Designing Decor is a full-service decorating business through which Clark offers complete interior designs specializing in decorative window treatments, but including wall coverings, blinds, coordinating artwork, seating and furnishings. Clark also will specify floor coverings. The success of this one-woman business operated out of Clark's home is evident in its steady growth. In five years, the company's sales volume has reached to "well over $200,000 a year," much of that through its contract business, which includes space planning and designing laminated furnishings.
A key to Clark's success is devotion to her work. She'd do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week if need be, and she's always on hand for drapery or furnishing installations. When speaking before a community group, as she often does, she explains her success this way: "If you like what you do, you'll excel in it." So despite the hiatus that sidetracked her for several years Clark's career is really taking off.
Like many professionals in the interior fashions field, Clark always had an interest in decorating. Her initial formal training was in fashion design at a Manhattan design school. But plans for continuing that path were interrupted when she took a job with Eastern Airlines. Actually it was more than an interruption; it was a 19-year career that lasted until the airline folded in the 1980s.
But before that long and fulfilling career came to an end, Clark had thoughts of returning to designing and so began an apprenticeship at MHS Designs in Palm Beach, FL. Over a period of five years she worked mainly on residential interiors, many of which were high-end designs for new residents moving down from the Northeast and buying second homes in Florida.
Clark worked on everything for the interior except, oddly enough, window coverings, which were contracted out. She did, however, learn what she calls the total interior concept, which is decorating -- preferably from the floor up -- an entire room and being the source for whatever is necessary to complete the project including furnishings and accessories. It's a concept upon which she has built her own business.
After moving to Gainesville with her husband Bob in 1990, Clark began working in earnest on window coverings at JCPenney Custom Decorating. In addition to receiving "valuable training in drapery design," Clark says she learned the demographics of the Gainesville area, which has proved important in her business today. Gainesville has "more of a Midwest mentality" than Palm Beach, she explains. She knows for many of her customers watching costs is important and working within budget constraints is a part of her job. "Customers have only so much money to spend on a project," she says.
Clark worked at JCPenney for 91/2 months before the studio was closed, pushing her further into starting her own design business. The final pieces came together when Clark attended the World of Window Coverings show in Orlando, FL, in 1990. There she took sales seminars, met with and lined up suppliers.
Clark's designing ambitions came full circle when she returned to taking classes while building her business. This time, it was two days a week at Central Florida Community College in Ocala, FL, where she worked toward a degree in design technology.
Starting out on her own, Clark had two strong ideas about her business. From the start she planned to do in-homes sales. Clark says she didn't want to take on the expense of running a showroom or to be "married to rent." She also knew that as a newcomer she wouldn't be able to ask the prices established designers were getting and so she would have to keep her costs and expenses down.
Setting up an office in her home, a 33-foot recreational vehicle driven by her husband served as Clark's first showroom on wheels. Today, she drives a van stocked with window fabric samples, some blind samples and a book of photographs and furniture sources.
Clark's first customers were contacts she had made while working at the JCPenney studio. Flyers sent to these past customers brought her first job. "I didn't make any money on my first job," she recalls, "I just broke even." But to this day, her design clients come from repeat customers and their referrals.
Clark's main efforts are directed at decorative window treatments with some sales in horizontal and vertical blinds. As the design business grew, Clark slowly expanded her services. In 1992, a year after she started Designing Decor, Clark opened a separate business just for blinds calling it Mrs. Blinds. Marketing was done through cold calling on new home construction companies along with an advertisement in the telephone directory. Clark considers Mrs. Blinds to be her "bread and butter." It has become "the biggest retailer of vertical blinds in the area," she says.
More typical for Designing Decor is a residential project that starts, nearly always, with a telephone call. The first step, Clark says, is "to be a good listener, to try to understand what the customer wants and to get a feel for the colors he or she has in mind." Clark also asks what type of furniture will be in the finished room and if there is anything the customer has seen that she especially likes.
Next comes the in-home appointment. Loaded with fabric samples and ideas chosen after her initial conversation with the home owner, Clark arrives in the Designing Decor van. Clark's first step is to talk with the customer and build a relationship. From there she will discuss her design ideas and always give the customer a "good guestimate" of what the project will cost and evaluate the reaction. She says it's important from the start to get customers to understand that a custom design can cost up to three times more than buying something "off the rack" at a department store. Yet it's important not to overwhelm them, or waste their time either, Clark adds.
For new home owners, Clark tries to establish an overview design plan of what would work well for the customer and look right nine months or a year into the home. In the meantime, she'll ask the owners to collect photographs of things they like to see what styles they prefer.
Clark particularly likes to work with coordinating two or three fabrics in a master bedroom. Windows are the finishing touch. Especially popular, she says, are swags, and she never repeats a design exactly from one customer to the next. While she prefers to work with a whole room, Clark understands she must be flexible enough to work one piece at a time if necessary.
To keep a handle both on quality and costs, installations are handled by Clark's husband, a former Eastern Airlines pilot. When the room is finished and everything installed, Clark says her greatest compliment from a customer is "Why did I wait so long?"
Keeping Busy Year-round
Always willing to go the extra mile, Clark strives "to give the customer something more." Pillows made from left over fabrics, for example, are presented to customers at the completion of a project. Customers with jobs reaching a certain dollar amount may even receive roses. In any case, every customer is sent a thank-you note because "I'm really happy to get their business and I want them to know that," Clark says.
Window treatments can be very cyclical, Clark says. "Spring and fall are very busy times with residential work, but in August there's nothing," she says. Office planning and furnishings work, however, usually is available year-round. "It's important to do something, find some aspect of your business that keeps you busy," she says.
Clark's contract business generally comes in the way of hard window treatments, but includes space planning and laminated furnishings. One of the first projects she bid on was the Newberry Middle School. She was awarded the project because the school liked her design, but not the furnishings. So Clark contacted Contemporary Interiors and worked out a deal to design and sell the laminated furniture through it.
Clark says she uses a generic computer aided design (CAD) program for her business space planning. Whenever possible she will incorporate a building's blueprint or construction plans. "It needs to be simple, to the point and it needs to work," she says. With the CAD program, Clark says she knows when her designs "work and will fit."
Clark currently is working on the hospitality design area of business, and generally is moving more toward business and office planning. In 10 years she sees herself doing totally contract work.
Although her early training in fashion design helped Clark sharpen her "artistic eye for color and balance," she looks to her years as an Eastern Airlines flight attendant as "the greatest help anyone could have" in running a business. Her years at Eastern trained her to focus on details and taught her to be patient with customers. But above all, Clark says she is more confident in her abilities and now can put business problems into perspective having learned to deal with "real emergencies" and to handle "real stress" in the air. "After that, nothing is really too big of a problem," she says.
When Clark and her husband first moved to Gainesville, she found herself acting as a liaison of information in the design field. Gainesville lacked the availability of some products, she explains, and the nearest showrooms to the trade were 150 miles away in Orlando. But all that is changing as the area grows, she says. Gainesville has seen an influx of professionals coming to work at the University of Florida and the hospital connected with it.
Clark believes in giving something back to the community and so is often presenting seminars to women's groups and in area schools. These sessions also serve to let the community know she cares and is there for the long run. To school children she explains why she chose her career, what can be done with it and stresses the importance of schooling. In this business "profits are hard to come by, but you must hang on," she tells them. She adds, "The money will come if you really love the business and work and care about it."