At just 26 years old, Summer Thornton took a leap of faith and quit her job as an interior design assistant to open her own firm. Eight years later, her work has appeared in the pages of national shelter magazines (and on the covers), she’s been called “one to watch” by Fashion Group International, and her signature, bright style has made her one of Chicago’s most sought-after designers.
Here, Summer shares how she got her start, what she’s learned as a business owner, the career advice she swears by, and more. (Plus, check out a few of our favorite images from her portfolio!)
YOU STARTED YOUR INTERIOR DESIGN FIRM IN 2007. WHAT MADE YOU TAKE THE LEAP?
I always knew I wanted to have my own firm but it took a few years to really have enough knowledge and experience to do it well. By 2007 I had worked for a few other designers and learned which business models I liked and which I didn’t. But truly it just sort of organically grew. I was working as an assistant for a designer who was fine with me having side projects of my own. I do distinctively recall calculating what was the bare minimum income I could live on, and figuring whether or not that was likely. I decided to give it a go for 3-6 months to see what would happen, and I never turned back. I was 26. That seems crazy as I think back on it. I really was just naive enough to go for it.
WHAT WERE THE EARLY DAYS OF YOUR BUSINESS LIKE?
The early days of most any small business is like a rollercoaster. It’s a wild ride, you’re having a blast one minute, and then you’re on the verge of throwing up the next. I worked in my 700sq ft apartment from the counter or the sofa. My husband would get home and it would look like a fabric bomb had exploded all over the floor. He worked his day job, then would come home and help me all night. We’d work til midnight most nights when our friends were going out to dinner or taking walks in the park…rinse and repeat 6 days a week. But all that hard work felt like we were really building something. It was exciting and terrifying all at the same time. Some months you think – this is crazy, why am I killing myself and working so hard on this, and then the next one you’re thinking this is the best decision I ever made in my life. Today, probably 95% of the time I still think it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
LOOKING BACK, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF WHEN YOU WERE STARTING OUT?
I’m thankful that I had some really good mentors who help me avoid a lot of pitfalls and mistakes. I also was just generously blessed and fortunate beyond what I deserved so thankfully I don’t have a ton of ‘regrets’. Looking back I’d do much of it the same as I did. The hardest thing, which I still have to remind myself of, is that you have to just enjoy the ride to celebrate the high points and not to let the discouraging times get you down. It’s hard in the moment, but learn to enjoy the rollercoaster – people pay for that kind of adrenaline rush, and you get it almost daily just because you’re crazy enough to be an entrepreneur!
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR BIGGEST LEARNING EXPERIENCES AS A BUSINESS OWNER? AS A DESIGNER?
Oh wow. This is a tough one. There are so many things you learn that just become intuition. A few things that stand out for me – 1) only work for sane people because you can’t reason with someone who is crazy. Crazy people do crazy things. Lesson learned (the hard way). Now I’m interviewing my potential clients as much as they’re interviewing me. 2) Only hire great people. My employee decisions have been some of the biggest, most important, and most impactful on my business. The team around me is amazing, and our firm wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for them. A couple of times we ‘settled’ either due to timing or budget and each time we’ve regretted it. Only hire the best. 3) Spend as much time doing what you do best, and have others do the rest. When I added staff, I hired for very specific skillsets & strengths which I lacked or were weaknesses of mine. Together it creates a well rounded team as a whole and at our firm we’re very collaborative so that works well.
WHAT DREW YOU TO A CAREER IN INTERIOR DESIGN?
I’ve been drawn to design since I was young – I can actually remember being a toddler and going with my mom to pick out wallpaper trim for my childhood nursery. She didn’t choose what I wanted, which I still resent to this day (kidding mom!). As I reached adolescence I thought about fashion design a bit. In college I studied ceramics and loved it but I kept coming back to interior design…I’ve read shelter magazines my whole life and always loved going into beautiful hotels, friend’s homes, etc. It was in my DNA. So during college I got an internship with a designer – she took me under her wing and that sealed it for me.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT IT?
While many people don’t know this, most of my designs actually have a narrative behind them. A fictional story that I’ll make up which drives the design. I like the fantasy of that. Beyond that I love having the ability to transform something mundane into a space that changes the way someone feels when they walk in. When a client tells me that her dressing room makes her feel beautiful every morning, that feeds my soul.
WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING PART?
The most challenging part for me is conveying the vision that’s in my head to a client. When I’m designing I can see the final result in my head like a photograph – trims on pillows, wallpaper on walls, flowers in vases, etc and I know how breathtaking it will be…getting that vision out verbally and represented on a flat piece of paper so a client can imagine it can be a challenge.
WHAT SORTS OF QUALITIES DO YOU THINK SOMEONE NEEDS TO BE A GREAT DESIGNER?
To be a great designer you have to never settle, you have to be a great listener to clients who may have a difficult time expressing their aesthetic, and you have to be great at persuading a client to take the journey with you to do something amazing that’s never been done before. If you don’t do those things – your work will look expected and. It might be pretty, but it’ll be boring, which in my opinion isn’t a great design. Great design for me is about finding a way to get beyond ‘nice’ to something that’s an OMG moment.
WHAT ARE SOME DESIGN PRINCIPLES THAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T THINK ABOUT ENOUGH WHEN THEY DECORATE THEIR HOMES ON THEIR OWN?
Don’t be afraid to being yourself. Ignore what your friends and neighbors are doing and just make your home about you.
Colors don’t clash. It’s a lie. Used correctly, you can put almost any grouping of colors together to create something beautiful.
Avoid the trends. If you see it in every store, or the color is the ‘color of the year’, it just means its going to be out of style in 12-18 months. Choose pieces, shapes, patterns, and textures that have survived the test of time. If you want to indulge in a trend, do it in small quantities so you can work it out of the room in 12-18 months.
Mix in vintage and antiques. Nothing feels more ‘catalog’ than everything being new. Find antiques and vintage pieces and mix them into the home. Some patina is good, otherwise things feel artificial, sterile, and too perfect.
Beige is boring. Have you ever said OMG i’m obsessed with that beige sofa? Doubt it. A well designed room is a reflection of the owners soul – its like a painting of them on the walls and in the furniture selections. If your soul is beige, buy all beige and paint it all taupe. If you’re more interesting than that, then spice it up a bit with some color and pattern.
YOUR FIRM HAS BEEN PRETTY SUCCESSFUL — YOUR WORK HAS APPEARED IN HOUSE BEAUTIFUL, DOMINO, TRADITIONAL HOME & MORE. TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR SUCCESS?
Well thank you. Yes I do feel like I’ve been very blessed. The people closest to me know some stories of things happening that were beyond extraordinary- too long and complex to explain here – but it opened doors and opportunities otherwise not possibly by human means. Serendipitous you might say. Beyond that, I do think I have strong natural gifts in design and color and I’ve truly thrown myself into my passion for years. I’ve probably read 500+ design books and have read cover-to-cover 5+ shelter magazines a month since I was a teenager. I have traveled and whenever I do I try to visit aesthetic and design hotspots to further expose myself to great design from the past. I also have had a great team around me – who all have great skills and talents which they bring to the table every day to help make our work the best it can be.
WHAT IS YOUR PROUDEST CAREER ACCOMPLISHMENT SO FAR?
It is always great to be recognized and have your work complimented. Early-on in my career I was named One to Watch by the Fashion Group International which was totally unexpected…then Traditional Home selected me as a New Trad a couple years later. I got my first national cover on Luxe which was exciting a couple years ago as well. But sometimes it’s something small that really makes you feel special – when you see a blog comment on a picture of a room you designed where someone just gushes about it – those moments really make you proud because someone else got it, and they felt what you felt about that room.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL WOMEN WHO WANTED TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS, EITHER AS A DESIGNER OR AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Well those are two very different questions in my opinion. If you’re risk averse, don’t be an entrepreneur. Someone can be a great designer and never take the entrepreneurial route. Frankly I think most people should do that unless they really crave the business side and otherwise won’t be able to feel fulfilled. The business part isn’t for most people.
If you want to be an interior designer, my advice would be to just immerse yourself into the field. Read every coffee table book, magazine, blog, website, etc that you can with interviews and information from the designers you admire most. Then work your way into a position where you can be mentored by someone who you respect. Lastly, treat every project like it’s the most important one.
WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
When considering if I should take the leap I got this advice…”What’s the worst that can happen – you fail and you go back and beg for your old job back. If that’s the worst, then why not go for it…you’ve got nothing to lose.”