Quintessentially Vanessa Francis Design

I’m delighted that the next installment in the ‘quintessentially’ series is the lovely Vanessa Francis.  Vanessa writes one of my very favourite design blogs Decor Happy and has a successful interior design business in Milton, Ontario.  Vanessa has a really brilliant eye for interiors, her style is fresh, thoughtful and modern.  I loved reading Vanessa’s perspective on designing, organisation and finding out how she works and creates such gorgeous, glamourous spaces, a wonderful insight – thank you Vanessa!

Have you always wanted to be a designer?  If so what made you realise this?

I can’t say I have always wanted to be a designer.  I know a lot of designers say they were always rearranging and decorating their bedrooms as children.  I don’t recall doing this but I do have memories of visiting model homes with my mum and sisters when I was a child.

My calling came later in life.  I received a B.A. in Commerce and Politics from the University of Toronto and then went on to study Human Resources.  I worked in Human Resources for many years, working my way up to a manager.  It wasn’t until I was burned out that I decided to go back to school for Interior Design.  A few years prior to this, I found myself immersed in every shelter magazine on the stands.  This was before there were design blogs.  My addiction (and it’s bad) to shelter magazines began.  I would stay up late not just flipping through the magazines but studying rooms and wondering why a designer would make the decision that he/she did.  I wanted to know more.

Do you have any formal training in interior design?

I studied Interior Design at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in  Vancouver. (We lived on the west coast for four years because of my husband’s job transfer.)  The learning was centered on drafting, space planning and “thinking like an architect” and less on colour and fabric.  I spent hundreds of hours at my drafting table – space planning and rendering and I absolutely loved it.

How do you manage to keep organised and on top of everything that being a designer and business owner entails?  Any systems or tips you’d like to share?

I keep a lot of lists – the paper kind.  Every week, I update my client project “to do” lists and hang it in my home office so I know exactly what I have to be working on that particular day.  I have a chalkboard in my office and I write down reminders there as well.  There are so many little details to keep track of and it’s easy for something to be forgotten.   My iphone has proved invaluable when I am out sourcing to keep track of great finds.

Do you have a signature design style or design element that makes your interiors recognisable as your own?

I should first start off by saying that I do a lot of design consultations where clients hire me for 2-4 hours to space plan and give design direction.  So, I don’t always have an opportunity to complete a room from scratch. The client will usually take my advice and ideas and implement themselves.  I also do a lot of work completing a room and working with what the client already has.

Having said that, I believe that comfort is key and almost always include an ottoman in place of a coffee table.  Since most of my clients have young kids, the design choices have to be child-friendly and I usually recommend slip covers.  Personalizing a space with original art or a client’s photographs is another element that I almost always include.   I like to repurpose when possible, e.g. keeping dated side tables and refreshing them with a coat of paint.

What is the hardest thing about being self-employed and/or working from home?

The hardest thing is not having a team of people to bounce ideas off.  There is real synergy when you work with others and you end up with something far greater than what you could come up with on your own.  I do network with other designers and we sometimes share problems and solutions.

What’s the easiest?

I love setting my own schedule and having the freedom to drop off and pick up my daughter from school or to pick her up if she is sick, which just happened this week.  My hat goes off to moms that work full-time outside the home then have to come home cook dinner, help with homework, etc.

How do you keep motivated and inspired when you work on your own?

I think it’s really important to take time out of your day to go to the gym, do yoga or go for a walk.  I always find I am refreshed and even inspired after this.  It’s also important to connect with other designers for the social aspects as well as for learning and inspiration.

In fifteen years where would you like your business to be?  How do you see your company growing over the years?

I would love to be published in a magazine in the next few years.  I would love to team up with another like-minded designer and take on large projects.

What do you do to ensure that you stay up to date and current?

I read (too) many shelter magazines, websites and blogs.  I attend as many trade events as my schedule allows.  Love to learn about new suppliers and new products.

What would be your dream projects/client?

I would love to work on a beach house in Bermuda – know anyone?

What are you tired of seeing in interiors?

I’m tired of seeing homes with no soul.  I’m talking about what I see, for example, when I am staging a home.  The clients have lived there for 3, 5, 10 years but they haven’t added their stamp to it.  They may have filled it with furniture but there are no antiques, no original art, no interesting accessories – no personality or charm.  It doesn’t take a lot of money either, usually just some time and ingenuity.

What is your favourite place in your home? What sort of atmosphere are you trying to create?

I would have to say it’s my daughter’s play room.  It’s painted one of my favourite colours (BM Woodlawn Blue) and I just find it so calming.  I recently did an art wall which makes me smile every time I see it.  It’s where my daughter and I can spend time being goofy, making up songs and playing games.

How often do you change or update your own home interiors?

Well, as many designers say, our homes are the last to get done.  I’m always thinking about what I would like to do but time and budget seem to get in the way.  We have been in our current home 5 years (the longest we have been in any home) and I am thinking about replacing the carpet in the bedrooms with hardwood, changing the stain on the stairs (the builder never did get it right) and buying some new furniture. As a quick fix, I do have a slight obsession with cushions and am always adding to my collection.

Are there any myths about being an interior designer would you like to dispel?

Yes, about the time that is involved in doing what we do.  Clients don’t understand sometimes.  A designer once wrote about the hours that go into fabricating just one cushion for example  – choosing fabric, client visit to select fabric, ordering fabric, picking up cushion, etc. etc.   Yes, this costs the client money but what they end up with is something unique and could really elevate a room.

What advice would you give to other designers in your position or just starting out?

Even though you are just starting out, you should still screen clients to ensure it’s a good fit and they value what you do.  You can find out a lot about a client over the phone before meeting with them.  Also, let potential clients know what your rates are upfront and what you are charging for, i.e. any time you are working on a project.  I now have an agreement that says that time spent on phone calls, emails are all subject to my design fees.  This avoids any misunderstandings about what is chargeable and what isn’t.

What’s the best advice about business you’ve been given?

I once took a workshop with a business coach who works primarily with designers and it was so enlightening.  She spoke about having a mindset for success, that self knowledge is self empowerment and having confidence means owning your own power.  Not really advice about business but advice about how to be successful in your business.

One of the hardest things about working independently/from home can be achieving balance.  How do you create balance in your life and make a distinction between work and play?

Although I try really hard to get things done during the day while my daughter is in school, it is not always possible.  I try not to work during the first couple of hours that she is home from school so that we can chat about her day and do homework while I am cooking dinner.  The downside is I am usually up until midnight working.  But I absolutely love what I do, so it doesn’t really feel like work!

Thank you so much Vanessa for such a fascinating and insightful q and a, I really enjoyed reading all of your answers.  Check out Vanessa’s blog here and add it to your reader – it’s fabulous!


  1. Vanessa@ decor happyFriday, November 5, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks Sarah for having me! It was a great exercise to think through these questions and I am honoured to be a part of your series.

  2. vickiFriday, November 5, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Thank you for featuring Vanessa. I love getting to know about creative people and learning what they think about. Thanks Vanessa, for leading me here too! Now I will go through Sarah’s blog!

  3. Nancy@marcusdesignMonday, November 8, 2010 at 7:51 am

    Vanessa is such a talented designer, so nice to read more about her here! Your blog is lovely and I am happen to have found it :)
    Nancy xo

  4. The ZhushTuesday, November 9, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    What a lovely interview…so nice to read more about the talented and very sweet Vanessa! And how fun to have discovered your blog as well….will be back for sure!

  5. Kelly @ JAX does designTuesday, November 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    I’ve been reading and enjoying Vanessa’s blog for a while. Even so, I just learned a lot about Vanessa through your interview with her :-) She’s a very talented lady :-)

    And thanks to Vanessa, I’ve discovered your lovely blog!


  6. Vanessa@ decor happyThursday, November 11, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks Vicki, Nancy, Sue, Kelly and of course you Sarah for these nice comments. I am blushing! This was really fun to do and I am honoured that I was featured here.

  7. JillianMonday, November 15, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    This was such an interesting and informative post! I’m an interior design student, and I love learning as much as I can about what the real world is going to be like when I graduate.


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