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What It’s Really Like to Be an Interior Designer

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, Calgary interior designer Amanda Hamilton gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

(Photo: Phil Crozier)

(Photo: Phil Crozier)

Age: 34

Education: Bachelor of applied interior design from Mount Royal University

Length of time at current gig: 11 years

Did you know early on that you wanted to work in this field? I actually had no idea about interior design; it was never “a thing” when I was in high school.

So what made you want to get into this industry? I had a visual arts background and interior design brought together all the things that I felt I was good at. For me, it’s taking those visual arts skills and transferring them to space. We’re dealing with the same kind of rules and things like repetition, colour, scale, and form. Plus, it gave me an opportunity to be challenged because it’s actually quite technical—much more technical than people realize.

What else do people not realize about this job? There’s a huge misconception about the difference between interior designers and interior decorators. Interior decorators usually focus more on surface items like wallpaper, window coverings, pillows and artwork. That’s certainly a facet of my job, but an interior designer is essentially formatting an interior. To do that successfully, you need to have the capacity to take a client’s vision and communicate that into space.

Before: Here's one kitchen just crying out for Amanda Hamilton's attention

Before: One kitchen prior to its update from Amanda Hamilton

After: With warm woods, updated fixtures and a wine cooler Hamilton took this kitchen to next-level chic

After: Hamilton took this kitchen to next-level chic with warm woods, updated features and a wine cooler

What is your typical day like? We manage between 20 and 30 projects at any given time. I usually start my day by checking my email as soon as I wake up, which I know you’re not supposed to do, but it’s nice to know if a client sent an message really late or if my schedule’s changed. After I go to the gym, I usually head to a construction site to check on progress for a client, meet with the contractor and work through things that might be different than our construction drawings. When I come back to the office, we have a team meeting to see what else is happening for that day. Then usually I’m at my desk doing everything from sketching conceptual renderings for the team or clients, working on AutoCad drawings [digital drawings of a space] or doing proposals for clients. It’s super diverse. I manage a lot of things in one day.

That sounds busy! What are your hours like?  Generally an interior designer works from around 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but I usually work from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. I like staying an extra hour or two after everyone has left the office. I find that quite time lets me focus in on things that really require my attention.

How do you stay creative—especially when you’ve got to be creative on demand? It’s about finding those moments where I’m not answering eight million questions or emails. It’s the quiet time, which I have to be thoughtful about carving out. So in the morning, I always try to meditate or work out. And then I create pockets of it throughout the day, like going for a walk, reading or just doing something that just allows me to calm my mind for a little bit so I can find those big ideas.

Speaking of big ideas, how do you decide what to do with a space? I intuitively have a sense about how a space is going to work, but it is a process. For instance, if we were designing your kitchen, I would ask: how often do you entertain, and is it formal or causal? What types of food are you cooking? Those answers help define the space. If you say you like to entertain a lot but you prefer a formal dinner, then we might separate your dining room from your kitchen. Whereas in my house we entertain a lot, but it’s casual so we have a very large island that then becomes the heart of the home when we have a party.

Amanda Hamilton - Before

Before: One living space prior to Amanda’s transformation

Amanda Hamilton - after

After: Amanda refreshed this living space to make it look much more open and inviting

Is it hard to put aside your personal taste and go along with what the client wants? We’re really here to communicate our client’s vision and hopefully do that better than they can even verbalize. Clients are coming to you to inform them, but you also pick your battles. If a client really wants something, and I’m not too fussed about it, then we go ahead and design it to the best of our ability. That said, if I strongly feel that something is not going to work well, I say that straight up. For example, almost every client that comes to me wants walnut flooring, but it’s one of the softest hardwoods you can get and it can get destroyed within days of clients moving in—so there’s a bit of an education piece there. That’s the process and the point: for us to work together to design a solution.

Where do you find the furnishings and details that make your projects special? We have a rule when we’re buying things: they need to be a reflection of a client’s values. It’s important for us that the objects have a story, there needs to be some sort of thoughtful element so we try to stay away from big box stores as much as possible. We buy a lot of things online now, because we also don’t want our interiors to look like every other interior in Calgary.

How is designing for commercial spaces different than a personal space? In commercial design, clients are invested in emotion; whereas in residential design, clients are emotionally invested. In a restaurant, for instance, they’re trying to create an environment, aesthetic and community that appeal to people’s emotions and tastes. That client doesn’t need to love the specific pieces in a space because it’s not about them; it’s about the people coming in to use the venue. In residential design, there’s this emotional connection to the items they’ve collected over the years, like grandma’s dining table or an antique vase from a trip.

Gorgeous restaurant interiors dreamed up by Amanda

Romantic and dreamy: gorgeous restaurant interiors designed by Amanda

Another round: Cozy bar space crafted by Amanda

We’ll order another round in this cozy bar space crafted by Amanda

Did working in this field influence how you designed your own home? Yes. Everything that I design at work is created to be quite timeless, but in my own house it felt like an opportunity to explore a bit more. I have lots of colour and patterns and Moroccan, Indian and Turkish accents set within a fairly contemporary space. I don’t think you’d walk in and say an interior designer lives here, but you’d walk in and feel like we travel a lot and like to entertain. Everything’s not perfectly placed.

On an average day, what’s the best part of your day? Seeing a client’s reaction once a space comes to life.

And what’s the worst part of your day? Dealing with the opposite, although that doesn’t happen very often. When a client’s expectations haven’t been met—whether it’s over dates they expected things to be delivered, or if they don’t love a piece—then it’s really crappy.

Who is an interior designer you admire and why? Kelly Wearstler, for sure. She’s in L.A. and has such a cool sense of style. There’s no one else that I’ve seen who does work like hers. She’s really exploratory and plays around with different materials and finishes.

What attributes does someone need to work in this industry? This industry is becoming increasingly competitive so you’d want to get an interior design degree. There are untrained designers, but that’s becoming a thing of the past, and it’s actually a really technical job. You also need to be really organized because we do everything from fluffing pillows to looking at construction drawings, from attending site visits with an all-male construction team to going to approval meetings with city and client representatives. You have to be willing to have a day that’s going from A to Z.

And after a day like that, how do you unwind? With a glass of wine, and if I’m really exhausted, just Netflix and relaxing.

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