We all “bring work home with us.” It’s 2014: Technology is a necessity and unfortunately, most often, there isn’t a divide between personal and professional life. But working extra hours means something entirely different when you’re an interior designer, designing your own space – for the second time around. When owner and designer of Nest Design Studio, Natalie Chong, first worked on the space she now calls home, she was designing a “man-friendly, beer-friendly” dark condo for her then boyfriend. Fast forward a few years and she and her fiancé are living in space that looks as though it’ll happily welcome cocktails of all kinds.
But the tricky part, common for many interior designers, was creating her own space. “I had to treat myself as a client, make a board, do the homework, create an overall concept. Because goodness knows I have over 100 boards on Pinterest.” A few Instagram screenshots and carefully selected pins later and you’d think she picked up an overnight shift, too. Natalie’s flawlessly curated condo is full of neutral white, black and gold décor with a few punches of lively green. The living area isn’t shy of color – blue hues and orange velvet adds pops of rich vibes.
The real deal, this interior designer created two entirely different visions in the same high-rise condo. Don’t believe us? Just see the before and after shots. We hear her fiancé’s okay with the compromise (hi, personal office). Natalie’s motivation will inspire you, too!
Full name: Natalie Chong
Location: Toronto ON Canada
Current title/company: Nest Design Studio + Toast Event Design
Education: Humber College, Bachelors of Interior Design
Tell us about your experience interning at design firms. How did you land your internships? What did you learn most from those experiences?
I worked at two firms before starting my own. The first was a summer student internship at a small Residential Design firm in Toronto and I found all my internships on my own through connections and friends. It was the worst job I have ever had. It was a small firm, so there was plenty to learn, but because there were only four people in the company, that meant that everyone was responsible for too much. Being a student, and not knowing what the real design world was like, this was a challenge. I was thrown into situations that only people of seniority should handle, and not given enough guidance or direction. The partners had previously dated, and that is a bad formula for any company. I had 400 hours to complete and I needed it to graduate so I stuck it out. I will say that the head designer was incredibly talented, and he helped fuel my desire to do residential design.
My second firm was much better environment. Everyone was nice, and friendly. But I was not challenged or inspired. I was offered a job after graduation, when I had worked there for over a year. And due to the recession and funds I was offered a “technician” position. Which I believed deep down that I was capable of more. Not to mention I went to design school for four years to do design, not sit behind a computer and not speak to anyone.
After graduating college, you were offered a less than stellar position and, with nothing to lose, decided you were ready to open your own business! How did you begin?
At the second firm, I worked in the design library with two graphic designers who were entrepreneurs. They gave me some great advice, sharing their experiences, and basically said, this is the only time you will not have any “real” obligations, and if your family is willing to support you, then do it!
I had NO IDEA where to start. I always tell people if you don’t have your family/partner/serious savings to support you financially and emotionally, don’t do it. I started with family friends, and friends; they connected me to others, but I honestly worked for free most of the time.
So with some coaching from my Mum, manners in my back pocket, and trying to be charming, I was off! Design school also helped…so I knew what I was talking about. But in reality, interior design is 95% business and 5% design. Luckily, I also had very understanding clients in the beginning who wanted to help me out and give me a chance.
Nest Design Studio has been your life for the past five years. What’s the most difficult part about running your own business? About being your own boss?
Running my business and being my own boss is a very challenging but rewarding job – when things go right.
- Staying motivated – Being a creative, I need challenges along the way to keep me going. I want to get excited, brainstorm, and really be able to immerse myself in what I do. Not all my clients have large budgets, and to be honest, I did a lot less with less to begin with. The bigger the budget the more creative I can be, in a sense; I can push the envelope, and create beautiful things in a more cohesive way.
- Getting paid! – This is the hardest part of my job. Deciding what you are worth, asking for what you deserve. Speaking up, being fair to yourself, ultimately not being afraid. But I have bills to pay, a wedding to plan, and my future to take care of! My time is important, as is yours. I don’t make a steady salary, nor do I have benefits. It is sporadic, fluctuates, and is never easy month to month.
- Knowing when to stop (balance!) – This is very hard, and I am sure every girl out there struggles with this. But when you are running your own business you want to schedule time for clients so you put yourself last. I used to take meetings any time of day, any day of the week. And eventually I had no time for my family or myself. I would push back my gym appointments, skip almost all meals, and just work. It became too much! I learned to take care of myself first. Know when to say no sometimes.
You mention that your mom, a single mother, taught you to be a strong woman and always stick up for what you believe in. You credit her for your motivation to pursue your own business. What advice can you give to Everygirls who aren’t satisfied creatively?
Know when you are not happy. Know when to stand up for yourself. Surround yourself with people who you value, and who value you. These are the first steps to finding something that fulfills you. It seems cliché but you really need to be your own advocate, and speak up for yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you. You have to be in charge of your own life, and your wants and needs. Try to network as much as you can, whether it be a class, party, or women’s groups; these are all things that help you explore ideas and find interesting people. This may help you find out more about yourself, and really finding out what you like and what can be fulfilling outside of your job. Talking to people and networking are vital to assisting you in finding ways to feel fulfilled creatively.
Congratulations on your engagement! You share your chic Toronto high-rise with your fiancé. Do you rent or own? Was it difficult blending feminine and masculine tastes?
We rent because Nick’s job is in the financial market, and we didn’t know where we’re going to be in a few years. With his job being volatile, we didn’t want to commit to anything. I really wanted a space that we could feel comfortable in. I designed it four years ago when he moved in – man friendly, sleepover friendly, and beer friendly! But now that we have dinner parties, and more couple friends, we need space for entertaining and relaxing. The difficult thing was making sure that Nick’s opinions were heard – something I am still learning!
Blending was the easy part! I didn’t change two rooms: his bedroom and office. Most guys are more concerned about practicality over pretty and Nick is a good blend of both. I wanted pieces that could function for us now and when we buy our first house. Making sure that the pieces I bought made “sense” to him aesthetically and functionally was a big part of everything I chose. He could care less about how many pillows we have! Like many of my clients I want to make sure that they are happy. So I changed things slowly, explained the process, and “wowed” him with the final result.
Nest’s philosophy is “designing for the client and not the designer.” How do you separate your taste from the tastes of your clients? Was it difficult to identify a vision for your own home?
When I work with clients, I try to remember that this is not my home, that I don’t have to live here, or foot the bill for that sofa. The decisions I make are to help them, but not push them too far. I think all my designs are a reflection of my taste, but with someone else guiding the process. I want to help people make better decisions, however I always know that I pick things for them and not necessarily for myself. It is really a gut reaction, and I think part of my talent.
I felt like a rookie in the beginning! That’s when I had to treat myself as a client, make a board, do the homework, create an overall concept. Because goodness knows I have over 100 boards on Pinterest. Once my brain was settled, I began to curate things I really wanted, things I had pinned or saved from Instagram, pictures I had snapped on my many trips to design stores. It took awhile, but as soon as I find a concept and start finding items I love – it is all easy from there on.
Your home is fresh and modern with bright white pieces and clean lines and we love your green accents! How long did the decorating process take?
Thanks! Condos can be so grey/white/black…and boring. And the fact that we do not have a ton of light in the rest of the condo is tough, so I needed things that could stay green and vibrant regardless of season. Boxwood is an accent used more in traditional homes, but it is so pretty and preserved, that I don’t have to worry about watering them. Whereas I have been dreaming of a fiddle leaf tree for…ever! It probably took me about a year to fully curate what I wanted.
What is your favorite budget friendly piece in your home? Why?
I love my plants and boxwood – small accents that are budget friendly. They add such life to a place that could be so monochromatic and boring. Other budget friendly pieces are things like my IKEA shoe cabinet – so practical and classic design. And I spent money on getting better and nice knobs from Restoration Hardware.
The white round table was a DIY that I painted myself. It’s so much better for the space and it extends so we can actually sit six people. Nick likes it because he can pay poker with his friends! He hated that I gave away his grey and black glass table, until he had poker night. The other DIY was my pom pom white pillows – I sewed them myself!
As someone who does this for a living, what items for the home would you say are most important to invest in? What items do you recommend saving on?
Invest in quality for all the larger pieces. I am attached to anything that was made for me by my trades and network. My sofa was custom as were my chairs and drapes. I really try to support any furniture made in Canada, but also quality in Canada. My sofa and side chairs were expensive, but I will take them with me wherever I go, and reupholster them over and over again.
I’ve also learned to spend more money on pillow covers, and not be suckered into buying cheap pillows – because I change them literally every season. For me, I have learned to find fabrics that I truly love, and am willing to pay more money per yard and do them once. And maybe throw in a glittery winter pillow here and there.
Save on décor! I like to switch things up every season. For now I love mixing metals – gold/rose gold/chrome. I don’t buy expensive accessories because I can change my mind every season. Picking things that are neutrals: metals/creams/whites/greys help “readjust/restyle” things each week/month/year.
When meeting with a client for the first time, how do you determine what they’re looking for? You mention some of your favorite clients are bachelors because they’re usually more open to suggestions! How do you deal with clients that have a vision, different from your own, in mind?
I always have a consultation with clients to ensure that we can work well together (typically two hours). This time allows me to get to know them and assess what they want through examples and conversation. I try to guide them as best I can, but ultimately I need to remove myself from being offended or too attached to their projects. And remind myself that this is not my home.
Where do you find fresh inspiration?
Everywhere, and that seems cliché. But I love eating out – restaurants and hotels can be so inspiring. Magazines – I subscribe to two and pick up others as I please. Pinterest – don’t know what I did without it! Blogs – fashion and design. Instagram – more concise version of a blog! Websites – like The Everygirl! Design stores – because I am in them multiple times a week, I am always visiting them with a different client in mind and a different vision.
Describe your typical day.
Never the same! I take meetings weekdays and evenings so it really varies day to day. My day usually consists of meetings, site visits and shopping dates. Yesterday I had a client book me for the entire day and she lives about 1.5 hours away from Toronto.
9AM: wakeup + breaky
10AM: visit to Crate & Barrel to pick up for client + shop
11AM: drive 1.5 hours to client meeting
1230-230PM: unpack car, and set up items purchased.
230PM-7PM: shopping at multiple stores
7PM-830PM: set up home
830-930: drive home and head to dinner
What do you love most about living in Toronto? Any favorite spots?
I love how diverse it is. There are so many interesting people, restaurants and cultural things to do. We are a major city, but so much smaller than other larger North American cities, but we (to me) are just the right size!
Favorite spots are hard! I usually give people my opinion about places based on what they want to see and who they are. But, I do have some suggestions:
Early afternoon: Brunch/Lunch downtown at one of my fave lunch places – Fusaros Kitchen
Afternoon: Walking around downtown Queen Street West or Yorkville, browsing or shopping
Evening: Dinner in King West with some friends at Gusto 101
Drinks at Portland Variety to cap the night off with some awesome cocktails!
The “Design District” – Castlefield/Caladonia area
Chapters/Indigo – paper goods and home accessories and books
Vintage stores – East Side and West Side of Toronto.
Golden Turtle – Vietnamese
QMP – Pizza
Gusto 101 – Italian
Lee – Asian Fusion (expensive)
Mildred’s Temple Kitchen – brunch
Portland Variety – Drinks… Amazing!
Hard to pick strictly Canadian stores…
Where do you see yourself (and Nest) in five years?
In five years I would love to still have my business. Maybe have someone else running most of the operations as I really want kids and want to raise them on my own. I would love to be able to still be involved but not directly running it.
Natalie Chong is The Everygirl…
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Oprah. I would love to hear her success and failures and what she has personally learned on the way, and who really controls her company. I would order brunch foods – poached eggs, sautéed onions/mushrooms, salad.
If I weren’t a designer I would be a…
A personal shopper/stylist for a celebrity or a wedding planner/designer.
Morning or night?
Morning to sleep in, and night to party.