50 States Project | Jul 30, 2023
By Kaitlin Petersen
The 50 States Project is a series of candid conversations with interior designers across the country about how they’ve built their businesses. This week, Reno, Nevada–based designer Kristen Giacomini of Flow Designs tells us why she gives clients different payment options, why she believes almost any home can be salvaged, and why kitchens are her favorite part of design.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a designer?
I went to Arizona State University. They have a good interior design program, but it’s a science degree, so you had to take a lot—like, a lot—of math, and I just couldn’t do it. So I went for communications at first, and to be a theater major, but I was also partying.
Finally, my mom was like, “There’s an art school here—you can get your degree in interior design with me in Tucson.” At that point, I didn’t know what I was getting into—I just knew that I liked to change rooms around, and I liked what it sounded like. So my mom and I both started at the Art Center Design College in Tucson to get our interior design degrees. And it was hard. See, I thought I was going to be a decorator, but this was design. We were learning how to hand draft, and it was too hard for my mom, so she dropped out; I remember thinking, “Being an interior designer sounds so great, but I’d rather not finish school.” Then my mom got really sick with cancer and passed away.
Oh, I’m so sorry.
We were close, and I’m really grateful for the time I had with her. And then after she died, I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to finish school.” Interior design was something she had wanted me to do. So I kept going.
After I finished school, I was like, “God, interior design is such a materialistic, money-hungry thing—I don’t think I want to do that.” I had started looking into what was in personal care products when my mom had cancer, realizing all of the crap that’s in there, and so I started making my own organic body care items and selling those. Looking back, I probably could have made millions making those organic body products, but deep down I knew that wasn’t really what I loved to do. I decided to get back into design, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it, so I got a job at Bassett as their visual merchandiser. I traveled with the company to set up their new stores and went to High Point Market for them a couple times. I liked it, but it was a lot of travel, so I decided to go into sales with Bassett instead—but I really hated furniture sales. By that time, I had moved to Scottsdale, and someone had paid me $300 to go to their house for one hour and hang art, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I [left] design again for a year and worked in a really cool gift shop—I was young—but I found that I loved interacting with the people who came into the shop. That’s where I realized that I really wanted to be in retail, too.
By that time, I had met my now-husband, and we moved back to Reno—my dad and sister were here, and I had a lot more connections here to start building something. I worked at Ethan Allen briefly because I needed something to get me started. While I was there, someone was talking about NCIDQ tests and I was like, “Why wouldn’t I get my NCIDQ and start my own business? Why am I selling furniture again?” I passed my practicum while I was working at Ethan Allen—and then I got a job offer to design a dispensary. I’ll never forget telling my dad about the job, and he was like, “Do it. Don’t ask questions.” So I quit Ethan Allen in 2015 and started focusing on that. I started sole proprietorship with the name Flow Designs, because I was like, “I’ve got to act like I’m real and have a business.”
I love that you were so ready to dive in.
I knew I had the energy and the passion, even if I didn’t know everything. I have notebooks upon notebooks of ideas for what my business was going to be when I started it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m just going to start a business.” I’ve always wanted it, I just needed to figure out those details. There was always going to be an event space and some retail—and that’s what we are today, along with the studio. I opened the brick-and-mortar in 2019, and my sister and husband help me there. And as I was studying for the NCIDQ, I learned so much—it was everything I had forgotten from school, and I retaught myself everything. Then I got married, had a kid and took the IDFX [Interior Design Fundamentals Exam] but didn’t pass. I restudied, but then my five years [time frame to retake the test] were up, so I never finished my NCIDQ. Which is OK, because studying gave me the confidence to be an interior designer.
You were so turned off by the profession after school—what changed for you?
I finally realized that I could put a positive spin on the things that bothered me about interior design. I could make it more about the way people feel in their space, and how it affects their life and their happiness. I started to pay attention to the sustainability side of design, too—beyond the effects on your mental health, there is also the physical health side of putting things into your home that are better for you and your environment.
We had a class on sustainability in college, but people weren’t really doing it—and it’s still hard, and it’s still more expensive. Eliminating all the VOCs and chemicals in your stuff costs a lot more money. But I realized that I could have a career in this and focus on doing good rather than feeding into that attitude of, “Let’s remodel this whole house because you don’t like it, even though it’s perfectly fine.”
I love that perspective—let’s come back to that. But first, how did you build a clientele once you had that first job and a new business?
When I first went out on my own, my husband and I had gotten married, and he was still working, so we had insurance through him. That took a little load off. But I barely charged the dispensary—I think I asked for like $2,500, and it was so much work, but that was fine with me. I wanted to get the photos. Then my sister needed to remodel her kitchen, and that turned out really good. I had another friend who was doing a whole remodel because she had a crack in her floor—it was a tract home, not some glamorous, million-dollar house, but I helped her for free. And then clients from Ethan Allen starting coming back to me and saying, “We want to remodel our kitchen. Can you help us?”
Is that when you started charging for the work?
Not the first one. I never even thought to charge them because I didn’t really know how to, so they would just give me money. It was like, “Here’s a couple hundred bucks,” here and there. I got that photographed, opened the studio space in October 2019, and word of mouth just started to work for me. I wasn’t advertising then, and I had just gotten my business on Instagram, so it was just through having a community. Then, just as I was finishing that kitchen, Covid hit, and things just started to snowball.
How do clients find you today?
Instagram is the biggie for me now. The better jobs are from Instagram. I can’t say Google produces the best clientele for me, but I have a lot of inquiries from Google. And then word of mouth and referrals from contractors. There are two contractors that I like to use, and they like to use us, so it’s beneficial in both ways. And it’s been a great bonus to have that kind of team, because I can’t contract out my own subs in Nevada. That’s why I needed to get my NCIDQ! So now, my clients go into a contract with the subs on their own and I’m just bringing in the design. And along the way, I’ve actually realized that I don’t want to be responsible for contractors’ work, so it’s worked out just fine.
You mentioned that you didn’t charge those early clients. How do you approach billing for your work today?
That’s been a big learning lesson. When I started, I was working out of my home. Now that I have a brick-and-mortar, I feel pretty confident when I talk to people about my pricing. It’s like, “Hey, I have a business, I have overhead.”
A rich navy accent wall makes a bedroom’s furnishings pop – Photo Credit Sinead Kelly Hastings
It made you feel more legitimate?
It did. And I got there, I’ve got to say, by listening to LuAnn Nigara. She gave me a lot of confidence. I was at $50 an hour and then I slowly raised my fee, and now I try to do a flat fee—so right now, I charge $8,000 to design the average kitchen, and I picked up a cabinet line, which gave me ways to make money without charging a huge design fee. When I meet with a client, I’ll charge $200 for the consultation, and then I walk through each room and write down everything they need. And then if they want to move forward, I say, “OK, it’s going to take me 80 hours, and my hourly rate is $175. I can charge you hourly and it’ll be around whatever that comes out to, or it’ll be $8,000 as a flat fee.” Saving money makes them happy, and not having to track hours for a fee makes me happy. In my contract, I also stipulate that you have to spend a minimum of $10,000 at Flow Designs, whether that’s the cabinets or the window coverings or whatever.
Outside of the kitchen, how are you approaching the flat fee? Do you require a minimum spend?
The more rooms they want to do, and the bigger the project, the better the fee. For something like a bathroom remodel where I don’t want to wait six months for these cabinets to come in, I might charge a higher design fee because they don’t have to buy everything through us. But yes, if we’re sourcing the products, we’re buying at wholesale and then marking it up at retail price.
Has that worked for you?
It has. I mean, I love a quick furnishing job, as long as the client is like, “Do whatever you want.” I have a client who keeps doing a little bit on his second home every year. He just wants it done. For me, it’s like, “Yeah, I can furnish your whole place, as long as you aren’t going to send me page after page after page of every piece of furniture you found that you want me to order and put it in.”
How do you weed out those clients?
The phone call. That was another thing I learned from LuAnn—one of the ladies on her show talked about her questionnaire. I always had one for people to fill out, but hers had some more specific things on there: How important is quality to you? Do you want to buy from our firm? What’s your level of investment? That way, when they say quality is not important to them, you know they just want it cheap.
I include those questions now, but I still always call people, and I’m always willing to go to a consultation. I don’t know if the $200 is worth it, but I’m always willing to go there, talk to them about their project, and tell them whatever they need to hear to feel like they can take it on by themselves. There are so many people out there who want to do everything on their own, or need to do everything on their own, but they just need help. I try to bust that out in that hour in a very optimistic, bubbly way—to say, “This is what you guys can do, and you can order this, just measure it and make sure you know this”—and then I let them go on their way. I don’t want to miss out on being able to help the people that can’t afford my design services, but who still want to have something that feels good. But I am working toward charging $300 for a consultation, and then if they work with us after that, they’ll get a $100 credit.
You recently hired your first employee. How did that change your business?
It’s given me more freedom. I know the overhead each month for all of us to get paid, which is scary, but I am really confident. I wasn’t ever hiring, though—Ali Marie came to me. She has a degree, but not in design, but she had a passion. In her interview, I asked her, “What do you like about design?” She starts telling me about the remodel she did on her home, and the kitchen lines she used, and what she did—she’s just going off, and I’m like, “Wow, you know a fucking lot.” Then I asked, “Do you watch TV?” And she’s like, “No, I watch YouTube—that’s where I learn everything.” She had even taught herself CAD, which was huge. Now, I don’t use CAD, I use Chief Architect. And I love doing Chief Architect, but it’s so time-consuming. So the first day she started, she started learning Chief Architect. It’s been a huge help.
I didn’t know what hiring an employee was going to do for me until this moment—because I’m about to leave for a two-week vacation. Yes, I’m still going to work. I’ll check my email and probably have some calls to take, but I’m not going to worry about plans—or if we got that detail on that page—because I know she’s got it. I can leave confidently knowing everyone’s in a good place.
How did you structure her role, in terms of title or job description?
See, these are all things I haven’t really figured out yet. She just fell into my lap, and it’s still very loose. Her title is junior designer. So right now, I do all of the client-facing stuff and she’s behind the scenes doing the design plans and mood boards. And she’s really good—she learns, she listens, she does things before I ask. And I feel like the more I do, the more she’ll take on. I want her to take over more and become a senior designer so that we get one more person on the team. I see her growing and doing way more—but I need to take it slow, because right now she’s a salaried part-time employee. The idea is that she tells me if she’s working too much, or if she doesn’t have enough work, and hopefully we just balance out those hours each month.
Did that change what you envision for the future of your company?
I believe in my business; I believe in the potential for growth. It gave me that feeling of, “Yeah, this is going to be something.” We’re on that move upward and it feels really good.
Can you tell me about the design community in Reno?
My real estate friends tell me that the housing market, in terms of home sales, is still going strong. And as far as design, we’ve stayed pretty steady. A lot of my clients are 40 to 60 years old, and they’ve lived in their home for a while, but they’re ready to make changes. They want to take down a wall and expand the kitchen, then live in their home for another 20 years. But the price points vary—we just did a $100,000 kitchen, and now we’re doing a million-dollar whole-house remodel. It depends on the person—and that’s what I’m looking for in my clients: Are you grateful? Are you kind? Then it’s: Can we make some money on this job? Do I have time in my schedule?
A shock of yellow tile anchors an open kitchen – Photo Credit Kristen Giacomini
You mentioned your focus on sustainability, and on how your work makes people feel. How does that show up in your day-to-day practice?
For a while, we were in our little retail space trying to only have sustainable products, but the sustainability factor has played less of a role there than I’d like. I’m trying to pivot because I think that the most sustainable approach to decorating is often about reusing what you can. Sometimes I’ll go into a home and I’m like, “Your kitchen is perfect. Let’s keep the cabinets because they’re great cabinets, and we will replace the countertop because that’s what’s not making you feel good.” I feel like that’s how I’m different: When I get into someone’s home, I don’t care if it looks perfect. I want them to have those items in their home that make them feel good. So that ugly doll collection from their grandma? I want it on a shelf out there for them to see if that makes them feel good. My purpose with my clients is to make them walk in that door and have that moment of, “Oh, this is my home.” That goofy photo you took in Las Vegas when you were with your whole family, and it shows the moment where the kid farted and everyone laughed? Those are the things that make a home. And those are the items I always want to make sure the clients have when we’re through.
It’s also about function—and that’s more important than perfection, too. Those thoughtful moments like having a place for the kid’s backpack to hang when they walk in the door instead of dropping it on the floor. That’s where I really try to make them connect with the way that home is going to embrace them and make them feel morning, noon and night.
Is that approach something clients get excited about?
A lot of people look at the stuff they have and think, “Oh, that’s ugly. I don’t want it in my new house because that wasn’t on HGTV.” They look at Studio McGee’s kitchen, or some home magazine, and they get so caught up in that perfection. That’s what I hear a lot from people: “I’m embarrassed to have anyone over because I don’t like the way my house looks.” They feel like their house isn’t good enough, which is so sad. I mean, I don’t care if you live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment or a mansion, you should feel good about your home. And even if you can’t afford a billion-dollar makeover, we can clean it up, brighten it with paint.
We have this little event space with a fully functional residential kitchen, a backyard and an indoor space, and it’s really cute. My marketing around it was that it’s a space for people to come to have their parties, and they don’t have to worry about their kids’ toys everywhere or their ugly cabinets or their mismatched furniture. This is a space where they can come and have a party and feel really good. But I also want to make that space for them in their own home. We get caught up in the way our lives look through a lens, and then you alter the way you live by not letting people come over. I want all of us to let that go.
What is the biggest thing you know now that you wish you had known when you started your business?
Well, when I opened the studio [in 2019], I bought a ton of furniture to fill it so that it looked like I had a retail showroom. I’ll never forget going to my first High Point Market. And on my way, I’m reading about what IMAP is and learning what to do if you’re going to buy wholesale. It was my first trip across the country by myself—I landed in Raleigh, rented a car and had this whole weekend. I had these categories I wanted to purchase for: baby furniture, sofas, all this stuff. It was like $30,000 that I went there to spend for this little 1,400-square-foot studio, when what I should have done was opened and slowly rolled things out based on client input. I mean, it definitely wasn’t the worst idea—it opened a lot of doors—but I would not suggest that approach to anyone. I would have invested my money differently.
As you developed a sense of who your client would be, and what they wanted?
Exactly. I bought stuff, but I didn’t know. I just kind of opened it, right? And maybe it’s the best mistake I made, or the worst—you never know what things you learn from that make you become better—but I bought a ton of furniture. I bought from brands like Woven [formerly Selamat] and the kid’s line Newport Cottages. I brought in Rowe pieces, which I love, but that was a $10,000 minimum.
How long did it take to move all of that furniture?
I’m still moving some, to be honest. Most of it moved by marking it way down or telling friends that they needed a new sofa.
What about that approach wasn’t right for your business?
My studio isn’t in a retail location. We don’t get foot traffic. We’re off the beaten path. I think that the way to have done that would have been a better location. I also had a lot going on, and I think the retail [side] would have needed to be my full focus.
That said, I needed to have a receiving warehouse to get all of it, so buying that big bulk then did help set me up for success later for things like having a really great connection with my receiving warehouse now. And I have a great connection with that rep, and I met great people—it wasn’t all negative, but there were just things that I just shouldn’t have gone in that fast with.
What does success look like for you today?
I love what I do. I can afford to take my family on trips. I can afford an employee who can run the show while I leave. I can go pick my daughter up and do stuff with her if she needs me. But I can also be here. And I know my kids are totally in great hands if I’m here working with Ali all the time. I love what we’ve created—I love this little space. I’d love to grow. To be more successful, I would love to have more of these spaces. I want to call it a “venue”—like a showroom-slash-boutique venue that’s small-scale and intimate.
You know, I was just looking at a kitchen and bath showroom guide, and it was about kitchen showrooms that feel like a home instead of a showroom. Our little kitchen has my cabinet line so I can use it to sell, but it’s also super cute and functional for people to cook and entertain. So I would do more of these. I love kitchens, so I would like to grow the kitchen aspect [of the business]. The cabinet industry is a very good moneymaker, and I like being able to do something I love that makes money and then gives me the freedom to still be with my kids and do other things. And Ali can [become] lead head designer [with a full-time salary].
And my mom inspired all of it, so that is the biggest thing. And that may make me teary-eyed. I’m grateful for every minute I had with her, because she always taught me to believe in myself and never give up and work hard and to be kind and positive. And I think those are the things, like—that’s what flow is, right? As an interior designer, I want to be a happy, upbeat, positive moment in someone’s life when they’re trying to change something in their home. And that all comes from my mom.
To learn more about Kristen Giacomini, visit her website or find her on Instagram.
Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.