September 19, 2021

tacere

Beauty Made Perfect

Why this New York designer loves doing her own bookkeeping

The 50 States Project is a yearlong series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, New York–based Rozit Arditi tells us about pivoting from custom furniture to interior design, pushing clients to go bold with color and texture, and growing from smaller-budget projects to expensive ones.

What are your earliest memories of being interested in design?

I started taking art lessons when I was three or four. My mom discovered that I was a creative person when I was very young, and she would take me to an art studio every week. I grew up in Turkey, so I would meet with a contemporary artist who at the time was 70-plus years old. She would teach me drawing, painting and collages. Until the end of middle school, I would go to her studio on Fridays and Saturdays and do all sorts of different art projects with her. That was my first introduction to the creative world.

Was it a private lesson or were there other kids there?

Sometimes there were other kids, but nobody was as consistent as I was. [The artist] used to call herself “the Purple Witch,” and people were kind of scared of her. But she and I had a really nice connection, and I learned so much about art history and different techniques, and I was able to experiment with different media.

Throughout middle and high school, I took formal art classes to prepare a portfolio for college. I always had in mind that I was going to be an architect, but then I did a summer program at the Rhode Island School of Design and was drawn to furniture design.

What brought you to RISD?

My art teacher would always talk about RISD. Even in Turkey, that was the art school to go to—and my parents were courageous enough to send their 16-year-old to a summer program there. I did an Intro to Interior Design course, and I [spent the summer] designing clay and cardboard models of a bunch of furniture. It was a mind-blowing experience for me because I was in America. Even though I was going to an American high school [in Turkey], everything was so new and different to me. At the same time, it was super exciting—the old art supplies, the art museum, the nature lab, everything at once. I remember going back and telling my parents, “Art school is going to be really expensive, but I want to do it.” After that, I prepared my portfolio and took the SAT to get ready to come to college here. I applied to art schools and got in, but RISD was the only one that I actually wanted to attend.

And once you got there, you focused on furniture design?

Yes. I realized early on that when I design stuff, I want to be able to see the finished product. When you’re an architect and you design a building, you may not see it because it takes forever. Furniture is a more accessible design: You build something, and then people interact with it. They sit on it, touch it, lay on it. That was a lot more exciting for me. The design process can be long, but you see a product at the end.

For a project in Astoria, Queens, Arditi mixed the client’s family heirlooms with contemporary colors and patterns.

Sinan Tuncay

Was your time at RISD as magical as you had imagined it would be?

Yes, it was a wonderful experience, but it was also a lot more intense than I thought it would be. There were a lot more sleepless nights—I am not kidding! When people say, “Oh, it’s fun!” It’s not all fun and games. You work really, really, really hard. But I learned so much.

I was a very good student in high school, and I thought whatever I did in art classes was great. But when you go to an environment like RISD, everybody was as good as me, if not better. So it was a very different environment—it’s really a shock to the system, and you question yourself as an artist or designer. You have to reexamine your capabilities, your strong points, and if you actually enjoy all the things you are doing or if you are open to experimenting and exploring more. You’re also so young, and I was coming from a different country trying to adapt to the U.S. and thinking I can do everything on my own. It was an overwhelming experience overall, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I felt that way when I got to journalism school, too.

It’s a really strange feeling. You feel a lot less than who you normally think you are. But it also gives you really expansive room to grow.

You graduated, then where did you go?

I had been designing and building furniture when I was at school. I was [making everything] in a woodshop, but I’m super short—like, almost five feet—and woodshop tools are a little too big for me. Lifelong, I knew it just wasn’t a sustainable thing for me, and I decided that I wanted to actually design things instead of make them, so I moved to New York and looked for jobs. I did a few part-time and freelance jobs at the beginning, then worked at Dune Furniture for four and a half years. They have a contemporary furniture line, but they also do a lot of custom furniture for designers like Steven Gambrel, Gideon Mendelson, Katie Lydon—a bunch of big names. I was the CAD drafter for them when I started, so I was designing furniture for Dune’s furniture line, but also working on all of the custom furniture for the high-end designers—kitchens, built-in bookcases, sofas. Dune has its own factory where they would build it all, so I was involved in the furniture design and manufacturing process locally. It was a very exciting first job right out of college.

You eventually pivoted to interior design.

It was a gradual transition because I was designing custom furniture for a lot of interior designers. When I decided to leave Dune, I reached out to all the designers that I did custom furniture for—at that point, after four and a half years, I was their direct contact, project manager and lead person at Dune. So I reached out to them saying, “I’m leaving Dune. If you have any need for an assistant or a designer or CAD director in your office, I’d be happy to help.” Some people said yes, some said no. I started working as a CAD drafter for interior designers when they needed to specify things or do floor plans. From that, I moved up to being the project coordinator or project manager. I did all the construction and CAD drafting while working in an interior design studio, or sometimes multiple interior design studios at a time. I learned everything that goes into interior design and the whole project. I already knew how to make things, and I learned a lot about construction. I also learned about seaming, design, materials and work resources. I basically learned interior design on the job over five or six years of working for other people.

What were the key learnings from working at those businesses?

Obviously I didn’t go to school for interior design, so I don’t know what they specifically teach you at school for interior design. But I can tell you they don’t teach you how businesses are actually run, or how to deal with clients on a day-to-day basis, or how to crisis manage. From being in different environments and offices, I watched how my bosses interacted with clients and vendors, how they built relationships, the mood when something went wrong in the office, how the manager dealt with the employees when something happened. So just the personal relationship—not just the design stuff—part of running a business, I learned from working with different companies. I drew certain things from each of them when I started building my systems and the way I work in my company.

Left: A playful teal wallcovering grounds a saturated bedroom. Sinan Tuncay | Right: A rainbow of books is situated opposite an open kitchen in this Upper West Side apartment. Sinan Tuncay

What made you decide to launch your own firm in 2012?

Oh, I wasn’t ready to start my own firm—I can admit that. There were a lot of projects coming my way because a bunch of my friends were buying apartments, and everybody needed help. I just realized I had to take this opportunity. I wasn’t working full-time anywhere, so I had time on my hands. I just thought, “I have enough experience—I can totally do it.” I was a beginner when I started for sure.

Was it mostly friends and family as your first clients?

Yes. And at the beginning, it was much smaller projects. Looking back, I didn’t know how to manage projects or expectations. I just knew how to decorate and design, and I knew how to source things. But I learned so much about project management, and that made me realize what kinds of projects I wanted and budgets I wanted. It was a good learning experience.

How long ago did you stop working for everybody else and go all in on working for yourself?

I think it was around 2015.

What made you feel ready then?

The projects were getting bigger, and it wasn’t just friends anymore. It was referrals from the interior designers I worked with before. When they got projects that were too small for them, they started passing them on to me. I’m so grateful for all of them because their small projects were really big projects for me.

How do you cultivate that kind of relationship with the people that you worked with?

I just build really good relationships. I’m very hardworking, open and honest, and I’m not shy about telling my opinion. When I started working for other designers, I was willing to do anything in the office. So I think that gave them trust. Seeing me in their office managing multiple parts of the project gave them the confidence of referring me to people who came to them—like, “Rozit worked with us, she’s great, she can handle your project.”

Also, style. If somebody goes to a designer and says, “We like your style, we want to work with you,” that designer can say, “No, I’m not able to take this project, but this girl who used to work for me has a similar style and can help you with that.”

Why this New York designer loves doing her own bookkeeping

A referral for this Brooklyn home jump-started a yearslong relationship between the client and Arditi, which has spanned several properties and projects.

Sinan Tuncay

How does being from Turkey influence the designs you do today?

It’s something I had a lot of time to think about over the last year and a half, because I never thought, “OK, I’m from Turkey, and this is how my design aesthetic is shaped.” But I look at my recent projects and they are very colorful. I love to mix a lot of materials and textures together—not in an overwhelming way, but the colors work in a flow. Sometimes I put two unexpected colors together, and the feedback I get is, “Oh, you make a lot of textures and colors work well together.”

I look back, and I grew up in a culture where there’s color, texture and textiles everywhere. That’s what I saw growing up and all of my life. Whatever I learned about design, I learned in the U.S. and in New York, so I think it’s a combination of the color sensibility and the textiles background of being in Turkey and my parents having a textile business. All of that combined with the design aesthetic I learned here is showing in my work, especially in the last four or five years.

As the projects get bigger, can you put more of yourself into those projects?

Yes. I think I’m a lot more confident now that I can push people in new directions that are more interesting. Now I’m like, “You like blue and gray? I’m gonna change your mind about it. I’m going to make you like other colors.”

What does your business look like today? How are clients finding you?

One of my first clients was referred to me by [New York–based designer] Katie Lydon, and she is still my number-one source of client referrals. It’s been seven or eight years since we’ve started working together, and I’ve done so many projects for her—and I don’t even know how many people she referred me to.

What does your team look like these days? I saw on Instagram that you were hiring in the last year.

Yes, actually the pandemic—like a lot of interior designers—helped my business grow because we’ve been at home and everyone’s either moving out or wanting to make their space nicer. I always had a general assistant who would run errands and request posts, but she left right before the pandemic. I was on my own, and I spent a good chunk of the year trying to figure out how I wanted to structure my business and who my next hires would be. When I was ready and started to get more projects, I hired a design assistant and a project coordinator. I also have a CAD drafter who’s been working with me for the last four years. He’s not full-time, but every time we get a new project he comes on board. And I have a 3D renderer. So, we’re about three to four people.

As you thought about how you wanted to grow, what were you taking into consideration?

I was very lucky. In January 2020, I started taking a business course from Holly Howard. I’m a huge fan, and the timing couldn’t have been more right. My goal was to take that class and after six months be like, “OK, this is what I need to do for my business. This is how I need to structure it.” But in a way, the pandemic was a gift because I could pause and think about everything. I did all my financials first and asked myself: What do I have? Where do I stand? What do I need? I looked at how I charged for previous projects and asked, Were they beneficial? Did I make money on it? Did I lose money? Did they last too long?

Because I worked for multiple design studios in my career, I looked at the structure in every company and what I liked and thought worked and didn’t work. I created a curated organization chart for the immediate future and five years out. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I have a goal of where I want to get to.

Had you thought about your business that way before then?

No, I never thought about it as structured before. I was always too scared to make plans further down the line. For some reason, talking with Holly about the process and seeing the bigger picture makes me less anxious about now and the future.

How did those two new hires fit into that short-term plan?

The way I decided to hire them first is I looked at what I was doing day-to-day, and what I could delegate to other people: Do I want it to be one person, or do I want it to be two different positions? The design assistant is a more specific position where there needs to be a design background, but the project coordinator doesn’t need to have a design background. I also like to hold on to, “What do I actually want to do?” I don’t want to give everything to everybody—this is my baby.

What were the things you definitely wanted to keep doing?

Client meetings and client interaction. Obviously, the design assistant has some client interaction, but not as much as I do. What I find really important is that clients build a relationship with their designer, and I like to build those relationships myself, because when they refer my company, they also refer me as a person. I spend six months to a year with clients, and I’m in their home and their life so much that it becomes a very close relationship. Until my assistant or my design team really understands that culture and that personality, I’m still the face of the company—at least in the short term. I’m not ready to give that up yet.

Left: Custom millwork in this Upper West Side kitchen is designed to maximize storage space in a small footprint. Sinan Tuncay | Right: In a Williamsburg loft, Arditi used graphic marble as a backsplash and up the walls to create visual interest and to contrast with the granite countertops. Sinan Tuncay

What kind of growth do you envision in the next five years?

I don’t want to have a huge firm because I don’t want to lose a personal touch and connection with my clients and my projects. I get really invested in people’s homes. Recently, I’m designing homes that I would love to live in. At the beginning, we took whatever projects came our way. Now, I want to love the house, and I want to really get excited about it. So down the line, the growth looks like bigger projects, larger budgets and ground-up construction projects. We do a lot of renovation projects, so it would be amazing to do some ground-up construction homes. We work in the Tri-State area. One of my dream projects is to have a Brooklyn brownstone and completely renovate and revive it.

I love what you said about being in a place in your business where you want to love the project. When did you start to say, “I can pick and choose the things that are meaningful to me”?

I think maybe in the last four or five years, but this pandemic is like pause time. It made me look back and reflect on how I was growing. Before, I was just on the go and didn’t have time to look back and realize what I was doing. Now, there’s a lot more new potential projects coming up, and I’m more confident saying no to projects that I don’t necessarily feel a good vibe or connection with or if the budget is not right.

Was it hard to say no to those things in the beginning, or did you have that skill from the get-go?

No. At the beginning, I took on a lot of smaller projects, and I took clients without really vetting them. You can’t still be 100 percent sure, but now I have a better sense about people, and I have more experience. I think because the price point is higher, people don’t think they can afford it. Some people say, “We really like your work. We would love to work with you, but you’re expensive.” That’s sometimes hard to hear, but it’s also really good to hear. It’s a good problem to have.

How do you become expensive? I think there are a lot of designers reading this series who want to get there.

I’m going to be honest, you can’t be very expensive from the beginning. I don’t think you should be, because everybody needs the experience, unless you have the clientele and people are coming to you with really large homes and budgets. Great, be expensive then.

But if people are coming to you with one-room decorations or small apartments, I don’t think everybody at the beginning has the luxury to be super expensive, and it’s a great thing. I’m so glad I went through all those projects and dealt with all those personalities, because now I know that I shouldn’t do things or charge people a certain way. It gives you experience in terms of what you do, what you don’t know, and what you learned. Those projects are your education. After a while, when you have too many projects and some of them are not the right fit, that’s when you start thinking, OK, what do I need to do? What’s the service level I want to provide to my clients? What’s the quality of the product I want to give them? What do I want their experience to be like?

What do you change to get there in terms of client experience or deliverables?

One of the first things Holly always said was, “Write everything down. Nothing is too small to write down.” So I have a procedures document that’s internal for our office. I have an onboarding document for a client when they meet me, and my design contract with the client includes every little detail: everything about the design process, how we charge, how we bill, what the phases are, what the terms are if they don’t pay, what the terms are if they go shop on their own, and all those little things that happen.

I learned all of these things from years of making mistakes or seeing other people make mistakes. I’ve also recently included photo shoots, CAD drawings, renderings—those all need to be a part of their package. When somebody asks why your design fees are so high, you need to have an explanation.

What is your explanation?

It’s based on the project scope: Does it have renovation, or is it just decorating? What’s the square footage? Where are they located? Does it require any renderings? Is there a floor plan that comes with their architect’s drawing? What are the phases? Are we going to do all of it at once?

I work with a flat design fee. I think hourly adds up, and it scares clients away because they don’t realize how many hours we spend on everything. I do a flat design fee and then a markup on all purchases and consulting services. I also outline the scope at the beginning of the project, and they sign on it. If anything is out of the scope or additional, that’s when we go into hourly. I try to make it very clear at the beginning.

Does that clarify things for clients?

It does. Obviously everybody asks questions the minute you send a proposal, but once we have the second conversation to explain what it includes and entails, it’s usually pretty clear.

Why this New York designer loves doing her own bookkeeping

A color-loving client’s guest bedroom is wrapped in a malachite-patterned wallcovering.

Sinan Tuncay

I’ve heard that you are the unicorn designer who actually likes the bookkeeping side of the business. Tell me about that.

I love it. I know this is very strange. The funny thing is that if I wasn’t going to be a designer, I was going to be a math major. I love numbers, and I love understanding what I have and controlling it. Numbers never scared me. I do my personal bookkeeping too, and I’m pretty on top of it.

Doing the billing and invoicing is one of the things that I want to hold on to right now, even though I have a project coordinator who orders things. It’s also one more level for me to check: OK, this got ordered, let me check this and match everything. Do we have the exact number? Is the tax paid? Is everything in place? I don’t see it as micromanaging, but as a bigger-picture view of the business too—how much this project costs, we’re spending this many hours on it, does it make sense? So it’s a way that I can have a general sense of control and safety also, in terms of business, knowing how much I have or how much money’s out there. For a long time, I was the only person, and I was only responsible for my job. Now, I’m responsible for two other people. So I need to make sure there’s enough money in the bank to pay their salaries.

Did making those hires change the way you felt about your firm from a responsibility standpoint?

I don’t think it changed that much. I was doing my bookkeeping, and I have an accountant who does sales tax and yearly tax returns, so knowing how much money I had, how much money I could save, and being prepared to hire employees was very comforting for me. I always told myself, “I’m not going to hire anyone if I’m not ready to pay them at least six months to a year.” I don’t want to hire somebody and say, “I can’t afford you in two months.” That’s really scary for me.

I’ve worked in a lot of places. I know what being a freelancer or part-time employee is like. You want to have some sort of a guarantee. I told them at the beginning, “I’m not guaranteeing you a full-time job. We’re gonna start with three days, four days, and as we go, I’m gonna add more.” Sometimes they work more than 40 hours, sometimes they work 20 hours. It just depends on the workload, but at least I was honest with them from the get-go.

When you look ahead, where do you see the most opportunity to grow?

For me, it’s always been client and personal relations. This business really relies on relationships, and I’ve been in the field in New York for 15 years, both in furniture and interior design. You build relationships and they pay off, especially with vendors and clients. If I do a good project with a client and their friends see their house, they’ll refer me. If I upkeep those relationships—which I think I’ve been doing a decent job because I have recent repeat clients—I think that’s where it is. Yes, social media helps. Yes, being on platforms helps. Yes, advertising helps, but I don’t think any of that is as important as personal relationships.

Left: The custom daybed was designed to tuck neatly into a Sutton Place guest room. Sinan Tuncay | Right: Arditi leaned into a mix of textures in muted hues for this West Village living room. Sinan Tuncay

What are the specifics of the New York market that have really shaped your experience?

I’ve worked in the New York area, but specifically working in New York City is like solving a puzzle. New York apartments are as small as they can get—even if they’re big. They’re either old buildings that are renovated, and there’s always issues and limitations and a lot of codes. Being able to get creative and work within those limitations has taught me a lot, because you have to problem solve all the time. Like I said, I love problem-solving. As much as it’s stressful, it’s also when you get creative within limits.

All of these [limitations] sound really irritating to the clients, but as a designer it teaches us to become better and get more creative with our process. All of that taught me to be realistic and upfront. If somebody buys an apartment in a landmark building, there’s going to be a lot of waiting at the Department of Buildings, let’s be real. Their project is not going to start next month. You learn that because you went through it a few years ago. If the building is really old, your electrical is probably prior to 1980, so it probably needs to be updated. It just made me be a lot more realistic and tell people, “This is how things work.” If somebody else tells you otherwise, that’s not true. Some people like it, some don’t. I’m not gonna get the project and tell them later. I might as well save now, and then if they decide, “OK, we don’t want to work with her,” then so be it.

When COVID happened, and no one could get into all these buildings in New York, what was your experience?

I was kind of lucky in a way. My projects were out in Westchester at the time, and I had one renovation project where we were converting a two-family home into a one-family. It was a full house. Also my clients in Westchester were just doing painting, wallpapers and electrical, so they could continue to live there and nobody was without a bathroom or kitchen.

What does the real estate market and design landscape look like today in New York?

I think a lot of people have realized that for their own sanity—and their family’s sanity— they need more space. I hope that continues, because New York is fun and I love New York, but at a certain stage it’s great to have more space and breathing room. It gives you a lot more to do [as a designer]. There are always going to be two different waves: Some younger families are leaving, but single people and younger couples without kids and empty nesters are coming back. New York is back, and it’s never going to die.

Do you think the pace of work will stay consistent?

I’m pretty hopeful it will. People are always going to buy homes, and people always need a place to live. There can be slower times and busier times, but people are always going to buy new homes and want to renovate.

What resources do you lean on most in terms of design community?

So it’s a very small community we have. I’m also a member of Interior Collab, which started as an offshoot when Homepolish went down. Again, a friend introduced me to them, and it’s just a very good resource. I use Business of Home a lot for vendors, resources, what people are doing, the conference, just to follow up on industry news. I think you build your own design community—it starts with the vendors you work with and your designer friends, some of your sales reps, your contractors, and keeping up with relationships. I think that’s what builds a design community. I’ve met so many wonderful tradespeople through my contractors, or sometimes clients bring in contractors, and I always welcome them.

What does success look like to you?

I think success is about happiness: Am I happy with my career? Am I happy with my business? Is my design team happy? Am I able to provide for everyone in the business and my clients and my trades? It’s not necessarily X number of employees or X number of projects. It’s about how happy everyone is overall.

To learn more about Rozit Arditi, visit her website or find her on Instagram.