her discount sooner
A guest bath with marine blue accents in Maine’s Mussel CoveAaron Thompson

You said that before Anthony joined, you were saying yes to every project. What do you say yes to now?
We said no a lot last year, and that was hard. Now we’re looking for large-scale renovations and new construction where I can be involved in a project from the construction set of drawings—or sooner, really—all the way through the end, through the accent pillows and the hurricanes on the coffee table. That’s where I feel like we get the best product, and where we get the best relationship with our clients. There’s a cadence that allows me to really understand what a client wants.

What else changed once it was the two of you working together?
When Anthony joined, we got an office outside the house. That was a huge turning point. It’s in an old 1700s house three miles down the road—I still bring my computer home at night, but it was enough of a distance away that I can leave stuff all over the workroom table and walk away.

Was that what you were looking for when you got that space?
Yes and no. We knew we needed that separation—that if Anthony was going to join the business, we couldn’t work and live as parents and do all the things under one roof. But the other big part of it was that my house is not as organized as the houses we design, so we don’t invite clients to our house. In order to meet with folks, I was lugging everything to them—and when you get to the job that’s an hour away and you’re like, “Oh, crap, I forgot that tile sample I was going to show them,” it’s too late. Or I was going to a coffee shop and taking over three tables. Now we have a beautifully designed conference room with gorgeous rugs and plenty of space—and then behind closed doors is our office and resource library. If I’m in the middle of a meeting and we need to pivot during a presentation, I can say, “Hold on a second, I have an idea,” instead of being like, “I can show it to you next time.”

How much does your location impact the kind of projects that come your way? What role does sense of place have in your work?
Tons—sense of place is huge for us. We’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of people’s second homes—a lot on the water, some in the mountains, and we’re hoping for more in the mountains this year. Lots of places where busy executives or just busy folks want to come and relax with their family.

Those ocean homes have these picturesque views of the coastline that definitely impact the way that we design the house. We designed a mountain home that we call Rangely Retreat so that you kick off your snowshoes or your cross-country skis after walking around the 300 acres, and there are systems in place so that it’s an easy transition and then you’re in this beautiful space with big windows, surrounded by views of where you just came from. The people we work with are extremely awesome people, and oftentimes their values line up with ours. They’re outdoorsy and they like to ski; they’re family-oriented people, and we’re designing spaces for families to live and grow and make memories in.

Why this Maine designer wishes she had stopped sharing her discount sooner
A statement fireplace in the den anchors a cluster of seatingAaron Thompson

How have you approached billing for the firm’s work?
That’s something we’re constantly navigating, but I’m still billing hourly. I’m in a design coaching program right now that is very flat-fee based. So far I’ve taken some pieces of the coaching and not others, but it’s something that we’re exploring.

We have enough data at this point to be able to give clients a rough idea [of hourly billing costs] based on their square footage and scope. In terms of products, I think that’s where it’s a little bit more of a puzzle that you have to figure out as you go. You can put an $80-per-square-foot tile in, or you can put an $8 tile in. It’s my job to find out from the client what they’re comfortable with and then design accordingly—if you really love the $80 tile, use it in this way and balance it out with a $20 tile. It’s about navigating how the client sees value.

We talk about money right away. On my discovery call, I explain to clients with new construction jobs or large renovations that whatever number they got from their builder—like, $600-per-square-foot for this construction job—is based on the cost of two-by-fours and Sheetrock. It’s a little more fixed. In design, we have more variables.

When you look back, what is the one thing you wish you had known when you first started the business?
I wish I had paid attention to the financials and the projections a little bit earlier. As a creative, it’s not something that you necessarily want to do. You get lit up by the work, so why look at spreadsheets? I’ve been blessed by having Anthony as part of our team to really pay attention to that kind of stuff now, but it’s something I wish I had started earlier on.

Does focusing on the financial side change the choices that you’re making?
It does—I’m not making choices on a wing and a prayer anymore. It also just helps you to understand your business better. Like, to see how much money that we bill on light fixtures—we sell hundreds of light fixtures in a year, and it’s like, “Shoot, that’s a big number.” I was a “let me share my design discount with you” designer for so many years. We’re not doing that anymore—and when I look at the invoices now, I wish I had made that change a little bit earlier, too, to be honest.

Can you tell me about the coaching program?
I’m doing the Interior Design Standard program with Sandra Funk—I joined last September, so I’m still in the process and haven’t implemented everything yet. For some things, it’s been the kick in the pants to do the things I knew I needed to do. When I do my discovery call, instead of just spouting stuff out to clients, I now lead them through a presentation that shows them what we are capable of, and clients really respond. It’s something I knew I needed to do; I just hadn’t found the space to because there’s always something else that a client is paying you to do.

What does growth mean to you? How are you looking at the opportunities that lie ahead?
We invested a lot in the business this year, which is year 10. A huge part of the coming [year] will be finding ways of communicating so that it’s more tangible—so it’s not just me telling people about it. We’ve always presented professionally in our drawings and documentation, but I’ve been working on a simple welcome packet for clients that offers more than just the signed contract, which is what we’ve always had. It will include things like communication standards like “You can text me if we need to schedule a meeting, but we don’t text about design.” We’re in a season of our life where we have the opportunity to not grind quite as hard.

Why this Maine designer wishes she had stopped sharing her discount sooner
A cozy bunk room does double duty as a game room where kids can unwind—with not only a pool table, but also Ping-Pong, darts and moreJonathan Reece

Do you imagine growing your team, or are you dreaming of evolving the business with just the two of you?
That’s a big question for us. Right now, it works to have it just be small. We can do high-quality work, and maybe we’re not doing as much volume as we could if we had a team, but I can be at all my kids’ stuff. If we had a bigger team, I would feel an obligation to be there for someone who wants to learn—and I used to be a teacher, so I know how to do it, but for right now, I like where we’re at. We have a subcontractor who does some drafting for me, a bookkeeper and a lawyer, but that’s about it.

What does success mean to you?
I’m providing for my family. Like I said before, this is it: This is how we buy our ski passes every year, and how we take our kids on vacation, and how we buy cars. It’s how we pay the mortgage and do renovations in our house. So making it work is success. I’m super proud of the work that we do, and that we can make it work as a husband-and-wife duo. We’re still married—celebrating 15 years this year—and we still like each other. That’s something I’m super proud of, too. So no matter what comes in the future, it has provided us a really wonderful life for the past 10 years.

When I left outdoor education to do design, there were times in my early career when I was like, “Am I selling out to go work for well-to-do people and not helping the greater good?” And yes, I’m not teaching. I’m not dealing with adjudicated youth on a day-to-day basis. I’m dealing with people who have massive portfolios, and second and third homes—but I’m creating spaces for them to be able to have an awesome life with their family. My outdoor life is now an indoor life. But we’re out on the water all the time, and my kids have been on skis since they were 2. That’s an important part of our life goal: to work hard and play hard. And that’s what we do.

I look at my father-in-law—he’s an architect, he’s worked for himself forever, and he’s still doing it at 76, because he’s like, “I like it. And at this point, I can pick and choose: I can do it if I want or I can not do it.” I look at him and tell myself, “Keep your mind busy for the next 30 years and do the work that you want to do, and say no to the work you don’t want to do.” I mean, I think that’s another huge part of it—being able to say no. Being able to realize when something is not your wheelhouse. That’s success too.

To learn more about Emily Ennis Mattei and E4 Interior Design, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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