Designer Anna Maria Mannarino on creating her own design success story

(This is part of an occasional series of conversations with interior designers around the country about what’s driving their success, their favorite trick of the trade and what they’d like to be doing more of in the coming year or two.)

By combining passions for interior design and event planning, Anna Maria Mannarino has become a trusted adviser, helping her clients update their homes through life’s transitions and celebrating their milestones along the way.

Design and event planning are complementary fields, and many clients who hire Mannarino for one skill set hire her again later for her other talents. To wit: Mannarino began working with one set of clients on an event when their children were toddlers. “I did their home, I did their restaurant and any milestone event between all these years, even for their extended family and friends,” says Mannarino, founder of Mannarino Designs Inc., based in Holmdel, New Jersey. “(Last year,) I did a daughter’s wedding. And now I’m doing their home because they are downsizing.”

Mannarino’s projects are wide ranging, from ground-up residential builds to commercial projects like birthing centers to specialty spaces like wine rooms and golf simulators. Many of her projects are in the New Jersey area, but she also has clients elsewhere, including a burgeoning roster in Florida.

She’s also growing the product design side of her business. She has pillow and rug collections with Creative Touch and a lighting line with American Brass & Crystal. In the works are furniture and hardware collections.

Last year was a big one for Mannarino, who brought her tally of national and regional awards to 33 when she earned four additional honors during the Design Excellence Awards from the New Jersey chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers.

A natural evolution

Mannarino’s career started in the art world, at a SoHo gallery in New York. Inquiries about using the space for parties led to her career in corporate and private event planning, doing everything from securing spaces to catering — all by herself. The catering part wasn’t such a stretch: Mannarino grew up in the restaurant business, where she learned about food and the value of hard work.

“When you’re doing private events at someone’s home, especially weddings, all of a sudden, people want to freshen up their home,” she says. “ … So, at the time that wasn’t my thing, but people liked my taste, and I would help them redecorate. I started doing more and more of that. … And, I thought, I really love this.” Mannarino began taking classes, including learning about things like plumbing and electricity, so she’d have a better understanding of a home’s systems and could speak intelligently with contractors. Eventually, she joined ASID and later became president of its New Jersey chapter.

“But just through word-of-mouth, my business on both sides kept expanding and expanding,” she says. “I thought, ‘Alright, I’m not going to be able to do both. I’ll see which one takes off, and I’ll drop the other.’”

Spoiler alert: She still hasn’t dropped one.

Today, about 60% of her business is interior design; 40% is event planning.

Mannarino maintains the do-it-all-yourself attitude that she had when she first started event planning, and when it comes to design, she still likes to do everything from early sketches and mood boards to overseeing projects. (“I do have somebody that does my CAD, because that’s just not something that I like to do,” she says.)

“I’m not a big sleeper,” she says. “I like to do a lot of the paperwork and other stuff that doesn’t require phone calls late at night. When I was president of ASID’s New Jersey chapter, people will tell you I would send out emails at 3:30 in the morning. I didn’t expect people to open them but that’s when I liked to work. I am trying to get better about sleep though because I know it’s important.”

But even though she enjoys having her hand in all aspects of a project, she’s also learned the value of bringing in the right people with specific expertise, particularly trusted contractors.

“I know where my strengths are, and I know where they’re not,” she says. “For me, I think that the smartest thing I can do is always bring in the right people. I don’t have a problem doing that and giving them credit. I did a big Halloween party with the theme of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” I have a DJ I like to use. I know what I want and I talk to him and he brings everything to life. I mean there was a time when I used to be messing around with the microphones, but no more.”

We caught up with Mannarino to learn more about the secrets of her recent success and what keeps her excited about her work:

Design News Now: Besides your varied skill set, why do you think your clients enjoy working with you?

Anna Maria Mannarino: “I think my clients trust me. I’m very conscientious of budgets and time. … I’m definitely somebody who will not overpromise. I’m very realistic, right up front on the timing, and nine times out of 10, we can come in under that, which makes everybody happy. And the budget is key. Clients don’t always like to give you a budget, but then we’ll have a serious conversation about why a budget is important and how I’m not going to spend anything that they don’t to spend. … I make them very comfortable with that.”

DNN: How do you describe your style?

AMM: “I’m not a designer that has a particular style. I really work toward whatever the clients, not just want, but what their needs are. If it’s a home, I want to know, ‘How is this space being used? Who’s using it? How many kids are there? How many pets? Does anyone have a disability? Is anyone elderly?’”

DNN: What’s energizing you right now?

AMM: “I think a simplistic answer is that I really just love what I do. I love to see things come to fruition. I really do, and I’m fortunate in that.”

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DNN: Where do you find inspiration?

AMM: “Even if I’m sitting watching television, which is not often, I’m still drawing, sketching and messing around. If I go to the beach, I take my stuff with me, and I’ll draw and sketch at the beach or make notes of different ideas. … Sometimes I get an idea in the shower or driving to a project in Charlotte. I find driving very relaxing, and I might see something that gives me a new idea. Creativity is sparked by so many different things.”

DNN: Do you have a recent favorite project?

AMM: “I’m working on a log cabin, a proper log cabin. It’s in New Jersey, by the water, of all things. … It’s been fun and challenging because you’re not just working with Sheetrock or plaster walls. The whole idea is to modernize it but to keep within the integrity of the structure because I never want to take away from that.”

“(Another favorite project is with long-time) clients who have a place in Charlotte,” she continues. “It’s a great 7,000-square-foot duplex apartment with an atrium in the middle that’s just the coolest place. I mean, you could put nothing in there and it would be great. But because they know and trust me and we’ve built up that relationship, I was able to sort of spread my wings in terms of creativity. They were open to it, and they love it.”

DNN: Where do you like to source products?

AMM: “I love to go to all the shows, not just High Point (Market) but all the shows, especially in New York. And as I’m there, I love to see what’s new but I’m also putting everything I see into my arsenal. I’m always taking notes. … I recently had a client in Florida who wanted something very specific in a fireplace screen. At first, I thought it was going to be easy, but it turns out it wasn’t. And then I remembered a company I’d seen at one of the shows out of Oregon, they did all this funky stuff with chain. So, I went through my notes, reached out to them and, lo and behold, they were able to do exactly what we wanted for the fireplace.”

DNN: How do you organize and keep track of all those notes you take?

AMM: “I used to write them down but now I have a lot of notes in my phone. I keep crazy notes in my phone, which links to my iPad. … I recently switched to a smaller iPad. I do have the iPad Pro, but I thought, I don’t need to be schlepping this big thing around all the time.”

DNN: You’ve got another passion: singing, and are recording a new album. Tell us more about that part of your life.AMM: “In between all of this (interior design and event planning), I do keep the music up. … It’s sort of my own little passion that I do more for myself. But it’s all part of it, because everything I do is creative, from product design to music. I feel very lucky and blessed.”

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