The Winding Journey to Interior Design
Who knew giving advice to your mother would lead to finding your passion? Emily Flaxman didn’t always know she was destined to be an interior designer, but when her mother needed help deciding on interior options for her home, Emily’s knack for design was clear. Thinking a career in design was unattainable, Emily spent most of her 20s exploring all of her interests before leaping forward and launching her interior design business, Flax Interiors. Read more to learn how Emily navigated entrepreneurship during a global pandemic, her thoughts on Marie Kondo’s method, and how her education in psychology assists her with projects, interior design, and inspiration.
Jennifer Fink: If someone were to look at your Linkedin profile, they’d see you’ve had a varied and unique career, tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today.
Emily Flaxman: I used my 20s as a way to explore the things that interested me. While at the time, my career decisions seemed very spur-of-the-moment and unrelated, I am so grateful to have had varied experiences in my career. I worked at small 6-person companies and large multinational corporations with thousands of employees. I worked in roles that were very narrow and specific and I worked in roles where I wore many different hats. I worked in live television, marketing, branding, eCommerce, and traditional retail. Each role taught me something valuable that I brought with me to my next role and overall work experience. I am so grateful to have an incredible network of people across many different fields that I feel comfortable reaching out to with questions.
Though my career has by no means been linear, looking back, everything I did was preparing me to be able to start my own business. I have always been very entrepreneurial, and I finally felt ready to take the leap when I launched Flax Interiors in November 2020.
"Though my career has by no means been linear, looking back, everything I did was preparing me to be able to start my own business."
JF: When do you think you knew you wanted to go into interior design?
EF: I was introduced to interior design in high school through my mom. She hired an interior designer to help her with her living room. My mom is notoriously bad at making decisions, so she pulled me into her meeting with her to help her decide. It was then that I discovered I had a knack for interior design.
While I was always very creative, I never considered interior design as a career. However, in 2012, I decided to try an internship working for an interior design firm and discovered that I LOVED the work. From the very beginning of working there, I had aspirations of starting my own firm. I tried to learn everything I could about interior design and the history of furniture, and also the business and operational side. I was so lucky to work with incredibly talented and kind designers who were open to letting me tag along and ask lots of questions.
JF: Why did you wait so long to pursue a path you knew you were always drawn to?
EF: While I was working for the interior design firm from 2012-2014, the interior design industry was going through massive changes as a result of the internet and the rise of eCommerce and e-design. New eCommerce furniture companies were popping up and online interior design companies such as Decorist and Havenly were launching.
I went back to school to learn AutoCAD, but the firm I worked for was very traditional and insisted on hand-drafting all of our floor plans. I was worried that the skills I was learning at the firm were too narrow, and I would not be able to pivot as the industry changed and new technology was introduced to the interior design industry.
Getting experience in eCommerce, digital marketing, and branding was invaluable. Additionally, getting my MBA and learning hard business skills has been incredibly helpful. While I may have been able to learn all of these skills on the job or on my own, I am incredibly grateful to have been exposed to other ways of running a company before starting my own.
JF: You quit your job right as we were in full-blown pandemic mode. Do you think this was a good choice in retrospect, and how have you and your business adapted to the virtual landscape we’re in?
EF: The timing was definitely interesting. My last day at Levi’s was Friday, March 13th, and shelter in place was announced in San Francisco on Monday, March 16th. The truth is, sheltering in place allowed me the time to stop, really slow down, and reflect on what I wanted and needed out of my job. I went for long walks, journaled, and did some deep reflecting.
During this time, I was able to separate out the difference between what I am good at, and what is my “right work.” Sometimes, the Venn diagram of what you are good at and what is your “right work” doesn’t contain intersecting circles. I was good at the work I did at Levi’s -- I won an internal award and an AdWeek award for the project I was working on. I also found the work to be very draining. I wanted to do a job that was inherently motivating.
"Sometimes, the Venn diagram of what you are good at and what is your “right work” doesn’t contain intersecting circles."
It was also during this time that I beta-read a few chapters of my friend and mentor’s book, Advice to My Younger Me, which is coming out in Spring 2021. One of the chapters was about the definition of success. I had always assumed that success was defined by your title, salary, and number of direct reports. From reading this chapter, she taught me that there are many other ways of defining success. I realized I’ve been thinking about it wrong my whole career! Immediately after finishing the chapter, I sat down and re-defined my version of success. It has been my guiding light since then and led me to make the decision to start Flax Interiors.
While it was scary to start a business with so many unknowns during the pandemic, there were also many benefits. First, the home sector is booming. People are spending more time than ever at home, and that little thing about their space that didn’t bother them before is now front and center and driving them nuts. People are ready and motivated to update and change their homes.
Also, I was setting up all of my business operations from scratch. Knowing I needed to be able to adapt to an increasingly virtual world made it easy to decide which platforms to invest in to streamline my operations.
Lastly, I was able to take on virtual clients! This means that my network of potential clients wasn’t limited to my geographic area. I have a number of clients in New York and also Southern California. I believe the mindset of clients being open to virtual services will continue on into the future beyond the pandemic.
JF: As the Founder and Principal Designer at Flax Interiors what is an “aha” moment you’ve experienced on your journey to becoming an entrepreneur and running your own business.
EF: It’s a journey! It’s a grueling step-by-step process of building a strong foundation. The work I am really focused on right now is less visible, and definitely not design-focused. But it will be able to set me up for success in the future. It’s like pouring the concrete foundation -- it’s not sexy, but it will ensure the whole house doesn’t come crumbling down in the future as you start adding on more floors.
When I first started, I didn’t take the time to define Flax Interiors’ brand values or primary target market. Without defining these two essential details, it’s really hard to make sure I am attracting clients who are the right fit and also putting out content that resonates with the right people. I have since had to circle back around and be very deliberate and intentional in defining these two items. It has been a fascinating process that will continue to evolve over time.
"It’s like pouring the concrete foundation -- it’s not sexy, but it will ensure the whole house doesn’t come crumbling down in the future as you start adding on more floors."
JF: What most excites you about the design industry and this new career path?
EF: I love working with clients. I love getting to know them, understanding their lives, and helping them make their home the best it can be to enhance their lives in new and unexpected ways.
I especially love working with high-achieving individuals. There are so many ways to streamline their homes to reduce friction so they can go out into the world and do what they do best. I love taking the stress out of their homes so when they are home, it is not an additional source of stress. It’s a place they can unwind, relax, and truly enjoy the fruits of their labor.
JF: We always like to hear about the pros and cons of every job. What is your favorite space or client to work with when it comes down to interior design? And, what is your least favorite?
EF: I love doing whole-house renovations or builds. I love developing themes that recur throughout the house in small ways so that while each space feels distinct, it is also cohesive.
My least favorite part of the job is tracking orders. Especially now, when everything is back-ordered because of the pandemic!
JF: Where do you get the inspiration for your design process?
EF: I spend a lot of time on Instagram and Pinterest and will go down massive rabbit holes chasing unique products and designers.
I also love visiting vendors in person. I am very visual, so seeing and touching the products in person gets my creative juices flowing. I curated an extensive personal materials library of my favorite fabrics, tiles, wallpapers, etc, that I will sort through for ideas.
I also get a lot of inspiration from traveling and exploring. I’ll be inspired by the color combination of a fish I saw while snorkeling in Hawaii or the interesting muted colors and textures of the plants in the desert in Joshua Tree.
JF: Ok, what do you really think of the Marie Kondo philosophy, and what kind of philosophy do you use in your work?
EF: I love the clarity of Marie Kondo’s philosophy. You can boil down her philosophy into one sentence -- create a decluttered space for a decluttered mind. It makes it so easy for her philosophy to resonate with people because it’s easy to understand.
If I have learned anything from my clients, it’s that they are each unique in their specific needs. No home is the same, no lifestyle the same, no particular aesthetic is the same.
My philosophy in my work is to listen. I am there to hear about your life, your routine, what you like, what you don’t, what bothers you, what parts of your home you love. Through listening to you talk about your morning routine or where the family spends time or how you hate that you feel like you’re in a mad rush every time you head out the door, you are telling me what you need in your home. I am here to translate what you are telling me into design ideas, concepts, and themes.
"Through listening to you talk about your morning routine or where the family spends time or how you hate that you feel like you’re in a mad rush every time you head out the door, you are telling me what you need in your home."
JF: It’s interesting to think about how our past may consciously or unconscious impact our future. How do you think your education in psychology impacts your design work?
EF: In the past, I have relied on my intuition to design spaces. I have also used interior design techniques for color theory and space planning. However, for me, it’s not enough just to create a beautiful space. I want to know why one design makes my heart sing and a poorly-designed floor plan makes my skin crawl.
I have always been drawn to psychology. I studied it in undergrad. I love learning about the research behind why people may act or react in a certain way. I also truly believe that spaces have the power to promote health and happiness. It is a budding field, but I have been learning about the field of evidence-based design psychology and incorporating it into my design process. It’s the perfect intersection of the two topics that interest me the most.
"I truly believe that spaces have the power to promote health and happiness."
JF: At Fink Development we believe in continuous learning and growth. What are three things you’re hoping to learn or continue to grow in 2021?
- I’m excited to learn more about evidence-based design psychology and continue to bring these techniques into my design process.
- I am working on launching virtually shoppable rooms! It will be an easy way for people who aren't ready or able to hire an interior designer to shop well-designed looks by Flax Interiors.
- Every day as a business owner is a learning experience. I’m looking forward to problem-solving new and exciting challenges as they arise.
Contributor Bio: Emily Flaxman is the owner and principal designer of Flax Interiors, a boutique interior design firm focused on helping clients live their best lives using evidence-based design psychology.
Emily started her career in interior design working alongside some of the top interior designers in the country at a high-end residential interior design firm in San Francisco. She also has work experience in live television, brick and mortar retail, eCommerce, marketing, and branding. Emily received her BA in psychology from Yale and earned her MBA with a focus on leadership and marketing from NYU Stern.
Emily currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and puppy, and loves working with her clients on projects across the US.