How One Woman Redesigned Her Career & Home After 15 Years
It's possible to turn a love for design into a real career.
Have you ever fantasized about having a complete career 180 to pursue a passion you love? While it's easy to daydream about, executing such a big change is a whole other story. One impressive women who was able to make the leap? San Francisco-based interior designer Gina Gutierrez.
After spending 15 years in the fitness industry and even getting a master's degree in Sports Management, she felt like it was time to follow another passion. So Gutierrez began studying, scaling back at her job, and turning her eye towards design. She now has built up her portfolio, expanded her team, and even recently redesigned her home which doubles as her studio!
We chatted with Gutierrez about what it really takes to become an interior designer, how renos are harder than they look, and why it's totally fine to have a new chapter in your career.
Lonny: What was your career before you became an interior designer?
Gina Gutierrez: I was a partner at DIAKADI, Fitness Performance Life, in SoMa. I launched the facility with my best friends, Billy Polson and Mike Clausen in 2004. While a partner, I was also an exercise and wellness coach to a handful of clients. My undergraduate degree is in Exercise Science from Marquette University and I have an MA in Sport Management from the University of San Francisco.
What inspired the switch and what steps did you take to prepare yourself for this new path?
GG: I was in the fitness industry for 15 years and while on that path, I always enjoyed design. Throughout my years devoted to fitness and health, design was my creative outlet. This passion and curiosity lead me to read about Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames, watch "House of Style," "Trading Spaces," and HGTV, collect Domino and House Beautiful magazines, and take online courses with Justina Blakeney.
I found myself always strategizing, sketching, organizing, researching, and changing things up in my own home as well friends’ spaces. As I started to work with more and more friends, I finally had one friend that said, “I’m going to be your client. I’m paying you to design my place.” From there, my craft evolved into a business.
This transition which started in 2012 couldn’t have taken place without supportive business partners and friends allowing me to discover this journey. This new path consisted on me scaling back at DIAKADI from full-time to four times a week, to three times a week, to two times a week. In that time, I built my client list, created systems, shaped a brand, and made connections.
Lastly, my fiancé, Max, and I talked about when the time was right for me to fully launch my business full-time. Starting a business is a big risk and an incredible amount of work, but we knew that it was our next big step in life.
What have been your favorite parts of your new career?
GG: There are so many facets to my job that I enjoy. I’m really great at visualizing a space (I credit that technique to being an athlete) so my favorite part is definitely seeing the final result of a space and knowing that it is what I planned in my head along. There are so many details and moving parts to designing that I think I am just as excited as our clients to see a home come to life.
I also love construction. I am not afraid of gutting a space, getting my hands dirty, and learning from the many other team of professionals such as contractors and artists that we work with. It’s really inspiring to see everyone in their element yet collaborating together.
I love photographing my projects because I get to do that along side my fiancé. He shoots all of my spaces. In fact, his interest and love for real estate and design have also allowed us to design our home together as well as start a new business, Homestead Dwellings. With Homestead Dwellings, we’re fixing up a duplex in my hometown in Milwaukee, WI and then renting out. We hope this is the first of many income property flips.
How would you define your style?
GG: My aesthetic blends modern style with traditional looks. When working with clients, we use this as the fundamental design and then blend in their unique taste which may be bohemian or eclectic, industrial or mid-century. The ultimate goal is to pull together a design with thoughtful curation and functional beauty.
With your studio in your home, is it hard to maintain a work/life balance?
GG: Thankfully, no. I find myself pretty disciplined when working in my home. I have structured an office that really works for me. It’s comfortable with many work spaces to lay out plans. I have samples at my finger tips as I built a library of textiles, tile, paint and more. And it is light filled which is the most inspiring feature. The only distraction is having two cats and a dog fighting for your attention throughout the day.
How is designing your own home different from working with a client?
GG: It’s a bit more relaxed and informal. Max and I typically know what we want or have similar ideas of new things we want to try. Our designs evolve over date nights and weekends and then we divide and conquer - Max takes on Google SketchUp and I pull materials for us to see in person. Together we meet with contractors or choose take on certain projects on our own.
With clients, we take more time to present inspiration boards to define a style, show multiple floor plans, and provide digital and in-person material, finish and furniture designs. There is a lot more back and forth to make sure that we’re really meeting the client’s goals and needs.
We know designing for our own home can get stressful, like most big renovations. It’s a lot to manage, but it’s easier when you and your partner geek out over architectural elements, textures, and color. And, when the stress gets high, we take a breather — we go for a walk or a hike to keep ourselves in a healthy state of mind. In the end, designing for ourselves is an opportunity not everyone gets to experience and we cherish that!
Can you tell me about the renovations you did in your space?
GG: We gutted our bathroom. We had a clawfoot tub and a small pedestal sink. The space was not maximized and we needed more room to move and store our belongings. We knocked out a wall between our kitchen and living room as well as a closet to create an open concept living space. We now have a relaxed living room, proper dining space, and a larger kitchen that allows us to cook for two or gatherings. We also re-built the built-in to capture more space and installed a brand new fireplace.
We painted our whole house, replaced all of the original windows, and refinished all the floors. Max and I actually did this all by ourselves over the Christmas holiday — which was nuts, but necessary.
What were the biggest challenges in this design project?
GG: Oh man! We were recommended to a contractor that friends of friends used and enjoyed. After interviews with three teams, we decided to work with this particular crew. Unfortunately, about 2/3 of the way through this contractor went out of business. Thankfully, the major structural work was completed but a lot of the finishes still need to be installed.
At this point, Max and I took on a lot of the remaining work and then I brought in a handful of contractors that I have worked with within my business to help us finish up. This was the biggest hurdle.
Other challenges were laying out the kitchen. We built out the kitchen out with IKEA and Semihandmade and we had to take advantage of every inch. We ended up having one cabinet be off about an inch. So we had to cut into the sheetrock to allow for the cabinet box to fit fully. We then had to shave the wall down so the drawer could slide out with ease.
As mentioned before, with our contractor going out of business and moving back into our home right before the holiday, I realized I was not satisfied with the floors. The “new” floors had a sticky, patchy look. You could tell that the floor was not sanded down all the way in certain spots. With that said, I was determined to refinish the floors ourselves because I knew we would not be able to find a team to help us out over the holidays. While this was an impulsive decision, it was a decision that Max and I still talk about to this day — bringing us closer together.
What is your favorite part of your home?
GG: Such a hard question! However, if I have to choose, I do love relaxing on the sofa and curling up with the fireplace on, whether it be reading a book or binging on a TV show. All five of us (Max, our dog Luna, and our two cats Frank and Bob) do a really good job of cuddling and lounging together. The living room is casual and cozy, and I often catch myself staring at the beautiful Fireclay tile.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
GG: I learned a lot about the type of designer I want to be through the process of my own renovation. We had an unfortunate situation with a contractor, and I want to be sure that our clients never experience that. I want to continue to build up the reputation of the industry. I want contractors, designers and artists to be known not only as talented and creative individuals but also detailed oriented, focused, thoughtful, reliable, business people that are great at communicating and delivering a beautiful end product. I have looked up to so many great influencers before me that are like this and I hope that others will be able to look up to me in the same way one day too.