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Growing up, Kerrie Kelly’s dad pushed her to take calculated risks. His motto was, “Leap and the net will appear.” Clearly, she took the words to heart.
Today, the vivacious 40-year-old interior designer is building a design empire in her hometown of Sacramento. She has satisfied clients nationwide and has caught the eye of HGTV and Extreme Home Makeover. And this year, Kelly earned the 2012 ASID Nancy Vincent McClelland Award for Interior Design Education.
Kelly is much more than simply an interior designer. She’s that rare bird that has a flair for the creative and a head for business. That business acumen, which she honed while earning an MBA from University of Phoenix in 2002, is her edge. It has allowed her to see opportunities that others missed to create multiple, synergistic arms to her business. Kerrie Kelly Design Lab encompasses not only interior design, but also furniture and art lines, and showcases the design books Kelly has authored.
“It is very rare to find a creative person with business sense,” Kelly admits. “So many don’t even know how to invoice or run a job. There is no structure. I knew I needed a backbone in business to be successful. My mom was very ‘Martha Stewart’ and my dad was a certified financial planner; I feel like I brought their two personalities together.”
Kelly says she always knew she wanted to be an interior designer. “I drove my parents crazy always changing my room. They really liked the electric blue walls,” she says with a laugh. “But I am very thankful that they let me do what I wanted; it was a test for my creativity.”
Kelly fine-tuned her raw teenage skills at Cal Poly State University, earning a degree in interior design and then spent a year delighting window shoppers with her window designs for Nordstrom and Macy’s before becoming a furniture buyer for Ralph Lauren in 1995. It was there that Kelly started what would become Kerrie Kelly Design Lab as a side business, helping clients find elements that her employer didn’t offer to complete their home design.
While Kelly clearly had the entrepreneurial spirit, it wasn’t fully developed yet, so the business remained on the sideline as she threw herself into a job as design studio manager for several Northern California Del Webb communities, a position she held for seven years and one that inspired her focus on livable (senior) design. Today, Kelly is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS).
“I had never thought of that demographic before,” admits Kelly. “But I learned about lowering the microwave, eliminating narrow hallways and having a bench in the shower, which is good design no matter what age you are.”
At Del Webb she also gained an understanding of construction and all the phases of building and decorating a home, which she laughingly says was another degree in and of itself.
It was her work with older adults that ultimately pushed Kelly to totally embrace her entrepreneurial leanings. When Del Webb was acquired by another home builder, many of the livable and interesting design options went by the wayside. “Being face-to-face with homeowners, I understood that the livable design concept was important and it wasn’t happening with the new home builder,” Kelly says. “I wanted to contribute and make a difference in a home people had dreamed of and saved up for their whole lives.”
Using a small inheritance from her grandmother, Kelly finally took that leap in 2006 and she hasn’t looked back since. Today she employs three full-time people, several interns, and a hand-picked team of subcontractors. “I’ve developed a team whose talents mean we can say ‘yes’ to any project,” Kelly says. “This business is my kid; it’s 24/7 for me. I’m passionate about design. It’s in my blood.”
And thankfully, Kelly’s design esthetic has matured from the teenage girl with a penchant for brightly colored walls. According to Kelly, her design philosophy is “exclusive approachability.” Boiled down, it means that Kerrie Kelly Design Lab provides unique design that reflects the homeowner’s personality at a price point that real people can afford.
“My designs have taken on more of an authenticity through the years,” she says. “During the housing boom, everyone wanted to mimic what was in a magazine, but now I show people that design can be authentic—we take pictures from your attic that tell the story of your family. I use things they already own and feather in new things.”
The private furniture and art lines she carries also add to the exclusivity factor, but by using private labels, the prices are considerably less and the choices are more extensive. For example, the furniture line has 600 fabric offerings and the art all comes from one of Kelly’s favorite galleries in Sacramento. And everything in the lines is made in America.
While Kelly’s business is thriving, she’s giving back to the design community in a variety of ways. One of her most satisfying projects was creating My Interior Design Kit, an interactive educational tool developed with Pearson Education aimed at university-level design students.
“I spent one-and-a-half years traveling around interviewing interior design gurus, taking factory tours and speaking with manufacturers,” she explains. The result was a series of videos that cuts to the chase of what it’s really like to be an interior designer.
Kelly is also sharing her knowledge of good design with homeowners through her book, Home Decor: A Sunset Design Guide, which teaches readers how to use decor to create a home that reflects their personality. And her work was featured in several episodes of HGTV’s Crasher series.
In growing her career and business, Kelly has successfully taken leaps of faith many times, never once needing the net.
Dena Roché is a freelance journalist covering lifestyle profiles, travel, health and wellness. She is based in Phoenix.