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, North Bethesda, Maryland–based designer Lorna Gross tells us why she believes no experience is wasted, how her marketing background helped launch her design career, and why it’s important to focus on the client in front of you rather than your Instagram following.
What was your earliest memory of being drawn to design?
When I was very small, I used to play with Lincoln Logs—I was so obsessed with them as a girl. I was never into dolls—I was into building something. My father was a contractor, so we always had floor plans around the house, and I was fascinated by them. By the time I was 7 or 8, I was looking at them like, This is where the toilet goes; this is the sink; this, that, and the other. My mother was a teacher, but she was also a seamstress, so we always had patterns, textiles and beautiful fabrics around the house.
My mom is also a dressmaker, and seeing her work as a child completely shaped the way I think about materials and the way things come together.
Yes! And all the little details, too! Like, where’s the trim going to go? Is it going to be a zigzag rickrack trim or grosgrain? All of those extra little details make a difference. Those are the things I think of now [and realize] it was always in me.
But you didn’t see it at the time.
The first part of my childhood was on Long Island in New York, and then I grew up in Louisiana, right on the Mississippi River, in a town where it was extremely blue-collar. [As I grew up], I wanted to make sure that I could support myself, so even though I knew I was creative, I was like, OK, what is the creative path that I could take in a reliable profession—one that I knew I could get paid in? I wound up choosing marketing because I thought it had some creative qualities but it’s still within business, which is a pragmatic profession. I went to the University of Maryland and got a B.S. in business, then stayed on to get my MBA and decided to do corporate America. I worked for Abbott Laboratories in Lake Forest, Illinois—I was working in marketing, but it was scientific because it was pharmaceuticals.
What made you start to rethink that path?
My company sent me to a leadership conference where we did 360-degree feedback, Myers-Briggs [personality tests], all that stuff. And it was interesting because at the end of the weekend, they were like, “You know, you have some of the highest scores we’ve seen, but there’s a problem: You’re not really doing what you’re supposed to be doing for a living.”
That has to shake you up a bit.
When I came back to Chicago, I went to Barnes & Noble and I’m like, OK, let me see if I can find a book to tell me what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. So I found this book that talks about doing your passion for a living, which took me on a yearlong journey of creating an autobiography—interviewing my parents and grandparents about who they are, and reflecting on my childhood. [In the process], all of these threads started leading me to interior design. I always wondered, Why is it that when I walk into a hardware store I get excited by the smell of lumber? Because my father always had me in the hardware stores and that was fun! I wound up interviewing a couple of interior designers, among other people, and I decided to go back to school and get my third degree in interior design. That was 18 years ago.
Was school the obvious next step for you?
Yes, because I’m Type A. One of my biggest concerns about switching professions was being respected in that profession. If I was going to do design, I wanted to do it at the highest level so that people would know, “She’s really good. She’s a professional.” I wanted my brand—though I didn’t necessarily have that name for it at the time—to be considered professional in whatever industry I was working in. I even went ahead and got the NCIDQ certification.
What was your path to founding your own company?
I had done a couple internships, and one of them was with a firm in McLean, Virginia, that designed palaces in the Middle East, among other properties. When I was there, I really got a sense of what high-end luxury interior design was.
Did that internship, or working at that firm, change what you wanted for your career in design?
Definitely, and it was a reality check. Because like it or not, it’s very difficult to survive if you’re being asked to design a whole house on a shoestring budget. When I went to school, I was thinking that I wanted to bring interior design to the masses—but I still need to make sure that my family and I eat. Also, once you get exposed to luxury design, you have the license to be creative, because you’re not held back by tighter resources. You can do more custom work; you can put the client’s stamp on their space. That, for me, was a really great fit.
We still periodically get calls from folks who watch HGTV and think they can have their whole house designed for $5,000. And that is just not the case—it’s not doable, or I should say, it’s not doable for me. There probably are people out there who are like, “I’m going to go to the flea market, I’m going to paint this chair, and I’m going to buy this table for $10.” That’s just not me.
When did you start your own firm?
I founded the firm in January 2006, two years before the economy tanked.
I’ve talked to so many people who were in other careers when the recession hit—that’s what triggered them to realize they were in the wrong profession, and they launched their firms in a time of scarcity. But you had already put all the resources in and then everybody pumped the brakes. How did you weather that?
I survived pretty well. For most interior design firms, business is based on referrals. But when I came in, I didn’t have a network of people or any great contacts, so I put a lot of my resources into my web presence and branding so people looking for an interior designer were able to find me. So actually, I may have wound up doing a little bit better [than those] who were legacy interior designers, because I had to be everywhere before the recession hit. I had to make my presence known.
Did the marketing background help you here?
Absolutely. And what was ironic was that when I decided I was going to switch careers and become an interior designer, I was like, Oh man, I wasted all of this time in marketing and business! And then, about six months in, I realized that time wasn’t wasted at all. I needed that. That is such a great life lesson—that no experience is wasted. You had an experience for a reason, even if at certain moments you don’t know it.
What kinds of clients were you getting in those days?
I had all the people who were kind of new to it.
Is that a good client—or was that a good client for you at the time?
It is a good client. One of the most important things in growing your business is to have a really good sense of who your ideal client is so that you know when the call comes in: “Is this person for me and my firm? Or is this a better fit for someone else?” And not being afraid to say, “I’m not the designer for you.”
How long does it take to build that sense of what your firm is and who it’s for?
I was probably about four or five years in when I could understand what my offering was, what my aesthetic was. And when I talk about my offerings, I’m not just talking about the design aesthetic, but like, what [I] have to offer from a client support, customer service and client experience. You know, who am I? My design is not necessarily for everyone—when I first started my firm in D.C., I was like, Man. I am in the wrong city for what I do. Because at that time, we’re talking about these Georgian-style buildings and a very classic aesthetic, and I didn’t want to do classic. I did struggle for a little bit because I wasn’t the most ideal fit for what people in D.C. were looking for. But people that were looking for something different on the outskirts found me.
And that’s where your business grew?
Yes. I love doing things that are a little unabashed, and the clients that came to me had that personality. The people who come to me wound up being people who have taken a slightly different path in life—a zigzag path, kind of like mine. Their experiences resonate with my experience, so when I go to the first meeting, I know: This is my person. Because whatever that might be like, they’ve had challenges in their life, they definitely weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth—these are not necessarily folks who have experienced generational wealth. [The projects] range from condos to large estates to row houses in Georgetown that are highly bespoke, and I enjoy that [variety] because it’s all so different. It’s fun for me.
How have you approached billing, and how do you think about placing value on your work?
I’ve done flat fee, I’ve done hourly, and I’ve done a hybrid. What I can tell you today is that hourly is where my firm is comfortable. I don’t necessarily have to predict how quickly a client can make a decision, and if they are someone who changes their mind a lot or wants to keep adding in small bits to the scope of a project, my firm is covered.
Does it also make it easier to always be able to say, “Yeah, we can do that too.”
Yes. And it takes the worry away that maybe you’re not getting paid. On the flip side, though, the tracking and billing is much more laborious. That’s where there’s a personal preference that comes into play to determine what that fit is for you. I think that we should, as designers, allow ourselves to have that flexibility and not say, “This is the way that I bill, and that’s it.” For clients I’ve worked with for years, I can give them a flat fee because I know how they operate and make decisions. But right now, if you are a new client coming to my firm, that’s not available because I don’t know how you make decisions yet.
When you said a hybrid model, is that what you meant?
Yes—to charge a flat fee for the design concept, and then anything that doesn’t go into your initial design concept is hourly. I find that that model works well for existing clients that you really know.
Do clients appreciate that switch to a flat fee?
Yes! And I really like clients to know what they’re getting themselves into, too, because I think there’s a sense of comfort that comes with that. If I were a client, I would be worried. I would be like, “I thought this was going to be $400,000, but now I’m at $1.4 million and that isn’t in the budget!” You know? So I think that taking some of that worry out is a gift to be able to give your client.
What does success look like for you?
The [philosophy] at the foundation of our business is “Meticulous work, joyful living.” So success is, Did we kill that job? Did we just knock that job out of the ballpark, as far as our work is concerned? And if we are joyful about it and the client is joyful about it, Oh, my gosh, let’s pop the Champagne! Someone once said to me that beauty operates at the highest level of the design—and even me just saying that to you gives me goosebumps, because isn’t that such a privilege to work in a profession where we get to do that? And that these people trust us to do that!
I love that you can look at it that way—like, “Gosh, this is my job.”
This is my job! Well, on the days where I’m not frustrated with project management in a pandemic world, and where things actually come in on time.
That’s true. I know it’s frustrating right now, especially.
It’s so ridiculously frustrating right now. It is. And this is probably one of the most challenging periods, I have to say, over the course of these 15 years, because we cannot deliver the standard of quality that we’re used to delivering. It’s not about, “Is the piece OK?” It’s, “Can we even get it to you in a reasonable time?”
How do you approach that?
Two weeks ago, I had to send out a letter to all of our clients to just explain, “This is what we’re doing.” I had shared that with them before, but I really went into it in an extensive letter where I explained [what happened in] the factories in Texas [that caused a foam shortage]. I wanted them to have the facts.
How do clients respond to something like that?
I think that most are understanding but extremely disappointed. And if I were them, I would be too.
How do you mean?
One of my company’s core values is that we should be exceeding client expectations, but these delays are making it difficult to do that. At this point, we’re trying to figure out what we can do to make the experience more personal—even though we already put a lot of care into our work, we are putting that much more care into our work. We’re working evenings and weekends, trying to make sure that clients understand that they are so important to us and that we’re doing the best that we can to take care of them even though we have these constraints.
Sometimes that means we have to call on more local resources—fabricators, artisans and vendors that can get you things more quickly, where we can better control what’s happening and are better informed. That has been something we’re doing more frequently, just because we have a better sense of when things are going to deliver. If we’re ordering something from overseas or from the other side of the country, the shipping alone is so unpredictable right now. And the interesting thing is that, even when you think that you’re sourcing something that is American-made—it’s put together here, but some of the parts, like a simple screw, can be coming from another country.
And if they don’t have that screw to hold it together, you’re late.
Right! So what are you going to do? We’re just trying to do the best that we can. The expediting portion of our business is bonkers right now. The design part, we can do that, but the execution has always been a large part of what we do—and now it’s just exponentially time-consuming. This is one of those periods of time where we are just juggling.
How many projects are you working on right now?
We have 12 in the works right now, in different phases.
On the sliding scale of too little to too much, where are you?
We’re feeling a little squeezed. Usually, we would have a mix of medium-sized to larger projects, but right now, most of them are on the larger side. We’re a team of six but growing to be a team of seven—I’m looking for an experienced designer, if you know anyone!—because we’re wanting to make sure that we have the human resources to be able to handle this work and perform at a high level.
You also just wrapped up the Kips Bay Palm Beach showhouse, which was extraordinary.
Doing showhouses has been great for my business. I try not to do them more than every three years because they are so demanding, but it’s a great way to boost your exposure—not just via media, but also to a potential new audience or community. If you can tolerate the expense—the monetary and time resources that it takes to get it done—then it is a really great way to expand your business or remind people that you’re there.
When you do a showhouse, what kind of return on investment do you expect?
I think you have to be very clear about what your goal is before you go in. There are three primary reasons to embark on doing a showhouse. One is, I want some new clients. The second is, I want my work to be published and exposed to more media outlets. And the third is, I want to showcase work that my clients aren’t asking me to do, or haven’t asked me to do yet.
What made you say yes to Kips Bay this year?
Probably COVID, to be quite honest. I needed some inspiration.
Do you have a ton of resources in Palm Beach already?
No, no! Absolutely nothing. It was a completely new market, but this was not my first time working out of town. What happens is, if you can get one great resource, that one great resource knows a lot of other great resources. So you get the one and you ask, “Do you know a great contractor? Do you know a great wallpaper hanger? Do you know a great upholsterer? Do you know a great millworker?” They all tend to know each other.
And they know who they like to work with, I’m sure.
Exactly. And they probably know who’s going to cause you some headaches, too. In Palm Beach, the people that we had were so reliable that it allowed us to limit the amount of travel we had to do. One of the things I always try to do when I’m working out of town is to leverage photography and FaceTime to check the progress of our projects. But from a creative standpoint, honestly, it was just fun to embark on doing something that I could just go—I went into this crazy fantasy place. It became Tinker Bell’s dinner party. I was in this whimsical land because I was wanting, psychologically, to escape the sadness and the sorrow of the pandemic. The design concept wound up being different from what I typically do, which is a little bit more sexy and sophisticated. It was still glamorous, but it definitely started out with the idea of making it a wonderland.
Because we all needed to escape a little bit.
I felt like I needed a lift. I needed some joy and an escape, and I thought, If I need that, then maybe other people do as well. And then it was this confluence of events that occurred where, right when the house opened, the vaccine became available to the masses, so there was this joy and a sense of hopefulness. They intersected perfectly.
Can you tell me about the design scene in the Bethesda area?
I am in Maryland, but I’m also in metropolitan D.C., which means I get to do all kinds of different design. I may work on the penthouse condo in downtown D.C. on the same day that I’m stopping by an historic rowhouse in Georgetown that was built in the late 1800s. Later that afternoon—and this is what my day really is like today—I might be at the estate home in Potomac, Maryland, or northern Virginia, and then I’ll wrap up the day at a waterfront property on the Chesapeake Bay. We have a lot of waterfront properties because a large part of the state is by the water.
One of the things that’s also great about working in Maryland is the diversity of clientele on so many different levels. It’s a very international metropolitan area, so we have clients from almost every country that you can think of. And then Washington, D.C., itself was for a long time was known as “Chocolate City” because of the high concentration of African Americans who live here, so you have that level of diversity.
You also have to be on your toes—you have to have a sense of the world, be aware of current events, and politics on a light level, too. We never get into political conversations with our clients, but you’d better know what’s going on.
You can’t be like, “Oh, I don’t pay attention to that” or “I didn’t read the news this week.”
No. And unlike other metropolitan areas, where the conversations are a lot more business-oriented, this is world events.
Everybody’s business is politics.
We have so many international organizations that are based here—The World Bank, for example—so you have people who are coming from all of these different countries and continents. You need to be aware of what’s happening in the Middle East right now, or what’s happening around Brexit. Those are conversations that we have when we are entering our clients’ homes. And then as we get out to the second homes on the waterfront, it’s really about relaxation. You’re escaping, in a way, from all those intense conversations—that’s where we get to provide a lighter, softer touch in the design. Creating homes closer to the metropolitan area, you’re also creating homes to entertain people for business—for fundraisers and networking events. But when we go to the other parts of Maryland, it’s more about spending time with family and friends and letting your hair down. I find that there’s a variety of different styles of homes here, but also a variety of purposes for those homes.
What is the design community like?
It’s so funny that you’re asking me that question during the pandemic, because it’s like, What is my community now? But I do feel like the design community here is very supportive. I’m a member of the Design Trust, which is a national organization, but a few of us have a contingency here and we touch base to share resources in a non-competitive environment, so that’s very nice. We also have a lovely design center that’s in the heart of D.C., and so we’re able to go and tap those resources. Even though a lot of the showrooms were only available by appointment during COVID, it was still great just to be surrounded by beautiful things and be inspired.
What made you want to join Design Trust, and what has that brought to your practice?
Because my first profession was in business, that meld of design and business [appeals to me]. A lot of people can do lovely design, but our business is really about how we are serving the client, and the service to the client has a lot to do with how good your back office is and how that is running. So what I love about Design Trust is we get to have those conversations about anything from insurance to warehouse receiver challenges and how to deal with that, to talking about the most reliable vendors, or team structure and HR issues. Being able to have those conversations in a safe environment is a jewel.
Has it helped you make changes in your business?
Oh, yes. Some of the folks in this organization, they’re beasts. They’re people who have companies with 17 or 20-something employees. But no matter how large or how small the organization is, we can always learn from each other. Sometimes you’re moving in the direction of a different organization, and sometimes they’re moving in your direction. Sometimes people are intentionally downsizing. You can ask yourself, “What do I want my company to look like?” And then you can talk to seven other members whose firms look the way that you think you want your company to look.
When COVID happened, we went into this unbelievably strong PPP [Paycheck Protection Plan] exercise together. How do you do it? Who do you talk to? What are the documents? How do you fill them out? When should you be turning them in? What’s the follow-up? Then, months later, it was, “This is the time to submit for a possible loan forgiveness.” I mean, that kind of stuff—and also, “Are you hurting right now? Are you hurting emotionally, or is your business hurting?” Things have completely turned around, so six months later it’s like, “How are we going to keep up with all this work?” Having those conversations has been so impactful and so critical throughout the past year, especially.
When you look back at your 15 years in business, what is the biggest thing you wish you would have known from the start?
I’m glad you asked that question. One is that I think it is important, especially for women, to stand in your value and not feel as if you have to give too much away. When the talent is there and you’re clear on what your worth is, you shouldn’t give it away, not even in fractions. Sometimes people will come to you, and because they don’t understand the value, they’ll try to minimize it; you may decide, “OK, I can compromise or negotiate on that,” but then your mental state is messed up because you feel undervalued.
There was this great line that I heard from recording artist India.Arie—she was getting interviewed by Oprah, and she said that when she’s in a situation where she has to make a decision, she asks herself, “If I knew that I was 100 percent worthy, what would I do?” So now I ask myself that question. Just this week, I had to say no to a potential client. It was for a couple of reasons, but the main one was that the level of maintenance that client would have required and what they were willing to pay us for it was not in alignment.
As you ask yourself that question more and more over the years, does it change the way you think about your work?
Yes. Every January, our team has an annual business meeting where we set the vision for the year. In 2020, the vision for myself and for the company was “unapologetic visibility.” And what happens is, when you put that out there, the universe meets you there. This year, I see 2021 as a powerhouse year. It’s about owning the space. I’m celebrating my 15th anniversary in business and there are certain things that I’ve accomplished and can claim. We do great work, so let’s show up as the powerhouse brand that we are and own that space completely and not apologize for being good. And the last thing is: Have fun with it!
Because what’s the point if you’re not?
Right! What’s the point if you’re not! Can you believe we’ve been doing this crazy stuff for 15 years? You know that we’ve had this client and that client that people don’t even know about. We killed it for so-and-so. You know? And just kind of be a little giggly about it—to be like, “It is so cool that we did this, and that we are doing that.” And once again, I think for women, that’s so important.
And I think so much harder.
It’s so much harder! Because we’re taught to take care of this or that person, be humble and have a sense of humility. I recently had a conversation with Judy Smith, who is the woman that the television show Scandal was designed after.
The real-life Olivia Pope?
She’s based in D.C. and she is amazing. One of the messages that she shared is that she believes that you can be confident and have a sense of humility at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive. So for women, we’re always like, “I have to be humble, I have to be humble, I have to be humble,” but then the guys are out there on the football field or on the basketball court going, “Did you see that shot! I killed it!” They’re dancing in the end zone! So now is the time, as I see it, for my firm to dance in the end zone.
That’s amazing. You’ve gotten me thinking—with the clients you have, how much of your work are you never able to show, or never able to really talk about?
I would say that it’s probably about 20 to 25 percent. And even when we’re able to show it, we may not ever be able to say who that person is.
How do you navigate those constraints or that kind of high-profile personality?
For every client, we meet them where they are and we take them to where they want to go. Even if it’s a celebrity or a high-profile politician, it’s about seeing them as an individual and seeing their humanity—not necessarily what they do, but what is their essence? How do we convey and translate their essence in the built environment? And how do we translate and create what they recognize as beauty? Not necessarily what we see as beauty, but uncovering what is going to create a sanctuary for them. At the end of a difficult day, what space is going to wrap them up and make them feel like they’re loved? This job is a privilege—there is a spiritual aspect to it, as far as the way I approach it. If we’re doing our job well, we are improving not just the quality of the space but the quality of life of the individual.
Oh, I love that. The way you approach your work is so beautiful.
People are always having conversations about what they should be doing to get business, but one of the most important things that I try to remember is that you have to try to exceed the expectations of your current clients at every point you can. If you do that, and you delight them and surprise them, you’ll get that referral. So sometimes it’s not, “How many followers do I have on Instagram?”
That’s important, and I’m not trying to downplay all the marketing tactics and techniques. But the person that’s in front of you today—are you ensuring that whatever level they came in expecting, that you are not just satisfying it, but also exceeding it? Because that is what’s going to get them to pick up the phone and tell their girlfriends, “You have to come see this. I don’t care what you’re doing. Drop what you’re doing because my designer just left and you won’t believe this!” And I’m saying that as a marketer. I’m a marketer! I’m all about all of those tactics. But by the same token, instead of being so focused on the next client coming in, are you really exceeding the expectations of the one that you’re dealing with today?
Portrait: Lorna Gross | Danielle Finney