Just after graduation, I went to work for a strategy consulting firm as the Dot-Com bubble was bursting. While my job was secure, the type of work we were doing – writing white papers for the industries that could still afford it (oil & gas, alcohol & tobacco) – were less than satisfying. I started thinking that I’d be happier doing something more tangible and started exploring options.
I kept coming back to the idea of building space. I’d always been creative and a good project manager, but hadn’t had any formal training beyond a single drawing class taken on a whim my sophomore year. I applied to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for their masters program and they had a qualifying year to get non-design folks up to speed. I was accepted and started in the fall of 2001. The qualifying year taught us drafting skills, color theory, basic space planning and design. From there, I went on to complete my MS in Interior Design within two years.
After finishing grad school, I decided to look for jobs doing commercial interior design work, thinking that if I started on the side of the business that had more code involvement, architecture, and systems coordination, I’d learn a lot and then could move to residential after I’d cut my teeth. I was fortunate to get a job at a medium-sized interior architecture firm through my graduate thesis advisor’s connections. I started out picking up “red-lines,” which means fixing or amending drawings to suit a senior designer’s tastes. I spent a lot of time drawing commercial bathrooms on CAD software, laying out workstations, and listening to everything I could to learn more about the business and design.
After a few months of being the low man on the totem pole, I was given more design responsibility on projects always managed by a senior designer. I found that if I paid attention to the mark-ups, asked questions, and listened to conversations in the office, I could learn a lot really fast. Great senior people on the staff were great teachers and mentors. After a few years there, an opportunity came up at the largest Architecture firm globally, and I accepted a position as a designer in the NYC office.
At this larger firm, I found my niche doing smaller projects and then began managing global accounts. The benefits of my Hamilton education were clear to me every day. Though any of my colleagues had been in the design field for their entire school and work lives, they didn’t have the same ability to write and present with clarity and confidence. As I began managing projects, my daily life shifted from fabric samples, sketching, and layouts to spreadsheets, emails and phone calls. The creative people I worked with at this firm were amazing.
If you are considering a career in architecture or design, know that it’s very competitive at the top firms. Relative to NYC jobs of friends in finance and law, this large firm had relatively low salaries, but did offer an annual bonus that was very generous depending on your responsibility and seniority. By my 8th year with the firm, it was worth almost 1/3 of my annual salary. They also had a profit sharing plan that 10+ years out, I’m very grateful for and was vested after 5 years.
Once my husband and I began our family, we found that the hours of working for Big Architecture weren’t working for us (8:15 a.m. – 6:30 or 7 p.m.) and childcare wasn’t affordable. We moved out of the city to NJ and I began my own interior design practice. This has given me a great deal of flexibility, and I can take on clients depending on my schedule.
I now do mostly residential interiors, with a few commercial projects thrown in. I have between 4 – 10 projects going at any time and do all the work myself from planning, to design, to project and construction management. I love being able to wear all the hats, and missed it when I was more siloed at a larger firm. My small design business, Carol Lang Interiors, has grown quickly from the time I started it four years ago. I’ve grown by word-of-mouth and I love working with families who are trying to maximize their space, time, and money.
My work ranges from kitchen and bathroom design to helping pick out the perfect chair for a room and everything in between. A typical work day has me at construction sites or client meetings in the morning, and then back at my desk or out in the world in the afternoon finding and pulling together palates, options, and finishes. I keep a small library in my at-home office of fabrics, tiles, wallcovering, and other favorites. Throughout these four years, I’ve also built strong relationships with local vendors and craftsmen, so each project goes a little more smoothly than the last.
I still thrill at walking through a space I’ve planned and designed. Seeing all the pieces come together and clients feeling thrilled about their new space is the best part of my work. I do strongly recommend seeking additional schooling for commercial design work or apprenticing for a few years under a talented designer if you’d like to stay in residential design. Making the leap to your own firm right out of undergrad may be a heavy lift.
A few years from now, I hope I’ve continued to grow my own firm and look forward to the many ways that could happen. I love working for myself and know I am lucky to have a husband whose job comes with health insurance so I can continue to do so.