As I morph into various versions of my Interior Design career, I’m left with the question ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Am I still considered an interior designer if I sell cabinets to other designers?’ ‘Is Interior design a sustainable business?’ My 2008 interior design business model is not. Two years without any new design clients is not sustainable. It is the way to become extinct. When I studied in Cornish, I learned in cultural history that in the past, all great art and architecture was commissioned by a few, very rich people. Is that our brave new world?
I have survived by adding services such as procurement of cabinets, construction/remodeling services, I combined two companies into one, I moved my office, I laid off all my employees L, I specialized in a niche, I cut all unnecessary expenses, I eliminated phone lines, I tried to learn search engine optimization. And lately I had to stop paying myself. The latter part of 2008 I was honored to receive the ASID Designer of Distinction award for the Washington State Chapter, a month later I laid off all my employees. Every year that passed brought more financial destruction. Cash flow management was the most important strategy to know. Walking into the Seattle Designer Center is like walking into a memory book, everyone is gone, the halls are empty, even the national companies are having a hard time surviving. 2009 was bearable, 2010 I hung on. But 2011 was the worst year yet. How could it continue to slow down?
2012 was better- a little. 2013 is ‘picking up’ for a lot of people. I find it going in spurts. And spurts do not pay the bills. 2013 is the 6th year of struggle. I’m tired. Most of my friends that have/had businesses for themselves are also tired. Some friends slightly older than me have gracefully retired – those with spouses that had normal jobs with retirement savings. If Interior Design is a sustainable career, then Interior Designers would have their own retirement savings, right? NOT! Name me one independent designer that has put money away for retirement. That just didn’t happen for me. It doesn’t matter how old I am, I cannot afford to retire.
I’m tired. It’s like starting all over. Like the beginning when you were just building your business - but back then you had lots of energy and you had hopes, big hopes, big dreams. You were willing to put in 70 hours a week, work on weekends and holidays, anything for your new business that you were building. I’m tired. I am still in business. But now I look around and see my friends leaving the business and in some case leaving the state. People are migrating to Arizona in waves seen similar to the great depression. We are in the sixth year of this and some of my friends are just now losing their houses, they made it through 5 years but could not continue into the sixth year. They gave up their houses to try to save their businesses. Now their businesses are failing. The spurts are too late.
A friend of mine has a stone yard in the design district. Business has slowed to a small trickle, not near enough to pay the bills or put food on the table for his six kids. ‘What are you going to do?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how to do anything else.’ Is the natural stone business unsustainable? What business is sustainable? And will I be happy doing that business? I’m certainly not happy in my business, I am stressed out. Is happiness sustainable? Or is it just an illusion?
Another friend sadly closed his upholstery business after 27 years. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘What are you going to do?’ I panicked, ‘How are you going to live?’ ‘How will you get food?’
‘I don’t know’ he whispered. He was shaking.