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, New London, New Hampshire–based designer Cicely Beston tells us about how family has shaped her business, why she believes money is only uncomfortable when it’s not discussed, and the charging formula that saves her time and money.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
My mom has really been my guide into this. She’s an interior designer now, but she was a florist and then had a retail store while I was growing up. Then, in a very roundabout way, she was basically given a large, multimillion-dollar commercial project when I was a freshman in college, and it was baptism by fire. I would come home, and we would do design boards together and go down to the Boston Design Center. This was back in the day when we would literally pin fabric and cutouts on big corkboards—which, ironically, I have gone back to recently with great joy.
So you had a front-row seat to watch her figure that out.
Exactly. It was a high-end retirement community. The woman running the project took my mom to High Point Market, and then—you can’t make this stuff up—was like, “OK, this project is yours,” because she was moving to the Cayman Islands to start an offshore women’s bank.
That’s a new one! Did that early experience help you realize this was what you wanted to do professionally?
No, it was more roundabout than that. I was an art history major in college. After working for Simon Pearce one summer, I moved down to Greenwich, Connecticut, to open a store for them there. My mom had a big retail store in New Hampshire at the time—it was like Crate & Barrel or Williams-Sonoma before either of those were big—and I moved home to help her. I got really into merchandising, so my mom started to let me do all the buying. I was 22, going to New York four times a year. And one day, a guy walked into the store when I happened to be there, and after looking around, he goes, “I just love how everything feels and looks in here. Who put all of this together?” And I said, “Well, actually, me.” He said that he was building a house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and asked if he could hire me as his interior designer.
I’m a “yes” girl—I always joke that I need “no” tattooed on my forehead because it doesn’t come out of my mouth—so next thing I knew, I was working on this new-construction, ground-up interior design project. His then girlfriend, now wife is a very prominent architect in New Hampshire, so I got to know her through the project, and it was wonderful—totally soup to nuts. He was recently divorced, and all he brought to the house was his toothbrush. I helped him design the house, and then all of the interiors—everything down to the dishes. I got lucky, because I got to do high-end, ground-up builds from the get-go.
From that moment, you were hooked?
Shortly thereafter, I got engaged and then married, and my then husband sponsored me to do a designer showhouse in New London, New Hampshire. My mom and I did it together—by then, she was getting more into interior design after that big commercial project—and that’s when I started getting phone calls and picking up projects.
What I remember very specifically—and this is what has been really important for me to remember this past month—is knowing that I wanted a job where I could first and foremost be a mom. I had always wanted to be a mom who dropped my kids at school and picked them up every day, and who could take them on every field trip. I knew my job could not take me away from them, and interior design was perfect for that. So I always worked from home, and as my business grew and grew, I took my kids with me. I knew I was in trouble when I took Aiden, my oldest, to a job site right after he learned to walk. It was like, “Well, this is dangerous.” So after that, I had a nanny for 10 hours a week who would stay home with him when I had to go to job sites. But I always just told my clients, “If you want me, I’m a package deal. I have a baby strapped to my back.” And it worked. For a long time, I did two to three projects on my own every year, and then usually one with my mom.
Did you have separate businesses?
Yes—her focus was originally retail, and then as she got into design work, it was more decorating, and I don’t say that disparagingly. People would come into the store and buy furniture, and she would work with them, whereas I was really learning the construction end of the business—plumbing schedules and lighting and cabinetry and tile layouts and flooring. And then when we came together, I brought that skill set, she brought her great design eye, and we were a good team.
You mentioned that from the beginning, you were working on high-end new builds. What was the scope of those projects?
A few of those early jobs are on my website, but I was always bad about having my work photographed in the beginning. I think the smallest was probably 4,000 square feet, up to an 8,000-square-foot house. For the most part, these were all second homes. There were a few smaller-scale renovation jobs, too, but I didn’t start by helping a friend design a powder room or anything like that—it was big stuff from the get-go. I don’t think I realized how rare that was at the time. It was just what was there and what I was doing.
Is most of your work still secondary properties? How do you find that those clients’ needs or wants are different?
Very much so. Where we live in New Hampshire was always a sweet spot: We live exactly an hour and a half from Boston, and we have beautiful lakes and mountains here, so a lot of my projects are lake houses and ski homes. When COVID hit … I mean, it’s insane what has happened here with the real estate market.
For me, it’s so important to focus on how the spaces live. I’m a form-follows-function designer anyway—that’s how I start all my projects. It’s really understanding my client’s lifestyle and then talking about what it’s going to look like aesthetically. Who’s going to live in the space? How much gathering space do you need? How many bathrooms? Are there dogs in and out? Where do we put wet bathing suits? But having built my own primary residence, it’s really not that much different. Clients are not more budget-conscious because it’s their second home—if anything, I think they’re less budget-conscious. The only thing I always try to make them aware of is that these homes should be places where they can come up and not think about their house. It’s important to put all that thoughtful infrastructure into place so that this really important quality time is seamless.
What does a full project load look like for you right now?
I have a couple. I usually get involved in the preliminary design and development stage with the architect and builder, and have a voice in how everything gets selected—from analyzing and editing the floor plans, to understanding the systems of the house and how it’s going to function, and then building up from there. I specify all of the hard surfaces and always keep in mind the end function of the room: Are the windows too low in case I have to put furniture in front of it? Are the moldings going to work for window treatments? Are my clients left-handed or right-handed when designing a kitchen? Are the countertops high enough? Then it goes all the way through to developing the furniture floor plans and designs and the whole sampling process and purchasing and installing.
I know you’ve had a lot of changes in your personal life in the past month that have changed the way you’re thinking about your business. Where are you at right now?
Being an entrepreneur, your life and your work life don’t separate. I don’t want to overshare, and this is quite a lot, but on July 6, I had a mastectomy for breast cancer. That was a big deal. Ironically, my assistant had gone through the same thing and had just finished her treatment in April, so the silver lining in that was that she totally got it. Jackie is also so much more than my assistant—I mean, she’s like family—and she was like, “OK, we’ve got this.” We had it all organized so that we could put the business on hold for two to four weeks.
As I was recovering at home, I was thinking a lot about work and where it fits into my life—especially because I have three children of my own, ranging from age 13 to 20, along with two stepchildren. And then, two weeks post-surgery, my ex-husband—whom I co-parented with very closely—dropped dead of a heart attack on his 66th birthday. He died without a will, and it’s all very complicated, but there isn’t anybody else to make arrangements, so it is falling on my shoulders. I’ve spent the last three days making all of his service arrangements. Finally, I can talk about it today. The shock has worn off, but it’s just devastating—and it’s devastating to see my children going through this, and to know what they’ll always go through.
So what I’m trying to decide right now is what my business should look like and how many projects I should actually take on. Last year, my project load grew to about 35—to the point where I had to categorize them as “majors” and “minors.” It was pretty much a 50/50 split. I grew my team, I grew my office, and I actually opened a store in 2020—because everyone should have opened a retail store in the pandemic. What it taught me, even before all of this in the past month, is that it was too much for me. I think my sweet spot is four to seven majors and trying to weed out the minors—we all know it takes as much time and energy to design a powder room as it does an entire house—and it may even be fewer these next few years as I find myself a single parent and really needing to be there for my children.
You mentioned growing your firm. What set you on that path, and what does your team look like today?
After my divorce, I was actually considering going into medicine. I’ve been an EMT, and I’d always loved medicine—I was a pre-vet major in college before I switched to art history—so I was enrolled in school to become a physician assistant. I was sitting at the kitchen table one day with a design board on one side and my anatomy and physiology books on the other, and my boyfriend, who’s now my husband, was looking at me going, “What are you doing? You can’t do both.” And he’s like, “You’re really good at this,” meaning the interior design. “Give it a run.” So I did.
What did that look like for you?
At first, it was going from working out of a small home office to getting an office and a shingle on Main Street. At that time, I was working with a pretty big construction firm on a project here in town, and one day I was giving my paperwork to their in-house assistant when she asked me, “So, who helps you?” I was like, “Me?” And she said, “We should talk someday.” That was Jackie. She had been the assistant to a very prominent local interior designer who had retired a few years earlier. I talked to her, and it felt good. When I first hired her, I remember being like, “OK, I think I can afford you four hours a week.” And within three weeks, it was full-time and we’ve never looked back.
It’s just allowed me to grow. In the pandemic, we moved our office a few miles, from Sunapee to New London. Then the building we’re in had a vacant retail space, and that’s when I decided to open the store, which meant I needed to hire someone to help me run that, and I found this incredible young woman who has just been a rock star.
After that, I started working remotely with an interior design graduate student. She was living in Florida at the time and helping me with my CAD work, and then I hired her full-time and she moved to New Hampshire last fall. Unfortunately, that has not worked out—she didn’t want to work full-time, and I really, really needed her to. At about the same time, I had hired another woman who had been working for an interior designer, but she only wanted to work remotely. We tried it, and it just wasn’t a good fit. So we got as big as five of us, and I’ve now scaled it back down to the three. But I get a lot of supplemental support, especially right now, from my mom. She’s now living in New Mexico and running stores there, but she lives in New Hampshire in the summers. And my husband has a very full-time job of his own in development, but he helps me with a lot of my construction projects as a project manager and supports me in my relationships with the subcontractors. I’ve found through this time that I’m not a good manager. I don’t really like delegating, and I was finding that the bigger the team got, the less design work I was doing. And so I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the idea that I only want to scale the business so far.
Does that mean just taking on fewer projects and really choosing to do less?
Yes. Well, maybe not doing less, but taking on the right projects—and really taking my time to vet the clients first. I’ve gotten a lot more clear about that: We now have minimums for projects that we will take on—and those have gone up significantly in the past six months—so that we can insulate ourselves to only be available for the right big projects.
What makes a project the right fit these days?
I’ve gotten really clear about that through COVID. I think before I’d have been ashamed to declare it, but I’m very clear now that, honestly, it is people like myself—who are my age, 48 or older, and who are building homes to support their family. They have kids and dogs. They’re educated and like to travel. They like to be outdoorsy. I understand where they’re coming from, and I feel like I know their lifestyles—I may not live it to quite the level that they do, but I get them and they get me. I’ve always said my business functions on two key pillars: trust and communication, and the latter begets the first. Having done this for more than 20 years now, I can see that the few clients where we’ve had to go our separate ways were not my demographic.
How do you start to build that trust with a client?
Communicate, communicate, communicate, and then document, document, document. That means making sure there’s a long and lengthy intake discussion, and being transparent about pricing and talking about it early. Money is uncomfortable only if it’s not talked about, so I like to say, “OK, this is what it costs. Once we’ve agreed to that, we’re going to move forward into design.” And then once we get through that initial hiring agreement phase, Jackie takes care of the money. She does all the billing, and if they have a question about an invoice, they talk to Jackie. That’s worked really well, especially right now, and I think having that infrastructure also develops trust. Clients can see that this is a business, and it has the proper formats in place to take care of them.
When you decided not to be the person having conversations about invoices, what changed for you?
It gave me freedom. And I shouldn’t say I don’t talk about money—I understand they are making huge investments in their family and in their lives, both financially and with their time, and I try to understand what they’re comfortable spending money on and how much. As long as you know your boundaries ahead of time, they trust that you’re not going to be bringing $15,000 end tables into the picture if it’s not appropriate or comfortable for them. That’s something I try to establish early on: Do they value quality? Are they name-brand shoppers? Or do they not care?
Name-brand shoppers—that’s such an interesting distinction to make. Do clients like that want that cachet, or is it about reassurance because it’s a brand they’ve heard of?
It can be both. But either way, those are typically not my ideal clients. Quality is important to me, and not being splashy. So if someone comes to the table [with different values], they usually get weeded out early on.
How have you approached billing for your work?
This is one of the things I think about the most—and this is one of the reasons I try to pick apart your podcasts and these 50 States Project articles! My favorite way to bill is commission: just a flat fee based on the cost of construction, which then gives me a furnishing allowance, and then my design fee is built into that. Right now, my design agreement lays out the scope of work and what they get for my fees, but I do currently offer an hourly fee for the smaller projects. As I try to weed those out of my business, though, I’m transitioning back to just a flat fee formula again.
How did you arrive at that model?
I hate billing hourly. You’ve heard so many designers say the same thing: It might take me four hours to find a piece of trim, but it might take me 20—and I don’t want to tell you that. Sometimes things just fall into place, and other times you’re searching and searching and searching. Years ago, I found this old formula that dictated that the furnishings allowance, excluding mattresses and window treatments, should be 20 percent of the cost of construction—that allows the figure to scale to the level of the build—and that the interior design fee should be a percentage of that furnishings budget. And I’ll tell you, it seems arbitrary, and I don’t always explain that that’s how I’m landing on my numbers, but after using that formula on several very large projects and then trying to keep track of my hours, it works about the same.
Do you also charge a percentage markup on the product?
We do. I’ll be honest: Before, when I had very low overhead and it was just me working out of my home office, my margins were much lower. Now I have to look at this and go, “This is not a hobby job; I have a team to support.” So we’ve just run the numbers and landed on a percentage that keeps us all afloat. I also explain to my clients that my markup on furniture is a little higher than on construction items like tile, plumbing or electrical, because I have true wholesale accounts for the furnishings. Because of my retail store, I have stocking showroom pricing, and my higher markup is only applied to the things we’re getting at true, deep-discount wholesale. And so I do explain that to them, and I think they get that it’s different than if I was taking you into the design center and marking up something that’s already been marked up.
I used to be a totally open book. I’m not going to give clients my wholesale invoices, but again, it goes back to that level of trust—them understanding they have hired me as a trustworthy established professional, and then we go from there and usually the conversation is over.
They just see what it’s going to cost them.
Yes. I know some designers go to retail and then discount it, but I don’t. It’s just, “This is what your stuff will cost.” But in the paperwork ahead of time, it is spelled out: Furnishings are marked up X, plumbing is marked up X, cabinetry is marked up X. There are different percentages depending on the cost that I get on that item and what I feel is fair to mark it up.
How does having a retail arm impact how you shop?
I go to High Point and try to use all of my own wholesale vendors as much as possible. I haven’t gone to the Boston Design Center in two years—and it has really miniaturized—but I know my showrooms down there. For fabric and wallpaper, it feels like we’re back to the old model of reps coming to see me or sending me books, and then lots of online memo-ing. Back when I was in retail and doing a lot of buying, this was my favorite thing, so I’ll just look endlessly—if I have this image in my mind of this bed that I’m looking for, I look through all my wholesale accounts first. I’ll just keep looking, and I’ll find it. I also do a lot of antiquing, and then I have a lot of custom stuff made. Probably, about 30 percent of what we source is through custom workrooms and craftspeople. One of the nice things of having lived in the same area most of my life and having this be a family business is meeting people and developing very long-term relationships.
What kind of local design community exists? And what kind of community have you built for yourself?
New London is very interior design–dense. Where my office and store are located, there’s literally another interior designer across the street, and then another one within the building. There are also several established architecture firms right in our town. I think it speaks to the clientele that we have, because we’re all really busy.
I do a lot of my own construction projects, where I will bring in painters, electricians and plumbers, and having had those relationships for a very long time, I can tell my clients, “We trust these guys. My kids go to school with their kids, and they’re going to return your call on Christmas Eve if your boiler goes out.” That is the nice part about living in a small community.
Where do you see the opportunity to grow?
Well, before this past month, I had actually hired [luxury brand consultant] Rachael Bozsik to help me rebrand my business—I was going to do a virtual two-day intensive, but I’ve had to put that on hold until April. The concept, though, was to establish myself as the preeminent—most experienced, most trustworthy—interior designer in New Hampshire. Her way of doing that isn’t about getting published in AD, necessarily. It’s about getting interviewed in the Sunday edition of The Boston Globe for your knowledge of the construction industry—getting me published in the articles that my clients are actually going to be reading, and establishing my expertise there. That’s where growth is going for me.
I’m also changing how my store works. Right before I went in for surgery, I was in the process of moving my office to a new building in town. My property owners were very unfriendly people, and I had the opportunity to move into a gorgeous historic building that was just renovated by the client of a very dear friend. It’s three times the square footage for a third less rent, so I get to expand my showroom, expand my design library, and have more office space. And better light!
Wow, that’s amazing.
I’m very excited about putting the showroom back together once I can lift more than 10 pounds. In the process, I’m moving away from the retail model, so it’s going to be more of a showroom. My post-pandemic hours had been Wednesday through Saturday, but now we’re probably going to be Monday through Friday—maybe even just Tuesday through Friday—and it’s not going to be cash and carry. This is going to be about coming to try the sofa, look at the finish of a table, and then you order it. It's more to support the design business.
Is that a more sustainable model than holding inventory for a cash-and-carry store?
Yes. It’s the same thing as being more patient for the better, bigger projects. You’re not going to be getting those everyday instantaneous sales that are gratifying. It’s a little bit slower, but I think it’s a lot more thoughtful.
The new space came about kind of in conjunction with my cancer diagnosis. I signed the lease on July 1, and my surgery happened on July 6. Then all this happened, and it’s like, “OK, sometimes the universe really is watching after you and pushing you in the right direction.” It’s the right thing, I think, to support me, my family, my team and the business at this time. It’s going to be pretty cool to be in our own building, too, and we’re really going to be able to graciously host our customers and clients.
What does success look like to you now today?
I know more than ever that it’s taking care of my family and my team. That means running a well-organized business, and it means accepting help. And now, success for me means trusting. I haven’t stepped foot in my office in a month, and it’s all fine. Success is having a team, having a family and having my business be a large part of supporting that [balance,] both financially and in the time that I get to spend—whether it’s taking my daughter to her riding lesson and cooking my family dinner every night, or working late some nights and them understanding that. It’s very clear to me now what success is.
That elusive concept of work-life balance—what does that mean to you?
It’ll never go away. I like that the business is always in my mind. My family actually embraces that, but I think I do need to have better boundaries. And it’s probably simply just back to a lot of the other questions, which is taking on the right projects and the right clients, and not saying yes to everything, so that there is a little bit more work-life balance.
It’s funny—my husband and I are starting the last little renovation project in our house, and part of it was going to be a pretty big home office, but we’ve recently decided we’re not going to do that. It’s going to be a screened porch.
That’s such a beautiful representation of that mindset shift.
It is. There will still be a little home office, but it’s tucked in the corner and it’s not so prominent. The kids know that I’m always working—I’m always checking emails and talking to clients—and they really love and support me. They’ve all said how proud they are of me, and that means a lot. I became an interior designer to become a mother. And these two major life events have given me a lot of clarity about how important the business is to me, but also how I just have to sort of reprioritize it a little bit. I feel like a good mom that I can show them what it is to run a business, but also be a mom first.