Interior design is often viewed as one of the property sector’s more glamorous jobs – soft furnishings, curated pieces of furniture, glitzy accessories and lighting features galore. However, this perception belies the hard work and expertise that goes into forging an interior design career.
Leonnie Whitehead, senior interior designer at Suna Interior Design, offers an honest glimpse into her career as a designer so far.
Leonnie’s role includes designing show homes as a marketing tool for property developers, managing each project through from conception to installation. “Designing show homes is not like any other field!” she says. “Each project is so specific to a particular target market, which means that we are storytelling – creating a person that we envisage buying and living in the property. This is a really fun way to design as there is a lot of opportunity to think creatively about each brief, and build a detailed picture of a space that would be appealing in the market. We shop for everything from furniture, down to the book that the would-be purchaser might be reading on their bedside table.”
Suna work with a range of developers, all with very different style preferences, budgets and target markets. Leonnie has worked on country houses in Kent through to ultra-modern studio apartments in Central London, which helps to stretch her skills and make each project different.
However, she says, a big part of the role is also managing client relationships and supporting other members of the team; every project is very much a collaborative process. As a senior interior designer, Leonnie must also work to bring her team together and funnel numerous ideas into one cohesive vision.
As director Helen Fewster advises, an individual’s personality is key when it comes to hiring: “This is almost at an equal level of importance for us as qualifications, as it is vital to have a strong team who can collaborate and support each other. The potential candidate should be able to fit in with the current team whilst bringing new and interesting attributes which will enhance it. Our office has a relaxed environment but everyone works incredibly hard so getting the right mix to fit is important.”
Leonnie has always been fascinated with drawing interior spaces, and studied Design For Industry at Northumbria University. She says: “Although my degree was in Industrial Design, many of my projects gravitated towards spaces and user experiences.”
After university, Leonnie moved even further from industrial design, travelling the world and working on cruise ships. However, after getting back on dry land, she completed a Diploma in Interior Design “to refresh my skills and re-focus my career goals. After this I got my first industry job as a design consultant for a global design brand which was a great starting point and helped me get my foot in the door and gain client experience. I progressed through this company to senior designer and then B2B client manager. This is where I built a portfolio working with investors and developers which led me to the role I am in now with Suna.”
This is not the traditional route into a senior interior designer role, but as Leonnie says: “Every step along the way has given me valuable experience that has contributed to where I am now. Even working on cruise ships taught me a lot about people management, and gave me confidence when presenting. Working in design in the retail sector gave me experience in project management, budgeting and understanding client needs. These are things that university didn’t necessarily prepare me for, but are skills that can be built through a variety of roles.”
The directors at Suna Interior Design welcomed Leonnie’s experience, with Helen commenting: “Leonnie came from a slightly different sector as she was working in retail before joining Suna. Her organisational skills and attention to detail were evident when we interviewed her and she had such an approachable and welcoming manner. It was obvious very quickly that she would be a natural fit with our team and her work showed a lot of potential. We felt confident that when she was given an opportunity to stretch herself creatively she would excel and she has proven this over and over again since she joined us”.
Despite this, some background in design is a useful. Helen advises “There are definite skills required to be able to work for us. We would need you to be fairly proficient in CAD, Photoshop, InDesign and Sketchup, although that is dependent on the role. We don’t have a strict policy that a potential candidate has to have completed an Interior Design degree or equivalent but we do need to be able to see a strong portfolio which shows off their potential. It all depends on the level we are recruiting at – junior levels do not need vast experience, but we would expect mid-level and senior level applicants to have substantial industry knowledge and experience.”
Leonnie readily agrees, identifying a portfolio as a key way to demonstrate your skills. This can be built up over time, and can change and develop along with your ideas and focus. Whilst studying, Leonnie says, think of every project as an opportunity to show off what you are capable of. “Working in a design related industry will help you gain experience and confidence. Pay attention to trends and always keep up-to-date with what’s happening in the industry… even if this means spending hours scrolling though Instagram and Pinterest!”
Whilst Leonnie loves her role, it does come with challenges. “There are a number of difficulties you will encounter – recurring challenges such as keeping to tight budgets or short lead-times, or a particularly confusing brief, but these become easier with experience in time management and product knowledge,” she says. “An ability to multi-task and effectively communicate is also crucial. However, all of these can be developed throughout your career, so should not discourage any aspiring designers! These are all minor pains compared with the satisfaction of creating something beautiful, that your client loves.”
Aspiring interior designers may be in luck, as the future is looking bright for the industry – in the last three years, Suna has doubled in size due to demand. Rather than focus on growth, Helen is keen to maximise the potential of her current team over the coming year, however as Helen says: “My business partner and I said we would never grow the business beyond 10 but are now at 20, so never say never!”