Long gone are the days when a house was simply a roof over your head and a place to hang your hat. If the exterior of the house is judged by its curb appeal, then the interior – the home, is a reflection of the personal taste of its occupants. It is more than throwing together a few pieces of furniture – it’s also an expression of one’s creativity. Now given that many of us are challenged in that department, we need experts to evaluate what what it is that we want, and then flawlessly execute it. It takes a keen eye, a knowledge of decor, and a head for design to come up with a space that one can call their own. Here we are – in conversation with Uma Stewart, lifestyle designer and interior decorator.
AM: Hi Uma! Welcome to TWI’s Woman of Substance series. Let’s start with your background. My guess would be architecture, engineering or interior design?
US: None of the above! My background is in Communications research, and I was all set to do a PhD in Cultural studies. In fact, I received a Fulbright scholarship to go to India to do dissertation research. But I did not want to be an academic and take a slot from someone who was seriously invested in the field.
I tried political organizing for a while, but it really wasn’t a fit. I was very down because I felt I was not finding the right work for my life. And there was pressure from my family to stick with what I started.
Around this time, I was hit by a car in New York City – this was 12 years ago. I landed on the sidewalk on my feet, and after recovering, I wandered into a bookstore and picked up my first personal growth book. This was a major turning point for me because it really made me evaluate what I wanted out of life. It took a year for me to enter the world of interior design and leave the organizing work I was doing.
AM: When did you know you were good at this? When did you decide to pursue it full-time?
US: My mother is an interior designer, now retired, so I grew up in very close proximity to the design field. I never really considered it my work until much later when my husband and I moved into our first couple apartments, and I furnished them. I realized that I had some natural sensibility when it came to design and the ability to figure out what might fit perfectly in what space. I was always adept at color and drawing – in addition to which I took a continuing education program in interior design at Parsons in NYC, where I learned how to draft by hand. I decided to take the plunge in early 2006. And 12 years later, here I am.
AM: Who was or is your mentor as far as striking it out on your own? What made you decide it was more than just a side-thing?
US: My mother was my mentor. I really didn’t have anyone else. I wasn’t qualified to work at firms – all of this came from my own observations of how my mom worked. Everything from how to work with clients, how to set up accounting records, what sort of contractors and vendors to use, how to set up workrooms, make contacts and how to manage them, and in general, what to look for. So much of what I learned was what I saw when I was growing up.
AM: How has this field of interior design evolved with time?
US: From the technical perspective, technology has changed the field a lot. People are now doing digital renderings. The field has become more accessible to people. The internet makes shopping for pieces easier and price points are lower. In the past, these were considered long term investments and were certainly not disposable. Nowadays the landscape has changed with stores such as West Elm, Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel, and the sense of what things should cost has changed entirely. The online marketplace and the advent of HGTV has changed the mindset of customers. It gives an unrealistic idea of the time and money involved in setting up spaces. The budgets are not realistic and the time portrayed from start to finish certainly is not!
From a designer’s perspective, there is a lot of compromising on quality and unique personality But the benefit is that the looks are more casual and relevant to how we live now.
AM: How would you define your aesthetic? How has it evolved over time?
US: My look is streamlined eclecticism. I am all about classic pieces with cleaner lines, a very old world meets new style. I try to customize the space according to the people I work with – and I find many clients are like me, where their parents might have immigrated from somewhere and their spouse might be from somewhere else. I gravitate towards Indian and Asian details and art, but I also really love classic English interiors, in part because they are so eclectic. So my ideas involve a mix of cultures and how I can represent those in an interior that has some integrity. The eclecticism represents the diversity of the American experience.
AM: Favorite colors or motifs you like to decorate with?
US: I love white and black in interiors. Black as an accent. White and off-whites as a canvas that creates a restful and airy feeling in spaces. I tend to like all colors but I do more neutral shades of those colors in many cases, like red that has an earthier feel to it or green that is closer to olive or sage rather than a bright preppy green. I use a lot of my own textile designs in interiors, and I also design custom furniture, especially dining tables and headboards.
AM: Who are your typical clientele? What are they looking for when they come to you?
US: Our clients usually want to go the entire route from start to finish. They come to us for custom, higher end pieces. We do initial consultations and then we give a very comprehensive design presentation. We oversee everything from deliveries to installations to arranging contractors and overseeing the renovation— down to the last picture being installed or lightbulb to be purchased. We offer turnkey solutions for every type of household – where two members of the family are working, or families with many children where the stay at home mom does not have time to shop. We work for many executives in the financial, pharmaceutical, or legal professions who want their spaces to reflect what they have accomplished.
AM: Describe your process from start to finish. Do you have a team or are you running solo?
US: We have a very defined process. It starts with meeting a client and developing a scope of work spelled out in a contract. The first phase is what the project is, the second phase is the intake – meaning documentation, photographing every wall, measuring rooms, locations or electric outlets, etc, heights, doorways and windows, and also a specialized client questionnaire to get client input. We meet with the family to understand what their vision is.
After this comes the third phase – the design phase, where the team organizes all this information, and starts to develop a design plan, complete with drawings of floor plans and wall views.Then comes selecting all the furniture, materials that you need, tiles, faucets, fabrics, wood finishes and metal finishes come after. All this is condensed into a proper presentation, put into a presentable form, allowing the client to visualize what’s going to happen. The fourth phase is revisions and quoting. We refine our prices based on client feedback. There is usually not a lot of revision – usually a chair style or color that they have not pictured living with. Just small changes.
Once the client approves, we move into purchasing and we handle it all – contacting vendors, following up, detailing design specs for every piece. We get into more details at this stage – more fine line details, more drawings, adjusting everything. We supervise installation and delivery – we have an onsite meeting with installers down to the fraction of an inch where pieces are getting placed.
We go through the punch list and wrap-up after everything is installed. There could be a little tweaking here and there. We may have cut something out for the budget, but the clients want it added back in because it doesn’t look finished yet. Once we resolve all these items, we accessorize – we purchase things for bookshelves, coffee table, and finish dining table pieces, artwork. It’s all very methodical.
AM: Do you do some sort of modeling in design? What are the tools in your repertoire that you constantly rely on?
US: We use AUTOCAD which is really a tool for drawing in scale. We work online and in person at showrooms to source great product. We use page design programs to design presentations. And a scale ruler and measuring tape may be our most frequently used tools.
AM: Do you tend to decorate depending on the style of the house or the season etc.?
US: We understand trends – they do shape what we choose to do. But we design timeless houses for people, because we do understand that they’re making a big investment. Typically they’d like to keep and maintain their pieces for more than 10 yrs so we try to stay current but also classic. This way their rooms still feel beautiful many years later.
AM: Your all-time favorite architect or designer?
US: SoHo house is a members-only boutique hotel line which has an in-house design dept. I’m currently obsessed with their work. There is Bobby McAlpine which is an architecture and interior design firm. I love their approach to integrating design with the construction of new houses. Roman and Williams – they give a fresh take on historical design threads.
AM: Do you tend to watch HGTV a lot? ☺
US: Never! Most designers dislike HGTV and complain about it. Their programs set too many unrealistic expectations and their work is usually fast and cheap and easy.
AM: Do you like antique stores – how do you feel about the stories that each piece tells?
US: I absolutely adore antiquing. We go to Lambertville, NJ a lot – there are a lot of shops and small dealer and their pieces lend true character to a design. They tend to be unique, custom and lend depth to the design. I buy them, and have a lot of pieces in my own home. I do source antiques online for clients. These are vintage pieces that someone owned before and could be very old. 1950s antiques are very popular and are great finds, and always have a story. It’s not like purchasing from a chain store!
AM: Any books you would recommend that amateurs should read to get educated or is it really up to each person’s individual taste?
US: Architectural digest.com is a great source, as is Rue, where I was featured a few months ago! There are many design blogs you can read, get on the pulse on what’s happening. And they don’t cost any money. There are many people who are the DIY types and like to experiment and devise and develop their own plan/scheme of design. I would recommend reading their chronicles as well.
AM: And finally, what are your future plans?
US: 2 yrs ago we launched a textile line. We just added a second collection to the line. Our textiles are all prints on linen. This is a very popular category for draperies and accent fabrics but also for upholstery. It is a very versatile fabric.
I mentioned the custom furniture pieces, and in addition to those we’ve recently designed a beautiful custom bar piece, bath vanity, and bookshelf with gilded details. We are considering launching an online store to make our textile products available to others.
I eventually want to get into hospitality design. I’m an avid traveller and have stayed in boutique properties around the world. I’m an expert at planning a vacations and picking awesome boutique hotels to stay in. I’m inspired by the new breed of hotels and I want to be a part of that. I’m not sure how that will materialize just yet but I am open to the opportunities.
Thank you Uma, and we you all the best and success in all your future ventures!