Savannah College of Art & Design’s Interview Series – Guests and Gusto
I was interviewed by the top interior design school in the nation. Want to know what they asked?!
Since the start of my interior design business six years ago, I have been interviewed multiple times by a wide array of people and publications. Most of them are really fun, and recently I had the tremendous honor to be interviewed by the Savannah College of Art and Design! They have been ranked #1 in the nation every year since 2008 for their undergraduate and graduate interior design programs. In 2018, the prestigious Red Dot Design Rankings placed SCAD as the #1 university in the U.S. and in the top two universities in the Americas and Europe.1
I was interviewed on “Guests and Gusto“, SCAD’s virtual series for conversations and content with leading cultural voices. Where students can “meet the creators and innovators remaking creative industries and get essential insight to guide [their] career in art, design, and entertainment.” 2
Here are some excerpts from my interview, I hope you enjoy and have fun learning a little more about me and Urbanology Designs.
Host: I’m happy to introduce Ginger Curtis, an award-winning designer and the owner of Urbanology Designs. She is a master at all aspects of the interior design process from developing floor plans and design boards to the important final details. Today she is going to discuss her timelessness, high functional, inspirational, and stunningly beautiful designs. Make sure to follow her on Instagram @urbanologydesigns and also @urbanfirehouse.
Welcome, Ginger! It’s fun to have these conversations with people all over the world. Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got started, where you are, and what you do?
Ginger: Yes, absolutely! We’re in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in a little town, North Richland Hills. Which is right between the two big cities. Our brand is in a niche lane that’s very relaxed, modern. So, modern updated interiors, but cozy and bright, warm and welcoming, and very livable. We don’t design rooms that are fluffy or don’t get used. We want to design beautiful spaces that are highly functional, so we design a lot for families.
I started the business six years ago and entered in an unlikely way. It was on the tail end of battling cancer and going through 18 months of chemotherapy. I really got a new lease on life and it was just after my daughter had also finished treatment for cancer. She was diagnosed with leukemia and so we had this wild, crazy, crazy time and it caused me to think about what I wanted to do next and pursue. That’s when I started the design firm and it took an unusual trajectory in some ways. I made a lot of rookie mistakes and “you don’t know, what you don’t know”. I desperately wanted to do things smarter, not harder and it was so frustrating when I was doing it the harder way.
I had a clear vision for where I was going, what our brand was, what we wanted to do and why I was doing it. I think knowing those few key pieces have helped us grow to where we are today. We’re a firm of six, of the brightest, sweetest, most talented women you will ever meet. It’s the best part of my job to work with my team and was something I knew out of the gate. I wanted to work with other women to help bring this vision to life.
Host: I’m so curious, you knew where you wanted to go with your business but you were struggling with knowing you weren’t doing it the correct way. How were you able to see what you wanted out of the future and how did you end up getting there after those struggles?
Ginger: I think getting there was building the team and it was one of the hardest, most scary things I’ve ever done. Because you feel a responsibility not just to yourself, not just your spouse, you’re now responsible for other people and that felt incredibly scary. I am a firm believer of leaning into your strengths. My natural-born strengths are I’m an executor, an activator, I get things done quickly. I took Strengths Finder and Enneagram, these amazing strengths and personality tests and they helped me to give myself permission to lean into the things I was good at like being a leader, taking initiative, and it helped me to build and structure a team.
I started off on my own and designed a Scandinavian, gender-neutral childrens’ room and it became the number one, most popular children’s room in the entire world on Houzz. We love the Houzz platform and we went from being absolutely nobody to instantly having some street cred. This little project put us on the map and I hired four interior designers my first year, that’s not normal.
Host: It’s not normal, it’s insane! It’s actually pretty fascinating the way you run your firm. Interior design is this behemoth of an industry and there are a million different ways to do a million different things. But you’ve found your groove and your niche. Tell us why you’ve made the decisions to run your company the way you have and what has been successful, and maybe what hasn’t been successful?
Ginger: There’s so much you could talk about with a business model. What’s interesting to me looking back is I haven’t changed too many things as far as how I structured the bones of the business. My dad was an entrepreneur and a scrappy hustler so I learned from watching him and gained a business sense that really helped me. I want to enjoy what I do and not burn out. So asking myself that question in the very beginning of how to have balance for my family, and still be profitable enough to make a good living. Because I’m going to pour every ounce of my energy and passion into this.
The answer to these questions caused me to structure my business model to achieve both of those things. A unique thing about us too is how we do client presentations. I’ve seen a lot, if you have 10 different design firms you’re going to have 10 different business models. But what I found works really well for us and lines up with the way I’m wired is to be very bottom line. So, I structured our design presentations where we literally do a single presentation. What I’ve seen more commonly happen is there are many presentations and you sort of get what you get. But what we’ve done is we spend a little extra time understanding the needs of the clients and we do three unique design concepts for every single space, whether it’s an entryway or the pool cabana or the living room. That’s unique and it takes a lot of extra energy and effort upfront but the result has been our design presentations have been 100% on point for the clients. For real, people are crying like it’s Christmas Day for adults! It’s all the things and we love it and our team loves it.
Another unique aspect about us is we charge flat fees. There are so many conversations in the interior design world about hourly versus flat fees. But I like to keep things simple and easy to understand for our client. It’s like music to their ears that there’s not this ambiguous, never-ending, maybe number out there. We do so many things to communicate on the front-end with clients we rarely, ever have to go back and read on the dotted lines of the contract. Thirdly, something I learned in the corporate world when I was 20 something, it’s to under-promise and over-deliver. To not just focus on the 12 major decisions of the project but to literally obsess over the details and so much so that your clients are left feeling like, “Wow! We knew you were good, we read your reviews, we loved your portfolio. But this is more than we could have asked for!” When you have the motive of your heart always positioned to that, it’s something a team can align themselves to and everybody’s on board for this vision.
Host: How do you balance your reasons why with your client’s reasons why and get on the same page quickly for a project’s design?
Ginger: I think it’s one and the same and it’s because our reason why, is I have a deep connection and understanding of why design is so incredibly impactful to our lives. How you live and function and feel on a daily basis. I remember before I started the firm years ago, walking around my house being like “I don’t want to go anywhere, I love my house.” I would wake up and sit on my beautiful sofa and look at the gallery wall and watch the light filter through the window and it moved me. It’s never not moved me and I saw that same house for 10 years. Of course, I kept improving it and making it better, it’s always so much fun to work on your own home.
I grew up in some pretty extreme poverty in some really traumatic situations as a child. What I found as an adult, was to recreate an environment for myself that was safe, that was happy, was a haven to raise my children, and a welcoming home for my husband after a long day. Those things are wildly important and so it allows me to connect with my clients because they know it is too. We can help usher these things in, it’s more than just wanting a pretty house and wanting it to function, it’s always so much deeper.
Host: How often do you ask yourself “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” Not design in general, like furniture selections, finish-outs, and lighting. But how often does “designing for a reason”, come up?
Ginger: We have team launch meetings to kick off the project and everybody plays like we’re in our client’s shoes. Someone comes up with an idea and it’s like “Yeah, but that chair’s back is too low and the husband’s never going to go for it.” Or, “It’s so cute and sculptural but it’s not the function we need for that space. How do we achieve both?” Something I always say to the team is, “We will always, always, always make decisions in the best interest of our clients.” We have to look at things objectively because we’ve got our little brains that fire rapidly with all these great, genius ideas. But to slip on our client’s shoes and stand there and think about how they live on a daily basis, how many dogs do they have, do they have parents who live in the house, do they have children, do they travel, are they working from home? These are things that if they’re not considered, then we’ve missed a crucial opportunity and we haven’t done justice for our clients in their homes.
Host: How do you get to know your clients so well in such a short amount of time? What’s your go-to method of figuring out who your clients are?
Ginger: It’s a little bit reversed, it starts with them getting to know who we are through a little backdoor called social media. What happens is they get on our Instagram and watch our stories, they see my little redheads flying all over the house and jumping across the furniture. They see my staff at an install and they see me crying about the paint I spilled on the floor and they see us. They see our hearts and they see how we live and then they feel like they know us. They’ve got a personal peek and one of the things most important to me is authenticity. I demand it, I require it, I need it, I live it. So I’m able to put that out there very easily and what happens during that first consultation, I feel like our clients let their guard down a little bit. They’re like, “I know Ginger, I know her, she might already be my friend.”
It sets the stage for really natural conversation and what I have found is, in a very short amount of time walking out of the initial consultation, their guard is down and they’ve been able to very easily communicate. It’s a very vulnerable thing to let an interior designer in your house. I think about all the apologies, the “I’m sorry about this… and oh this!” And I always said, “Don’t apologize, don’t apologize for one single thing! This is life, this is real.” If they’ve got that treasured heirloom from their grandmother and they say, “Maybe we could make it work?” and they’re not quite sure, I say work it in! All of those things again let their guard come down so they communicate freely and honestly. Then you can glean and peel back beyond the layers of the simple surface stuff.
Host: How else have you harnessed social media? What do you think its strengths are other than allowing your clients to get to know you before they even hire you?
Ginger: The number one thing I would say, and the reason why I’ve worked really hard at managing our social media, it is the fastest way for somebody to understand your brand. Think about it, you hop onto Instagram and swipe, swipe, swipe, three swipes and you’ve got a pretty complete view. They’re relaxed modern, they’re eclectic, boho, they’re vintage modern, you name it! The way I’ve curated our Instagram feed is so that it’s the number one place I send people to. We curate our personal homes and our social media accounts are our digital homes. It’s allowing people to see and feel this connection there. As well, it’s been a very, very strong, consistent, clear voice to communicate our brand message.
Host: How important is it for you, or for anyone, to not only see opportunities as they are presented but also to create them and make them suited for what you’re doing?
Ginger: That is the challenge and a challenge worthy of consideration because a lot of us are going to wait for life to happen to us. We do the things and then we expect things to happen, and if they don’t, then what’s plan B? Whether things are good or bad we are in a position where we can use these brilliant minds we’ve been given to think outside the box. An opportunity in my professional life is the fire station, this building we call the Urban Firehouse. When I bought it, it was this disaster of a building, it was so run down, and it was huge, it was gargantuan with this massive space that was the engine room where the fire-trucks would park. As well there’s the fireman’s quarters and their bedrooms. How do you make all this work?
I only needed X amount of space for the firm and that’s why I built the second-story loft. But I thought, this engine room is quite massive and I’ve just created this brilliant wall of windows with 34 feet of glass where the light floods in and it’s beautiful. So I thought, what if I created a venue space? We’re not going to use the engine room because our beautiful firm is up in the loft with all the best views. So I did it, I created a venue space it’s this big, huge open space where the fire trucks would pull up and people now rent it out for weddings, receptions, parties, speaking events, all sorts of things.
The old firemen’s rooms I turned into executive, private co-working offices for local entrepreneurs. So all of a sudden, it’s three businesses in one place. I could have turned it all into a showroom space but I knew out of the gate, I didn’t want to do brick and mortar retail. It was a temptation, I could have followed suit with what seemed most natural, but I felt there were greater opportunities to think outside the box and put the venue space and offices into motion and it’s proven to do very well.
Host: I love how much appreciation you have for your team and that interior design is genuinely a collaborative effort. I don’t often hear designers talk the way you do. What about your collaboration or your team makes you want to continuously invest in them?
Ginger: It’s an incredibly precious thing to my heart, my team and these women. They give me their very best, they work so hard and they’re so talented and they’re so loyal. I’m in awe by their wisdom and their talents and it makes my job so beautiful and meaningful. And when hard stuff happens, when we get really difficult clients sometimes, and I’m in that boat on the ocean and the waves are pounding and I’m crying. Guess who’s in the boat with me? My team, we’re all huddled together and everyone’s taking turns with the oar, rowing on their side, trying to get us back to shore. I would not want to do what I do if I didn’t have their support and inspiration. I didn’t name my company Ginger Curtis Interiors because I knew from the very beginning, this was about more than me. I can’t even express to you how brilliant and beautiful all of them are.
Host: Well it’s very heartwarming, I love it. It’s not super common, the way you’re so open about it. It’s a beacon in the industry, so thank you! In addition to the wonderful women you work with, how important is it to not underestimate the interdisciplinary actions of our industry? Things like furniture storage and delivery, contractor management, and photography sessions.
Ginger: It’s supercritical actually because it feels like there are a hundred balls in the air and you’re juggling them and your team is juggling them. We are so dependent on our subs, our vendors, our partners, and our relationships. It was one of the hardest things for me in the beginning, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have a single friend who was a designer. I barely knew how to spell interior design, it was hard building relationships over time and relying on those people. Treat your people well, treat them so good and appreciate them when they’ve finished a job well. And when they crush it or hit it out of the park, everybody always gets cookies! We’ve got our favorite place and they get a box of hot cookies delivered to their door, with a thank you card and it’s this little extra step you can take to build the relationship.
Host: Being in the industry for a while, do you have any good horror stories?
Ginger: Oh gosh, where do you start with the horror stories? But it’s a layer you need to peel back because it’s really easy to look at a bright, shiny brand and a girl who seems to have it all together. It’s important to share our failures because we need to learn from each other’s mistakes. It shouldn’t be a race to the bottom, we should be supporting each other to the top. I’m so happy to share what I’ve learned so other people don’t have to walk through some of the trauma I’ve walked through.
One of the most memorable was in my early days, and it’s not any big shock, is how people really lose their mind over paint colors and it’s still true today. So, I was designing for this huge house, and we were painting everything and the clients were gone away on vacation. I was over there every single day, meeting the contractor to check in and make sure the crews were doing their jobs and everything was tidy and looking good and it was beautiful. We were taking these drab, beige walls and painting them a brighter grey. Well, they come home and the wife says, “Why are my walls blue?!” But they weren’t blue, they were grey, but she only saw blue. But what I learned, it’s not about being right, it’s about getting it right. It doesn’t matter if she sees blue or purple with pink polka dots, it just needs to get fixed. That philosophy of not needing to be right, but to get it right, has served me and has served my clients. You look at things very carefully and make decisions that are always in the best interest of your client.
Host: What makes for great design? What do you rely on, what tells you this is it, this is the winner?
Ginger: I think really great design comes from trusting your instincts and taking risks. It’s really easy, especially when you’re new and starting out, to play it safe. The scariest place to be is unsure. It’s like my daughters playing soccer and you can tell when they play scared. Because guess what, they get injured when they play scared, they get hurt because they’re focusing on the wrong things. So don’t play scared, play confident, trust your instincts and what you love. It’s always a balance too of what does your client love and meeting their needs, which is incredibly important, but they hired you for a reason. So trust that, be confident, put out some really bold decisions and go for it!
Host: What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given pertaining to building your business?
Ginger: My two favorite ones are, under-promise and over-deliver, and you have to get it right, you don’t have to be right. But another I would say, is being consistent. Especially as a business and a brand, your consistency across your website, your tonality, your Instagram, your meetings, your presentations, everything. You need to be consistent in all the areas of your business.
Host: Have you ever delivered a project where the client walks in and is like, “Whoa, this isn’t at all what I was expecting?”
Ginger: Never, no. Our design boards are so detailed; our vision is that you can look at the design board and then look at the photography shot and you’re like, “Wow, that’s the same room?!” It’s funny because our clients will also take that design board and ask, “Why is that a different color? Why does that feel smaller?” And you have to remind them of the difference in scale on a design board to real life. Overall we’ve had tremendous success and have over 100 five-star reviews. That doesn’t happen by overpromising and under-delivering.
Host: Do you travel for work or been to any cool places for a particular project?
Ginger: 2021 is going to be the year of travel for us. We’ve got projects lining up in New York, to places like Deerfield, Illinois. What’s amazing and so honoring are these people all over the country bypassing all these other firms and hiring a firm in North Texas. I think we’re going to see a lot more growth as we start executing these out-of-state projects. It’s going to become so obvious to potential clients that they can live anywhere and we can still help them.
Host: What’s your best advice right now for young interior designers?
Ginger: Two things, be kind and be genuine. It’s not always automatic. But it’s especially important in our world because it can be very intimidating to hire an interior designer or an architect. Let them see your humility and your kindness, and then be who you are. Be genuine, be authentic. It’s what connects people. Life is too short not to connect with other people. So being authentic and genuine forms these really beautiful connections.
Host: Last question, what is the most favorite project you’ve worked on and why?
Ginger: Oh! The Urban Firehouse is definitely, very, very dear to my heart. But recently, Apartment Therapy featured our Bungalow, which was at my old house. It used to be this musty, dusty, disgusting old shed. It’s a hundred square feet, and we renovated it! Which is so timely with everything going on in the world. Open concept floor plans were so wildly popular, but now we’re working to solve the problem of open concepts. So ADUs, accessory dwelling units, are becoming quite popular.
So I created one, and when I get to do a project for myself, it’s such a representation of my little heart and my little brand. The weird eclectic art, the watercolor paintings from my Grandpa, furniture from our custom line, the beautiful, European white oak floors, the quirky sculptural lighting. It’s beautiful, it’s relaxed, it’s cozy, it’s charming, and it’s a little slice of who I am. It felt incredibly satisfying and rewarding to see that tiny, little project come to fruition, and it’s very dear and very special.
Host: Thank you again so much for taking the time and being here with us. It was a wonderful conversation and such a pleasure to meet you and get to speak with you!