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CEO Roundtable: Commercial Interior Design

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Springfield Business Journal Editorial Vice President Eric Olson discusses commercial interior design with Audrey Garard, co-owner of Grooms Office Environments; Marciann Patton, senior interior design instructor at Missouri State University; and Juli Russell, principal of interior design at Buxton Kubik Dodd Design Collective.

Eric Olson: What are some of the current trends in design specifically on the commercial side?
Marciann Patton: There’s been dramatic changes, and I think a lot of them are corrections, which is good. The impact of the designer has probably never been more important, especially since people have been quitting their jobs.
Audrey Garard: There’s not one that stands out. It used to be shiplap. That doesn’t exist in a commercial world as much. White was a trend and that still exists. Clients are so different in the commercial world. There can be a trend in health care that we see and there can be a trend in banking, but they don’t all have the same trend.
Olson: Maybe we can go back to the corrections. I like that term. What are some of those?
Patton: If you’re talking about office spaces and business spaces, that has probably changed more than anything because the way that people work, the technologies – of course COVID has had a huge impact on all of that. We have lots of space in here as opposed to little cubicles and offices. The designer's role is really important because they need to make these spaces comfortable and lure people back: “This is the place I want to spend my day,” instead of “I want to get out of here.”
Garard: There was a term that was thrown around a couple years ago called “resimmercial.” I don’t know how I feel about the word, but the idea behind it is that your spaces are starting to look more residential – not homey, but in your waiting room out front it doesn’t have to look like waiting room chairs; it can look more like a lounge. You are thinking that would look cool in your house.
Juli Russell: I’m coming from it with a whole different approach because I’m in hospitality. Of course, COVID has had a huge impact on travel and lifestyle. The way we look at it is per brand. There are so many hospitality brands out there and they are kind of all a lifestyle, client-driven design. Corporate travel did almost come to a halt, but people were still traveling for leisure.
Olson: I think it’s a challenging question of the time of it. We don’t know yet what the trends are because we’re not sure what life is going to look like yet.
Patton: Maybe we don’t need to get too focused on trends anyway.
Garard: That’s the one thing my client doesn’t want. They say I don’t want anything trendy, if you’re trying to keep something for 10-20 years. Hospitality is very different. It’s very driven by a look. Corporate is driven by longevity.
Russell: In my world, the brands are now based on a seven-year cycle – it’s a rotation of recreating whatever they need to do to drive business.
Olson: One thing that falls under that trend term that might be considered OK is colors.
Garard: Color has been trendy always. Sherwin-Williams does a color of the year.
Olson: Pantone is the one I was looking at.
Garard: I don’t know that any of them translate. A designer doesn’t go, “That’s the color of the year, so I’m going to use it.” It’s almost the opposite.
Patton: The average person uses it.
Garard: And they’ll either love it or hate it, but you already loved it or hated it before you knew it was the color of the year.
Russell: I still see a lot of design being neutral based.
Patton: I think that’s a safer way to do it because then you can change so much.
Russell: We have two different shows we go to. I am seeing color come back, which I haven’t seen in a while. I’m so relieved because I’m so over the neutral. You still have to be careful with that because you do want it to be timeless.

Design shifts
Olson: Related to the pandemic, there have been obvious social changes, but how has that affected the design industry?
Patton: Socialization has changed a lot. You have lockdowns and social distancing – somehow making people feel like they’re very connected, but they’re not really except with technology. People are more comfortable staying at home, working at home.
Olson: Audrey, when you said “resimmercial,” now it’s flipped. You now have a home office.
Garard: It just depends. In Springfield, most are back in the office full time. I only have two clients who work from home. It’s back to business as usual for most of my clients. Was there a time when we were designing for spacing out more? I would say yes. But I would say today, it’s a consideration, but most of the time it’s back to open office space. We found we just work better together. People are still meeting in the conference room.
Patton: But I think the conference rooms have changed a lot. I think they are more of a major space instead of just reserved for conferences. Now, Zoom meetings, so the room has to be larger, camera ready.
Olson: I was wondering how business owners should think about their office differently with all these changes, if at all.
Russell: From a business perspective, when COVID hit, everybody went home to work and actually really liked it, and they got to be very good at it and weren’t thrilled to come back to an office. What I did though is, since hospitality went so flat in 2020 and now it’s come back, and I have three times what I can handle, I chose rather than to build back and hire people and find bigger office space, I did a merger. That’s when my relationship with Buxton Kubik Dodd [Design Collective] happened. That conversation had already been happening for two years, but I just wasn’t ready. I was overwhelmed, and I thought this is a good solution. From a business perspective, it changed. On a nationwide basis, I work a lot with Hilton and Marriott. None of those people have come back to the office. We’re talking several thousand. I do a lot of Zoom calls. And you know, design is very touchy-feely.
Garard: How do you show color and texture and get excited about it? That’s the fun part.
Russell: That’s what we still do together as a team. Some people don’t want us to ship the samples. That’s where a whole other skill set comes in – a very technical skill set. You have to be able to create renderings and put all of that into an electronic presentation.
Patton: That is expanding all the time with the types of software. We try to provide a really solid foundation because there are so many that they can encounter in the professional world.
Russell: It was important before, but it’s gone to a whole different level now.

Workforce outlook
Olson: You can’t have a conversation with business owners without bringing in hiring right now. On the operations side, what’s the temperature for hiring?
Russell: We still could hire more. We don’t expect to just find people locally who know hospitality because it’s very specific. I have tried to contract it out before to people who live in the city, but that’s been mediocre. Here recently we have some really good students doing internships with us. As they are doing the internship, they are getting training.
Patton: That’s one of the advantages, we think, for the internship. They learn the business; they learn the business culture and their opportunity to get hired is greater. We really appreciate when you work them hard and give them responsibility as long as they can handle it.
Russell: The interns see these hospitality projects laid out, which would cover this whole table with huge samples, and their eyes just light up. They love the idea of going down that path. That’s exciting for me to see.
Patton: Most of the time the internships feel like, “Oh, this is exactly what I want to do.” Even a short-term job shadow helps.
Garard: Just last week, two different design classes from Missouri State [University] came and toured. We asked if people had heard of commercial design and they said yeah. But do you even know what that entails? A lot of them wanted to do homes, but this is a whole other space. And this is so much more fun.
Patton: Residential is what they are used to and they have experienced those spaces, but the more experience they get with commercial, they really start to come over. I see a big transition.
Garard: The handcuffs come off in commercial. A lot of companies are hiring you to make those decisions for them. It’s not a personal decision for them; it’s a business decision. That gives you more flexibility. But Missouri State has been outstanding for us. All but one of our designers has a degree from Missouri State.
Russell: One thing that I emphasize when I talk to students or classes is that you don’t have to be an interior designer. There are so many other jobs in our industry. There are product designers. Someone designs these fabrics. Someone designs this furniture.
Garard: If you work in our industry, you will always have a career because it is so hard to find someone that understands our industry – even how procurement works or how to do electrical drawings.
Patton: You can connect the dots to just about every industry with interior design. Nancy Asay and I wrote a textbook a few years ago for Fairchild Books, “Careers in Interior Design.” It was just endless. When students are floundering if they like this or not, there are a thousand other options.
Russell: I hate to say this, but I never thought living in Springfield that I would have the job I did, but it was due to [former employer] John Q. Hammons. We do have here locally unbelievable firms that are nationwide.

Local look
Olson: There is so much rooted in Ozarks culture, so I wonder if there was a design theme also.
Russell: We’re working on a brand called Moxy, a Marriott brand. It’s a millennial brand and you usually see this in larger cities. Tim O’Reilly decided he wanted to put one in downtown Springfield. It’s in the building that used to be the Great Southern Bank building. They are demoing it right now. For the Moxy brand, you are supposed to focus on local. When we went to Marriott for this brand immersion, they all expected us to focus on the Ozarks and the outdoors. We’ve got to come up with a different angle. It has been a little challenging to find funny little stories about Springfield and incorporate them into the design. But we also have this restriction that it has historical tax credits. So, there’s also pieces of it that you can’t touch. We’re featuring the Ozark Mountain Daredevils in our elevator, but then there’s a story that Tim really liked in the 1950s, the cobra story.
Garard: The cobra scare.
Olson: So, it won’t be a Big Cedar downtown?
Russell: No. But Marriott thinks it should be, so that’s been a challenge. “Put this camping stuff here,” and we’re like “no.” But the O’Reillys are really into biking, so there’s a mural of a sunset and bikes are coming out of the wall.
Garard: Like the mills and barns – when you’re trying to attract a millennial, millennials don’t want what we think they want anyway.
Olson: On the student side, what about the graduate pool?
Patton: We have been really fortunate at Missouri State. We’ve held really strong with our numbers. Similar programs have seen a decrease in enrollment; with COVID, we saw a plateau, but we did not see a decrease. The profession has so much more credibility than it used to and so many areas they can go into, whether it be sustainability, health and wellness, (Americans with Disabilities Act). In fact, we need more faculty and a better space. We’re struggling with some of those things kind of desperately.
Garard: Our students that we’re getting are just getting better and better. We’re always impressed with the capabilities, their ability to put together proposals. The presentation is not PowerPoint anymore. That’s our future. How are you presenting this to someone that honestly could be colorblind on the other side of the screen, and you are trying to explain what you’re trying to do.
Patton: Thankfully, we have a lot of different ways to view the spaces. Whether it is 3D or a walk-through or 2D. You can see all the angles. People don’t often think about those things. It looks good on paper, but what about when someone is walking through the space and opening doors and cabinets? That’s what these different software programs can provide.
Garard: Most people think interior design is just picking colors.
Patton: Myth busting.
Garard: That is the last thing that we do. We spend 90% of our time on space planning and creating art or interest or stairwells and lighting. The colors, and furnishings, is the last part. A lot of it is where’s our power, what’s the height of this? It’s so intricate, and the responsibility is so great. You’re not designing for yourself. You are designing for your client. It may not be your style. There is no right and wrong.

Getting inspired
Olson: Where do you all get inspiration?
Russell: For me, it’s travel and the internet. The world is at your keyboard. And twice a year we do go to design shows where it is the latest and greatest. I do go with projects in mind.
Garard: Sometimes, you go and you’ve seen it before. That’s where I’m getting in my career, where I’ve seen this before. Art deco and mauve and pink. The girls come back, and they’re all excited. They all come back around.
Russell: Maybe it’s a new twist on it.
Patton: I rely on history of design, and things do come back. You don’t have to replicate.
Garard: We were on vacation last week, and I took a picture of an airplane at an aviation museum because the colors that were combined were beautiful, and I was like, “That’s my next project.” You find it in different places. You take pieces and parts of things. The building dictates a lot of your design by the time we get to a project.
Patton: I think that’s too bad. They need to let you in earlier.
Garard: I would say that has changed drastically in the past 10 years. We are getting a seat at the table earlier. People don’t need waiting rooms in most businesses like they did.
Russell: I would love to get a hold of airports. There is one airport I was in recently in Philadelphia, and it’s phenomenal. When you went to a gate, they all had their own identity. They had tables with communal spaces. You want to sit at the gate.
Patton: Design should be an experience.
Garard: Today, if anybody will take a picture and post it, you’ve won. The Springfield carpet at our airport, now it’s a hashtag and a thing.

Excerpts by Executive Editor Christine Temple, ctemple@sbj.net.

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