Designer Mixes Homey & High-Tech Sensibilities

Designer Mixes Homey & High-Tech Sensibilities

By Daina Darzin Manning

"My first job was a major renovation for a malpractice attorney [as a client] and a very cranky contractor," she remembers. "It was a whole house [renovation], historically registered. I can't tell you how many times I cried! It was a baptism by fire."

But Serra survived, and has gone on to prosper by implementing an alternative approach to a design business. Two years later, when the dealership closed ("I promise it wasn't my fault!" she cracks), she purchased its door samples and set up a cabinet business from her home, which enabled her to care for her three young children while pursuing a career in the kitchen and bath design area, a field she loves passionately.

Gradually, as the business grew, she took over additional rooms in her house for the business, expanding her showroom space from 120 sq. ft. to the current 1,000 sq. ft., and establishing a separate entrance. "It became a full-fledged design studio," she explains.
All of her clients are by appointment, she notes, with much of her work coming from referrals. "I've always competed against the larger showrooms in my region and carved a niche doing middle- and high-end kitchens [in] an alternative setting," she says.
Serra advertises only "when the mood strikes," and works with a variety of subcontractor crews she utilizes over and over again. Finding a good installer "is one of the toughest things in the business," she admits. Most of hers were referrals from contractors she'd worked with.

Netting an idea
Last December, an evening of surfing 'round the Net gave Serra an idea that's become a vital side business in its own right.
Serra was reading an online message board related to one of her interests, "and a light bulb went on this is crazy that our business doesn't have this," she recalls. "I've been fortunate to have a lot of my work published, but I realized I still have a lot of dumb questions. And, I'm sure everyone does it's an extremely difficult business in many ways.

"I also have a great affection for designers, and a great appreciation of how hard our job really is," she reports.

This idea led to the creation of, a one-of-a-kind Web site that includes message boards that cover a broad range of topics, from new products to an "emergency" section for urgent questions such as, how to add an electrical outlet in an island an outlet that you happened to forget about, and the island is almost installed.

"[The kitchen and bath arena is] hard in the technical area, in dealing with tradespeople and client issues, employee issues," declares Serra. "You have to set trends and styles and you do that all before lunch. And then you have to run a business in a profitable way. I wanted to provide a place where people could be anonymous and ask whatever they need to ask, and get the support and help from a group of peers."

A big focus of the site is an effort to help get designers published, Serra elaborates. The site includes a public listing of field editors who represent major national magazines. Serra also periodically does a mass e-mailing to editors of major publications, to help them find projects to publish.

Serra believes having work published is essential for designers, elevating their status and helping them differentiate themselves from the competition.

"I want everyone, who wants to, to be published," she declares.

Besides the ongoing forums, the site also offers a "Weekly Work-shop" devoted to an issue of the week, which people are invited to speak out about.

The message board is a relatively new enterprise, and while it doesn't yet have the traffic Serra is envisioning, she sees a steady growth and believes that the growth will continue.

Alternative Option
As for her design business, Serra is 100% happy with her at-home set up. "Part of my whole marketing philosophy is, we're an alternative experience to a [traditional showroom," she notes. "I have] a very professional design studio here. It has antiques here, soft furnishings, paintings it's a truly unique experience, and an alternative experience, and that's why I think it's been successful."
Serra notes that her company's close proximity to New York caused it to take a financial hit after September 11, though things are rebounding nicely. She points out that her company's low overhead enables it to weather changes in the market more easily than a larger, more structured company with a formal showroom might.

"If I'm busy, it's fine, if I'm not busy, it doesn't matter," she says. "I have the freedom to not be concerned with large overhead.

"My business came out of want-ing to be home with three children," she concludes. "[And, the result] was a very strong, clear marketing position in creating this alternative experience, in desiring to differentiate from my typical competitors. That's very important to do that to have your own singular message."


PRINCIPALS: Susan Serra, president
SHOWROOMS: One, 1,000 sq. ft.
HOURS OF OPERATION: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m., Mon.-Fri.; 9 a.m. - 1 p.m., Sat., by appointment
MAJOR PRODUCT LINES: Quality custom cabinetry, Merit kitchens (cabinetry)
DESIGN SOFTWARE: Planit Autograph
SPECIALTY: Middle- to high-end kitchens
BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY: "We're an alternative experience [to traditional showrooms]."