Jeannine Williams smiles warmly as she welcomes a visitor into the Park Avenue pied-a-terre she designed for a client. The understated decor leaves the spotlight on the Empire State Building, which looms outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. But look more closely and the apartment's exquisite details come into view—the handsome couch and ottoman, the metal and wood bookcase that is at once substantial but open, and the airy, open-weave drapes that let in the stunning view.
All of these objects were custom made by Williams' handpicked band of of artisans—her cabinet maker in Bushwick, Brooklyn, her drapery woman on 47th Street and the Pennsylvania-based upholsterer she's worked with for twenty years. “Most of my relationships with my craftspeople are like that," says Williams, the owner of Jeannine Williams Design, the upscale interior design firm she started in 1991. “It's people I've been working with almost from the very beginning."
Relationships are at the heart of William's work—with her clients, many of whom are repeat customers, and especially with the network of artisans she relies on to deliver beautiful, unique furnishings tailored to her clients' specific needs and budgets. “As a small business, I like to employ artisans who do their own work and aren't big manufacturers," she says. “That's where the fun lies."
For Williams, design has been a lifelong passion. Growing up in the Midwest, her father was an avid woodworker. “I feel like there was just a lot of craftiness in my upbringing," she says. “I was always thinking about how I could make things better, taking things apart and putting them back together."
She went to design school and landed a job in New York handling projects for a renowned New York interior designer. “I learned so much from her," Williams says. “That's better than any education you could find—on the job, seeing the process, learning how to deal with clients, project management—you really cut your teeth."
Jeannine Williams, owner of Jeannine Williams Design
Williams didn't set out to start her own business. While working for the designer, she would take freelance assignments on the side to supplement her income. But when those outside projects kept growing, she decided to strike out on her own. Some of her early projects were featured prominently in design magazines, but her business has grown mainly through word of mouth.
She currently has a staff of two to help manage the six or seven projects she might be juggling at any one time. She tries not to go beyond that number to maintain a personal touch. “If you can't remember a client's design scheme, than you've overwhelmed yourself," Williams says.
Along the way, she has searched out and cultivated her network of suppliers. “It's easy once you establish that working relationship," she explains. “They know what you like. I know I can say to my cabinetmaker, 'Remember that bookcase we did?' and he knows exactly what I'm talking about and we can collaborate without having to start from zero. There's a lot of investment in working with these guys."
Like any business, Williams has had her up and downs—business has slowed during economic dips, most recently during the financial crisis that set off a steep plunge in home values. And managing cash flow was a struggle in the early days. At first, Williams floated purchases on her credit cards as she waited for clients to reimburse her. “It's been a lot of creative financing," she laughs. But several years ago, she began offering clients an opportunity to have all their purchases charged to their own cards. That gives them a level of transparency and control over the project they didn't have before, while freeing up Williams' resources.
For now, the economic worries have faded, and Williams is busy shuttling between her Park Avenue clients and their summer homes in the Hamptons, where she might be overseeing a design project or a move. And she's contemplating new ideas to grow her business.
How do you scale a high-touch business like design, especially if you're a designer like Williams who wants to be intimately involved in the details? Williams sees an opportunity to make her design expertise available to more people by offering a consultation service for DIY-oriented clients who would like some advice but cannot afford to hire her for a full blown project. “I love the idea of trying to make myself more accessible," she says.
But the best part of her job will always be collaborating with her quirky band of artisans to craft beautiful solutions for her high-end clients. Williams is clearly in her element during a visit with Joseph Carini, an artisan carpet maker that she discovered 20 years ago when he was working for a big-name carpet designer. Now the owner of his own boutique firm, he conceives each carpet and oversees its production in Nepal, where natural fibers like silk, wool and mohair saturated with plant-based dyes are woven by hand into one-of-a-kind creations.
“Synthetic colors are almost like flat notes, and these are like octaves," Carini explains, fingering a lushly hued carpet in his Tribeca showroom.
He and Williams fall into a familiar banter, discussing techniques, reminiscing about past projects they've worked on together and generally finishing each other's sentences. “Isn't this amazing?" Williams explains, her easy laugh ringing out. “I don't even bother looking at rugs anymore. I just say, 'Let's go see Joe.'"