Melissa Benham, Jennie Bishop and Kristen Ekeland, the co-founders of the interior design firm Studio Gild, have together been making Chicago more beautiful since January 2014. After each starting their careers in New York City and finding themselves in Chicago for work, the trio met through their respective jobs and decided to launch their own firm. Since then, they’ve also opened a retail space (Gild Assembly in Bucktown), a nonprofit organization (Gild Foundation), and managed to land a spot on Architectural Digest‘s One’s To Watch list in 2016.
Here, they’re sharing what they’ve learned as entrepreneurs, the personality traits that are key to their success, their career advice and more.
Tell us a little about Studio Gild? How did it start?
Each of us began our career in New York. Between us, we’ve worked for André Balazs, Clodagh, Thom Filicia, S. Russell Groves and Ralph Lauren, to name a few. Eventually our paths led us to Chicago, where we met while working at Kara Mann Design and Simeone Deary Design Group.
How did the three of you decide to join up as business partners?
Our former jobs gave us a number of opportunities to work with one another on a wide variety of design projects. Collaborating in this way allowed us to draw upon each other’s creativity and expertise and we realized we have a formula that works! As each of us moved on in our careers, forming a partnership was a natural fit.
Where did your first clients come from?
When we formed Studio Gild each of us brought clients to the table. Since then, there’s no question that word-of-mouth and referrals have been paramount to our success. Quite a number of our projects are repeat clients as well, which we love.
What’s the biggest difference between working for a firm and working for yourselves?
Aside from the responsibility of maintaining a healthy business, happy clients and an engaged team!? Definitely the ability to pave our own path. We create the rules and that’s empowering. If we want to give our team flexible work weeks, we do (and we do!)
What was your biggest learning experience as entrepreneurs?
For one, building business relationships through networking and solid performance is paramount. For instance, it can’t be underestimated how important successful working relationships across the design spectrum are for us. Interior designers, landscapers, architects, craftsman and contractors play major roles in referring one another for jobs. If each entity plays well in the sandbox and really delivers, chances are you will bring each other on to work together on projects down the road.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on so far?
Each project presents its own opportunity for growth, which we really value. We’ve been lucky enough to recently collaborate with a wonderful client on a golf resort clubhouse in Wisconsin. It’s been fun to venture outside of our typical residential process. This experience allowed us to tell a more multidimensional story that reflects the character of our client’s brand, their client base and a breathtaking natural setting.
How many projects do you typically do in a year?
It totally depends on the scope of our projects. Right now we have a team of 11 designers working on everything from resort clubhouses, to renovating old lofts and completely overhauling single family homes.
Besides Studio Gild you also own a showroom in Bucktown, Gild Assembly. How did that come about?
When we joined forces to form our interior design firm, Studio Gild, one aspiration that we all shared was an eventual foray into retail. We assumed that our collective dream would incubate slowly, but the space became available and we jumped on the opportunity. In an effort to provide our clients with next-level design in all of its forms, we’re always scouting for unique finds for our clients, which lends itself well to curating a showroom!
Can you tell us a little about your goals with Gild Foundation?
Simply put, we believe in the importance of giving back. Gild Foundation allows us to do this by Bettering, Empowering and Improving the lives of others. Each year, the Foundation will support a number of organizations focused on a singular cause by donating 100 percent of monies raised to that cause. In 2017 we’re focused on raising funds to aid in advancing and understanding the treatment of brain tumors.
(Editor’s note: You can join Gild Foundation at Space 519 on Tuesday, July 27, for a fundraising party and benefit! More information can be found on the website).
With two businesses and a nonprofit, what are your keys to staying focused and getting things done?
We’re a team in the strongest sense of the word. We exchange ideas, are diligent about responding to e-mails and we meet several times a week to touch base on business and creative matters. Keeping these meetings is key!
What sort of personality traits does it take to be successful in a job like yours?
Discipline. Drive. Patience. Ability to find creative solutions. And a strong dose of good humor!
What advice do you have to budding interior designers?
Interior design can be a very rewarding career, but it’s not all fun and games or 24/7 glamour. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Although being creative is an important prerequisite for the job, one also has to be able to listen to the client, communicate diplomatically and embrace very thorough attention to detail.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Internships are an invaluable way to explore various sectors of the design industry and firm styles.
Embrace the process of learning every step of the way and realize that even the best of the best are still learning each and every day. And always keep your sense of humor and perspective – after all, we aren’t saving babies.