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I love sharing my design tips with you week after week, but I work with four other talented designers, and I thought it would be fun to shine the spotlight on them too. I’m getting the ball rolling this week by interviewing veteran designer Kelsey Surock

Betsy: Kelsey, you’ve been with Affordable Interior Design for over five years now. Tell us a little bit about your experience.

Kelsey: It’s been absolutely wonderful — that’s why I’m still here! The team is great, and the company is amazing.

I’ve worked with over 500 clients through Affordable Interior Design, and I love the variety of different tastes and aesthetics. I’ve even worked with the same clients multiple times as they’ve moved to new homes. I really enjoy building those relationships and watching the transitions in their lives.

Betsy:  You’re always working with different personalities and clients. Do you find the variety challenging?

Kelsey: I actually prefer it. Before joining Affordable Interior Design, I worked with one company, one brand, and the same client all the time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but working with different people allows me to explore different design styles. That’s really important to me, especially coming from a creative background.

I don’t get bored, because every person and every project is different. You never give two different people the same interior, because it’s a personal space for them, and you really want to draw that out in the design you create for them, whether in person or over the phone. I really try to get to know and understand my clients, because my main goal is for the space to represent who they truly are. So every day is different. You never know what to expect until you meet the person and start to understand their lives and what it is they’re looking for.

Betsy: There’s never a dull moment. It’s really fun to work with all these different people. When people call me and want to book a designer, they’ll ask what the designer’s style is. Do you have a hard time working in a style that’s not your own? How do you switch to someone else’s style?

Kelsey: I get that question all the time. I’m always a little surprised when I begin a consult and clients ask about what I like. When I first started, I had more of a personal style. But what’s great about our company is how much we focus on building a personal relationship with each client, rather than on our own personal style as designers. We all have different skills and talents, and we definitely have great eyes for putting together amazing spaces, but it stems from who it is we’re working for. We walk into projects trying to get to know the client for whom we’re designing. My focus is what the client is going to love, so I put myself in their shoes. That’s what allows us to switch styles all the time. I aim to create a beautiful space that my client is going to love coming home to every single day. So you train your mind to switch from one style to the next based on who you’re working for.

Betsy: I agree. And that has definitely muddied my own personal sense of style. I had a very clear aesthetic that was reflected in all of the apartments I lived in — very mid-century, loud colors, full of mod wallpaper and geometric prints. But now that I’ve designed such a variety of places, from a steam punk studio to a French country Park Avenue apartment, I can really appreciate different aspects of every single design style. So when I finally bought my own house and could really dig in to create my dream home, I wasn’t so clear on my own tastes anymore. I ended up replicating a bedroom I did for a client that was very traditional — tufting, curved lines, nailheads, the whole nine yards, which really wasn’t very me, but I had design envy and it ended up looking so great!

Kelsey: It’s a problem! I want to change my apartment so often that I need to set a monthly budget to stop myself from buying another lamp or throw pillow. Every time you source something for someone else, even if it’s not something you would have originally picked for yourself, you fall in love with it and want to add it to your own home. It’s an addiction. I end up sending my clients extra things we didn’t talk about during the consultation because I run across it online shopping and know it will be perfect in their space.

Betsy: Let’s get into your work process. What’s a typical day for you at Affordable Interior Design?

Kelsey: Wow, I don’t even know if there is a typical day because our schedules are always changing. First and foremost, my day does not start until I’ve had two cups of coffee!

In general, we have a mix of in-person work and computer work (phone consultations, virtual transformations, and sourcing items online). I try to separate these out. I generally do one in the morning and one in the evening, taking some personal time in between. That’s very different than a typical 9-5 day. I feel like this allows me to be more creative and more open to different projects, because you get some breathing room in between projects, and you’re not carrying one person’s style over into another space. That’s a pretty regular workday structure for me, even though the details change. 

Betsy: Working at Affordable Interior Design is unlike working for almost any other design firm, where you usually sit at a desk from 9-5, maybe have a client meeting during that time, and then you go home and do it all over again the next day. When I was at a high-end firm, 90% of my work was at a desk at a routine place and a routine time.

I basically built this business off how I wanted to live. I knew I didn’t want to sit at a desk — I wanted to get into people’s houses. That’s why I make my designers’ days so flexible, because I want to make it work for you.

When I first started out, I would book two appointments on both Saturdays and Sundays — so 4 clients every weekend — and then I would design all week. It was intense, because it didn’t leave room for Sunday picnics in the park, but it worked for me, because I was in total control of my schedule. The tradeoff was ultimately worth it.

Kelsey: Setting my own schedule is important to me too, because you can’t always control when you’re feeling creative. There are some days when you wake up with the best intentions to get so much work done, but it ends up taking hours to find something that should have been quick. Sometimes you need to be able to step away until it all just clicks in your mind, and you know exactly what needs to happen. I think that’s what helps all of us at Affordable Interior Design get the most done for our clients without wasting valuable time or putting in efforts that aren’t paying off.

Betsy: I did all my best sourcing from 10 pm – 2 am. I would put dateline NBC on a loop in the background and work with a glass of wine. There’s a strong parallel between what they’re doing on the show and what I’m doing in design – solving a puzzle from clues. I know if I pick this rug, then I need to pick these drapes and that means I need to look for a pillow that looks like this… 

Kelsey: SVU is my go-to background show.

Betsy: Let’s talk about the whole new division you’re spearheading.

Kelsey: I’m so excited about our new Virtual Transformation plan. We’ve come up with a great process for this package, which is rooted in the best practices we’ve learned from all of the other design packages we’ve been offering for years. And it’s already been a huge success! 

Betsy: I’ve actually been doing this since we started the company, but I was so busy with my in-person design work that I didn’t really talk about or market the service. But if someone from California called me and asked me to do their living room, I wouldn’t say no.

So I took those experiences and created the virtual transformation. It’s a 2-hour experience: in the first hour, we create a layout plan for the room, and in the second hour, you shop online together for 6-8 items for that room. So by the time you’re done the call, you get a completely designed floor plan and a shopping list of 6-8 items that you can buy right then and there. Or for an additional fee, you can have our concierge purchase the items for you, which allows us to pass our designer discount on to you.

Kelsey, I’m so excited you’re taking this on, because it really requires a pro. You basically need to have every item in every catalogue in your head, so when a client needs a gray couch that is over 80 inches long and has a lower-than-standard seat, you have five options ready to go. And I know you can do just that!

Kelsey: By now, when I’m watching movies, I can pinpoint where all the furniture on every set came from — that’s how well I know the different brands in the stores. It drives my friends crazy.

Betsy: I do the same thing!

Kelsey: My priority is making sure our clients are 100% satisfied. We call it the 2-hour transformation package, but I always spend another 1-2 hours prepping. We ask clients to fill out a questionnaire and send in some photographs of their space, a quick sketch of the room layout, and some basic measurements, so we have some informational pieces ahead of the call. I go through it all in advance, so when we start talking, I already have some ideas of what could work in the space. Things can certainly change once you start talking to the person and getting to know them, but the prep work always helps us make the most of the time. So we really get a lot done in a short amount of time.

Betsy: That’s so important. You want to come with a plan and some backup options. It’s our safety net that ensures the client has a great experience every time.

Kelsey: No matter how much prep work you put in, it’s not until you start speaking with the client that you figure out who it is they are and what it is that they’re really going for. So many times I’ll have a perfect plan in my head, but you can hear the hesitation in their voice, and that’s okay, you adjust. I find a lot of people are hesitant to speak up because they’ve hired a professional and they don’t want to second guess them. But it needs to work for them. That’s why it’s so important to have options ready to go. Talking to them on phone, you can run through a few different alternatives to see what layout will really work, and then there’s still a whole hour to find the fun pieces.

Betsy: Sourcing on the spot — finding those items that are within their budget and will coordinate perfectly — is one of the major things that sets us apart from other firms. Clients appreciate that they can hang up the phone and instantly click and buy or go to the store. It’s a real differentiator and why people will call me again and again and want to keep doing new rooms. But that’s also hard to do, so I would only trust someone who has been designing for a long time to work with clients in this way.

Kelsey: It really is a special skill. Some of the most talented designers I know can’t do it. You need to know the market, what’s out there and what’s available. It’s also challenging to get to know the client so quickly in such a short amount of time.  

Betsy: That’s why we have this deep-dive questionnaire, and then we do the sourcing together in tandem. You’re riffing off each other, almost like a design dance. It’s very collaborative. I’m guiding the client, but they help me find the amazing things that they’ll love. There’s a real synergy, and I love including them in the design process. It’s really exciting for me, but I know a lot of designers find it to be too much pressure. I’m so glad you’re up to this task!  

Kelsey, do you have a final nugget of advice to offer people?

Kelsey: I am always trying to push people not to be afraid of making a mistake. Take that risk! When you know what you want and you have a pro to guide you, it’s okay to be bold. Not everything has to be beige and gray. You can have a really clean look and still do a fun colored accent chair in the corner or hang a bold piece of art. People get so much more enjoyment of the space when they feel like they really went for it. So take that risk and do something you end up loving — it makes all the difference.

Want to work with Kelsey? Check out more of her work here and the Virtual Design package here.

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