Is it only a professional hazard, or do window coverings designers and dealers also look at their careers—the fun, the challenges, the triumphs, the impossible customers and the millions of little things that can go wrong (and often do)—and think to themselves, “I could write a book!”?
That thought has occurred to at least one window coverings professional, Nika
Stewart, who bills herself and her company as The Window Dresser, Middletown,
Stewart has been in business 13 years, but only the last six or so specializing
in window treatments. Yet, in that time she has experienced a little bit of everything
this industry has to offer: there’s the client (her own mother, no less)
with whom she worked for two years on one room to get it just right; there’s
the joy and security of meeting and working with an installer she can trust and
has learned so much from; there’s the excitement of being an entrepreneur
running her own business and nurturing aspirations for growing it; there’s
the relationships she has established with clients; there’s the search
for suppliers who provide the products and service she needs and, finally, there’s
the times she has had to face the tough questions such as, “Do I remain
an in-home decorating service or do I establish myself with a retail showroom
where I can really show my stuff?”
These, of course, are just some of the hurdles a successful businessperson must
overcome on top of the day-to-day challenges of promoting a business, meeting
and working with clients and—oh, yeah—doing the actual design work.
They also are topics that are likely to find their way into a book Stewart is
writing, “Confessions of a Window Dresser,” due to be published in
a few months from now.
“It is filled with funny stories, headaches and successes, ideas and tips,” Stewart
says. It’s bound to be an enjoyable read.
CHAPTER 1: THE RELATIONSHIP APPROACH
Stewart’s background is in entertaining and event planning, a sometimes
hectic career that can have as many as 10 events scheduled on a single day. “Almost
from Day One I felt like I wanted to get out of it,” she admits. When she
began her window treatments business, she took a decidedly different approach.
“I feel like my business is average, meaning I do window treatments. On
the surface it doesn’t sound like anything completely different. Yet I
feel like I’m doing it differently than a lot of people,” Stewart
says. “As much as everyone says it, I don’t feel that a lot of people,
at least in this area, really listen to the clients’ needs and do completely
custom work for the client. I do nothing but custom, and no job can be exactly
like any other job. I have to become friends with every one of my clients and
really learn about their lifestyles and what they like and what they hate and
design something that they are just going to say, ‘Wow, this is exactly
what I wanted, but I didn’t even know that I wanted this.’”
Hers is not a business approach aimed at making a quick buck and beating the
competition. Rather, its goal is to fully develop each decorating plan and to
establish long-term clients. “Maybe I would like to have a lifestyle like
that, where it’s more time-consuming and maybe I’m taking in a little
less business, but I enjoy each job and end up doing more for each client. For
the last few years I’ve become very friendly with a lot of my clients who,
of course, still call me.”
For Stewart, getting to know clients means walking around their homes to get
a sense of the prospects’ tastes and to ask a lot of functional questions:
What is the function of this room, of this window? What is the mood the clients
want to create, or how do they want to feel when there? “I’m very
big on mood,” she says.
“If people are using a designer and the designer asks them ‘What
do you want?’ they say, ‘That’s why I’m using you. I
don’t know what I want.’ So there has to be a lot of questions that
they can answer so you can figure out what they want. People do know what kind
of feelings they want, so if I can figure out the feelings that they want, then
I can figure out the design that they want.”
The next step is to draw out some different treatments. “I usually do the
design of the treatment first,” Stewart says, “and then we go to
the fabric, but there are blinds and shades, too.” In addition, Stewart
will offer her services to clients on an hourly fee to go shopping with them
for furnishings, wall and floor coverings, but her specialty is window treatments.
“In the beginning I wanted to do full-service design, and I tried that
for about a year,” she says. “I realized that it felt like my previous
business, where I was trying to do a little of everything and I wasn’t
an expert at anything. I didn’t feel good about my abilities, so I decided
to learn more about window treatments.”
CHAPTER 2: BACK TO SCHOOL
Learning more meant getting an education on design and window treatments particularly.
Stewart’s first step was to enroll in classes at her local community college.
Then it was on to a home study course offered by The Sheffield School of Interior
Design in New York, which proved even more valuable. “It taught practical
business skills for interior design,” says Stewart. “A lot of designers
love the design end but don’t love the business end, and I’ve always
wanted to run my own business so the entrepreneurial part is very exciting to
Stewart followed up her study program with the Window Coverings Association of
America’s (WCAA) Certified Window Treatment Consultant course, a six-week
self-study program that uses Karla Nielson’s “Window Treatments,” as
its text. She passed the certification exam, and to this day regularly attends
seminars to keep up her education. Stewart also credits much of her learning
to installer Peter Nichas, who has offered her his real-life experiences.
The knowledge and added skills Stewart received has enhanced her decorating abilities
and, no doubt, has had an effect on her confidence. “When I first started,
it may have taken me many hours to figure something out. Now, it comes a lot
easier, so it’s quicker. The one reason I love the business is that I can
walk into a room and look at a window and picture what will be beautiful there,” she
says. And this ability is not lost on Stewart’s repeat and referral customers. “They
trust me now,” she adds.
CHAPTER 3: SHOWROOM?
A dilemma nearly every self-employed, in-home decorator faces is making a decision
about opening a showroom, and Stewart is no exception. For the past year or so
she has gone back and forth on the idea. In fact, she sort of tried it for a
while as a vendor in a larger store, but it didn’t work. She needed more
of her own creative input, and that wasn’t being allowed.
Stewart understands that a showroom establishes a business in a community and
would give her space to showcase full-size treatments. But it also adds a new
dimension to her business she’s not sure she wants.
“Business actually is very good now, and I’m afraid the store will
take away from that,” Stewart explains. “I’ll have to spend
so much time there that I won’t be doing what I should be doing.
“Had you asked me a few days ago I would have said, ‘Yes, that’s
what I’m doing.’ Up until a few days ago I was still looking for
the perfect location, and then I just realized that if I had a store I’d
have to be in the store and I really want to be in the client’s home.” As
it is, Stewart has had to hire an office manager “because I’ve been
too busy to run the office while I am out.”
Ultimately, the deciding factor may be finding the perfect location and doing
it up right. “I don’t want to do it half-way, and I don’t want
to do it low-end,” Stewart says. “My business has grown over the
last few years and has become more high-end and I want to have a high-end showroom
if I’m going to have one. So I can’t just open anywhere, and it can’t
just be a store that doesn’t look great.”
So the retail store idea has been edited out for now, but it’s a chapter
without a conclusive ending. In the meantime, Stewart has established an electronic
storefront with a Web site (www.windowdressernj.com). “When I first started
people were saying, ‘Let me build you a Web site,’ and I was thinking
why do I need a Web site? A Web site goes out to the world and I only service
this little area so it would be a waste. Thank God I changed my mind. Even if
you only service one tiny town everyone in the town, when they hear about you,
wants to know your Web address; it makes you legitimate if you have a Web site.
If you don’t, it almost makes it sound like you’re back in the ’80s.”
CHAPTER 4: KEY TO SUCCESS
Stewart’s desire to learn, impatience, a seemingly natural ability and
a complete approach to each decorating project have all combined to make The
Window Dresser a success in a short amount of time. It’s holistic, based
on her background in entertainment and her dream of growing up to become a singer. “Because
I’ve done a lot of shows and worked with a lot of performers, the idea
of creating a complete environment is important [to me],” she says. “I’ve
done Environmental Theater, where rather than sitting in an audience and looking
up at a stage, the audience is really a part of the show. The characters mix
in with the audience members. When you walk in, if you’re in the audience,
you want to feel as if you are there rather than just sitting watching something.
You are part of the environment.
“That feeling is what I bring to decorating. When you walk into this room
all of your senses should feel it—it should have a good smell, you should
want to go up and touch it and it should feel good—not just look at it.”
Taking this show on the road is not necessarily what Stewart has in mind for
her business once her book is published. Her goal is to keep moving into higher-end
homes with her custom designs, and there’s plenty of opportunity right
where she’s at. Stewart’s part of New Jersey is home to a lot of
big stars—Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi to name two. “I don’t
know them, but those are the types of homes I’d like to do,” she
And what would The Window Dresser do for a Bruce Springsteen? “Well, I
don’t know,” Stewart contemplates the possibilities, “What
would he like?”