50 states project | Jun 23, 2024 |
Why this Nevada designer’s best referrals don’t come from former clients

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, Las Vegas–based designer Tara Dudley tells us how she has scaled her firm with only a two-person team, why she no longer accepts the pressure of unrealistic deadlines, and why she brings a glass-and-mirror and AV specialist into every installation.

What pushed you to launch your own business?
It was 18 years ago, so 2006, and I had already worked in Chicago and Las Vegas for a few different other designers—I got a lot of training during that whole Tuscan [aesthetic] phase—and I had been able to work on some high-end, detailed projects and learn about surrounding yourself with the best craftspeople from A to Z. These were medium-size firms—they’d have maybe five design teams, each with several projects. I wanted to have my own company and stay very small to provide a more personalized, client-driven experience.

What does that look like today?
Our team is myself and my office manager, and I outsource for help with drawings. I’m very hands-on with the process and all of the details from start to finish.

What type of projects are you working on?
We do everything from high-rises to large single-family residences. One of the projects I’m most proud of came from doing an installation in a San Diego high-rise with a high-end drapery workroom and installer I had been referred to. He did that project with us, then referred me to a client here in Las Vegas: We ended up doing their 15,000-square-foot home in Summerlin [a residential community in the valley], as well as their 12,000-square-foot penthouse in Las Vegas, and now we’re doing work for their children, who are having their own kids! That’s happened with many different clients over the years.

Why this Nevada designer’s best referrals don’t come from former clients
A library fitted with custom millwork on the ceiling and walls, two-tone parquet floors, and crystal chandeliers nods to the client’s love of classical Italian architecture and design Courtesy of Tara Dudley

It sounds like most of your business now is referral-based. How did you build that pipeline of clients in the beginning?
A lot of referrals have come from [tradespeople] who worked on our projects—I’ve had builders and general contractors refer me, but also audiovisual guys and that drapery installer. We have a good reputation with all of them—and they’re the ones who are [on-site] all the time, so people tend to ask them who they like to work with. The referrals [actually] don’t come from the clients. They’re protective—they don’t really want to give your name to their best friends and have you taken away from them. Have you noticed that?

I’ve always felt, anecdotally, that there’s a pendulum swing—clients in the middle will refer you, but lower-budget clients and super-private clients at the high end are less inclined to share your name.
It’s so true. I will say, not every client [we work with] is super high-end like that. We also have clients who buy a home through a builder—we recently did one out at Lake Las Vegas. Those are 3,000-to-4,000-square-foot homes, and we go through all the phases with them to pick out all the upgrades and finishes, then furnish it top to bottom and do a turnkey installation. They might be spending $300,000 to $400,000, and they want to tell everybody they know about you. It’s usually their second home. They’re easy to get to know, the nicest people in the world, and they’re just thrilled to go through it with you.

What does a full plate look like for your business, and how do you balance the big jobs with the builder jobs?
We’ve got about 15 going right now, and most are custom remodels. Some are more heavy with built-ins, where they need new kitchens and bathrooms and finishes, but maybe less on the furnishings side. Some are just new furnishings and finishing touches. We just finished up a townhome in the mountains in Park City, Utah—that was a turnkey thing, so they come in [at the end] and they’re just thrilled. Those projects are easier, cleaner, more modern. And the furniture is more available—you’re creating something at a quicker pace. But I also love all those projects where you’re creating everything from scratch.

What are those jobs like?
The furniture pieces are usually ones you can find through a manufacturer, and then we customize it the way we need it, either for size or for style. But a lot of the customization is in the architectural millwork. I love detailed millwork on the walls or ceilings, or oversize crown moldings—what type of wood they’re made out of, how they’re finished, everything about it.

How much of what you’re working on is a secondary residence versus a primary home?
That’s a good question. I would say all but three or four clients have multiple homes, which makes it nice. As long as they’re not tied to anything or have to be here for a day-to-day thing, they are able to disappear for a while [while we work].

What makes you say yes to a project these days?
Well, on the initial meeting, either on the phone or in person, I can tell if they are a trusting person. If I feel like it’s somebody who wants to micromanage or DIY anything, then I know it’s not going to work. I need clients to be very open-minded and candid with me about what inspires them, because the design truly is all about them—but I’m looking for someone who is more hands-off and feels confident letting me take the ball and run with it.

Why this Nevada designer’s best referrals don’t come from former clients
For a custom dining table, Dudley combined elaborate marquetry, elm burl and walnut solids on the top, along with Dutch leaf and carved legsCourtesy of Tara Dudley

You mentioned that your trades have been a big source of referrals. What is it about your process or your approach that has made you someone they gravitate toward?
For the builders, it’s about having clean drawing packages with all the specifications that they need from the start, answering questions right away, treating everybody kindly and not having an ego. I mean, without these guys, where would we be? I can see what they need to do their job, and how frustrating it would be to not have all the information they need—or to maybe not be treated very nicely. I witnessed some of that when I was younger, and I knew that was not how I wanted to run my business.

Can you tell me about the Las Vegas market?
It’s still a relatively small town, and there’s a lot of work to do here. In my opinion, there are not a lot of great people to handle the work—a wood floor person, or even painters and drywall installers. I’ve got a dream team of subs that I’ve known for decades now, and I don’t want to take any chances on anyone else. That can make it hard to schedule everyone, so we always explain to clients that start times may get delayed or timelines will be pushed out, and clients have to be OK with waiting. If they get demanding or impatient, they’re going to have to find [the product or service] somewhere else, and then we’ll end up coming later and fixing it.

I try to explain that once everything falls into place, they’re going to have their dream home and [these delays] won’t matter. The pressure of a demanding deadline for whatever reason doesn’t seem critical to me anymore. I have to make sure I go through the process in a way that gives them the best outcome, and communicate that as much as possible.

In terms of the types of homes here, the remodels we’re doing tend to have really good bones and floor plans, but also have all of those heavy dark ornate details that were overdone here in the early 2000s. We’re editing all that out but keeping the good parts of the house.

What are the good parts?
A lot of the architectural millwork, which was very costly at the time. If the cabinets are good quality, maybe we’re just removing some of that Tuscan-style antiquing and distressing and crackling. You have to figure out how to utilize what you can to create a new traditional look—cleaner, fresher, more vibrant and happy, with a little bit of a modern feel to it. But you don’t want to take the whole thing and scrap it all.

And it’s primarily that era of house that needs the work now?
There was a huge building boom here then, so that’s mostly what’s here. There are some cool midcentury projects in Scotch Eighty, Rancho Bel Air and Paradise Palms that are amazing—some of them were built by [renowned modern architects] Palmer and Krisel out of Palm Springs, so they have a really great vibe to them. But most [of the housing here] is from the early 2000s.

How do you source for your projects?
There are a lot of great resources at World Market Center—mainly for the builder-type projects, but they’re starting to get more and more high-end stuff there. Theodore Alexander and Area West are there; I love Elan Collections [for fabric]. But a lot of the custom stuff is made in either North Carolina or Los Angeles.

These days, I find myself searching online more and more for furniture, wallpaper, fabric—it’s so easy to [find] with keywords. And I’m not shy: I will order thousands of memos and sort through them all to find the right thing. We used to go to the Denver Design Center, the Pacific Design Center in L.A., or the Mart in Chicago, and go through every showroom’s wings, write down a million things, pull samples, and leave with bags and bags. Now it all comes to my door, thanks to my reps. I mean, my Schumacher samples will arrive a day later; I’ll have these giant boxes. Same with Stark—giant boxes at my door.

Beyond easy sampling, what are you looking for from your vendors?
In a vendor partner, I’m looking for service. I want to know that if something goes wrong—and it always does—they will respond quickly and take care of things. If you ghost me, I will come find you!

Why this Nevada designer’s best referrals don’t come from former clients
For a Las Vegas penthouse with panoramic views, the designer created a modern ode to art decoCourtesy of Tara Dudley

How have you approached charging for the firm’s work, and how do you talk about that with clients?
It’s very simple: We have a flat fee for the design portion, and then we charge a percentage fee [on what we’ve sourced] to cover all of our time and that overhead during the second section of work. It’s always been clear-cut for me. I mean, it’s the same way the design companies were doing it when I worked for them years ago. Not much has changed really, except for having to increase rates to cover our costs.

Do you mean that the margin needs to be bigger to cover the increased troubleshooting in the procurement process?
My design time is the most valuable thing, so the design fees are going up. Sometimes the margins are actually going down because of the ability to find so much product online. I always want to make sure we’re competitive—I don’t want my client going online, then coming back to me and saying, “Hey, I saw this here for this much”—so I sometimes have to be more flexible just to stay fair.

When did you bring on a team member for that office management role?
She’s been with us 10 years. She does all the purchasing, expediting and scheduling, and she does a great job. I also had a junior designer for a while. She moved to Texas about five years ago, and I didn’t [fill the job].

Why not?
She was mainly doing drawings. At the time, we were both learning Revit. Once I got past the initial learning curve, I found it kind of fast and easy, so now I just tend to jump right in and knock it out. And even if we have a massive project, I know I can outsource the drawings without having an in-house employee.

Why this Nevada designer’s best referrals don’t come from former clients
Mirrored details add subtle shimmer in a glamorous bedroomCourtesy of Tara Dudley

What do your installations look like?
We have a great receiving warehouse that receives, inspects and stores everything, and then they bring it all out. But we’ve also scheduled the best person for every other job: our wallpaper person, our electrician, paint and drywall people, the glass-and-mirror team, audiovisual people, an art hanger—we’re bringing in five to 10 [specialists] depending on what type of project it is.

I don’t hear about a glass-and-mirror person very often.
Mirror is one of those magical things—we like to have a little bit of mirror in all of our projects. Sometimes we’ll do wall mirrors, or maybe it’s an antiqued mirror wall that goes up after the built-ins are installed. And we like to use glass for tabletops.

I love that. Can you tell me about working with an AV person as well?
Most of our clients want [smart home technology] in their home. I feel like [it] changes every week, so I try not to get too involved other than where the equipment is going and how I need to work around it—and, more importantly, what day their crew is going to be there, because they’re going to get in everybody’s way and mess everything up. Their wires are everywhere, they move your furniture around … It happens all the time.

How much are you driving the conversation with the client about what they need?
We’re thinking about appliances, plumbing fixtures like toilets, audiovisual equipment, safety items or security features, and maybe intercom systems. We find out what the clients need and then make sure to incorporate it into the timeline so that we’re aware, but usually we’re not too involved. I might pick out the color of the switch plate or something like that, but it’s more that it is part of the timeline. It’s usually an invisible layer—and if something is going to impact the design, I will be the first one to tell them and give them my recommendation.

You mentioned that you’re doing a lot of your Revit drawings yourself. How has that changed the way you work?
I’m a space planner. I will modify the floor plan to make sure everything has good sight lines and center lines, and play up all those views to make sure things are balanced and pleasing to the eye in an architectural way.

Are you showing that to clients?
I do pull up 3D views within Revit, but I am not sending them out to get rendered in color—that’s very time-consuming and expensive. But [it helps] clients to see that 3D view and all of the materials together. Sometimes it’s still difficult for them to visualize, but if they love what they see [in the presentation], then they’re going to be blown away when they see it in person.

Why this Nevada designer’s best referrals don’t come from former clients
For a vacation home on Lake Las Vegas, Dudley created a sleek, contemporary desert retreatCourtesy of Tara Dudley

How have you approached building your portfolio and photographing your work?
I do need to get better at that. We have so many amazing projects we’ve completed over the past six or seven years that haven’t been photographed. For some of them, the clients are just so private that we’re probably not going to be able to do it. But for others, the homes were just so big that we did them in phases; now I want to go in and do a room-by-room shoot of the whole house.

Is photography an important part of your new business pipeline?
Absolutely. I am so bad about keeping up with social media, though—if I do hire anyone in the near future, it needs to be somebody to handle that, because there’s still plenty of photography to use. When we get first-time calls, it’s people who have just seen the website, and they’ll say, “We’ve looked at a lot of designers in Las Vegas, but we feel like everything you’ve done looks great, and we like your style.”

What does success look like for you in your business today?
When my client walks into their home, has tears of joy and gives me a big hug. I think that’s where the magic is at—getting to know them and creating this environment [where] they’re surrounded by what they love.

To learn more about Tara Dudley, visit her website or find her on Instagram.

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