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How Three Interior Designers Used Their Own Homes to Launch Their Careers

interior design


If they can do it, you can too!

Words by 

David Yeung

Published on 

November 29, 2023

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Designing beautiful interiors is an intricate skill. Many spend years studying the craft before entering the world of work as an interior designer. But what if there was an alternative way to start a career as an interior designer?

From innovative layouts to experimental colour palettes, these three interior designers turned their personal spaces into laboratories of creativity and leveraged their newly made-over spaces as launchpads for their interior design careers. Learn how these industry experts transformed their living spaces into stunning reflections of their design philosophies and set the stage for their success in the interior design industry.

Ksenya Malina

Ksenya Malina is the founder of Time & Place Interiors, a New York-based design studio specialising in combining vintage with modern decor.

Ksenya's story

Ksenya's journey into the interior design industry began with the gut renovation and furnishing of her own pre-war apartment in Manhattan. Being mindful of the building's Art Deco architecture, she sought to juxtapose her apartment flat with her love for Mid Century style design. She began to dive into the interior design and architecture world by salvaging vintage doors, hardware, antique grille covers, original bath fixtures, and vintage lighting.

Throughout the renovation, Ksenya was working a full time corporate job. She recounts, "My work paid the bills, but I began realising how a career in the visual field would be a much better fit for me. I didn't intend to become an interior designer, but I started some side projects before eventually taking the leap into a full-time pursuit of my own business. As luck would have it, I landed my first big client project the day after I left my office job!"

Now, Ksenya's projects involve broader scopes of interior design for both modern and older spaces, but she continues to prioritise vintage and antique fixtures and furniture in her designs. Ksenya explains, "[Antiques] not only make a space feel special by bringing a unique history and style; they’re also the greenest way to decorate."

Ksenya Malina's curated dining room in Manhattan.

Ksenya's advice: phone a friend

"Don't delay in documenting your work with professional interior photography. It's critical to building your portfolio and winning new projects. My own home was the primary source for my portfolio, but I made sure to document other small projects I was doing for friends and family to round out my website. I also began a blog to educate prospective clients about my design philosophy and approach.

Start requesting Google reviews from family and friends early on to build up your client feedback ratings and online presence. Finally, even when you work with friends and family, follow your professional process to set expectations for both yourself and your client."

Ksenya Malina's antique-inspired living space.

Find more of Ksenya's work on her website or on Instagram.

Alessia Lamonaca

Alessia Lamonaca is an interior decorating and home staging expert from Barrie, Ontario. She holds a Fine Arts degree from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) and began her early creative career in film and marketing before moving into design.

Alessia's Story

Growing up, Alessia created room mood boards for fun and spent her free time flipping through home décor magazines and pinning interior design inspiration to Pinterest boards. Yet, it wasn’t until the purchase of her first home that she truly started putting her passion for interior design to work.

In 2020, Alessia started an Instagram account to document her home renovation journey along with photos of interiors that inspired her. The account garnered interest from friends, family, and new followers—many asking for help in their own spaces. Alessia recalls, "I had a friend who had just purchased a house as well. After seeing my mood boards, she reached out and said, 'You have to help me!'" The friend then referred Alessia to her friend, and so on, and so on. And the rest is history!

Alessia's first post on Instagram: her newly designed bathroom.

At first, Alessia found it challenging to achieve the elegant, luxury design looks she loved on a tight budget. However, she soon figured out that the formula came down to knowing where to pinch pennies and where it was important to splurge. Though Alessia grew up loving design, she'd never heard of anyone in her circle hiring an interior designer before and felt the service was typically perceived to be a luxury reserved only for a wealthier, older crowd.

As a result of her experience, Alessia decided to leave her successful career in marketing to set up her own interior design firm called New Mode Home. She set out to disrupt the industry by offering more affordable, virtual design packages in hopes of making beautiful, luxurious spaces more accessible. New Mode Home has since flourished into a thriving interior decorating, styling, and staging firm offering remote and in-person services to residential and commercial clients globally.

Alessia's passion for storytelling and design has always been evident in her work, whether helping businesses convey their brand message through marketing and creativity or assisting homeowners in telling their personal stories through their home décor. She is driven by her tremendous ambition and an unrelenting desire to challenge the status quo and bring big, creative ideas to life.

Alessia's advice: overcome imposter syndrome

"My advice to new designers who don’t yet have a portfolio of their work is to just start. Build your online presence, get involved in the interior design community and start making a name for yourself. I remember wanting to start for a while but wanting everything to be perfect before I launched things. I wanted the brand to be perfect, I wanted all of my services to be buttoned up, and I wanted stunning portfolio photos. It was overwhelming to think about. But one day I just started Instagram from my couch. I didn’t launch my website until months later. And guess what? Nobody cared but me. Your brand will evolve and you figure things out as you go. The hardest part is just getting started.

There are many challenges to overcome when transitioning from a hobby to a business. I had to determine a process that worked best for my clients, develop a contract, determine my services and pricing, and figure out a system for taking payment. As a one-woman show, I had to wear all the hats. I also had to overcome imposter syndrome. I was self-taught, and even though I had soaked up a ton of information over the years and had been designing mood boards as a hobby for a long time, the stakes felt so much higher when I started charging people money. But as soon as clients confirmed that they loved something as much as I did and told me I had a great eye, it gave me the confidence I needed to keep going.

To get portfolio photos, start with your own home. You can also consider working with a close friend or family member for free with an agreement that they’ll let you take photos of the space once it's finished. If you have the skills for it, designing digital mood boards can also show potential clients how you can put a space together.

Some designers feel strongly that you shouldn’t post other designers’ work on your Instagram feed but I strongly disagree; plenty of people do it, even big accounts. When you’re just starting out it’s difficult to have enough content to post to socials—reposting others’ work allows you to curate a vibe and help potential clients see what your style is before you have a portfolio to show them. It also gives them a place to go and get inspired by images that match your aesthetic. It’s just important that you give proper credit to the designer (and photographer, stylist, etc. if that information is available)."

A home in Toronto designed by Alessia Lamonaca.

Find more of Alessia's work on her website or on Instagram.

Debbe Daley

Debbe is an experienced interior designer helping homeowners in New England and beyond. Debbe is also involved with the Designer on Call programme at Boston Design Center.

Debbe's story

Ever since Debbe was young, she has had a passion for interior design. She learnt to sew scrap fabrics on her mother's sewing machine as a child, would regularly rearrange her bedroom furniture, and, during her preteen era, she even asked for a  a wicker peacock chair for her birthday.

Despite her passion, Debbe was never exposed to the idea of interior design as a career. Instead, she pursued business but continued to sew and design pillows and clothes. But at the age of 22, Debbe had the joy of decorating her own home, from the flooring to the wallpaper. The creative freedom unlocked her passion and rekindled her relationship with interior design. Debbe proudly declares herself as a "DIY-er before it was even a thing!"

Debbe began assisting friends and family with redesigning their living spaces and soon felt a strong pull to join the interior design industry. She pursued this passion by enrolling at the New York School of Interior Design, balancing her studies with online classes in the evenings alongside her daytime job. Her goal was to expand her knowledge to eventually establish her own interior design business.

In a strategic move to broaden her expertise, Debbe took on a part-time role at a flooring store. There, she immersed herself in learning the intricacies of different flooring options. This hands-on experience not only enriched her understanding of design but also empowered her to assist homeowners in selecting the perfect flooring for their spaces. Her growing expertise led her to offer comprehensive home design consultations, allowing her to guide homeowners in making informed design choices.

All of Debbe's experiences culminated in her opening a boutique studio where she sold hand-sewn window treatments, antique furniture, and hand-picked wallpaper. Today she has expanded her footing in the industry, as a full-service interior designer, published author, and interior design educator. In Debbe's own words: "Interior design is my life. Being  able to help others create beautiful, sanctuary spaces that they love is my goal."

A sweet and homely living room designed by Debbe Daley.

Debbe's advice: think outside the box

I began building my portfolio with photos of my creative projects and work in my own home. I would rearrange furniture and create tabletop accessories to showcase collections. I started with a sofa, table, and mantle, and an array of arranged pictures forming a wall gallery of art. I would rearrange candlesticks, stacked books, pillows, rugs, accessories, and window treatments to demonstrate my creativity.

Ask family and friends if you can practice your design skills on a room in their home. In return, you want to be able to take professional photos of the spaces for posting on your website and on social media. Tip: take photos in portrait mode on your cell phone, this will focus on one item and create a blurred background that gives the image a high-quality feel.

Another creative way to attract clients is to have an event in your own home (or a friend’s home). Offer a wine and cheese night and invite friends to bring a plus one.  Throughout the evening, give a demonstration of redesigning a room in the home. Start the evening in the room that is going to be transformed so that your guests can see the before. Then, have the guests mingle in the kitchen whilst the space is being transformed. Once the space if completed, invite them back into the room for the reveal of the redesigned space. Explain the changes you’ve made and talk about the services you offer: paint consultations, room redesign, shopping services, etc. Encourage the guests to take photos and share the event on social media. Be prepared to book appointments and ensure you have a fee and service schedule ready to offer your guests.

Nowadays, video is also very important. For new designers, explaining your design process on social media and even creating a YouTube video with a shareable link is a great way to attract potential clients. Get in front of your dream clientele and show them your personality and your knowledge as an expert. The design world is visual. It’s all about showing your work.

A sleek bathroom designed by Debbe Daley.

Find more of Debbe's work on her website or on Instagram.

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