An Interview with Mr. Jeff Smoler, Interior Designer

An Interview with Mr. Jeff Smoler, Interior Designer

Mr. Jeff Smoler has been the owner of J.E.S. Designs, a commercial, residential, and custom cabinet company since 1983. Some of Mr. Smoler's high-profile clients have included O'Hare International Airport, National Car Rentals and the Abbey Spa Resort on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. He has received four presidential citations for his work and a Medallist award from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

Mr. Smoler is a member of ASID, national Vice-President of the American Society of Furniture Designers (ASFD), a member of the American Woodworker Institute, and national president of the Consortium of Design and Construction Careers. His specialties include healthcare as well as kitchens and baths, home theater, & home office computer furniture.

He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Chicago Academy of Fine Art (CFA) with a minor in business from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill. He also teaches computer-aided design at CFA.

Mr. Smoler & His Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends


MR. SMOLER AND HIS CAREER How did you discover you had a talent for interior design?

JS: I decided to try it for one semester in 1964- I'm still trying 36 years later.

How did your career unfold?

I was an assistant manager in a furniture store working my way through college; after graduation I opened my own design studio.

My initial clients came through working in the furniture store because there were many customers coming there who didn't like what they saw, and I had to go out looking for the things that they wanted. I was promoted to manager while working on my thesis - and you can imagine how time-consuming that was. Eventually, I was forced to open my own business.

What has been your key to success?

To be able to listen to my clients. T o be true to my word. To treat each client the way that I would expect to be treated.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

Designing and fabricating 565 National Car Rentals in 90 days was my greatest success. I really have no setbacks as of yet.

What are your favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?

O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and all of the National Car Rentals were my favorites projects. Millions of people visit my designs each year.

At O'Hare, I was contracted to do all the bars and restaurants - the public places. I designed a sports bar there for which I had to get permission from FAA to put and antenna on the roof.

I was the 200th designer interviewed for the job, and I'll tell you why I got the job: There were other designers who showed very fancy restaurants, but they didn't know anything about fast-food - it isn't fine dining. I brought a commercial kitchen designer with me - I deferred to him when it came to his expertise, and I handled the other aspects of design. I know that's why I got the job because I researched and found out why the other 199 didn't get it.

For National Car Rentals, I designed the interior of all of their free-standing structures - and everything had to be fabricated and installed in 90 days! At the airports, I designed what's inside the booths, and every one is different. I designed a module that would fit all of them

Every single client is interesting when you get into the details.

What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?

The challenge of different clients as I do both commercial and residential designs.

Since every client is completely different, I have to research the client as well as the project. For instance, for O'Hare, I got an original blueprint of the airport to know the physical limitations of what I could do. Doing the research is the most important thing; I have been using the Internet more and more. In the future, the Internet will be even more important for finding these resources.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My biggest inspiration was a designer named Ausby Lee. He was a pioneer of ASID and I wanted to apprentice for him but the job was filled. I finally arrived when in election for ASID treasurer I beat him.



Describe a typical day of work for you as an interior designer.

I check my e-mails at 7:00 AM, then I do drawings and visit clients & sites.

How does your work get from being a drawing to actualization?

Let's say we are doing a simple kitchen - the absolute minimum number of drawings is five. I have to do perspective drawings, which are 3-D visualizations of what the room will look like. If there are cabinets or furniture, I'll draw them also - each one of which is at least five drawings. A typical project includes about 20 drafted drawings.

These days I'm doing about 90 percent of my own fabrication, too. That way I have control of the project. When I lose control, that's when problems start. When other manufacturers send you the wrong pieces and sizes, etc. I do it locally, have it measured and installed all by one company, if I can - and, usually, it's mine.

Are there specialty software programs for interior design professionals? If so, what are they and what do they do?

Impact does the actual business accounting, etc.; AutoCad rel 2000i does the drawing.

What are some of the professional organizations for interior design professionals?

American Society of Interior Designers (36,000 members); International Interior Design Association , IIDA (9000 members).

Is it important to collaborate with your interior design colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

If you can, it enhances all that you do. That is why I am active in three design organizations. Many design organizations offer referral services. I received O'Hare Airport as a design referral.

What are some common myths about interior design professionals?

The most common myth is that all interior designers are gay. I am not and it does not affect my work in any way.



What is your degree in? What did you like and dislike about your interior design-related education?

My degree is a BFA, MFA in interior design with a minor in business.

How does a prospective art student assess their skill and aptitude for interior design?

Take as many drafting and CAD classes as you can. If you still enjoy it, then continue.

If someone has the art talent already, should they go to design school and why?

Yes, it will broaden their feel for good design.

What types of degrees (majors) can one get that will lead to a career in interior design?

Unless you have at least three years of college drafting, you're not going to get into the business, and the only way you can get that skill is through interior design or architecture - the same basic training, only architecture also includes engineering. Art is fine, but if you can't visually describe to a client what you're trying to do, you're not doing them any good.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious interior design schools, departments or programs?

Any school that is Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER) accredited. FIDER is an acronym for the foundation of interior design education resource. It accredits interior design programs in the US & Canada.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in interior design?

They should visit as many different schools as possible and talk to the students as well as faculty.



Who are three of the most renowned interior design professionals in the world right now? How did they get to the top?

Anyone who has his or her own TV design show.

It's a very nondescript business. It's a business where you don't really know the people. I don't think it's as important to be famous as it is to have longevity. Recognizable designers, like Bill Blass, get into interior design by lending their name to a product - then, they get a percentage. But they aren't the best.

What is the average salary for interior design professionals in the US? What are people at the top of this profession paid?

Average salary is $40,000. Tops are over $100,000.

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of interior design?

Apprentice with a licensed designer

Describe your ideal job candidate and your nightmare job candidate.

One who is more proficient than I am is my ideal. One who I have to train is my worst.

How available are internships in this field?

Only a few exist. It's a very sad thing, and it's because designers just don't pay. Understand that most interior designers are one- to three-people offices; they aren't huge corporations. Most of the available internships are unpaid, and they work you very hard.

How is the job market now for the interior design industry? What do you think it will be in 5 years?

The job market is very hot right now. It will only grow in the next 5 years.

The economy is driving it - particularly the building industry. If home buying is strong now, two to three years from now, interior design will be strong; if there's a downturn in those industries, then we know the bad times are coming. But commercial and home construction are flying right now. The only field that is slowing down is health care - I was doing a lot of hospitals five years ago.



What are some of the trends that you see in the field of interior design, which could help students, plan for the future?

Cad, digital photography, and 3-D rendering are some of the trends in the future.

The time to learn these programs is when you're in school. Students should become the best that they can be at any of those because this is a very busy industry right now, and employers can pick and choose whom to hire. So, if one person's skills in these programs are so-so and another is outstanding, who's going to get hired? No one is training on-the-job right now.



Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in interior design?

I strive to be the best that I can be (not the army). I try to get as much of my work published as possible. I embrace technology, as I would not have existed in business if I did not. I enjoy seeing my clients smile at the end of a project. I truly get a good feeling about what I do. It is not work but love.

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