When Sasha Adler and Lauren Buxbaum began their internships at Nate Berkus Associates over a decade ago, they could never have predicted that they would eventually become Design Directors at one of the most highly esteemed interior design firms in the nation. Though neither received a Bachelors degree in interior design, their innate ability to create layered spaces that exude the perfect blend of comfort and sophistication exceeds anything they would have learned in a lecture hall.
These days you can find Sasha and Lauren traveling across country to meet with clients, bouncing ideas around with their creative design team, or sourcing products for their latest project. Today they share how they got their foot in the door with Nate Berkus, turned an internship into their dream job, and how to make yourself stand out in a sea of applicants. We’re all ears, ladies!
Full name: Sasha Adler
Current Title/Company: Design Director for Nate Berkus Associates
Educational background (degree, major, school): Bachelor of Arts in English, University Of Michigan
Full name: Lauren Buxbaum
Current Title/Company: Design Director for Nate Berkus Associates
Educational background (degree, major, school): Liberal Arts Degree at the University of Michigan (majored in French and Political Science) and Associate’s Degree in Interior Design at Harrington College of Design
What was your first job out of college and how long did you hold that position?
Sasha: After college, I worked at a Public Relations firm in New York on the fashion and beauty team. It was a phenomenal opportunity that taught me a lot, but it wasn’t what I was looking for long term. After a year, I got an opportunity to work as an editor at a Paris-based fashion magazine. It was a small company, so as I grew with the company I got the chance to wear so many hats, including managing the editorial content, writing, directing and styling the photo shoots, as well as traveling to Paris a few times a year to finalize the layout.
Lauren: I started working for Nate right out of college and have been here for almost 10 years and counting.
Does what you studied in school apply to your current job? If not, where did you learn the skills you use at work?
Sasha: I was an English major at Michigan, but I also spent a semester in Italy where I studied fashion, art history and architecture. I definitely absorbed a lot of important information through my studies, but I also learned (and continue to learn) so much through books I read, places I travel and different experiences. To some extent, the skills of an interior designer cannot really be taught in a classroom. One of the greatest lessons for design is really learning to trust your instincts.
Lauren: Sadly, my major is only applicable to my job in the sense that it helps me to properly pronounce the names of French furniture! I think design skills are innate, and I credit my mom for mine because I grew up in a very creative household. How many moms give their kids supplies to make topiaries as an afternoon art project? Both of my parents were art majors and are now in the antique business together. They started toting me along on house tours and through antique fairs before I could even walk. I truly believe this early and consistent exposure really helped shape my eye for design.
What is the best part of your job? What is the most challenging?
Sasha: The best part of my job is that I really love it. That’s what gets me out of bed. Every single day and every client is completely different, so I am always faced with the challenge of interpreting my client’s wish list and creating a unique space that feels like home to them.
Lauren: The best part of my job is seeing our clients’ reactions to the unveiling of their new space. We like to install the entire home at once, so the transformation is very dramatic. It’s especially moving to see little kids appreciate something you think they wouldn’t fully understand, but they always seem to surprise you. The most challenging part, like every job, is managing expectations. There’s always a mistake to be made, no matter how many precautions you take, and it can be especially sensitive when you’re dealing with peoples’ homes.
Can you describe what goes into your position and the design process at Nate Berkus Associates? Do you work on all projects together? Split up the tasks? What happens when you have a different vision or want to take things in a different direction?
Sasha: Lauren and I each spearhead our own projects, but we work a lot together behind the scenes. We almost always discuss the creative direction together and touch base at key points throughout the project. I don’t know what I would do without Lauren to bounce ideas off of, talk through something or make me laugh when I just need a break. Sometimes our views vary slightly, but talking through something that we don’t see eye to eye on always leads to something far better than the original idea.
Lauren: Our position as Design Directors is primarily focused on the layout and design of a space. We always strive to come up with the most comfortable, gracious and original floor plan as possible. Then, we select furniture and materials based on feedback we get from our clients regarding their way of life, personal preferences and style. We don’t believe in just filling a home with furniture—it’s about telling a client’s story and providing him or her with a place that will best serve his or her lifestyle. We also love to be a part of adding that extra layer for our clients (art, accessories, etc.) to help make the space truly unique and reflective of their personalities. Sasha and I collaborate creatively on all of the projects behind-the-scenes. We definitely push each other to be more thoughtful and to take the design to the next level. While we may disagree on certain ideas, we have worked together for eight-and-a-half years and have yet to have a completely different vision. It’s scary—sometimes we feel like we share the same brain.
Describe your average work day.
Sasha: Every day is so different. It could be anything from traveling to a job site, combing through an antique market for amazing accessories, or having an inspired creative meeting with our design team. It never gets redundant, and that’s what keeps it exciting.
Lauren: Our day-to-day tasks vary depending on where we are with our projects. Most days are spent in the office, meeting with vendors and co-workers and shopping for clients online. Occasionally, we can sneak into our favorite local furniture stores.
Do you work exclusively in Chicago? If not, how do long distance projects vary from projects nearby?
Sasha: We love working in Chicago, but we have projects across the globe. We have a very organized system that allows us to seamlessly manage long distance projects. There is virtually no difference with an out of town project, other than the fact that we need to take a plane to get to the job site.
Lauren: We basically work everywhere. While we love working in Chicago, most of our clients happen to be out-of-state at the moment. Since we have projects in various cities, years of managing projects has helped us come up with an extremely organized and efficient system for working with clients. Fortunately, we have been very successful at being able to make the design process pretty seamless for local and long distance clients alike.
You both began your work at Nate Berkus Associates as interns, and have since grown to design directors. Can you tell us about that progression from start to finish? How did you land the internship? What steps did you take to turn the internship into a full time position? What advice do you have to others looking to do the same?
Sasha: I owe it all to Lauren. We have been friends since college and when I moved back to Chicago from New York, Lauren insisted on introducing me to Nate. I had experience in fashion styling, but not interiors, so Nate offered me an internship to get my feet wet. I had no idea that I would fall in love so fast. I was obsessed with learning everything I could and took every opportunity to ask questions about why pairing certain furniture together made sense or what the thought process was behind the final selections. I also devoured design magazines and books for inspiration in my spare time. I really tried to demonstrate my enthusiasm, passion and work ethic to earn a place at the firm. Thankfully, it worked.
Lauren: I was lucky enough to have interned for Nate over the summer after completing my junior year at the University of Michigan. We totally hit it off! Three weeks into my internship, he promised me a job with him when I graduated, and thankfully, that promise was fulfilled. As far as taking steps to turn my internship into a full-time position, I don’t think I did anything specifically to secure a job offer. I simply worked as I always have, which is as an overachiever, and I was lucky enough to have Nate recognize my creative potential. I hope that the women I worked under as an intern would have said that I was responsible, organized, creative, enthusiastic and thoughtful. At NBA, we very much appreciate an intern who possesses the aforementioned qualities and who also has a positive attitude and takes that extra step without asking.
How does working as a design director for the Nate Berkus brand differ from running “Sasha Adler Interior Design” firm and “Lauren Gold Interiors?”
Sasha: I love having the opportunity to continue to learn from Nate and work with him creatively, yet still have the ability to manage my own projects and implement ideas as a Design Director. I wholeheartedly believe in the firm and the brand, so I think I have the best of both worlds.
Lauren: Given the amount of freedom we have, it doesn’t really differ except for the fact that we don’t have to worry about taxes!
When hiring interns and designers at Nate Berkus, what qualities do you look for in an applicant? What can someone do to stand out amongst other potential interns both prior to and during an interview?
Sasha: We are really looking for someone who shares our tireless passion for amazing design, combined with a willingness to work hard. The majority of our staff actually started here as interns, so we’ve been there. We know that not every single task is the most fun. But, when someone really goes above and beyond what’s asked and demonstrates their enthusiasm, resourcefulness and thoughtful attention to detail, we know that they would be a good fit at our firm.
Lauren: While having a design degree is helpful, showing an interest or passion in design, art or fashion is more important to me. Exposure to these areas probably means that you’re a step ahead of other candidates in terms of having a creative or artistic eye. During an interview, the more confident, professional and organized a potential intern is the better. Also, handwritten, thoughtful thank you notes go a long way.
What is the most important thing you have learned over the course of your career so far?
Sasha: I have learned to really take the time to get to know the client and listen to what they want. It’s so important to create an interior that is not only stunning, but also reflective of the individual, family or company.
Lauren: Get to know your client as a person. The better you understand how he or she wants to live, the more satisfied he or she will be with the outcome.
In such a saturated design market, what advice do you have for aspiring designers looking to find their niche and define their style?
Sasha: Trust your gut and try to ignore all of the design rules. You have to go with what feels right to you. Also, always keep an open mind and a notebook or camera on hand. You can find inspiration in the most unlikely places.
Lauren: To find your niche, you have to network, network, network.
Most rewarding moment of your career so far?
Sasha: Anytime a client tells me that they love living in their home or appreciate certain details, I am elated. However, the biggest compliment is when a client passes our name along to a friend or family member, putting their own reputation on the line. That means a lot.
Lauren: We recently installed 14,500 square feet of furniture for a family of nine in the South. It was very emotional seeing not only the reaction of the parents, but also the kids who are so young that you wouldn’t think they could appreciate it. Their response proved quite the contrary and was extremely gratifying.
What advice would you each give to your 23-year-old self?
Sasha: Be patient, believe in yourself, work hard, and have fun. Everything will turn out better than you can imagine.
Lauren: I would always sweat the small stuff. I’d remind myself to worry less and focus more on the task at hand and always try to think a step ahead.