Designer Kate Marker’s expanding universe

(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.)

Since founding her residential design business in 2007, interior designer Kate Marker has added retailer and vacation rental investor to her list of roles — and now she’s adding another, author, with the release of her book, “The Love of Home,” set for early September.

“I say it’s a love story for your home, helping people fall in love with their home, no matter where you are,” says Marker, owner and principal designer of Kate Marker Interiors, in Barrington, Illinois. “It’s not just a pretty book of project images. It’s a guide.”

The book shows readers how they can evoke emotions and moods through their homes and covers basic design principles. As she explains her design philosophy and offers tips, Marker keeps the book’s tone accessible and encouraging. One chapter is titled “Don’t Stress About Paint.” “People think that paint is the biggest hurdle in designing a home and it’s really not. I would say it’s the easiest thing,” Marker says. “And so, I offer them tips and examples to make it less intimidating.”

Design News Now recently chatted with Marker about the book, the expansion of her vacation rental design division, and the tricks and tools she uses to run her ever-expanding business.

Not sitting still

After studying design in college in Chicago, Marker worked for the Merchandise Mart and then as a freelance designer before launching Kate Marker Interiors in 2007. Since then, she’s been on a steady path of expansion and now has a team of about 20 employees, including six designers. She ventured into vacation rental design, opening Kate Marker Vacations in 2016. Her first projects were the Leo Cottage in Union Pier, Michigan, on Lake Michigan; and the Salty Rose in Rosemary, Beach, Florida, in the state’s Panhandle. Her most recent project is the Townie Cottages, a group of four rental cottages, also in Union Pier, that she’s renovated with other investors.

The Kate Marker Vacations part of her business is growing rapidly. “We have three different properties and we’re looking to expand rather quickly,” she says. “Our mission is to get closer to a dozen properties inside and even outside the U.S. … We plan to do some kind of mountain home space next.”

She sees Kate Marker Vacations as a way to bring her design philosophy to a larger audience. “I can only take on so many (residential) design projects a year and not everyone is able to hire us necessarily to do their home,” Marker says. “… I just found a love for doing vacation homes and to have guests experience and enjoy a home we design. …They are truly like staying in a designer’s home.”

The Townie Cottages renovation has been an especially fun project, she says. In addition to a major interior remodel of each cottage, Marker and her team added amenities like a pool and fire pit, as well as hot tubs and outdoor showers at each cottage.

“What’s so special is you can rent these cottages individually or as a group and still have privacy. We’re really excited about the project,” she says.

Marker’s business also includes Kate Marker Home, a brick-and-mortar store and e-commerce site launched in 2019. That retail business grew out of a love of vintage rugs and a desire to share that love with others. Kate Marker Home now includes more than 2,000 furniture and decor pieces.

“It’s a curated collection of pretty much anything that I would use in a project,” she says. The retail side of her business prompted her to get a warehouse for inventory, and that had an unexpected bonus of helping her residential design and vacation rental design work, too.

“Our warehouse receives all our client orders, so we inspect them and do all the shipping and receiving for projects there,” she says. “I used to receive (product) at a warehouse with 50 other designers in the Chicagoland area and that process was truly not the best for me. I always say that it’s the last 10% of every project that the client remembers, and we were losing control over product that had been ordered, with missing or damaged pieces. The (Kate Marker) warehouse has tremendously changed my business over the last several years.”

Here’s more from Marker about what makes her business hum and how she gets it all done:

Design News Now: What sets your design firm apart?

Kate Marker: “We pride ourselves on and prioritize collaboration. … We’re always tailored to our clients’ needs, not what the designer needs. We’re always giving them options. I think every designer does that in some sense, but our approach is unique because we truly focus on collaborating with the client.”

DNN: How do you begin those collaborations?

KM: “We have a large questionnaire that we send the client upfront, along with a bottle of champagne or wine — we kind of learn what their favorite is — and we say, ‘Sit down with your spouse and maybe your children and make this process of answering the questionnaire fun. Then we schedule a call and walk through it and talk about it. … Over communication is key to every relationship, and we’re always jumping on a phone call with clients, not doing everything on email. We’re always saying, ‘Call me. Let’s talk about it.’”

DNN: Is there a particular item on your questionnaire that provides you with valuable insights into prospective clients?

KM: “We ask a lot of questions about emotions and how various things make them feel because it’s helpful to dig into that, but there’s one question I’ve asked since I was a baby designer because I had a hard time getting people to talk about budgets. Talking about money can get awkward or they just don’t know what the budget should be. So, I ask the simplest question: How much do you see yourself spending on a sofa, a basic 84-inch sofa? If a client says, ‘$10,000,’ I think, ‘OK. That’s great. They get it.’ If a client says, ‘$1,000,’ I think, ‘I can’t even get that Ikea.’ Most of my clients are in the range of $5,000 to $6,000 and that’s an everyday, typical price for a sofa, so we can work with that and then help them with the budget.”

DNN: Where do you turn for advice or guidance?

(About three years ago, when a longtime employee left her company, Marker decided it was a good time to assess her business and goals and she enlisted the help of a business coach, Brooke Rosolino and her firm N’goodcompany.)

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KM: “She has helped me with the culture of the business … and to elevate the business. Like with the questionnaire: We had it before, but she helped us elevate it. She’s had a lot of insights and expertise, and that has really helped me.”

DNN: Where do you enjoy shopping for furniture and accents?

KM: High Point (Market) is definitely one of my favorite places to shop. It’s a great place to discover the latest trends in the furniture industry and I’m very excited to go in the fall because that will be around my book launch, and we’ll be doing signings and things. … From the antiques side, I’ve been to the Round Top Antiques Fair (in Texas), and I’ve found some really unique pieces there that are full of character and history. I’ve always wanted to go to the Paris flea markets.”

DNN: What are some of your favorite furniture brands?

KM: “I love Verellen. We use a lot of their upholstery. On the more traditional side, I love Lee Industries and do a lot of their upholstery, too. And Hickory Chair I’ve used for years.”

DNN: What are a few tools you can’t live without?

KM: “Pinterest is an invaluable tool for us — for gathering design inspiration and helping us to create mood boards — and also to really understand what a client likes. … But for Kate Marker Home, it’s been awesome, too. It’s been great for us to be able to show everyone the products we sell.”

“Another tool is Studio Designer, our project management tool that we use for everything from time tracking to client communication. It’s pretty robust and helps us stay organized and efficient. … I’ve used it since I started my business.”

“…And Google Calendar is really basic but it’s essential to us for time management and scheduling and keeping track of appointments and deadlines when multiple projects are happening. It’s versatile and everyone knows how to use it.”

DNN: What else is vital to your business?

KM: “My team. My team is my backbone. My team is the one thing I can’t live without. Each team member brings a unique skill, expertise and perspective that contributes to our success. I couldn’t do it without each one of them!”

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