ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Gail E. Jamentz Principal, Soul Interiors Design, LLC

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You can say Gail Jamentz has entrepreneurship in her blood. Her grandparents and parents were all successfully self-employed, and credits their influence on forming who she is today. Gail has a thriving Interior Design business where she is the owner and principal, based out of Pasadena, which she established in 2001. When we asked her what she attributes her success to, establishing her own firm from the ground up, and she responded with a surprising answer; “In hindsight, volunteering on committees and serving on boards was instrumental in growing my business network. Some of my best clients, and their friends, have come as a result of meeting while doing charity work.”

Gail was extremely gracious in lending her insights as an industry veteran this month in our Alumni Spotlight. Besides getting to know her a little better, we were excited to delve into how she built, and continues to thrive, as owner and Principal of Soul Interiors.

When did you attend UCLA’s Extension ARC-ID program?

I started the program in 1996. Pursuing the program was a “second career” for me after spending 13 years in the public relations/marketing industry, so I was particularly passionate about it as I knew design was really what I wanted to do. While in the UCLA program, I worked concurrently part-time at a commercial retail design firm which was a result of an internship that blossomed into a job. My studies at UCLA continued into the early 2000s.  

Have you always wanted to run your own business?

Yes, I have always wanted to own my own business. My grandparents and parents were all successfully self-employed and that was modeled to me from a young age. And, I worked for numerous corporate companies in my twenties and thirties and knew despite being financially rewarding, I wasn’t a 9-to-5 person. I enjoy the freedom of setting my own schedule and the ability to achieve my own financial goals, even if it means working six days a week which I do often.

I would advise students who want to ultimately own their own design practice to acquire a minimum of 2-3 years of work experience with a firm before setting out on their own, acquire the key interpersonal skills mentioned earlier in this article, find a mentor, read voraciously about people, places and things outside the design and architecture world and never under estimate the value you bring to the world.

What are 3 qualities that got you to where you are today, professionally?

Showing client’s that you are CONFIDENT in the design solution that you’re presenting and explaining your thought process is very important as we are ultimately salespeople for our creativity. It’s very easy to slip into appeasing a homeowner, or a contractor and allow them to dilute your vision, particularly when you are beginning your career, but ultimately you are undermining yourself if you allow that.  Trust me we have all done it. I want the people I work for, whether a client or developer, to feel heard and acknowledged, but if I don’t agree with their decision I politely say “that would not be my recommendation” and let them think about it for a day or so. Staying in your power as a creative, and as a woman, is a developed skill.

The other interpersonal skill that has been important to master is LISTENING AND OBSERVING. I mean really listening. My clients, subs, and vendors tell me more by their tone of voice, word choice, and body language then by their words. I really try to focus on the sub text of a conversation so I can understand what really is being asked and accomplish it in an effective manner.

And lastly, I would have to say DEVELOPING SYSTEMS within your design practice is really key. This comes with experience and astute observation of your preferred methods of engaging with a client and working with them through the entire design process until completion. I am always working on refining our process and documenting it which has really improved our efficiency that last few years. We have a system for screening and on-boarding a new client, a system for the managing the design- to- installation process, and a system for which brand touch points a client experiences while working with us, to name a few. Any task you do repeatedly in your practice needs to documented and systemized. This will free you up mentally and allow you to be more creative, as well as reduce staff stress and instill client confidence in you as a business owner.  

What is one of your biggest challenges?

When you are in an industry where you rely and manage everybody else to create your vision, whether they are upholsterers, tile setters or furniture manufacturers, to name a few, you are going to have issues no matter how diligently you plan, proof and inspect your work.  Designers are problem solvers. Everyday. The challenge is to handle things in a win-win manner for all involved and not take the stress home with you at night. I’m still working on that one.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am working on a dream job with a lovely client who is decisive! Oh joy! She and her husband own a 6600 sq. foot historic Craftsman home located walking distance to the beautiful arroyo in Pasadena. The home is surrounded by mature oak trees, gingko biloba trees and beautiful stonework, so we have drawn inspiration from that, as well as the home’s architectural style.

We are also renovating a large home for a young bachelor living above the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, as well as a number of other private residences and law firm office spaces that we are transforming.

Most of our clients are long-term relationships in which we help them with their various homes and/or commercial spaces which is nice as we really get to know them and their family which I enjoy. It’s a very personal business.

What does your typical day look like?

Mornings are all about action. From 8:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. we are consuming large amounts of Peet’s French Roast and fielding phone calls from the subs and contractors letting us know what is transpiring at the job sites, which deliveries are coming in and setting up times to meet. Concurrently we are checking emails of course for anything that is time sensitive.  By late morning we are making phone calls to any East Coast vendors or showrooms so we can track and place orders before they close. And afternoons are when we can actually get some sourcing and design work accomplished, as well as answer non-urgent emails as there are less interruptions.

Best career advice you’ve gotten?

I would have to say nurture your network is top of my list. Success in business, and life, is about relationships. If you have strong relationships with industry peers, clients, vendors, friends and business people outside the design world, you will do well and always have plenty of referral work.

I feel in today’s fast-paced world of impersonal digital communication, it is particularly important to “touch” your network regularly whether it is a quick coffee date, a personal handwritten note or flowers to someone recovering from an illness. All of these small gestures say “I care” and I took time out of my busy day to think about you. People remember that.

Additionally, early in my career, after completing design school, I was single and volunteering work for various organizations in the evening. I was raised that doing charity work was an important part of life and giving back. I really enjoyed it and met some amazing people while contributing my time.

What is one helpful design resource you can recommend to our students as they enter the field?

A key to being a successful designer is having a great Resource List. My client’s jokingly call me the “It Girl” because if you need “it,” I have a resource for it. Now granted, it has taken me 17 years to build my Resource List. This does not happen from surfing the internet for a month. It takes time and some trial and error to build up your sources.

As a young designer, I would recommend taking a digital break and spending time at your local design showrooms at the Pacific Design Center, Los Angles Mart and other private showrooms around town. Get to know the showrooms and the vendor lines they carry. Look at the goods, ask questions. Start a list on your laptop, collet business cards, notate what the manufacture is known for, if they do custom work, what their price points are, etc.  

Additionally, when you browse through design trade magazines such as Domino, Elle Décor or Traditional Home, to name a few, don’t just look at the beautiful images. Learn which resources the designer used on his/her featured room by studying the resource list associated with the article. Investigate these businesses and then if you like their aesthetic add them to your master Resource List and in no time you will be the next “It Girl or Guy.”

Something you wish you knew when first got started designing?

That it is SO important to seek out a mentor as it will shave years off your learning curve.

I understand it is intimidating to approach an industry veteran when you are new to a business sector such as design or architecture, no matter what your age, but the rewards of getting over that little bit of fear are so worth it.

What do you love most about being an interior designer?

When I can take a unique or sentimental piece from a client’s home and really showcase it whether it is through creatively re-framing it, assembling a collection, reupholstering the piece or personalizing it in some manner, that brings a lot of joy to me. Additionally, these gestures add depth and context to a space, while reinforcing why clients choose to invest in interior designers, as opposed to buying everything new from a store or website.

Do you have a favorite project or story about a project?

One short story about a commercial job we completed in 2012 I would like share, is about the value we as full-service designers bring to a project as we all know our relevance in today’s hyper-digital world is consistently being challenged.

In a nutshell, the client was a growing family law firm that took the financial leap to invest in a sizeable amount of Class A business space in Pasadena. The managing partner had never retained an interior designer prior.  Thankfully, he was insightful enough to know that to manage his firm’s growth, retain the type of talented staff he desired and attract the high-net worth clients he wanted he was going to need to make a sizeable financial and emotional commitment to the entire soup-to-nuts design process with us.

To his credit, it was a very rewarding year-long project for us as we worked in conjunction with his staff, and outside branding agency, and were able to translate their law firm’s values, mission and branding in their physical space. This was achieved by highlighting their firm’s community service work in the public areas, installing custom artwork by a noted local artist, incorporating their company brand colors in their décor and furnishings, showcasing their firm’s awards and recognition and creating an overall  concierge-level feeling for prospective clients. It was an extensive process and certainly not one that could be accomplished by today’s ubiquitous e-design or retail design business models.

I believe thoughtful, functional design is not a quick, remote or one-size-fits- all solution and my clients will concur.

In the end, this project was a big success and was made even sweeter by receiving a note from my client stating that we exceeded their expectations, and helped them create an environment, not for who they were currently as a business, but for who they wanted to aspire to be as a brand going forward.

To know that thoughtful design has the power to elevate people’s success, increase their happiness and improve their health and well-being is priceless to me.

In what ways/how do you keep up with current trends?

Honestly, I am not a big proponent of following trends. I certainly find them interesting and stay current through reading domestic and European trade magazines, as well as attend industry events such as KBIZ, Las Vegas Market or What’s New, What’s Next in NYC. But most of my clientele want creative personal solutions, not necessarily what’s trendy.

If I do show them something considered au currant, it will be in a “soft goods” product they can change later if desired, not typically something permanent.

I believe there’s a big difference between having style, and following trends. I would encourage young designers develop their authentic style, or “voice” and not get too seduced by trends.

Where do you currently live, and how does it influence your work?

Currently, my husband and live in a city nestled against the San Gabriel mountains called Altadena. We love being closer to nature, the hiking trails, the wildlife and the artistic residents (who are also the wildlife). Living in a less formal environment where anything goes has taught me to let go of my propensity for symmetry and perfection and to be a bit more experimental.

What attracted you to interior design?

Oh gosh, so many things. But it can all be summarized with two simple words: Creating Beauty. I live for it. I chase it. I look for it in fashion, nature, jewelry, textiles, while traveling, while sitting on the freeway…..the list goes on and on.

I am passionate about how transformative it is to be surrounded by beauty and truly believe it can improve my client’s mindset, health and success in life. The built environment is a powerful tool for us to use to help others.