Finding the Silver Lining

From the start, Joni Zimmerman has had a can-do attitude and a “watch me make it work” approach to her business. The CKD/CBD started her design firm, Design Solutions, Inc., in the mid-1980s, when she moved to Annapolis, MD.

“I didn’t know anyone,” she says of those early years. “I wanted to work for myself, designing from home. I decided I’d better meet people, promote myself and make this work.”

And she did. Zimmerman has become an award-winning, nationally recognized designer, serving clients in the mid-Atlantic region. She isn’t afraid to design from a distance either, as she is currently working a project in Grand Cayman.

Finding Fun Again

Her outlook today isn’t dramatically different from her early career, although it has been tested. After cycling through the ups and downs of the good and bad times over the past 25-plus years, Zimmerman has emerged on the other side of the recent recession with a renewed can-do attitude.

She admits it wasn’t without its challenges. At one point in her career, she had a 7,000-square-foot showroom and 10 employees. Now she has one employee, in addition to herself, and a 2,000-square-foot studio.

“The economy really sent me into a tailspin for a while, as I had hoped to retire from running a business and move into a more relaxed climate of design,” she says. “That dream has been set back.”

However, she insists the dream isn’t gone…it has just changed. And, she says she’s back!

“I am having more fun than I have had in years with clients and, in essence, am doing what I wanted to do as semi-retired, without the business sale,” she says. “I have more energy and enthusiasm than I have had in years! I feel like yelling – ‘Watch out world, I am back!’

“I have more confidence, compassion and sense of self,” she continues. “All in all, the recession had many benefits, and I think it is good for all of us to look at it that way…what did we learn, and how do we change our lives for the better because of it?”

Rebuilding with Balance

Zimmerman says she has learned a lot about herself over the past few years, and about how she wants to run her business.

“The hardest thing I had to do was let faithful employees go for whom I cared so deeply,” she says. “I don’t think I could survive that again, so now I am not rebuilding in the same way. I no longer want that level of responsibility for others’ welfare.”

Zimmerman retained one employee, a skilled designer with a background in education and design. Her communication skills complement Zimmerman’s strengths in psychology – which she says is very helpful – and design.

She also learned the benefit of balance, and the need to occasionally say “no” to the business and “yes” to herself.

“Many designers, myself included, are afraid to not work hard,” she says, of the temptation to overwork again now that the economy is picking up. “But I still need to find balance so I don’t fall back into the crazy life I used to live.”

For Zimmerman, agreeing to walk with a friend twice a week, taking an online class in integrated nutrition and adopting an 8-lb. puppy, Bruno, helps her maintain balance.

“A puppy is the last thing I need, time wise,” she admits. “But I’m laughing again. I haven’t been able to do that for a long time. He brings me joy, which is healthy.”

Creating a Dynamic Studio

Initially Zimmerman grew her business from her home, then moved to an office park in the early 1990s. Ten years ago she moved again, this time to a location with two connecting units of storefront that gave her more drive-by recognition. “I wanted to expand the business and make it more independent of me so that it was saleable,” she explains.

Now the designer has settled into her current location, a consolidation of that space into a single room that functions as a working kitchen, with a fireplace, built-ins and a large area – or “dining area” as Zimmerman calls it – with work tables for meeting with clients. Behind the dining area is an office and smaller design corner/meeting space that provides enough flexibility to rearrange as needed. The kitchen includes smaller components that show multiple styles.

“Overall, the emotional impact of the studio is different than a standard showroom because it is all live, and very open, relaxed and welcoming,” she says. “There is a dynamic sense to it.”

Clients will find four cabinet lines, each selected with a purpose. Zimmerman will also help clients with countertop selection, tile, sinks, appliances and bath fixtures – anything included in the project – although she doesn’t necessarily sell them. Her involvement with LED lighting has grown since it’s such an integral part of cabinetry today.

A Focus on Clients

Through it all, Zimmerman continues to focus on her clients, and she does her best to do business with cilents who truly care about good design. “They understand this process is relational, and not a commodity process,” she explains. The more they divulge about themselves, the better the design will be.

“I design my best when I understand what makes the client tick – in all areas. I will know what level of detail to suggest, when to encourage them to process, and when to nudge them to stop processing. If a client doesn’t share themselves with me, the process is much more difficult, uncomfortable and unfulfilling for both of us.”

Zimmerman doesn’t limit her design style, either. “Our motto is ‘classic design with a twist,’ but that transcends all design styles,” she says. “Our work is timeless.”

That work focuses on kitchens and bathrooms, although Zimmerman is happy to design any room. “It’s really about space planning,” she clarifies. “Understanding the human element and how individuals and groups interact within a space and together – both in work and in pleasure – is what I personally bring into the equation.”

At a Glance

Design Solutions, inc.

Location: Annapolis, MD

Principles: Joni Zimmerman, CKD, CBD

Showroom/Studio: 1 (2,000 square feet)

Hours of Operation: weekdays, nights and weekends by appointment

Number of Employees: 2

Major Cabinet Lines Carried: Premier Custom Built, Signature Custom Cabinetry, Touchstone Fine Cabinetry, Waypoint

Business Philosophy: “Love your client. Love what you do. People come first, then make wise decisions. Success follows as the reward, not the goal.”