When 25-year-old Morgan Gutterman decided to open The Edit, a new women’s boutique in Chicago, she called on childhood friend and interior designer, Alexandra Berlin, to design the space. For Morgan, the task was a long time in the making. She had been working in speciality clothing shops around the city since she was 16 and spent four years studying retail management at Columbia College in Chicago. However, Alexandra’s creative career path had been a more recent development; after college, she spent two years at what she thought would have been her job dream at an advertising agency. But in March 2010, after starting a blog, Things That Sparkle, Alexandra’s true passions quickly began to reveal themselves. After just two months of blogging and much discussion and debate with her closest loved ones, she quit her “dream job” and enrolled at the Harrington College of Design to study interior design.
The fruits of this duo’s efforts, passion, and creativity reveal themselves in the one-room boutique located at 1917 N. Damen Avenue in Chicago’s trendy Bucktown neighborhood. Morgan’s carefully curated items—many of which come from Australian designers not available anywhere else in the city—complement Alexandra’s glossy yet sophisticated store design. Today on The Everygirl, the two friends share details of their entrepreneurial careers and how they knew to follow their respective paths, despite the hardships they’ve encountered working for themselves.
Full name: Alexandra Berlin
Current title/company: Alexandra Berlin Design, owner and designer; Things That Sparkle, blogger
Educational background: Bachelor of Arts in Communication from University of Colorado at Boulder and an Associates Degree from Harrington College of Design in Chicago
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
My first job out of college (started 3 days after graduation) was at OgilvyAction as an Assistant Account Executive. I really, truly thought it was my dream job. I knew I wanted to work for a large advertising agency in Chicago, but I also knew it wasn’t the easiest industry to get in to. I set up a serious process of application. I would FedEx overnight my resume. Then when I saw that it was delivered, I would call to make sure they had received it. I then followed up by e-mail every two weeks. It sounds obsessive (maybe even a little scary), but I got a great response from it. People always commented on the FedEx.
Walk us through your decision-making process to go back to school for interior design and become a full-time interior designer.
I had been at my job in advertising for about two years, and I can’t say it was my happiest two years. I actually really enjoyed the work I was doing, but I didn’t feel fulfilled by it. I didn’t wake up every day looking forward to what was ahead of me. But I also came from a very business oriented family and knew I wasn’t going to love every single day of my job. There was a point where I began to interview for other jobs in the industry for more experience. During that time, I felt myself checking out of my current position. I also happened to start my blog at that time. It was a creative outlet for me during a time where I felt like my work life was sort of a mess. I accepted a job, doing similar work, but even more corporate than I had been doing. Announced I was leaving and within 48 hours totally freaked out. This wasn’t a long term solution, it was just a quick fix. A friend of mine who I have known since I was 2-years-old said, “Alex you blog every day about interior design. You have loved this since you were a kid, why wouldn’t you just do it as a job?” My first reaction was that it wasn’t a job, it was a hobby. I was a business person. But the further I looked into interior design the more I realized it was even more business than what I had been doing. I looked at every one of my blog posts from the past three months and realized 75% of them were related to interior design. It just clicked. I knew I would wake up every single day loving what I did no matter how hard it was. In terms of going to school, I did it for the credentials. My resume was so marketing driven, I knew as a 20-something, I would need a background to really be able to do this. School made sense.
Describe your typical work day/week.
Well no day is the same. That’s for sure. I work out of the house right now, but I also spend quite a bit of time at The Merchandise Mart sourcing fabric, furniture, lighting etc. And the rest of my work time is spent meeting with clients at their homes. It is a really nice balance. I would say, and I know it isn’t news, but about ¾ of what I do is business and ¼ is actual design.
One of the toughest parts of starting out as an interior designer is finding a clientele. What are you doing or have you done to seek out clients?
My blog has been a huge part of finding clients. I regularly post links to it on Facebook and people who I haven’t spoken to in years began to read it. And eventually, once I announced I was open for business, those people began to reach out to me. I have also had a couple clients who have been people my parents or friends know. That is huge for me. Growing up and living in Chicago I have a really amazing network of people here.
What are the biggest challenges of working as an interior designer?
The biggest challenge for me so far has been balancing my vision with what the client wants. A great part of people hiring you from your blog is that they already see, day in and day out, what your taste is. But they always have something in mind, and its definitely not always what I have in mind!
What are the greatest rewards?
The greatest reward is truly waking up every single day and questioning whether or not this is even work. I love it. Really, really love it. I feel so incredibly lucky.
What is the best moment of your career so far?
I had one of my projects published! My home was actually on the cover of this month’s Chicago Home and Garden Magazine. It’s pretty amazing.
How did you get into blogging and when did you start?
I mentioned it a little before, but I started in March of 2010. I was working a job I didn’t love and needed an outlet. I was saving everyone elses gorgeous images on my desktop, so I decided to start a blog with all of my images. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
How would you say your blog has affected your career, if at all?
My blog has affected my career in every single aspect. It has given me the confidence to do this on my own. It has given me to the network of people to talk to. And as I mentioned before it has even provided me with clients!!
What advice do you have for women thinking about going back to design school?
I would say that if you don’t have any prior experience in the design world, it can be a great next step. Make sure to evaluate if you want to be a designer or a decorator. There is a difference. However… I will say, I don’t think it’s a huge difference. And you can be either one with or without school. School gives you a leg up by teaching you CAD, how to draw floor plans etc. The more technical stuff, which really is good to know!
Do you think design school is a necessity for women looking to get into creative field like interior design (or graphic design, photography, fashion, styling, etc.)?
I am not sure I can totally answer this with anything other than my own opinion. Like I have mentioned, school is great if you are young and looking for credentials. Otherwise, if you feel confident in your knowledge and abilities you may not need it. School definitely doesn’t teach taste!
Any advice for women wanting to work for themselves?
Make sure you are realistic! It is great to be your own boss. Your hours are flexible and you can work from home. But remember that means you also have to pay your own insurance. You have to write your own contracts. You have to pay your own bills and do all of your accounting. It is definitely complicated and sadly, takes A LOT more than just creative talent.
What are your favorite national and Chicago sources for budget-friendly items?
West Elm has really amazed me recently. They have beautiful furniture with lots of choices and a really transitional feel. I also love ZGallerie for glamorous accessories! The best Chicago resources are my favorite vintage shops: Edgewater Antique Center and Broadway Antique Mall are amazing! I try to go on a weekly basis because they are always getting in new things.
Learn more about The Edit’s owner, Morgan Gutterman, on the next page!