When Design Reflects Life, Change Can Be a Truly Beautiful Thing
“Physical spaces can help create the kind of culture that you want to have,” explained designer Camille Henderson Davis during our recent phone interview. In a former career, Camille was the head of HR for a biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Mass. There, she used Interior Design as a tool to help influence the corporate culture.
The idea of transforming physical space to help guide a shift in culture is a key part of change management, the field that Camille studied while earning her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.
To picture how design can affect corporate culture, imagine an office with large, open workspaces and lots of natural light. That kind of space can encourage people to interact more, as they can easily see and hear everyone around them, but it can also present the challenge of constant background noise. On the other end of the design spectrum, hallways lined with private offices may create a dimmer, more solemn environment, but that kind of layout can be important for security-conscious organizations that are regulated by privacy laws.
Today, Camille is the founder of The Niche Home, a small residential interior design firm in Santa Monica, California.
So how in the world does one go from earning a Ph.D. in change management and leading the HR department of a biopharma company, to founding a successful interiors business in California?
The way that Camille tells it, the transformation makes complete and total sense. It’s an inspiring story of being true to your own passions, and opening yourself up to your clients’ design vision and family dynamics.
From Corporate America to California Design, Interiors Were in Her Blood
Camille comes from a family of interior designers: Her grandfather had his own firm; and her great-aunt traveled the world decorating embassies. Throughout the years that she worked in a corporate role, she kept dipping her toes in the world of interior design. “All along, probably for about 12 years, I did residential and interior design projects on the side and just loved it. It feels like I’m genetically predisposed,” she laughs.
“A lot of what I did [in HR] was this combination of building team cultures and leadership cultures. But also, building the physical elements of the office space. It’s very tied-in to interior design.”
When the opportunity arose to move to California with her husband and start her own interior business, it seemed like a natural progression.
Interior design can help families navigate those big life changes by creating the physical space that expresses who they are in an aesthetically beautiful way. “If they have a baby, or they get married…get divorced or move to a new city, a family’s physical space needs to support who they are as a family now, and where they’re trying to get to. I love to be a part of that process of discovery and creativity.”
The First Step in a Design Partnership is Empathy
“Sometimes, people don’t even realize that they’re managing a change process, or that it has an impact on their family life,” she explains. “Empathy plays a big part in my design process. I do a lot of partnering with my clients to really pull things out that they haven’t thought about.”
When we asked her about her personal design aesthetic, she told us that she thinks of herself as a chameleon. “Sometimes, a client can’t get colorful enough, while other clients end up with a rainbow of beige. It’s so interesting to me to keep on putting on different hats. I love the experience of getting in my client’s head and saying, ‘What is it that you want to do? And, how do we make it gorgeous?’”
Part of Camille’s advice to new interior designers entering the field is not to be afraid to really listen to their clients and build on their ideas. “It doesn’t lessen the creativity you bring to the table,” she explains. “Design doesn’t need to be an ego-driven process. You don’t have to be the first one to speak every time for your clients to feel like they value you.”
Her projects typically begin with establishing a clear understanding of what the client is looking for: their priorities, style, and vision. She wants to pull out any expectations the client may not realize they have. Her priority is to communicate well enough that her clients aren’t surprised by how the project progresses, or the end result.
“Listening to them, caring for them, and drawing out what’s important to them is going to make them feel that much more satisfied with the process.”
The Democratization of Interior Design
“I love it!” Camille is emphatic about her thoughts on design becoming more easily accessible to the everyday person. Clients bring Camille their tear sheets, printouts, and Pinterest boards. “I encourage them to do all of that,” she says. “My clients come to me with a bunch of information. They’re often so overwhelmed, they’re glad to have help sorting it all out. Designers aren’t becoming irrelevant; we just need to play a different role.”
In the past, design was held by a small group who were deemed the arbiters of taste. They alone decided what was beautiful. But it didn’t challenge the designer or the client to identify the client’s true vision or goals.
As this democratization continues, Camille believes that the business model for interior design will need to evolve to invite clients into more active partnerships. Designer-client relationships should have more transparent pricing structures and offer clients more options, such as doing some of the legwork themselves if they want to prioritize how they spend their budget.
“It’s their house,” Camille reminds us. “I want to hear my clients say, ‘This feels like me.’ If it feels like their design and it represents their family culture, then in my mind, it’s a success.”
Building a Business that is True to You
As Camille has grown The Niche Home over the last three years, she has learned some important lessons about managing her own business. “There’s a secret part of me that feels like I should know it all,” she admits, “but I’ve realized that I don’t need to know every single skill.” So, when her 3-D rendering skills aren’t enough and CAD is required , “I have a draftsman that I call in to help out.”
And while she relies on a network of people who help her run her business, she laments that she rarely gets the opportunity to collaborate with other designers. It’s an industry that can feel isolating, as the forums for networking among smaller design entrepreneurs are limited. “I love collaboration,” she says, “I’d love to ask other designers, ‘So what are you struggling with? What’s cool? What’s new for you?’ but we’re all so focused on our client work.”
So now that her career has landed where she always wanted it to be, what’s next? “I would love to write a book about my philosophy on design, and give people tools to make their own spaces beautiful. I’d love to help people have more control over their physical space and make it truly satisfying to them.”
Camille Henderson Davis is the founder of Niche, a full-service design firm in Santa Monica, California. She works with clients in the Los Angeles area. Learn more at The Niche Home.
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